For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.
Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.
In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.
Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “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.”
The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated
“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 fever chart. . .
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “
The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.
We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.
An audio recording of this article is available here:
As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.
Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.
Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.
Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.
I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.
I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.
Now, how about some poetry?
I rest in preparation of the final chord, In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .
I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.
I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.
I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.
The Scottish people may not have been big fans, but this Arizona girl found the first frost enchanting. (Until she almost slipped on ice during her run, that is.)
His kiss was cold, pinking my pale face As he sucked my breath away in steaming plumes;
But smooth and crystalline as spider’s lace,
Beneath my feet, he gently decks my way—
A bridal train toward some white winter’s groom
Summoned by the late-light of new day.
As sheets of mirrors crack beneath my weight
And break apart that swiftly-slipping dream—
Though frozen-fast, not solid as it seemed—
My chilled hands grasp at shrinking shards and hold
Them up as though through them to glimpse again
(Ignoring as my fingers burn with cold)
That frost-transfigured globe contained within.
He began the fall in wealth, His arms hanging heavy with green, new-money Made in spring.
It was the cash that grows on trees: Easily spent and easily made, Budded by summer and Minted by the gold-standard sun.
Investing at Autumn’s asking, He lays a few leavings in her chill-bone hands But scatters the rest in splendour As on her bridal path. He takes care to appear choosy, Particular and piecemeal as A widow with her mite, Though he is secretly as prodigal as his creator— As wistful as a lover, Plucking a piece at a time from his boughs And sending it off, Hopeful as a love letter, Yellow as a first rose, And dancing in girlish spirals on its way down.
Down, down, down to the banks. A copper here. A penny there. Soon he will rest. Soon he will lay down his last life And wait half-dead in winter’s retirement. But for now, As a bird feathers her nest, He lines the road with dew-damp gold, Lavishing heaven’s riches on earth For a few more weeks, if not For Eternity.
The hill was ghostly. Even before finding an old sign revealing its history as an early Christian burial site, I could sense the tension between life and death in the air that chilled my face. It was a place pulsing with potential, yet quiet and lonely as a sleeping giant. Insignificance and eternity confronted me as I felt at once my own smallness amidst the swirling mist and the faint-but-discernable presence of those sleeping beneath the grass and dirt.
And so, here is a poem.
On Hallow Hill the lichen grows
On trees far, far too young to know
That ‘neath their root-laced, grassy shroud
There lies in loneliness a crowd.
O’erhead crows caw continuous gloom
As doves pray peace for th’unseen tomb.
Such sombre birds of ghostly air,
The only pilgrims passing there—
There where the earth, a swollen bride,
Still nurses those that testified:
Expecting, under dust and leaves,
The birth toward which her babes believed.
Listen! She lulls with willow song:
“Though ages pass, it shan’t be long!”
It shan’t be long ’til these hills cry
As Light tears through their cloud-hung sky.
So tune to joy, you mournful dove!
As bones reknit themselves in love
To stretch, to stand—to kneel—toward
The One who wakes them by His Word.
I’ve been rereading Ray Bradbury’s (…may he rest in peace…so sayeth we all…) Fahrenheit 451. Actually, I’m listening to it on Audible; there is a performance of it by Tim Robbins which literally makes me weep. It’s THAT good.
Anyway, as I revisit this all-too-prophetic story of a society so frightened by what is uncomfortable, challenging, or even beautiful, I am convicted. My earlier post “Dystopian Reality” goes into more detail, but as I revisit this book, I am more and more convinced that we ought to read dystopian literature with the same care with which we read history.
Most of us are familiar with the following quote by (most likely) George Santayana:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
However, we ought also to bear in mind this:
“Those who do consider dystopian literature seriously are doomed to find these stories more fact than fiction, more future than fantasy.”
Okay…admittedly, I am quoting myself here and it isn’t even a good quote at that. Regardless, I believe Bradbury would back me up in my claim.
But the real reason I’ve gathered you all here today is to share the following poem, inspired by Clarisse McClellan of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
The bluebird blinking from my palm, its nest,
Is hollow in its o’er-bright, beeping song
And though its shallow verses are not long—
If only it would lay its voice to rest!
For I saw another bird today take wing;
It caught my eye and I dared not stroll past,
For true moments of beauty rarely last
And yet inspire me all the more to sing.
The first bird blares and yet draws not a breath
As it cries out for me to tend its feed
While yet the other bird has no such need
Though it— alive — is capable of death.
These two are of no familial feather:
One takes to flight, the other to its tether.