The complete simplicity of T. S. Eliot

December 22, 2013 by Joshua
in Art, Blog, Creativity, Freedom

Martha Graham’s words on discipline, conformity, and freedom influenced me enough that I quoted her in several posts. She quotes T. S. Eliot describing “complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).” Two of my posts on her are “A master speaks on creative expression” and “A model on the foundation of personal freedom.”

I had to look up the T. S. Eliot reference, so, in case you would too, I’ll copy his poem below, followed by a few words of context and another “poem” to contrast it with. Actually, this is just the closing part of the longer Four Quartets.

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, remembered 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 in 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 flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the first and the rose are one.

Context

T. S. Eliot wrote this part during World War II in London, during the air raids. From Wikipedia’s page on Four Quartets:

Eliot regarded Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and it is the work that led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It consists of four long poems, each first published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942). Each has five sections. Although they resist easy characterization, each poem includes meditations on the nature of time in some important respect—theological, historical, physical—and its relation to the human condition. Each poem is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire.

Burnt Norton is a meditative poem that begins with the narrator trying to focus on the present moment while walking through a garden, focusing on images and sounds like the bird, the roses, clouds, and an empty pool. The narrator’s meditation leads him/her to reach “the still point” in which he doesn’t try to get anywhere or to experience place and/or time, instead experiencing “a grace of sense”. In the final section, the narrator contemplates the arts (“Words” and “music”) as they relate to time. The narrator focuses particularly on the poet’s art of manipulating “Words [which] strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden [of time], under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision, [and] will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.” By comparison, the narrator concludes that “Love is itself unmoving, / Only the cause and end of movement, / Timeless, and undesiring.”

East Coker continues the examination of time and meaning, focusing in a famous passage on the nature of language and poetry. Out of darkness, Eliot offers a solution: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.”

The Dry Salvages treats the element of water, via images of river and sea. It strives to contain opposites: “The past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled.”

Little Gidding (the element of fire) is the most anthologized of the Quartets. Eliot’s experiences as an air raid warden in The Blitz power the poem, and he imagines meeting Dante during the German bombing. The beginning of the Quartets (“Houses / Are removed, destroyed”) had become a violent everyday experience; this creates an animation, where for the first time he talks of Love as the driving force behind all experience. From this background, the Quartets end with an affirmation of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.”

The Four Quartets cannot be understood without reference to Christian thought, traditions, and history. Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing”, and the exploration which inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road of sanctification.

Contrast

I can’t help contrasting his poem with an old saying:

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.

They’re obviously different works with different purposes, but they have similar themes — timelessness, change, journey and return, religion, purification, simplicity, salvation and enlightenment, and so on.

Something about the old saying appeals to me more.

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1 response to “The complete simplicity of T. S. Eliot

  1. Pingback: A master speaks on creative expression | Joshua Spodek

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