I’m no scholar or authority on T. S. Eliot, but I do love his poetry. I return to Four Quartets most often, and today am reflecting on Little Gidding, Stanza V. I include it in its entirety at the end of this reflection. It is the end of April 2019, and Bethie has been receiving treatment for cancer for several months now. We are at a critical point, poised momentarily on the day after her third dose of Keytruda. Upon this medicine we place our hopes that it will continue to help her body eliminate the remaining cancer cells. Like Eliot’s description of a Still Point elsewhere in Four Quartets, it is a time of potency within stillness.
She is asleep upstairs. I am below reading and writing on this day off; we’ll stay home all day. It is quiet and cold outside, but I can enjoy the lake from my seat looking through the large windows of our house. In this stillness and quietude, I wait and wonder and hope.
I like this stanza. Early on, he pokes a bit of fun at medicine, which I find entertaining and accurate. In the next part starting with Men’s curiosity, I find “apprehending the point of intersection of the timeless With time” compelling. I wish he wouldn’t say it is “an occupation for the saint,” because we are all capable of this despite being far from saintly. The next several lines resonate with me. I can identify with this journey; it feels especially poignant today. The waterfall and music heard so deeply that it sings you are real experiences for me, many times in this life. His words evoke memories of moments of deeper connection, turtles all the way down. Rainer Marie Rilke evokes in me a similar response with this poem:
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
But the crux of the whole section and recipe for how to live comes next. Incarnation, being here, “where the impossible union of spheres of evidence is actual.” I find myself here, with Beth—and at this moment the uncertainties and mysteries of being alive seem especially vast and incomprehensible. What may those spheres contain? Yet I see here a recipe and assurance from Eliot, when he says, “And right action is freedom from past and future as well.”
Babaji Nagaraj and Paramahansa Yogananda frequently use the term right action in their writings, with a similar meaning. Our we could go with Thich Nat Hahn’s Be. Here. Now. These words of wisdom come from every time and place.
I feel encouraged by Eliot’s phrase “who are only undefeated because we have gone on trying.” It reminds me of Brene Browns reference to Teddy Roosevelts’ speech about being in the arena in her talks and Daring Greatly book. At the end, Eliot refers to what we hope the work of our lives leaves for the earth; “if our temporal reversion nourishes the life of significant soil.” To me that means a life well lived, not from the perspective of a person, but from the perspective of how that life made all beings and things on earth flourish. With his work in this poem about time, it especially encourages me to reflect upon whether I feel engaged fully in that endeavor no matter what day it is. If I were to leave this earth today, have I left a life of significant soil? Have I cared for the earth and all that dwells upon it?
If you watch the recently released series Our Planet, narrated by David Attenborough on Netflix, you will find there are not enough people on our planet asking this question. I beg all of you who read this to please ask yourself this question and live toward being able to answer it. The questions’ journey is not about being right or perfect; it is about being aware.
This is the Fifth Stanza of Little Gidding, from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors-
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road
Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of evidence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
David N. Grimshaw
April 27, 2019