David Thomas

David Thomas is a freelance writer and occasional poet. In the interests of keeping body and soul together he’s been a desk jockey, a monk, and a lumberjack. He currently resides in Ottawa, Canada. David recently started the blog SomeDeadMaster at somedeadmaster.blogspot.com.

Lost in the Four Quartets II – “Victims of Our Own Rigor”

To read the first part published last week, click here.

There’s more to the poem than I let on. If you’ve tangled with it already then you’ll know that. The Four Quartets is not composed entirely of enchanting melodies, and intrusive koans. These things figure, of course, but there are other voices, beyond the children in the apple trees hidden excitedly containing laughter, and beyond those professorial ruminations from the distant study –

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation.

Some are the voices of dead masters proffering bitter pills and tasteless shadow fruit arriving like Dickensian ghosts out of the fires of Blitzed London. Others are shrieking, scolding desert chimeras, bane of the ascetics and silence-seekers of every age. Still others are interrogative, sublime angelic interlopers, commanding ‘change your life’. There are many voices, many of them Eliot’s own.

I didn’t intend to mislead you. It’s just that words are difficult tools, as Eliot would have it they’re inclined to slip, slide, perish, decay they often simply will not stay in place, will not stay still. Hence the wrestle with words and meanings. In dealing in words, especially metaphors, one can get lost, misled. This is what Eliot calls the deception of the thrush, the seductive but distorting metaphor.

In this light the last effort can best be read as a tribute to the power of Eliot’s own melodic lines. They are there, as I suggested, as an entry point, a luminous gateway

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Even as the dust moves


And they remain such even as we move into more difficult terrain. As one continues on in the journey, lines akin to this return as periodic releases into a further space, out of the struggle and difficulty, out of the action and thought that is the hard work of the poem.

Last time we introduced what you could call the base pattern of the poem, the “mobius experience,” the strange fact that in living in time, in confronting the new, we continually have to return to what we know, to where we started. In returning, however, we see the known place anew. We review. And on occasion and in its most extreme form this revisiting can be experienced as

a new and shocking valuation of all we’ve been

In case this seems like artistic licence, a romantic indulgence, let’s compare some statements from the poem to those from a number of sober-minded scientists working today in the field of molecular biology. From this point on they’ll be our companions as we journey together, in Eliot’s wake, into the rarely-exposed heart of the human experience. The proximate source for all of them is Connor Cunningham’s excellent Darwin’s Pious Idea:

“One of the greatest surprises of the Human Genome Project was the discordance between the count of protein-coding genes ([about]) 24,000) and expectations based on perceived phenotypic and behavioural complexity.”

– Lynch

As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living.



“It is not possible to do the work of science without using a language that is filled with metaphors. Virtually the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be explained directly by human beings. Physicists speak of ‘waves’ and ‘particles’ even though there is no medium in which those waves move, and no solidity to those particles…The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.

– Lewontin

That was a way of putting it – Not very satisfactory…

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings

In view of which the work of the poet and that of the scientist no longer seem entirely unrelated endeavors. There seems to be a unity of intent, if not of method. The methodological differences are obvious enough not to require illustration, but what is interesting is the suggestion that the fruitfulness of the work depends in both cases on this relentless underlying struggle with words and meanings. There is a shared sense that in order to arrive at something approximating the truth one must be perpetually willing to say again

That was a way of putting – Not very satisfactory

And then to keep on trying

our concern was speech. And speech impelled us

To purify the dialect of the tribe

I’ve encountered this line many a time, and only now, in the light of the words of Lewontin & co, do I realize that it describes the scientific enterprise every bit as adequately as the poetic. What is physics, what are the hard sciences, if not a search for a pure descriptive language? This impulsion toward purity of expression is what we know as rigor. And rigor demands continual openness to the possibility of the new and shocking valuation. Eliot suggests this is the only way to truly live the human condition, Lewontin that it is the only way to practice science. An interesting correspondence, to be sure. Lewontin’s phrase about the duty of the scientist captures the essence of Eliot’s poetic ethos in a manner that is quite uncanny. One could well imagine Eliot himself having said it, even as having chosen it as the loadstar of his entire poetic enterprise. And if The Origin of The Species, or Copernicus’ heliocentric model, or even Gibbons’ Decline and Fall were not a new and shocking valuation of all we’ve been, what on earth was?

As we begin to draw to a close we eccentrically quote yet again from a molecular biologist, largely, in this instance, because we want to co-opt his incidentally beautiful phrase as we progress toward our own (provisional) conclusions:

“With reference to the processes of embryonic segregation, genetics is to a certain extent the victim of its own rigor…”

– Lillie

At times, in reading the Four Quartets it does seem that one is asked to be, along with Eliot himself, a victim of his rigor. This rigor, this impulsion to purity of expression, is experienced in one of the poem’s climatic sequences, as a refining fire. A purifying force that is, Eliot will contend, the only true hope and only true liberty of the human spirit. It is what Polish philosopher and historian of ideas Leszek Kolakowski describes, in an essay on the place of philosophy in the wider world, as the spirit of truth:

“The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth, but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there “might be another side” in what we take for granted.”


So this then leads us into another way of experiencing the poem: to be thus, along with Eliot, a victim of the spirit of truth. A victim because in this section of the poem rigor is applied not to scientific theories or existent accounts of history but is let loose in the core of the poet’s own being, as he painfully looks back on past follies, vanities, and meanness. This is an experience of

the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been; the shame

Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others’ harm

Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit


These are awkward lines to dwell on aren’t they? They graze a little close to the bone, I find. Bringing back a flood, or at least a bloody trickle, of comparable moments from my own failed life with others. And yet it turns out that this refining fire is not, in the experience of the poem, a solely destructive force, it is not, as Dennet has imagined of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, a “universal acid”, it is, here, in tandem with a deep and hidden music, a restorative force, for the section continues and concludes with these lines

unless restored by that refining fire

Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

The question of whose tune you’re dancing to at this point undoubtedly depends to an extent on your creedal persuasions. Regardless, though, in the life of the poem it is clear that a liberation has taken place and that the agent of this liberty is the spirit of truth in so far as this spirit is inflamed by a higher music who’s strains and rhythms carry poet and reader in and through the chard breakage of the past into a present and future music. So as much as the poem is a call to attend to the timeless moment, it is equally and vitally a call to pick up, and carry on. The struggle that is our journey through time continues, and yet amidst the hubbub of universal trial and traverse the poem insists one can still catch the sound of

a voice descanting (though not to the ear,

The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language.)

and what it calls to us, as Eliot has said else where, echoing Krishna, is

Fare forward, voyagers.

Lost in the Four Quartets

The first time I read it, at a conceited 23, it didn’t make much of an impression. I think I just ploughed through it, cover to cover without pause for breath, content to be able say ‘I’d read it’. Undoubtedly a phrase or two lingered on –

music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts

Four Quartets

– memorable, strange, and evocative. But other than that, the terseness, the obscurity and evasiveness of the thoughts, the general lack of bombast and salaciousness all rendered it a little dry and uninteresting. Obscurely Christian, I suspected. I seem to recall waving it off with a flippant dismissal, comparing it unfavorably with The Wasteland over a drink with a friend. By that point I’d no doubt gathered, somehow or other, that that was pretty much the enlightened consensus on the matter. Eliot, post-confession: not that good, give it a quick look, add it to the “read it” column, move on.

Which I then attempted, almost successfully, to do. But the strange thing is, sometimes, unbeknownst to you, a book gets a hold on you, and won’t let go. So it was with me and this slender 4-part volume of supplely intertwining meditations on time, thought, and eternity.

I don’t know how I ended up returning to it. It must have been those occasional lingering phrases, subtle and shifting like smoke in lamp light, drifting back into consciousness, suddenly congruent with an unguarded moment. The rising music of lines like

For most of us there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight

were a moment of recognition, a moment to which I could respond, “yes, I’ve had that experience.” So that was it then, come to think of it, the poem returned to me. It wasn’t the other way around. All I did then was acknowledge that, yes, I too have drifted lost in a shaft of sunlight. But then having conceded that much, Eliot being the prickly interlocutor that he always was, would reply, yes but you…

missed the meaning


to which I would wonder, but what meaning was there to attribute to it?

I recall a vivid moment of having truly been the music while the music lasts. I was on vacation, one that I spent largely on my own, wallowing in books and music, taking walks on an Ottawa Valley lakeside. I was eating an improbably ripe mango, slicing off juice-sodden crescents with a sharp little knife, and I’d just pressed play on the stereo. And from the first note of John Tavner’s The Protecting Veil I was the music, and the music was me. Naturally I tried to repeat the experience. But listen to it as I might, never since have I had that same experience of total and complete transport. I even went so far as to buy another mango, but the moment was not ‘on demand.’ It seemed to be a ‘given’ something. A commonplace ecstasy that I was powerless to reproduce. Curious, yes, but a matter for further reflection? Yes, Eliot asserted, because

Approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.

But what on earth could that mean?

The problem was, though, once I’d gotten involved in these questions there was little hope of escape.

I should warn you, the poem attacks from a variety of angles. The likelihood is that if you get entangled in it, it will be through one of those gorgeous melodic lines that first snagged me:

Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence.

That’s true, you’ll say, they do. What a beautiful observation. But the trouble is that Eliot isn’t content to leave it at that, look:

Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,

Not that only,

And you’ll say… okay… still basically lucid. Insightful, even. You’ve known time stand still around a note, right? A friend of mine once vividly recalled to me the first experience he had of such a thing as a child hiding in his brother’s closet, listening to a Creedence Clearwater Revival guitar solo and suddenly – there was the note and while it lasted the world ceased its turning.

But keep on your guard, because, returning to Eliot, something’s beginning to creep in that’s a little disconcerting:

No that only, but the co-existence,

Or say the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end.

Oh no. And now you’re in a very dangerous place. Don’t move. Don’t engage. Remember the T-Rex in Jurassic Park? Well, take the same approach here: just stay perfectly still, hold your breath, and let the terrible danger pass by. Because, let me warn you, if you engage this sentence, or any of the innumerable ones like it, you’re liable to get caught. It happened to me, and ten years later, as you can see, I still can’t get out.

These paragraphs – ostensibly ugly unwieldy and obscure – let me warn you, they’re koans. They’ll tie you in knots. Follow them and you’ll end up traversing a mobious strip only

To arrive where you started

And know the place for the first time


Over, and over, and over again. Repeatedly. And after a while you won’t even be reading the poem any more. You might even be trying to avoid it. And then suddenly a memory from the workaday world will return to you and you’ll think… hmm… I

had the experience but missed the meaning…


And on it goes. And if like me, you’re looking to “make some progress” in life– you’re going to start getting flustered. Because if you’re looking to “get somewhere” you’ll start to feel hindered by the action of the poem – because look, here you are, all of a sudden, back where you started.

And such, in fact, is the price of entanglement with this exquisitely crafted poem. It works on you, and as it does, as you run around and around its mobious melodies, or as they run around in you, you find yourself a little changed. A little more inclined to attend to the commonplace mysteries all around you be they the wild thyme, the waterfall, or the children in the apple-tree –

Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Because in getting lost in the Four Quartets it seems you found something, a gift hidden in the world of your own experience now, here, now, always. And turning to your own world of experience with new baffled eyes, hungry and vigilant for another sight of it, you’ll find yourself surprised that the poem has such an effect. At least such was the case for me, because as I said:

The first time I read it, at a conceited 23, it didn’t make much of an impression.