Shafts of Sunlight

November 11th, 2008

Language is what stops the heart exploding.

Or as Eliot puts it in Murder in the Cathedral, ‘This is one moment/ But know that another/ shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.’

When I was growing up poor and Pentecostal in the north of England, books were not allowed in our house, unless they were Bible books or my mother’s Mystery stories – not of the miracle play kind, but of the Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen kind.

My mother made the rules as violently and as eccentrically as any tinpot despot, and my counter- strategies included smuggling books into the house and hiding them under the mattress, or reading them in the Public Library.

Fatefully, at sixteen, and just as she was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule, (not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex with your own Sex), my mother made a mistake.

She sent me to the Library to collect her weekly haul of Mystery stories and on the list was Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot.

She thought it was a bloody saga of homicidal monks.

I opened it – it looked a bit short for a mystery story – and sometimes library books had pages missing. I hadn’t heard of TS Eliot. I opened it, and I read the lines I have quoted to you, and I started to cry. Readers looked up reproachfully, and the Librarian reprimanded me, because in those days you weren’t even allowed to sneeze in a library, and so I took the book outside and read it all the way through, sitting on the steps in the usual northern gale.

The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family, (I am adopted, so being packed off for a second time was very hard), the confusion of sexuality, and the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to get on with my A levels.

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Let’s not confuse this with Realism. The power does not lie directly with the choice of subject or its social relevance – if it did, then everything not about our own contemporary situation would be academic to us, and all the art of the past would be a mental museum.  Yet we don’t go to Shakespeare to find out about life in Elizabethan England, any more than we read Jane Austen for marriage guidance.  Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain.

Eliot says ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’. That, for him, was not the reality of dingy streets and gas fires, typists and tinned food, though he writes about those things so well, but the vast reality of two quite different invisible worlds – ‘the heavy burden of the growing soul’ (Animula), and what might be called the ‘shaft of sunlight’ (Four Quartets), a spiritual illumination that became for Eliot, a journey towards God.

For Eliot, the 3D world where we live, that he calls in The Wasteland the ‘unreal city’, is a beguiling or distressing distraction from facing life head on, facing ourselves as we are – and ultimately, facing God. He is tough, he refuses consolation, ‘time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.’

When I read him that gale-force day, gales battering me within and without, I didn’t want consolation; I wanted expression. I wanted to find the place where I was hurt, to locate it exactly, and to give it a mouth. Pain is very often a maimed creature without a mouth.  Through the agency of the poem – doing what Eliot discusses in his essays – clarifying feelings into facts – I am no longer dumb, not speechless, not lost. The poem holds me, and gives me something to hold on to.  Language is a finding-place not a hiding place.

The Wasteland, (1922),  Eliot’s most read and best known poem, is a stark enough– no place to hide there – but it is a poem that finds a language for the wholly new situation left in the aftermath of the Great War. The genius of The Wasteland as a defining poem is just what it defines –  yes, the old nineteenth century certainties of progress, of industry, of advancement of civilisation, of the very idea of civilisation, are in ruins, but Eliot understood too, that the Great War had devastated consciousness – the inside of people’s heads, as well as their world order.  Linear narrative no longer makes sense – and so the poet, and the poet-novelists can no longer write in that way

Virginia Woolf moved towards this new understanding in Jacob’s Room, and Joyce violently displayed it in Ulysses, both fictions, (I can’t call them novels in the nineteenth century sense of the word), published in 1922.

The Wasteland is really a collection of poems, an assembling of poetic forms, and voices, moving in different directions simultaneously.  It bursts out of any recognisable poetic shape just as the world had burst out of any recognisable order.

There are critics – Denis Donoghue is one, who don’t like The Wasteland being described in grand terms as a poem ‘about’ the fall of Western civilisation etc. And it is true that Eliot did not like his poems being ‘about’ things, and it is true too, as Susan Sontag puts it, that a work of art is not just ‘about’ something, it is something.

Eliot composed in fragments, often waiting for some catalyst to help him shape his fragments into a total work, and some of The Wasteland was written early, in response to the breakdown of Eliot’s first marriage, circulating round his wife Vivienne’s madness.

There seems to me to be a proper connection between private and public breakdowns, and I believe that highly creative people act as antennae, feeling what is coming long before it does – rather as animals sense an earthquake or a tsunami. This is not clairvoyance, but it is the kind of knowing that we find in Yeats’ frightening and prophetic poem, The Second Coming: ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,’ written just before he died in 1939 and before the cataclysm of another war.

I find The Wasteland expressive in its private and public sense of devastating loss. I do not want to argue what it is ‘about’, I want to fully enter what it is.

The poem intuitively understands what will become the century of ceaseless movement – of peoples, of information, of goods, of ideas, a flow that becomes a flood, where nothing, finally, seems to be in the right place, where nothing is held, where no one sleeps, where the positive energy of free markets and unrestricted access, of democracy, of travel, of opportunity, gives way to flux without purpose, agitation, instability…’the loitering heirs of City directors; Departed, have left no addresses.’

The Mobile/Blackberry generation. The migrant workers. Brent Town Hall owned by China. Metropolitan Police pensions in Iceland. All this is in the restlessness of The Wasteland, pre-figured, understood, in the ‘heap of broken images’ that is our world.

But poets are not here to do the job of historians or docu-dramatists. It is the emotional state of the situation that poetry can enter, and the better the poem, and the greater the poet, the more varied and profound will be the emotion expressed.

This matters.

Emotions get a bad press in the history of Western thought – we want to be rational and self-regulating, and to call someone ‘emotional’ is often to insult or deprecate that person’s judgement. We aim for the head and not the heart. Yet, in the economy of the body it is fact that the limbic system takes precedence over the neural highway. That suggests to me that emotions – our feeling-toned selves, are as important as our rational selves, and perhaps decisively so.

Art understands this balancing act, and works towards an education for the heart- for the emotional self. A poem never represses or suppresses feeling – it gives feeling a shape and a language. When Wordsworth talked about ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, he was near to Eliot’s, ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. Living life – even living life while thinking about it, often misses the meaning. We need our emotions to feel the meaning, and that is what poetry allows.
Eliot has a reputation for being cold-blooded, analytical, remote.

We don’t think about him as we do Robert Graves or Ted Hughes, certainly not as we do Keats or Byron, with their wild cries and sensuous passions. Eliot himself liked to talk about ‘impersonality’ a necessary virtue in a poet, as far as he was concerned, but we should not misunderstand him. In his 1927 essay, Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca, Eliot, muses on Shakespeare’s ‘struggle – which alone constitutes life for a poet – to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, universal and impersonal.’

In the land of Reality TV and daytime confessional talk shows, Eliot’s wish to withdraw the personal from his poetry – from any poetry – is easy to misread. But the paradox of the best writing is that while the writer’s voice is unmistakable, the writer has somehow performed the Indian Rope Trick and disappeared.

Celebrity culture can’t imagine anyone wanting to disappear, or to imagine that such a thing might be necessary.  Nor, when we are told that everything depends on our ‘personality’, including the gushing tears of X-Factor wannabes, and Creative Writing course hopefuls, can we hear Eliot saying, as he does in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, ‘ Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things.’

Escaping from emotion is not the same as avoiding emotion or suppressing it or repressing it or calling it something else, or trying to turn it into a theory or a system – it is like escaping from the fire – we do not put out the fire, but we are not consumed by it.

Eliot as a poet-guide, is rather like the angel who appears in the fiery furnace and leads the way out.  That there is a fiery furnace is never in doubt.

Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and his increasing religious conviction seem to be a stumbling block for many people coming to his poetry. Religion is unfashionable, and Eliot is therefore viewed as untrustworthy. I suspect that the religious question is often a convenient way out of grappling with the difficulty of the poetry.  Denis Donoghue, a critic I admire, even when I am disagreeing with him, sensibly refutes the religious hoo-ha when he says ‘it should not be impossible for readers to imagine certain convictions that they don’t otherwise feel’.

Yes, and of course we do just that when we read any pre-twentieth century writer, as the mass of them held some faith, many devoutly so. The problem for Eliot is that as well as the poems, he left a large body of prose work, some of it specific to social, political and religious questions. Though it suits us to complain that artists are out of touch with the real world, we hate it when they get involved, and if they have opinions we don’t like, we are tempted to re-direct our hostility towards the work itself.

Eliot’s supposed anti-Semitism is an even bigger problem for some readers than his Christian politics. Reams has been written about it, just as it has with Wagner, the conclusion being, I think, that such an ugly prejudice must fatally weaken the work.

Disturbingly, it is not the case that the flaws present in the human being necessarilyweaken or infect the work. If that were so, given the lives, tensions, contradictions, murderous intent, wife-battering, drug taking, suicidal mania and dangerous affiliations of many of our great artists, there would be little work of any value.

I do not find Eliot guilty as charged of anti-Semitism; he was not his friend Ezra Pound, though even Pound, at the end of his life, movingly apologised to Alan Ginsberg, though just as movingly, the Jewish Ginsberg still revered the fascist writer, forgave him even, because he recognised the value of Pound’s work, poet to poet.

Whether or not my view of Eliot’s anti-Semitism is the correct one, the work is splendid.

And difficult.

But difficult is not a dirty word. Eliot needs time and concentration. He is not usually a lyric poet, and his changes of tone can be unsettling. He wants to unsettle. New combinations of thought and feeling – which means new combinations of language and image – are what interest Eliot the poet. When I read him, even if it is a passage I know very well, I feel exhilaration, the sense of beauty fused with purpose. It is like walking uphill – not just to reach a better view, but for the pleasure of the climb. It is good for the heart.

I said earlier that poetry finds a language for our inner reality; it does, but the ‘shafts of sunlight’ Eliot understands are intimations of… well, he would say God, and I can’t, quite, but I can say something nearly as bad for Dawkins-types, like, the kick of joy in the universe. More to it… anyway…than our own small realities, inside and out. It used to be called the Sublime.

Eliot’s poetry finds the right balance between the sacred and the secular, and it is good that an artist, any artist, should be unafraid of spiritual realities. Eliot’s plays though, suffer from religious overload, and they are not entirely successful as drama, though I suspect their awkwardness is a failure of form and not an excess of religious sensibility. Simply, form and content are not perfectly merged, as they are in the poetry.  Eliot knew this, and talks about it frankly in a number of his essays. He wanted to experiment with verse-drama, and he was bored with what he called ‘Shaftesbury Avenue farces’ on the one hand, and on the other, serious, but in his view, trivial, prose-plays on some passing hot topic.

For all Eliot’s impatience with ‘meaning’ as a kind of stick-on label, and his severity towards those who were endlessly ‘interpreting’ his work, he was a writer who wanted to influence and change his milieu. He was an admirer of George Bernard Shaw, but particularly of St Joan, because as a play it isn’t tied to the present day. He admits that the play was an influence on  his first play, Murder in the Cathedral.

The Family Reunion, Eliot’s second attempt at verse-drama, is part failure, part success,  (he was worried that his Chorus device of the Furies would look like ghosts if they were inside the room, and shrubbery if they were placed in the garden).  It will be interesting to see how the new production at the Donmar gets round this, and whether or not the play,as a play, and not as poetry plus action, can be made to work. Clunky though it is, its intensity is like sitting under an increasing hot lamp.

Eliot benefits from being heard out loud, something that Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw pioneered in 1994 with their outstanding production of The Wasteland. I am sorry that they have not been invited to re-mount it for the Donmar Eliot season. It will be interesting to see what Katie Mitchell does with Four Quartets.

To put Eliot’s poetry and plays in a dramatic context, as this season will, is to position him most favourably for an audience who may not be sure about his work. Poetry begins in the mouth before it reaches the page. It is an oral art, and one that has become silenced. In spite of poetry festivals and the determined work of Daisy Goodwin, children don’t learn poetry off by heart, and adults read it quietly, if they read it at all. But poetry is a kind of mouth to mouth resuscitation. It is also a heart to heart conversation.

What poetry isn’t, is an academic exercise. Eliot has suffered here, and reading books ‘about’ his work is like eating dry crackers. Scholarship is to be respected, but quite often it is a way past the poems and into theorising about the poems, just as our obsession with biography is a way past the work and into gossip about the life.

There is nothing for it but to wrestle with a writer’s work. To do so is muscular and taxing. I read Eliot by pacing up and down to get the rhythm right. I suspect that anyone hearing him out loud for the first time, at the Donmar Festival, will be surprised, and excited at the force and pace of the poetry.

And thirty years later I can still find myself back on the library steps, calm but not tranquilised, freed from my own overwhelming emotion by the poet’s contained emotion. Released into language. Resting heart.