Time present and time future are both surely expressions of time past.
I first encountered T.S. Eliot as a small act of rebellion. Our poetry set book for O-Level English was a collection called Ten 20th Century Poets, of which we were supposed to read just five. Those on the syllabus – Edwin Muir, R.S. Thomas – I found a rather dull lot. So, in class, I started to read ahead to the five poets we were not supposed to touch.
That was where I found ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which would surely turn any adolescent into a devotee of Eliot.
Not long after, we went on a class outing to Manchester University. I no longer recall why, or indeed remember anything about the occasion except the aftermath. We were in central Manchester, we had time spare after the event (whatever it might have been), and there was a book shop. That was where I found a Faber paperback of Eliot’s Selected Poems, and alongside it another Faber paperback of Four Quartets, of which I had not then heard. I bought them both. They were the first poetry books I ever bought. I have them still, and indeed re-read them both regularly.
I have just finished another re-reading of Four Quartets, reading them aloud to Maureen. I have long felt that poetry is best read aloud, not necessarily because you understand it better, but because you feel it better.
But Eliot is not an easy poet to read aloud.
Once, back in school, I was conned into taking part in a prose and verse reading competition. I agreed only on condition that I could choose the passage I read. I selected, out of perversity more than any interest in the competition, an extract from ‘The Waste Land’ – ‘The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne …’
I came a pretty dismal last, inevitably and predictably – ‘jug jug to dirty ears’ – but I can still recite the passage more or less from memory. And each time I come upon it, I find more in it, new ways of phrasing it. The thing I have learned, through repeatedly reading Eliot aloud, is to read him by the punctuation. Not the line breaks, which give an odd rhythm that seems to take you away from meaning, and not the rhymes, which are frequent but irregular. Read the punctuation, almost as though you are reading prose, and it tends to fall into place. Not always; particularly in Four Quartets there are several passages that go on so long between full stops that reading by punctuation can obscure sense. So when reading these four poems I find myself falling into an ad hoc pattern of reading mostly by punctuation but occasionally, almost by chance, allowing myself to read by line breaks. It means I read it differently every time, but then, that means there is freshness to be found in it every time.
My edition of Four Quartets, new when I bought it in 1967, dates from that high point of minimalist Faber design. On a blue ground there is a plain black box within which are the words ‘Four Quartets’ and below it the name ‘T.S.ELIOT’. Other than that is the name FABER in white out of black, and down the right side of the page a black band proclaiming ‘FABER paper covered EDITIONS’. Nothing more, no illustration, no fancy type face; very plain. It feels a bit utilitarian now, at the time it seemed stylish.
What is fascinating, though, is the back cover. It consists of a list of other Faber titles, with their prices. The most expensive was Parodies by Dwight Macdonald at 15s (shillings, 75p in modern prices), the cheapest is Look Back In Anger by John Osborne at 4s 6d (four shillings and sixpence, 22-and-a-half pence). And Faber books were considered pretty expensive at the time (I remember that most paperback novels in the late 60s were 2s 6d, or 3s 6d for thicker works.) Those were the days.
But when did you last see such advertising on a new book? The list continues on the inside back cover, there are some 75 titles in total. And there is not a word, on the back cover, inside front cover, or anywhere else, to promote Four Quartets. The title on the cover is the entirety of the sales copy. They clearly believed they had no need to say any more, that book buyers would know the work by the title, that they would know what they wanted to buy.
Was that a more innocent age? Or were they simply publishing for a more informed audience?
Do I understand Four Quartets?
I felt I did, once. It was easier when I just absorbed the imagery, the use of words. I missed (or chose not to see) much of the religious sub-text, and instead concentrated on the references to time throughout the poems – “In my beginning is my end” – because I was fascinated by time in those days. I still am, but in a different way. Now I’ve used up a lot of time I see it all very differently. And the poems are different as a result.
But now, also, I’m more used to reading context and subtext and all sorts of other texts that aren’t simply there on the surface of the words. Now I do pick up on the religious references, and also the references to time not as an abstract thing that provides neat intellectual paradoxes, but time as a solid real passing – “the dancers are all gone under the hill”.
(Now, is that the hill upon which there was once a tree, a cross? Very likely. But it is also the hill mounded up over a fresh grave. Once, I suspect, I would not have seen it as either, but just the hill the Pied Piper danced the children into. Which is correct? All of them? None of them? I am no longer sure of such things.)
I wonder what the poems were like as I first read them. I cannot recover that. Now the poems become more confusing with every reading. There is more in them, certainly, but there is also more just on the edge of understanding, away over there where I cannot quite reach. Every re-reading adds more shadows to the periphery.
When I was young, I loved the fact that the poems called quartets all had five parts to them. The perversity of that delighted me.
It also liberated me. It was reading Eliot’s poetry that made me try to write poetry myself.
Oh I had written poems before that. Ever since Junior school there had been class exercises where we were instructed: write a poem about X. So I did, full of plodding rhymes and da-de-da rhythms and facile apercus, or at least as close to that as I could achieve. But I never thought of myself as a poet; I never thought of poet as something to be.
But I read Eliot and there were things you could do with words that had never occurred to me before. And I wanted to do that. So I wrote adolescent rip-offs of Eliot (one of my earliest and longest efforts was called “A Fifth Quartet”). They were probably very bad, they certainly got rather surreal and oblique and extravagant as I went on.
The poet James Simmons, who I knew at university, kept trying to persuade me to submit some of my poems to The Honest Ulsterman, the magazine he was peripherally involved with. But I never did, and none of my poetry was every professionally published.
And the poems got longer, the lines got longer, the structure became closer to prose than verse, and then it was prose. I stopped writing poetry and started writing short stories, and then book reviews and essays and all the rest of it. But it started with Eliot, the reason I am here today writing this is all because of Eliot.