18 January, 2009


'Old stone to new building. . .' Stephen Dillane pauses. He scrunches up his eyes, and clutches controlledly at the air, like some Chinese master channelling his ch'i. 'Old stone to new building—' The repetition is hardly jarring in the context. How many of us knew it was a mistake? Not me. After all, Eliot was never afraid of pointless repetition. Then: What's the line? I have heard that tone before. (Where?) Neither patient nor impatient, neither calm nor irritated. Old timber! snaps his invisible prompt, a woman, this one as if impatient, like a wife. Nary a flicker from him.
— Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth,
And so on. That was the only obvious mistake in Dillane's rendition of 'The Four Quartets', aside from pronouncing eviscerate (4.2) with a hard c, and, worse, figlio (3.4) with a hard g. But darling, this is Eliot, one doesn't quibble with the details! Well then. What of the whole? Nicholas de Jongh, lustily guzzling clichés, calls it an 'extraordinary performance', in which Dillane 'holds the audience in rapt silence'. I'm not sure if he was expecting conversation in the back rows. Remember, budding journalists: every stressed noun must have its adjective: 'It is a performance of riveting purity, under Katie Mitchell's inspired direction, which ought to restore the lost art of speaking poetry in public to a proper eminence.' Is the art of speaking poetry in public lost, indeed, or simply ineminent? Dillane has a 'voice of meditative calm, all extraneous emotion drained from it'; his hands 'weave' neither 'distracting patterns', nor, thankfully, 'flamboyant gestures'. And so he 'allows the philosophical ideas and lyrical beauties of The Four Quartets to speak for themselves.' You can see how de Jongh's mind turns: once the faucet is open, the water will follow a prepared course. De Jongh will never surprise you.

Dillane was in fact calm, but not meditatively so. He spoke, rather, much in a tone of explanation, patiently, breaking now and then into reverie: 'And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly' (1.1). A dry light, full of measure. Then the tone was the tone of a sermon: 'Who then devised the torment? Love.' The tone was that of a sermon, because the words were those of a sermon. Oh, Eliot wants to tell you something, damn it, and he doesn't care if you know it.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.
Just try reading that aloud: see if you can read it and sound meditative. I defy you. You will not sound meditative, you will sound like a bird who has swallowed a philosophical plate. When De Jongh writes that Dillane has let the ideas and beauties 'speak for themselves', he is not only verbally taking the road more travelled, he is repeating without consideration the myth that a plainness, or even, in this instance, a quietness of delivery, necessarily gives the sense better. (Ivan Hewett, in a possible coincidence, had said the same about Dillane's Quartets back in 2005: 'The lack of any "manner" meant that Dillane became a transparent vessel for Eliot's often complex tangle of philosophy and imagery to shine through.') It is the story that style is mere unnecessary ornament on substance. Same goes for the words themselves: Eliot could, after all, sell us his mystical profundities in simple language, for the people, without recourse to pompous archaisms like 'eviscerate', or pompous foreign cuckoos like 'Figlia del tuo figlio'. Or could he?

At any rate, we all agree that Dillane gave us a naked Eliot. Sam Marlowe, whose trend-bucking credentials are confirmed by his admiration for the 'Lord of the Rings' musical, nonetheless rates the Dillane as 'an austere expression of compressed passion'. (Marlowe clearly an alumnus of the same prose school as de Jongh, his own music clunkier but at least more varied.) Some more Marlovian adjectives—by which you will easily allocate Dillane's performance to the appropriate box—'chilly yet compelling control', 'uncompromising directness', 'a contained figure', 'focused intensity'. We were all listening. We all heard our Eliot. Dillane did not giggle when he had to say 'In order to arrive at what you are not / You must go through the way in which you are not'. We got what we came for. So that's Dillane done. But what did we come for?


My mother said, afterwards, 'What's it all about, then?' Let de Jongh tell you: 'Eliot. . . writes in terms very difficult to grasp. [But de Jongh grasps them.] Yet [why 'yet'?] these four poems—inspired by faith, by the history of places personal to Eliot, by the seasons of the year, by each of the four elements and the busy flux of time past and time present—arrest the emotions with their visionary strangenesses.' No, alright, that didn't tell you. Let Marlowe tell you: the poems 'are dense meditations on the implacability of time and humanity's struggle to find meaning in the flux of existence, couched in the rich language and symbolism of Christianity and mysticism'. Ah! Also: 'A complex picture of the self-perpetuating, ever-changing patterns of life emerges from his spoken words and from Eliot's plethora of literary and religious references.'

My father said, afterwards, in response to a request for his opinion, 'Sententious rubbish.' Certainly, it is hard for a cynic to take seriously all this zennish mumbo-jumbo, filched from St John of the Cross or the Bhagavad Gita or wherever. 'Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.' When Eliot wrote 'Prufrock', he sounded like a clever poet. When he wrote 'Burnt Norton' and the rest, he sounded like a poet trying to sound like a clever philosopher. It is a gambit that never works, unless you're Lucretius and can write a good, rough Latin hexameter. Why do poets do this? And painters too. Fine sound and composition is no longer enough: our artists must strive for something more than art. This shift seemed to happen between the wars. What is true of 'Prufrock' is true of Harmonium and The Bridge. What is true of the Quartets is true of 'Of Mere Being', and parts of "A". Eliot's poetry quickly lost its wit, a misunderestimated virtue. Contrast, for instance, two thoughts of superficial similarity. From 'Prufrock':
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
'That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant at all.'
But from 'Burnt Norton':
Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
Likewise, from 'East Coker':
So here I am. . .
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
(That got a laugh, the slightest of laughs.) In 'Prufrock', Eliot can tarry with the difficulty of precise expression, in essence the most banal of concepts, and make it humane, charming. We do not believe him here; the irony is pleasant. In his Quartets the same banality becomes so much the more sincere, and the more pitiable. It is particularly pitiable for the fact that Eliot is, no, not a philosopher, but a poet: we are paying him for words—come on Tommy, give us some lovely words, won't you? A nice rhyme? No? A bit of onomatopoeia? No? Make it dance, can't you?—and certainly not to be told he can't do words. There is an indignity to it, as if we were to turn up at the football and hear Ronaldinho moaning about the difficulty of scoring goals, only moaning in the medium of missed goals; or as if we went to a gallery and found no nice paintings but only a bunch of flies stuck to a canvas. Up yours, Beauty! Indeed. This irony is hardly pleasant, only grating, and I have no patience for it.

Hewett, writing on Dillane's earlier Quartets, makes a preposterous claim about the poems:
What this performance proved is how, in a mere 60 years, the Quartets have woven themselves into our consciousness. Every line had that feeling of a half-remembered quotation. . .
I cannot imagine why anyone should want to claim such a thing for the Quartets. Is it true for you? (The only part that has woven itself, or grafted itself, into my consciousness is that wretched doggerel about 'knowing the place for the first time', which has wound up as an epigram for every other self-regarding science or history book.) Then comes the great cliché: 'Never before had I realised just how "musical" the quartets are. They're full of recurring refrains, variations on themes, contrapuntal weaves.' Hewett later remarks that 'Eliot tries to get beyond words'. Why do we want our poetry to be musical? Why would we want a confection of words to get beyond words, in Hewett's sense of it? Irving Babbitt, ironically one of Eliot's own mentors, thought that desire a result of the modern romantic disease, and I am inclined to agree. The Quartets are full, not of 'refrains' and 'weaves', but simply of repetitions. Some of these repetitions ('And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane') are those of a sermon: they have the rhythms not of music but of oratory. Others ('where you are is where you are not', 'In my (end/beginning) is my (beginning/end)') have no rhythm, only the flat mock-wit of a koan.

Our stage journalists are too soft. They are slightly in awe of this new thing, these words of a Great Poet, bare and direct, or apparently so, and have no calculus for judging it. They call the Quartets complex, but they mean only that the Quartets are long. Perhaps the Quartets are complex, and perhaps their complexity does not make them any good. It is not hard to write a few hundred lines of verse, with a slew of repetitions, and a slew of quotations from, or allusions to, the Bible, the Mahabharata, Dante, and so on. What is the use of your 'philosophical ideas', your 'meditations on the implacability of time', if you reach no conclusions of interest? If your lyricism cannot rise above the humdrum of rose-gardens, yawn, of twittering birds, yawn, of the yew-tree, the 'womb, or tomb', the 'parched soil' of mid-century ennui? If you have to rhyme 'food' with 'blood' and 'good', like you're Shakespeare or something? On Eliot's grave should be inscribed, Poeta, ne ultra verba. Poets, do what poets can do.


Lily Roth said...

My darling Mr. Roth,

I hope that you have realised by now that I have been expressing my distaste for the unpleasantness of doing the washing up through the medium of unwashed dishes.

Your very own,
Mrs. Lily Roth

John Cowan said...

"The artist says what cannot be said in words, and the poet does this with words." --Ursula K. LeGuin, somewhat improved by me

Aaron Haspel said...

Having already recognized that the Quartets are rubbish (and really, could an immense poem entitled "Four Quartets" be anything else?), you will, I predict, not be long in recognizing that the rest of the oeuvre is too.

Conrad H. Roth said...

We'll see. . .