October 1, 2009

Eliot's Four Quartets, Life, and the Gita

I just ran into these lines from East Coker, the third poem in Eliot's Four Quartets:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

The last line sounds very Bhagwat-Gita-ish!

"Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani"

Which translates as: "You have a right to perform your prescribed action,but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. / Never consider yourself the cause of the results your activities,and never be associated to not doing your duty."

Or like my friend, Bharat said to me once: "apna kaam pura kar. phal ki ichha kyon, Paarth?" ("Complete your work, why desirous of the fruits, Paarth?" -- Paarth being another name of Arjuna, to whom, in his moment of wavering, Krishna narrates the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata.)

Coming to think of it, a lot of Four Quartets seems to be derived from teachings of the Gita or other Hindu philosophy, which Eliot had studied. For example: the lines about "endings and beginnings" in the 1st Quartet, Burnt Norton ...

... say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.


Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.


Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

...and coming back to this theme again throughout the poem; with minor variations that further embellish this theme through repetition - trying to capture the complexity of life. For example East Coker, starts with "In my beginning is my end" and ends with the opposite - "In my end is my beginning". Then in the last quartet, Little Gidding, he ends with:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

This is nothing but about the cyclical nature of life (a Hindu philosophy), no? Also, many lines of the poem (some of my favorite lines, in fact) are about time, the past-present-and-future, memory, consciousness, existence, and the "flux of life". They again remind me of some of the teachings of the Gita, which I admittedly have only read cursorily.  

Note (1): Eliot ends his poem The Waste Land with "Shantih shantih shantih" - but I have not really read this poem with a detailed eye and hence do not enjoy it as much as I do Four Quartets.

Note (2): I have been reading bits and pieces of Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot a lot recently in addition to two books about Eliot - The Achievement of T.S. Eliot  by  F.O. Matthiessen & Art of T. S. Eliot  by Helen Gardner. The latter especially has greatly enhanced my appreciation for Four Quartets. For example, in addition to the knowledge that the titles of the four poems in Four Quartets are about four places that were important in Eliot's life, I learn that they also represent the four elements - Burnt Norton about air ("on which whispers are borne, intangible itself, but the medium of communication"), East Coker is about earth ("the dust of which we are made and into which we shall return), The Dry Salvages is about water ("which some Greek thinkers thought was the primitive material out of which the world arose, and which man has always thought of as surrounding and embrancing the land, limiting the land and encroaching on it, itself illimitable), and Little Gidding is about fire ("the purest of elements... which consumes and purifies.") 


"the whole poem is about the four elements whose mysterious union makes life...and perhaps adding that some have thought that there is a fifth element, unnamed but latent in all things: the quintessence, the true principle of life, and that this unnamed principle is the subject of the whole poem."

Note: All quoted lines above are from an essay in Helen Gardner's book called 'The Music of Four Quartets'. This is an old book - from 1950 - which I am able to read thanks to the amazing public library system in the US. There are a few different essays about Four Quartets in the book but this particular one tells us about the musical aspects of this poem -- not just with naming it "Quartets" but also how each of the quartets contains five "movements", each with their own inner structure. However, it would be too much to go into all the details here of the exquisite lyrical quality of the poem that Ms. Gardner beautifully elucidates - not only through the music in the recurring words, each time deepened and expanded by fresh use but also through repetition of images, each time with different meanings. Instead I'll leave you with these lines by Gardner about the poem - which I think captures the reasons why I find such affinity to this poem.

We might begin a description of Four Quartets by saying it presents a series of meditations upon existence in time, which, beginning from a place and a point in time, and coming back to another place and another point, attempts to discover in these points and places what is the meaning and content of an experience, what leads to it, and what follows from it, what we bring to it and what it brings to us.

The point she goes on to make is that such a description can only be brief and abstract and such abstractions must yield to considerations of the form of the poem, to which it "owes its coherence". And that is where the circular nature of the poem, the repetitions, and the sense of working out through the "beginnings and endings" of life does the poem rise from being mere poetry to sublime art, which, like the Gita, captures the very essence of Life. Or as Ms. Gardner beautifully summarizes with the last line of her essay:

In it the form is the perfect expression of the subject; so much so that one can hardly in the end distinguish subject from form. The whole poem in its unity declares more eloquently than any single line or passage that truth is not the final answer to a calculation, nor the last stage of an argument, nor something told us once and for all, which we spend the rest of our life proving by examples. The subject of Four Quartets is the truth which is inseperable from the way and the life in which we find it.

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