In the literary marathon I set myself, there has to be a moment when the bell is rung and one re-enters the stadium. The Seventh Age is that moment.
From the very outset, I knew I would rely heavily on the self-effacing truth of a canvas of Rembrandt to illustrate old age and on a paper-covered edition of the “Four Quartets” to allow T.S. Eliot to explain the mysteries of time and birth and death.
It was as if the port and starboard lights of the welcoming harbour were already there in my mind, long before I had set out on the adventure, Covid instigated, of course.
Two features make the homecoming joyous, not sad, as Shakespeare would have had us believe. I had chosen the right pilots for sure, and the more I read, not only about this seventh age but the preceding ones, the more certain I was that Eliot’s discovery “that history is a pattern of timeless moments” was correct.
Jacques’ speech is laid out in linear time, as is the way we remember our own lives, but “what we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
I have also added the dramatic photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral surviving a blitz attack in December 1940. Eliot, working by then in the City as an Editor for Faber and Faber, was a fire warden. By day, he toiled over his last major poem, by night he guarded London on rooftops with a bucket of sand.
The central element (of the four elements) that is celebrated in “Little Gidding” is “fire”. In his mind, the fire that raged from the skies in dropping bombs became the Pentecostal fire of the Holy Spirit. The poem is a paeon of praise for the love of God to the humans he created; it is a testimony to the belief that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all would be well”.
Chance ensured that Eliot, originally an American national, came to England at all. He chose to live and become a British national in the autumn of 1914. It was not an opportune time to arrive. Much later during the early stages of the Second World War, whilst writing the “Four Quartets”, he was unsure whether he would be alive the next day to finish it, let alone whether, against supreme odds at that time, the Allies would win the War at all.
From this extraordinary crucible, one of the finest poems ever written about the human condition was shaped and crafted. It treats of life and of death and, above all, breaking loose from the linear constraints of time. “Burnt Norton” begins with the lines: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable.”
It is important to realise that the concept of the long poem on this subject did not come to Eliot at the outset. He wrote “Burnt Norton” (about a house he had visited, and the gardens remained, having the house been destroyed) as a standalone; it sold very slowly.
He waited for further ideas to come; then wrote “East Coker” about the village from which his forbears came. It coincided with the very worst moments of the blitz and became a literary rallying call for a patriotic England, delving into its past to turn the tide of War.
It was at that time the idea came of a long, profound poem to match “The Wasteland” and “Ash Wednesday”.
Having converted to Anglo Catholicism, in 1927 he used the same technique of description of a place he knew well, writing of it impersonally and blending poetic beauty with deep philosophical content. By the time of writing “Little Gidding”, with the battles in and around El Alamein evolving favourably, the tide was turning. In the “fifth” quartet, we find a summation of his philosophy. It is a tour de force; but one born out of severe national and personal adversity.
To me, the most poignant lines of the whole poem are about death: “We die with the dying, see they depart, and we go with them. We are born with the dead: see they return and bring us with them.” Any proud grandparent looks to find the visual features of “his side of the family” in his grandchildren. He or she may even be lucky enough to see other talents unfolding in his children or grandchildren. We now know and can explain biologically how this happens and future generations will have to deal with the ethics of genetic engineering. A separation by death from one’s parents can be unbelievably tough; with the knowledge that the genes of the parent remain with the child throughout its life, then the cross of death is lightened. Death, where is thy sting; grave where is thy victory.
Eliot was a very learned and complex individual. He faced great personal sadness in his life with the mental problems of his first wife. He came to England at the most difficult moment of the past century and felt very keenly how the values of the 19th century were disappearing before his eyes. He saw the suffering after the First World War and how that was leading to the Second.
As teacher and bank clerk in London, he did not have enough money to pay his wife’s medical bills. “The Wasteland”, of which I include a small part, shows the slough of despond he was passing through at that time. But it was recognised as a work of brilliance, and he felt this obligation to record what he felt was his philosophy. He supplemented his income by becoming a literary critic.
There is a major essay on him introducing his poetry in The Poetry Foundation. Of this period, the author writes: “Eliot uses the Incarnation of Christ – not only in Ash Wednesday but also in the Four Quartets. The Incarnation represents the intersection of the human and the divine, of time and timeless, of movement and stillness … this scheme is a means of making life, of which art is only a part, possible.”
On YouTube, there is the lecture given by Thomas Howard, Professor Emeritus at St. John’s Seminary, in 2013 on Eliot. It is a tour de force of sensitivity, intellect and humour, and I strongly recommend it as an introduction to the complexities of Eliot. These complexities are not hostile; on the contrary, they are inviting because one knows that he is trying to address issues of acute interest to us all as we journey through life.
In the last lines of “Little Gidding”, as a confirmed Christian, he sees the redemption of humanity through the love of God. Professor Howard considers the “Four Quartets” as one of the great monuments of Christian civilisation on a par with Chartres Cathedral.
Through poetry, one can read and find how other poets viewed death. Emily Dickinson saw death as a gentleman riding a carriage who picks up the narrator on her journey to afterlife “because I could not stop for death”. Dylan Thomas raged against death: “Rage, rage against the dying of the night”. Florbela Espanca, a Portuguese poet, a modernist and contemporary of Virginia Wolf’s and Eliot’s, writes: “And if one day I must be dust, ashes and nothing, let my night be a dawn, let me know how to lose myself … and how to find myself.”
In “À Morte”, she begged: “Lady Death of velvet fingers, close my eyes that have seen everything! Press my wings that have flown so much!” Aged 36, in 1930, she committed suicide; she was born out of her time; an avowed feminist in a male society which could not or would not hear her cries for help.
Thus, the great poets and great painters are guides activating the innermost workings of our mind. They shine light on possibilities we otherwise would not have seen. This is the key value of the Arts, namely to highlight, by the artist’s vision, what we may see with them.
Think of the madness of Van Gogh as the epilepsy built inside his head, or the dizzy writing of Dostoevsky in “The Idiot”, which appeared first in serial form. In his pictures of the night sky arching over the cafes of Arles, the swirl of the stars and the light billowing out from the cafes; life is not like that, but Van Gogh had the genius to make it seem as if it were.
This leads to Rembrandt, a self-portraitist through his life, and one, in this picture, who has pared down all the trappings of wealth and the conceits of youth to paint himself as truthfully as he could. In this respect, he has no equal.
This portrait, as with The Prodigal Son before, shows a genius of comprehension about life’s course and its vagaries. From complete truth comes a nobility of mind and an overarching dignity. He is a draughtsman worthy to celebrate the finest qualities of old age. It is with his eye and his brush that the journey through the seven ages of man should end. The quality of his work has never been matched. Both the “Four Quartets” and this last self-portrait are about the effects of time. Beyond the face, Rembrandt journeys through the eyes to illustrate the mysteries of his brain.
Tough times uncover the strangest of heroes. During the pandemic, we saw Captain Tom pushing his zimmer frame around his house to raise money for good causes before his 100th birthday. This wonderful act of defiance, in the face of old age, caught the nation’s imagination. By his Regiment he was made an honorary Colonel, by Her Majesty the Queen he was knighted at Windsor. Occasionally, miraculously, fact flows into the realm of fiction. This was such a moment!
Now, the finishing tape quivers and flutters in front of me; what have I learnt from this odyssey? Many poems have been with me since childhood; they are dear friends and it was a joy to set them close to me, as in a family photograph. But this enforced sabbatical of lockdowns gave me the chance to meet many new poems, and meet new poets; they are most welcome too.
Florbela Espanca in her poem “Ser Poeta – To Be a Poet”, describes the role of the poet thus: “It is to be hungry and thirsty for the infinite, for bravery, mornings of gold and satin … It is to condense the world in a single scream.” To my mind, there could not be a finer calling!
Do send me an email with what you have enjoyed, and what you would have added!
By Florbela Espanca
Death, my lady Death
So good thy embrace must be!
Languid and sweet as a sweet snare,
and like a root, serene and strong.
There is no evil that you don’t heal or comfort
Thy hand guides us step by step.
In thee, inside thee, in thy lap
there is no sad fate or bad luck.
Lady Death of velvet fingers,
close my eyes that have seen everything!
Press my wings that have flown so much!
I came from Moirama, the daughter of a king,
Bad magic enchanted me and here I stayed
awaiting you…break the spell!
(“Our Book”, selected poems by Florbela Espanca,
Rail Editions, Brooklyn)
Four Quartets (Little Gidding)
By T.S. Eliot
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
(Part V – What the Thunder Said)
By T. S. Eliot
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water
By Anthony Slingsby