Category Archives: Literary

Four Quartets

Four Quartets

by T. S. Eliot (1943)

I understand and acknowledge that poetry is a little off the beaten track of expectations for recommended spiritual reading, but this is not typical poetry. It reads like a meditation, and in some parts, almost like scripture, or at least sermon. Eliot was a deeply spiritual man and struggled greatly to make sense of some of the tragic aspects of his life, one being the descent into insanity of his first wife, another being the realization of a love that could never be consummated. (Happily, he ultimately found love with somebody completely devoted to him, yet since it happened when he was relatively advanced in age, it too had an element of tragedy in that it was all too short.)

The Four Quartets is actually a series of four long poems consisting of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, which were originally released gradually, one at a time. If you pay attention, you will see things that hearken to St. John of the Cross, such as references to the “darkness of God” in part III of East Coker:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the 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 the 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.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on              darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long                     between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of                      nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

                                                        You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
     You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
     You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
     You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

– pp. 27-29

Here also is part IV of East Coker:

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.

    Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

     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 chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

     The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

– pp. 29-30

 Here is another astounding passage from section V of The Dry Salvages:

More reflective moments

UPDATE: An unexpected find of a recording of Eliot reading the entire poem.

 

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The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters

by C. S. Lewis (1942)

This work of imaginative fiction is a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon, to Wormwood his fledgling nephew with advice on how to win the soul of the human (the “patient”) that has been assigned to him.

Here is a brief excerpt from letter number 14 to give you the flavor:

My dear Wormwood,

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride–pride at his own humility–will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt–and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. …

Your affectionate uncle

SCREWTAPE

– pp. 69-70, 73