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The Quintessential – And Last – Modern Poet | Fr. George William Rutler | The Foreword to Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, by Thomas Howard

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T.S. Eliot was the quintessential modern poet by being the last modern poet. The ability to speak of the modern in the past tense exposes a nervous tension in the concept of the modern as "the only now". Modernity's isolation from time past and future evaporated anthropological radicalism by its superficiality and made banality an enterprise. I am aware of no other age that was so self-conscious: the Greeks did not think of themselves as classical, nor did the Scholastics think of themselves as highly medieval. But modern people justified everything they did by calling it modern. The end of the modern age was not like the end of any other age, for the essence of modernity was that it was not supposed to end: and so while other ages contribute their echoes to the development of culture, the modern age erased itself by succumbing to the future. Like John the Baptist, who was the greatest of the prophets by being the last of them, so was Eliot the most blatant voice of modernism by ending it when he wrote the Four Quartets. What comes next is yet to be grasped, but the vague and properly vacuous term "postmodern" means that the only substance of modernity, its unsurpassibility, was a phantom.

The blood and bones of Eliot spanned the modern age. On the day of his birth, the newspapers carried the latest news of Jack the Ripper; and the day he died, Lyndon Johnson proposed his "Great Society". Edison invented the kinetoscope as Eliot was born; and Penzias and Wilson confirmed the "Big Bang" theory with their evidence of cosmic microwave background radiation as Eliot's ashes were being sent to East Coker. It is as if he were finally providing a footnote to his lines by means of his own biology: "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." The exhaustion of living through modern changes, like any exhaustion, is the ground of depression. Thus the dolours of The Waste Land. But if the end is where we start from, there is a cure in the permanent Augustinian metaphysic that is not intimidated by chronology. The Four Quartets are a hymn of confidence.

Even in our litigious age it is difficult to sue universities for philosophical malpractice. Much as I revere the dappled lawns of my New England college days, I have a case against some of my teachers, for they made me wallow through The Waste Land with no mention of "Burnt Norton" or "East Coker" or "The Dry Salvages" or, the Ultimate Concern forefend, "Little Gidding". What they taught about Eliot was equivalent to saying that Saul of Tarsus was a driven man who had roughed up the first Christians, without mentioning his Damascus Road and consequent epistles. The impression was that Eliot had been cut from the same cloth as the chic French existentialists. When my French professor, who idolized Sartre, put his head in a gas oven, it would not have surprised me if Eliot were next. Instead, Eliot died a natural death just a few months before I graduated. By then I knew that he had a different view of things. It was almost forensically that one read in his obituary in The Times how "few... saw through the surface innovations and the language of despair to the deep respect for tradition and keen moral sense which underlay them." Reading those courteous lines now, after having read what Thomas Howard writes about the real Eliot, my gums dry and my eyes burn at the enormous condescension of those well-meaning funereal words written in 1965. Having a deep respect for tradition is like saluting an earthquake, and a keen moral sense sounds like the happiness that comes from good dental hygiene.

The Four Quartets, like the Odyssey and I suppose every poem, really, are meant to be heard. It may be carried to eccentric lengths, like the recordings of Dame Edith Sitwell (who, bless her, went to a length in religion greater than retentive Eliot), but it is a fact: Why write in meters if the meters are not to be sung? I tried once, unsuccessfully, to persuade some rap singers on my Manhattan street comer that they were singing the same rhythms that Homer sent around Iona. (You could stretch this and say something similar about the opening tetrameters in section 11 of "Burnt Norton".) But I think I was correct. The first time I heard the Quartets read publicly was by a favorite actress, Prunella Scales, in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford on the centenary of Eliot's birth. She said that her son's headmaster coached her Greek pronunciation. I was entranced by her, as I had been when she played Miss Mapp and Mrs. Fawlty, but I confess that this seemed the only time her script bored me. I am indebted to Professor Howard for his advice on how to hear Eliot's lines, not in a deconstructionist way (Eliot's objective epistemology saved him from being a proto-Derrida, who is now decomposing in contradiction of his own theories), but as one hears music. Similarly, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who was ever patient with my student mind, insisted that Wittgenstein wanted his philosophical texts read as poetry and disdained classical philosophical syntax. At least in terms of shock value, Eliot was brother to Wittgenstein. I am grateful to Thomas Howard also for solving the puzzle of why these vivid quintets are called quartets, when the sections have a dangling fifth part. It has nothing to do with the scheme, and every thing to do with the voices. There are four instruments. Now, Howard proposes along with others that these are the primeval elements of air, earth, water, fire. It is a good argument, and it cannot be called a critic's conceit, but his graceful analysis whetted my appetite. Eliot's concluding cache in "Little Gidding" from Dame Julian's "Shewings" made me go back to her original lines, as she is ventriloquist for the Almighty God of Grace: "I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of things shall be well." Dame Julian wrote that on her sickbed in the Black Death; Eliot wrote that in 1942 during the world's blackest war. These tenses–may ... can ... shall ... will–thawing the frozen "only now" tense of the moderns, parallel the four metaphysical realities: what may be done invokes the possibilities of time; what can be done opens the mind to eternity; what shall be done points to undeniable mortality; and what will be done is the benign calculus of faith. The promise "thou shalt" is the final fifth: the act of the will, which makes man a moral actor in the drama of providence.

If I am obliged to write a foreword, I shall be forward enough to say that I was never drawn to Eliot. He does not thrill like Yeats. I knew some who knew him well and who invariably venerated him, although they were usually of an insecure academic sort that snobbishly dismissed his devoted and long-suffering second wife. While Eliot was to me like the seventeenth-century Dr. Fell of whom it was said, "I do not like thee", in a Christian sense I still find much in him to love while not confusing this bond of charity with a chain of affinity. For one thing, there was an aura of pedantry about him, whether in the footnotes of The Waste Land or in the language pyrotechnics of Four Quartets. The generous soul of Thomas Howard assumes that Eliot was as facile with Attic Greek and High German as he implied. Perhaps he was. Eliot's citations are too precise and buttoned. This does not discredit him. His purpose was valiant. Eliot as poet and Waugh as novelist embarked on much the same Christian adventure, just a generation after Belloc and Chesterton, and Eliot was not the misanthrope that blessed Waugh was. All of them, save Waugh to his credit, shared the same ethereal confusions about economics. Eliot was fascinated with Chesterton and said that he "did more than any man of his time" to "maintain the existence of the (Christian] minority in the world". He wrote that eulogy the year he published "Burnt Norton", and, for all its piety, one senses a slight reserve like that of The Times' tribute to himself Eliot was more English than the English, and so I suspect that privately he found Chesterton hearty, which in Eliot's fixed Anglo-Saxon vision would not have been a compliment. And Chesterton was a romantic, certainly in his rotund un-Prufrockean verse, by his own boasting all bangs and no whimpers. Four Quartets and The Ballad of the White Horse obliquely hymn the same God, but one suspects that the Ballad gave Eliot heartburn. In turn, Chesterton would have found Eliot too precious for his pub crawls and rolling English roads, and he misread Prufrock because of that. Parenthetically, I believe that Robert Frost actually wrote the definitive New England poem "The Road Not Taken" in Chesterton's Olde England village of Beaconsfield. So the strands weave together and unweave, and, because I am not Penelope, I cannot explain it all, but we are dealing with good hearts trying to make sense of the existence of the human heart in a disheartened world. In Four Quartets, Eliot comes to the modernist's lattice window like the lover in the Song of Solomon, furtively chanting a benign proposal of which all this world's lights and shadows are intimations, and in his precise and occasionally affected diction he witnesses to the Doctors of the Church in this: the intellect is supernaturally perfected by the light of glory.

"The end is where we start from." Professor Howard calculates this to the time matrix of the Holy Mass, where the altar becomes the locus of the Catholic eternal now and confounds the isolated modern illusion of the only now. What is not sacramental is pathological, and the Eucharist is remedy for the social pathology that darkened the promise of Eliot's age. Eliot ends with Dante's rose and Dame Julian's revelation, in a domesticated kind of piety which ungirdles itself to bow before beatitude. Had Eliot lived longer, he might have come to the point where, domestic reserve abandoned and ecclesiastical provincialism thwarted, he might have acknowledged that an earlier poet named Gregory the Great was also the Vicar of Christ. Pope Gregory anathematized those who say that the blessed ones do not see God but only a light coming from him. In the social disintegration and moral trauma attendant upon the fall of modernity, Eliot paraphrased it in coruscating ways and radiant rays of words. A poet has no apostolic authority, and his prophecy is by intuition and sensibility to tradition; but when he is true to the truth, aesthetics burnishes his metaphysics and gives him the mantle of an evangelist.

George William Rutler
New York City

Related Ignatius Insight Essays and Excerpts:

Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets | An Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard | April 2, 2006 | Carl E. Olson
The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce about Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
Well-Versed in Faith | Selections from Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse, compiled by Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce

Father George William Rutler is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He is a graduate of Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins and holds advanced theology degrees from Oxford and the Angelicum in Rome (S.T.D.). He is a prolific author of books (some published by Ignatius Press) and articles. He has made several television series on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).

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