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“Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot – Part 2 of 4: East Coker

FourQuartets

In my previous post, I looked at the first of the Four Quartets: “Burnt Norton.” The second poem in the collection is much darker than the first and offers a bleak view of modern society.

The poem is structured in a circular style. The first and last lines of the poem are mirror reflections of each other. The poem begins with “In my beginning is my end” and concludes with “In my end is my beginning.” So from a basic structural view, Eliot is challenging the reader to read the poem over multiple times, but I also see deeper symbolism. In the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, when you are born, your consciousness is separated from the Divine Consciousness and your connection is severed. Likewise, when you die, your consciousness is reunited with the Divine until it is time to be reborn again, as part of the eternal cycle.

The overall theme of the poem is that modern humans, with all our science, technology, and money, are essentially destroying ourselves and the world in which we live. It really doesn’t seem like there is much hope for us. In the poem, Eliot offers only one possible path by which to save ourselves, and that is through Christ.

In the opening stanza, Eliot sets the tone for the poem, evoking images of a crumbling society while incorporating references to Ecclesiastes, thereby letting the reader know that our world is in decline and the only chance for salvation is through biblical wisdom.

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

As the poem continues, we are provided with a view of life during a simpler time, before we became slaves to science and technology.

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie

A dignified and commodiois sacrament,
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,

(Lines 25 – 34)

The imagery here makes me think of a pagan ritual. Villagers are gathered together and partake in rituals celebrating the union of man and woman. I would even venture to suggest that Eliot is likely depicting a Beltane ritual, where the symbolic sexual union of man and woman evokes a sympathetic type of magic resulting in the fertility of the earth. I also love the shift in language to an “Olde English” style. It is almost like reading Chaucer.

The Dance by Matisse

The Dance by Matisse

After this pastoral section, the poem takes a darker turn. We are presented with a prophecy, one in which astrological signs and omens point toward the inevitable destruction of humanity.

Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

(Lines 58 – 67)

The following lines impacted me the hardest. Here, Eliot describes the root of our demise, the rich and powerful who view the world as theirs and seek to exploit the planet and all those who dwell upon it, dragging us along with them on the path to destruction.

O dark dark dark. They all go dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

(Lines 101 – 111)

These lines terrify me. They could have been written today. As I look around at what is happening to our world, I see a handful of people taking the rest of us along with them to the grave. And when we reach that point of collapse, there will be no one left to bury the dead. We will decay along with all our creations and everything that we built. Ultimately, we will succumb to ourselves.

But Eliot sees one chance for us to save ourselves, and that is through the acceptance of Christ’s teachings. He sees Christ as a healer, able to cure our societal ills and disease.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fevered chart.

(Lines 147 – 151)

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Near the end of the poem, Eliot writes: “As we grow older the world becomes stranger.” This is true on two levels. On a personal level, as we mature we no longer live the lives of simplicity that were ours as children and youth. On a societal level, our culture and society changes as it ages. Technology and science have replaced our wonder at the mysteries of life and existence. As a result, we find ourselves strangers in a strange land, in a world that becomes stranger and less recognizable with each passing day. It is a sad possibility that one day we may awaken into a world which is completely unrecognizable to us. I hope that day does not come.

Look for Part 3—“The Dry Salvages”—soon.

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“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

HowlIf you read just one poem in your lifetime, it should be “Howl.” This poem not only captures and expresses the unspoken reality of post-WWII America, but it shattered social taboos and paved the way for artistic expression that continues today. It is truly a masterpiece.

The poem is much too long to include here. You can click here to read it online; or better yet, go and purchase a copy from your local indie bookstore. Ginsberg would certainly approve of that.

The poem begins with one of the greatest poetical openings ever, in my opinion:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

It is free-form poetry that has a distinct rhythm. I’ve heard it compared with Walt Whitman, and I can see that, but the rhythm is unique and heavily influenced by the jazz music of that period. Reading the words, the cadence makes me feel like I am in a smoke-filled basement and losing myself in hypnotic beats.

In addition to the long, winding lines of verse, Ginsberg brilliantly uses alliteration to create the musical feel of the poem. The following line is a great example of this, where he uses the “B” sound to accent the verse and drive the natural rhythm of the language.

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

The 1950’s were a time of repression. Thinking and acting in a way that didn’t fit in with the social mores could be very dangerous. As a result, people began exploring new spiritual and intellectual paths. Ginsberg expresses this searching and longing in the poem.

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,  

who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels,

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,

Travel and mysticism were not the only ways in which Ginsberg and his contemporaries searched for meaning in their world. They also turned to sex and drugs, and for Ginsberg, this was open homosexuality, something that was not accepted at that time. Ginsberg expresses his homosexuality with frank openness, something which led to an attempt to ban the poem as pornographic. Thankfully, the courts upheld the artistic value of the poem in one of the landmark censorship cases.

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,

The poem is divided into three parts. The second part focuses on Moloch. Moloch was a god worshiped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites who required parents to sacrifice their children by fire. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch) Ginsberg adopts the symbol of Moloch and employs it as a metaphor for America. People were expected to sacrifice themselves and their children to a culture that demanded obedience, crushed individuality, and thought of people as nothing more than cogs in the great wheel of capitalist consumerism. It was a society where money was God.

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

The third section of the poem is all about how Ginsberg relates with Carl Solomon, to whom the entire poem is dedicated. Solomon was a writer who was influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism. He was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital where he was subjected to shock therapy. (Source: Wikipedia) In the final section, Ginsberg uses the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” to express solidarity, and most importantly, to assert that, like Solomon, we are all institutionalized. We are all trapped within the society that seeks to dull our minds with the continuous zapping of our thoughts. All creativity and deviation from the societal norms is systematically extinguished by a culture that demands conformity.

Again, I cannot stress enough how important this poem is. It is one of the most ground-breaking works of literature ever. While I have your attention, I’ll also recommend watching the film “Howl” starring James Franco, which has some great reenactments of the court sessions where Lawrence Ferlinghetti from City Lights Books was on trial for publishing Howl and Other Poems.

Finally, there is a “Footnote to Howl” which stands alone poetically. You can probably guess what my next post will be.

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“To The Reader” by Charles Baudelaire

BaudelaireWhen I first discovered Baudelaire, he immediately became my favorite poet. He was about as twisted and disturbing as they come. So this morning, as I tried to clear my brain of the media onslaught regarding Miley Cyrus, I thought of Baudelaire’s great poem that addresses ennui, or boredom, which he sees as the most insidious root of human evil.

It had been a while since I read this poem and as I opened my copy of The Flowers of Evil I remembered that the text has two translations of the poem, both good but different. I read them both and decided to focus this post on Robert Lowell’s translation, mainly because I find it a more visceral rendering of the poem, using words that I suspect more accurately reflect what Baudelaire was conveying. I’m including Lowell’s translation here so that we all are thinking about the same version.

Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice
possess our souls and drain the body’s force;
we spoonfeed our adorable remorse,
like whores or beggars nourishing their lice.

Our sins are mulish, our confessions lies;
we play to the grandstand with our promises,
we pray for tears to wash our filthiness;
importantly pissing hogwash through our sties.

The devil, watching by our sickbeds, hissed
old smut and folk-songs to our soul, until
the soft and precious metal of our will
boiled off in vapor for this scientist.

Each day his flattery makes us eat a toad,
and each step forward is a step to hell,
unmoved, through previous corpses and their smell
asphyxiate our progress on this road.

Like the poor lush who cannot satisfy,
we try to force our sex with counterfeits,
die drooling on the deliquescent tits,
mouthing the rotten orange we suck dry.

Gangs of demons are boozing in our brain —
ranked, swarming, like a million warrior-ants,
they drown and choke the cistern of our wants;
each time we breathe, we tear our lungs with pain.

If poison, arson, sex, narcotics, knives
have not yet ruined us and stitched their quick,
loud patterns on the canvas of our lives,
it is because our souls are still too sick.

Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice,
gorillas and tarantulas that suck
and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck
in the disorderly circus of our vice,

there’s one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment’s rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.

It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine —
you — hypocrite Reader — my double — my brother!

Ennui is the word which Lowell translates as BOREDOM. Baudelaire sees ennui as the root of all decadence and decay, and the structure of the poem reflects this idea. Consider the title of the book: The Flowers of Evil. The visible blossoms are what break through the surface, but they stem from an evil root, which is boredom. The poem’s structure symbolizes this, with the beginning stanzas being the flower, the various forms of decadence being the petals. The middle stanzas are the stem, which feed and nourish our sickness. Finally, the closing stanzas are the root, the hidden part of ourselves from which all our vices originate.

I find the closing line to be the most interesting. Baudelaire essentially points his finger at us, his readers, in a very accusatory manner. He accuses us of being hypocrites, and I suspect this is because erudite readers would probably consider themselves above this vice and decadence. But the truth is, many of us have turned to literature and drowned ourselves in books as a way to quench the boredom that wells within us, and while it is still a better way to deal with our ennui than drugs or sadism, it is still an escape. We all have the same evil root within us. We’re all Baudelaire’s doubles, eagerly seeking distractions from the boredom which threatens to devour our souls.

We’ve all heard the phrase: money is the root of all evil. I disagree, and I think Baudelaire would concur. Money just allows one to explore more elaborate forms of vice and sin as a way of dealing with boredom. You provide a bored person with unlimited funds and it is just a matter of time before that person discovers some creatively exquisite forms of decadence.

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