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
– 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.