Thursday, November 18, 2010

T. S. Eliot's Rose Garden

Consider these lines from the conclusion of The Waste Land:

Datta [give]: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can neve retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms

Dayadhvam [sympathize]: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison . . .

Eliot obligingly provides a foot-note from F. H. Bradley's book Appearance And Reality for these last four lines:  "My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts and feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a  circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it. . . . In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul."

Which was it to be?  Can we connect with others or can't we? Eliot must have thought long and hard—agonized perhaps—over this question but it's pretty clear where he ended up: in his own private prison, or "citadel" as Lyndall Gordon calls it:

"Eliot's personality was self-centered enough to assume that the world and its vicissitudes—its women, its wars, seasons, crowds—existed as signals for his private conduct. The isolation and the absence of signs . . . brewed a certain wilfulness . . . .
  "[He] passed his youth walled-in by shyness and vast ambition. His adult life may be seen as a series of adventures from the citadel of his self in search of some great defining experience. He made expeditions across a perilous gap that divided him from the great world, and ventured into society, into marriage, into religious communion. He tried to maintain the polite, even curiosity of an explorer far from home, but each time had to withdraw—shuddering from the contact—to his citadel, where he would labor to record, as precisely as possible, his strange encounters." (Quoted from William Pritchard's Lives of The Modern Poets, 1980.)

You can see why it was so important for Eliot to separate the "man who suffers from the mind that creates." And you can see why such a doctrine might make for a certain heartlessness in his poetry. But I can't leave it at that, because some of the poetry he wrote after he caved in, converted to Anglo-Catholicism and became a fervent believer in the incarnation and the eucharist is, nevertheless, both moving and beautiful. Burnt Norton, the first of the Four Quartets, is one of these.

Though I am not the least bit interested in what Eliot has to say about time past and time present, the still point of the moving world, incarnation, the end which is also his beginning etc., or the dance that he goes on and on about, a might-have-been that is deeply considered at the beginning of Burnt Norton is worth paying attention to. Here are the relevant lines:

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point toward one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
                                 But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do no know.  
                                 Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery . . .
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

And the poem ends with the laughter of those children, hidden in the foliage:

Sudden in the shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

T. S. Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1914 and lived with her until 1932. They could have had children but either decided not to or found that they couldn't. Here is how the poem puts it:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

I guess you can read these lines any way you want.  To me they seem the most nearly personal lines that Eliot ever wrote—as if the man who suffers had become very close to the mind that creates.

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