Remembering That We Forget

A priest recently joked that he tells middle schoolers getting too big for their britches “you know, God didn’t have to create you.” The audience laughed, and the priest observed that while that might sound unkind on the surface, it signifies something quite the opposite. Continue reading Remembering That We Forget

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The Wisdom of Nick Bottom

One of Shakespeare’s most poetic speeches is spoken by a character who spends half the play turned halfway into a donkey. The play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the character is the very foolish Nick Bottom. Always pay attention to Shakespeare’s fools. Often, they possess wisdom which escapes the wits of more refined men.

The main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves four young people having troubles with love. In defiance of the authority figures, they run off to the forest and, unknowingly, into the realm of the fairy king and queen. The fairies try playing matchmakers and merry madness ensues. Meanwhile, in the ordered world of the city, the duke’s wedding night approaches. And as a comic sort of sideshow, Shakespeare adds a band of rustics to the  mix who are preparing a play in honor of the duke’s marriage.

The men have chosen to act out the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. This is an absurd choice for the duke’s wedding party: Pyramus and Thisbe are star-crossed lovers who both end up committing suicide. Shakespeare pokes fun at himself and his playwriting profession in his portrayal of these lovable fools. I highly recommend that you watch the scene below in which Shakespeare introduces us to the troupe. Plays are meant to be performed and watched, and it’s hard to pick up on the humor if you only read the text.

If Peter Quince is the bumbling ringleader, then Nick Bottom is the main attraction in the whole silly circus.

The actors go off to practice in the woods where they, too, get caught in the fairies’ mischief-making. In the middle of rehearsal, a fairy named Puck enters and decides to turn Bottom’s head into the head of a donkey. Bottom’s friends flee from him in fright, but poor Bottom has no idea why. He cannot see his donkey’s head, nor can any of us (except rarely) see our own absurdities. Bottom concludes that his friends must be playing a trick on him. “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me,” he says, unaware of how truly he speaks.

Abandoned in the woods, Bottom sings a song to himself and happens to wake the fairy queen. Earlier, the fairy king cast a spell to make the queen “madly dote upon the next live creature” she sees. Consequently, Bottom—donkey’s head and all—finds himself swept through the midsummer night with the queen of the fairies doting on his every utterance. She tells Bottom:

I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.

Bottom’s comical sort of union with the fairy queen is more than mere farce. Shakespeare describes the scene with beautiful language that suggests something almost magical in the meeting of the low, earthly nature and the high, spiritual nature. It recalls an historical account of when the low earthly nature and high spiritual nature met in a town called Bethlehem, and that, too, was attended by rough beasts and uneducated men.

As with most comedies, the dreams and revels of the night give way to dawn and the daylight of reason. The four young people resolve their troubles and return to the ordered society of the city, the fairy king frees his queen from the love spell, and Puck restores Bottom to his natural state.

But before everything returns quite to normal, as Shakespeare shifts us from the wild wood to the structured city, in the misty morning twilight hours where distinctions remain a bit hazy, Bottom awakes. He is back to his old self, and yet he is not quite his old self. He says:

[Awakening] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, ‘Most fair Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.

In the beginning of the play, we hear Bottom brag about his abilities. But now, after he has been treated like royalty by the queen of the fairies herself, Bottom curiously refrains from boasting. Or if he boasts, he boasts about the “most rare vision” and not about himself. Bottom concludes that it is past the wit of man [including himself] “to say what dream it was,” and that man [including himself] “is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.”

Bottom treats his “vision” as something which has come from completely outside himself. He suggests that the dream is too real—so deep that it has “no bottom”—for his physical senses to make sense of. He expresses a reverence for the vision: he desires to commemorate it in a ballad and feels it appropriate for the solemn event of Thisbe’s death (which we may laugh at, but Bottom takes very seriously).

Bottom feels the urge to explain his experience, yet cannot find the right words. His speech captures the dilemma between experience and expression which is the dilemma of the human condition. As C.S. Lewis put it: “as thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.” Bottom demonstrates the humor in this, and we chuckle when he interrupts himself and confuses the sense organs, but this humor is tinged with tragedy. A sense of loss attends every attempt to speak about experience. How often do you begin to tell your friends some story and end by throwing up your hands and saying “you just had to be there?”

Bottom realizes he cannot fully relate his experiences; he also cannot help but try. And so it is with us: we know we’ll never be able to explain everything. We know we’ll never be able to speak the whole truth about, say, God. But we try to say something true about the truth anyways. After struggling to say what he means, Bottom says that perhaps Peter Quince can capture the vision in a ballad. I love that! Bottom concludes that art can help connect us to the mysteries of experience. We turn our wonder and our confusion into songs and stories and poetry and paintings. We carve huge chunks of marble out of the mountains to try to communicate some human emotion. We compose symphonies to try to capture a sense of the seasons passing. We build big churches to try to say something about the infinite nature of God. Perhaps this makes us, as Bottom says, patched fools. But true wisdom begins with humility and accepting the position of the fool.

Shakespeare gives other characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream sharp wits and keen eyes. But he gives the most profound vision to one of the dullest characters (Bottom is the only human character who sees the spirit world of the fairies), and he speaks the most profound truths through one of the simplest voices. This suggests that the conclusions Bottom reaches are not reserved for intellectuals in ivory towers. They are fundamental truths of human experience. And it also reminds us that truth can come to us in the humblest of guises, for “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Shakespeare’s Little Autumn Song

Fallen leaves dry and crunch in the cool mornings. Night comes quicker and crisper. Autumn approaches. ‘Tis the season for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.

This post will provide a close reading of Sonnet 73. “Close reading” a work means carefully considering the sounds and structures and senses of language that the writer chooses to convey his meaning. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is one of the richest works I’ve encountered, and its imagery fits perfectly into this fall season.

First, here’s some background on the sonnet form:

Sonnets are tightly structured rhyming poems that traditionally speak about love. The term “sonnet” comes from the Italian sonetto which means “little song.” Sonnets first appeared around 1200 and were popularized by Francesco Petrarch (born in Tuscany in 1304). In an Italian or ‘Petrarchan’ sonnet, the first eight lines present some problem and the last six lines offer a solution. A shift or turn between problem and solution, called the “volta,” occurs around line nine.

By the early 1500s, the sonnet made its way to England and acquired there a slightly different character. The fourteen lines of an English sonnet break down into three four-line sections (quatrains) and end with a rhyming couplet. While Italian sonnets put the volta near the middle of the poem, English sonnets often wait till the last two lines to introduce the shift in thinking.

Sonnets are exciting to me because of their limits. They embody what G.K. Chesterton has called “the wild romance of prudence.” Chesterton uses that phrase to describe Robinson Crusoe, and the best poets, like Crusoe, waste nothing. They treat their words like treasures rescued from a wreck and put them to use in surprising and sometimes amusing ways. The strict limits of the sonnet form challenge the poet to be even thriftier with his words—as Chesterton says, “thrift is poetic because it is creative.”

Here’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Try reading the poem out-loud to get a feel for each word and phrase. I also recommend listening to this audio version.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
AAAThis thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
AAATo love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Shakespeare writes most of his sonnets in iambic pentameter. This term used to baffle me, but it’s not so intimidating if you break it down.

An iamb is a unit of sound that contains an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. You might not realize it, but you hear iambs all the time – it’s the rhythm of the human heartbeat: ba DUM.

Iambic pentameter means five (penta) iambs per line, so each line has a total of ten syllables that alternate from unstressed to stressed:

ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM

Shakespeare writes the first line of Sonnet 73 in perfect iambic pentameter:

that TIME of YEAR thou MAYST in ME beHOLD

  ba  DUM   ba   DUM  ba   DUM  ba  DUM ba DUM

The second line’s rhythm also follows iambic pentameter, but there’s something unusual about the sense of the line:

when YEllow LEAVES, or NONE, or FEW, do HANG

First we have yellow leaves—fall—then no leaves—winter—then we’re back to a “few” leaves—late fall? For such a wordsmith as Shakespeare, the odd order is no accident. Shakespeare uses these clauses to play a bit with time. It’s as if the speaker is saying “I’m old, but wait, I ain’t dead yet!” The line suggests that time is not quite constant, and the aging speaker insists he still has something to say.

The third line continues with iambic pentameter. Listen to the sounds Shakespeare chooses:

uPON those BOUGHS which SHAKE aGAINST the COLD,

“Upon those boughs” has such soft sounds: uh; puh; on; bow. The speaker’s voice sounds physically soft and weak—like a bent bough on a withered tree. But the sounds in the second half of the line change dramatically. We get the hard sounds of ‘k’ and ‘g’ and ‘t’ and ‘d.’ When you read “shake against the cold,” your mouth moves in a way that mimics chattering in the cold. The preposition Shakespeare chooses is also significant. The trees and the speaker don’t just shake in the cold, they shake against the cold. Again, we get the idea of opposition to death.

In the fourth line, Shakespeare departs from iambic pentameter. His steady use of that rhythm up till now sets the reader up for a surprise—sort of like a quarterback who calls a run play and then another run and then another run just to set up the surprise of a long pass (my roommate is watching football right now). The fourth line starts with:

BARE RUINED CHOIRS,

These are three heavy, hard stresses. The voice sounds stark and almost angry, which fits the vision of bare black tree trunks in winter. But the line finishes with this phrase:

where LATE the SWEET BIRDS SANG

The second half of the line returns to something closer to the iambic pattern; the pounding heartbeat returns to something more steady. As the speaker recalls the sweet springs of his past, the language becomes tender and peaceful in both sound and sense.

This fourth line also contains a good example of Shakespeare’s thrift—he often makes words do double and triple duty in his works.

Shakespeare doesn’t call his bare trees simply “bare trees.” Instead, he uses the metaphor “bare ruined choirs.” This is an architectural reference: the choir is the part of the church just before the high altar where the religious sit and sing the Mass responses. The left image shows the location of the choir, and the right shows a choir in a French cathedral:

See how the pillars of the choir stretch and branch like trees? Most modern churches don’t have this structure, but readers in Shakespeare’s day would have been familiar with the choir area. The reference to church architecture also introduces a hint of the spiritual world into the poem—the speaker’s vision of nature contains a sense of the numinous.

I’m going to mostly skip the next quatrain (lines 5-8)—though these are some of my favorite lines and sounds in all of poetry—because I want to point out how Shakespeare returns and develops this tree metaphor in the third quatrain.

In lines 9-12, the speaker compares himself to a dying fire:

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

What a metaphor! A man is like a fire whose life passes from energy and activity into ashes—he is gradually but constantly returning to the dust. And the hotter and brighter he burns, the quicker he expires.

What amazes me is how Shakespeare connects this metaphor to the metaphor of the first quatrain. In the first quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to trees in fall and then winter. Now in the third quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to a fire. And what fuels a fire? Old, dry wood! Shakespeare doesn’t just use a metaphor and move on. He finds one, explores it, reconsiders it from different angles, and connects his ideas all in a kind of subtle and musical unity.

This sonnet moves from the aging of autumn to the fading twilight years and finally to man’s inevitable “deathbed.” The first quatrain suggests a resistance to this progression—the speaker clings to life like an autumn leaf against the coming winter. But the second two quatrains develop an attitude of acceptance towards death. “By and by” black night comes for all, and eventually the fire “must” burn out. It is a melancholy look at growing old and approaching death, but it is not morbid.

The final couplet leaves us with this final shift in the speaker’s view of death:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The person whom the sonnet addresses understands all of this about the speaker, yet loves the speaker regardless. The reality of death does not render love meaningless; instead, it makes love “more strong.” This final couplet suggests that love might be stronger than the separation of death. Death may not be the final word, and so again that hint of the spiritual life enters the poem.

There are many more layers to this sonnet, and the closer you look, the more you’ll notice. I think that is the mark of a true masterpiece—a masterpiece echoes the complexity and mystery of God’s artistry, which can be contained in something as small as a flower of the field or a newborn babe or the fourteen lines of an English sonnet.

I hope you found this close reading enriching, and I hope you try more close reading on your own! At one point in my education, I had got the mistaken impression that poems were full of all sorts of secret meanings and you needed some key to “decode” them. Sadly, many critics do take this approach. But what I’ve learned from the best teachers is that the best poems mean exactly what they say. They just demand that we listen more closely to their language and consider their words as carefully as their creator did—which is not a bad approach to life in general, either.

My Favorite Workout

A departure from the usual Cheery Beggar topics . . .

I love to run, and I love and hate (but mostly love) a workout called “40/20s.” It’s the quickest way I know to get in shape, you can do it no matter your current fitness level, and it’s low impact so unlikely to give you over-use injuries like shin-splints.

What you do:

Get a stopwatch. Find some open grass like a soccer field. Jog easy for 10 minutes to warm up. Cross the field as you do this to check for holes, roots, etc. so you can avoid them later on—the workout will be done across the length of the field.

When you’re ready to start, sprint across the field for 40 seconds. Don’t run all-out; go as fast as you can while still feeling under control. Try to run at about 80-90% of your max.

When your watch hits 40 seconds, stop and jog easy in place for 20 seconds. You’ve now completed one set, and it takes exactly 1 minute. Then turn and repeat this for a total of 15 sets—it’ll take you 15 minutes.

After you finish, walk/jog for at least 10 minutes to cool down. With a 10 minute warm-up and cool-down, the whole workout takes just 35 minutes.

Why it works:

When you exercise, your body uses oxygen to break down fat into energy for your muscles. This is called “aerobic” exercise because it all happens “with air” or oxygen.

As you increase the intensity of your exercise, your body struggles to keep up with the increasing energy/oxygen demands of your muscles. At some point, your body starts using an “anaerobic” (“without air”) process to generate the extra energy needed. This process involves breaking down glycogen into glucose. It’s awesome, but it also produces a by-product called lactic acid. The burning sensation you get in your muscles and the Jello feeling you get in your limbs is caused by lactic acid buildup.

This is the lactic acid monster (C3-H6-O3). Look how disagreeable he is.

The neat thing is you can train your body to do more while remaining at an aerobic level, and you can also train your body to better handle and push through the feeling of lactic acid buildup when you do switch over to anaerobic activity. You can do this by training at your anaerobic threshold level—right at that point where you start to experience the burning Jello feeling.

The 40/20s workout is designed to get you working at your threshold level. Quick, high energy demands like sprinting send your body into anaerobic-energy creation mode right away. The short rests (only half as long as the sprints) prevent your body from catching up with oxygen and keep you at that threshold level. Basically, you’re getting a big bang for your 15 bucks. And if you run on grass, you won’t be pounding your body on unforgiving concrete.

Random thoughts:

Try this workout and you’ll experience that time really is relative. Those 20 second rests pass in a flash, and the 40 seconds of sprinting—especially around sets 10-15—can last for ages.

Post-workout always reminds me of this line from C.S. Lewis’s Problem of Pain:

“. . . and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.”

This workout will mess with your mind. Especially when the lactic acid kicks in, you’ll be very tempted to slow down a little and take a little longer rest. But if you just grit your teeth and stick it out for 15 minutes, you’ll find the physical and mental rewards are pretty great.

Do this once a week, DO NOT skip the cool down, and in two to three weeks you’ll notice a big difference.

Childhood Hippos

This post is about the series of books that is closest to my heart: James Marshall’s George and Martha stories.

These children’s stories are simple and straightforward and true. If you go back and read them as a grown-up, you’re liable to laugh and maybe tear-up. I picture them connected by a golden thread to stories like The Little Prince, The Princess and Curdie, and The Wind in the Willows. Above all, George and Martha stories are merry.

James Marshall’s friend, Anita Silvey, recounts that “Jim” never planned on becoming a children’s book author. He played the viola and attended the New England Conservatory of Music until an accident ended his musical career. He went on to get a master’s degree at Trinity College and taught high school French and Spanish. Although he “loved to doodle,” he’d never received formal art instruction. Then:

One day, lying in a hammock in San Antonio, he found himself sketching two intriguing hippos. On the radio he had been listening to Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and hence named these characters George and Martha.

James Marshall at work

Through a friend who worked at Houghton Mifflin, Marshall met Houghton’s children’s book publisher Walter Lorraine. Lorraine recognized Marhall’s potential and gave him a job illustrating Byrd Baylor’s Plink, Plink, Plink. Marshall went on to illustrate and write dozens of other stories, including seven collections of short stories about the hippopotamus friends, George and Martha.

Some of my earliest memories are of reading George and Martha stories with my family. In the first story of the very first series, Martha makes George split pea soup. She doesn’t realize he can’t stand it, and he doesn’t have the heart to tell her. So while she’s out of the dining room, George tries hiding the soup in his shoes. The picture of George leaning under the table and pouring the green liquid into his little loafers is one of the funniest images I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s stuck in my mind for the last twenty years, along with other classic George and Martha moments, and with all the funny exclamations read in my parent’s voices.

Of course, Martha catches George:

“How do you expect to walk home with your loafers full of split pea soup?” she asked George.
“Oh dear,” said George. “You saw me.”
“And why didn’t you tell me that you hate my split pea soup?”
“I didnt want to hurt your feelings,” said George.
“That’s silly,” said Martha. “Friends should always tell each other the truth. As a matter of fact, I don’t like split pea soup very much myself. I only like to make it. From now on, you’ll never have to eat that awful soup again.”
“What a relief!” George sighed.
“Would you like some chocolate chip cookies instead?” asked Martha.
“Oh, that would be lovely,” said George.
“Then you shall have them,” said his friend.

Each story has some sort of moral, but the stories aren’t excuses for the morals and George and Martha aren’t just vehicles for Marshall to drive a point home on. Marshall has a wicked wit and draws with a kind of dead-pan humor, but no description can do these stories justice. Here are just a few images from the collection. I hope you get to know George and Martha; they are treasures.


The Music and Mystery of Mr. Eliot

In 1931, T.S. Eliot wrote to his friend Stephen Spender about the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven:

I have [Beethoven’s] A minor Quartet [No. 15] on the gramophone, and I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.

In 1943, Eliot did “get something of that into verse” in a long poem called the Four Quartets.

As the last post mentioned, Eliot’s early works look with despair on a broken world. In the Waste Land (1922), Eliot describes humankind trapped in an ironic mode of ineffective action and permanent suffering that echoes Dante’s Inferno. But in the Four Quartets, Eliot moves beyond despair. He contemplates suffering as something that can become purgatorial—that can, as he put it to Stephen Spender, yield fruits of “reconciliation and relief.”

How Eliot transcends the despair of the Waste Land, and his vision of what lies beyond, is something of a mystery—it “surpasses the powers of natural reason to explain”—but I think we can approach this mystery, as Eliot himself did, through the music of Beethoven.

Scholars disagree about how directly Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 influenced Eliot’s Four Quartets. But at the very least, Eliot’s letter to Stephen Spender and the points of resonance between the works reveal that Beethoven had a profound effect on Eliot.

This post will look at three points of resonance (many more exist):

1. The conditions under which each work was created
2. How Eliot and Beethoven structure their works
3. How they resolve their works

When we look at Beethoven’s quartet, it will be mostly at the third movement (for reasons soon to follow).

I’ll preface what follows with this disclaimer: you don’t need to read this (or any other commentaries) to enjoy Eliot and Beethoven; the beauty of their works speaks for itself (links to both complete works are at the bottom). Hopefully this post just helps you explore each work more on your own!

1. The Creative Conditions

In the winter of 1824, while working on his String Quartet No. 15, Beethoven fell seriously ill. Historians speculate that he suffered from the liver disease that led to his death in 1827. In the spring of 1825, however, Beethoven recovered enough to resume composing. He originally wrote his String Quartet No. 15 with the standard number of four movements. But during his recovery, he changed his plan and added a new movement to the middle of the quartet. Over this unusual central movement, Beethoven wrote:

Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart

In English, this translates to:

A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode

This third movement is often referred to as the “Heiliger Dankgesang” and Beethoven completed the quartet in July of 1825.

Like Beethoven, Eliot fell ill while composing his work. He completed the first three sections of the Four Quartets between 1936 and 1940. Then, in the winter of 1941, Eliot’s health declined as he began work on the last section. He stopped writing and retired to the countryside to recuperate. After a year of false starts and frustrations, plus the interruptions of World War II and some domestic troubles, Eliot recovered enough to finish the final section and published the Four Quartets as a complete work in 1943.

Eliot and Beethoven both suffered and created hopeful works during their recoveries. In the Quartets, Eliot takes care to distinguish his hope from something premature or worldly in terms that recall St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul:

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.
(The Four Quartets, East Coker, Part III)

Neither Eliot nor Beethoven treats suffering tritely, and there is nothing soft or sentimental about their visions of reconciliation. Throughout the Four Quartets, Eliot wrestles with the idea that faith and hope and love are somehow bound up with suffering; that recovering the laughter in the garden requires enduring the agony in the garden. To explore this paradox, he works with a structure very similar to what Beethoven uses in the Heiliger Dankgesang.

2. Structure

Around the time that he completed the Four Quartets, Eliot gave a lecture called “The Music of Poetry” in which he said that “a poet may gain much from the study of music [. . .] I believe that the properties in which music concerns the poet most nearly, are the sense of rhythm and the sense of structure.”

Beethoven structures his String Quartet No. 15 with five movements. This is unusual, as typical string quartets at the time had only four. He also gives the added Heiliger Dankgesang movement five distinct sections which work out the central idea at the center of the whole quartet.

Eliot gives each of the poems in his Four Quartets five movements—the same unusual number of movements as Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 and the same number of sections contained in the key Heiliger Dankgesang movement. I don’t think this is a coincidence—Eliot describes the String Quartet No. 15 as “inexhaustible to study” and speaks about the importance of musical structure for the poet. I think this is Eliot putting “something of that” music of Beethoven’s into verse.

The five sections of Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang movement follow a basic pattern of slow, fast, slow. The tempo in the slow sections, described by one composer as “agonizing,” moves so slowly that it obscures the melody line, which is like a line of thought. Imagine how it feels to be sick: time creeps by like a slow fog; it’s hard to connect coherent thoughts; it’s hard even to think of being well and active again. Beethoven then contrasts this state with up-tempo sections where he tells the musicians to play as if “feeling new strength.” Like an increased heartbeat, the quickened tempo signals energy and activity. The fog of sickness clears as the convalescent recovers. But the memory of sickness still hangs in the air and returns in the following slow section. Which is the final state, which the true experience? Although Beethoven recovered to finish this quartet in the spring of 1825, his death was only (and very briefly) delayed. Are periods of vitality only temporary respites on an inevitable downward slide into death? Is death final, or is there a final “feeling new strength” section?

Eliot’s Four Quartets also contrasts the experience of suffering with the hope of restoration.  Each of the four poems or “quartets” explores these ideas through five movements which follow this basic progression:

In his “Music of Poetry” lecture, Eliot suggests that poetic verses can parallel “the development of a theme by a group of instruments.” In the Quartets, Eliot uses different voices like different instruments to develop his themes in a way that creates a harmonious whole. This differs drastically from the dissonant voices of the Waste Land. In that earlier poem, Eliot also uses different voices, but they interrupt and contradict each other. The overall sense is one of disunity, deconstruction, and despair.

Although he moves beyond the despair of Waste Land, Eliot does not discard his insights into human suffering. (If anything, his descriptions of the loss of meaning become more direct and devastating in the Four Quartets. See Part III of “Burnt Norton” or “East Coker.”) Instead, like Dante who journeyed beyond the Inferno into the Purgatorio and Paradiso, Eliot incorporates the experience of suffering into a much larger picture.

But is this an inconsistency on Eliot’s part? Can we really believe that the Inferno and the Paradiso co-exist? How can we reconcile intense suffering and increasing meaninglessness with some promised Paradise? Like the agonizing slow sections and the “feeling new strength” sections of Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang, these seem to be utterly irreconcilable worlds.

3. Resolution

For Beethoven, these are irreconcilable worlds, at least through the first four sections of the Heiliger Dankgesang. But in the fifth section, Beethoven does something astonishing. And this is where I see the most direct connection between Beethoven’s work and Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Although the slow tempo makes it difficult to discern, the Heiliger Dankgesang begins with an eight-note melody line. In the fifth and final section of this movement, Beethoven takes this original melodic idea and focuses in on just the first five notes. He then turns these 5 notes into the subject of a fugue, which basically means that each instrument in the quartet sort of passes around this little melody. Then—and how amazing is this?—Beethoven uses a phrase from the faster “feeling new strength” section to serve as the accompaniment (called the “counter subject”) for the new fugue subject. Suddenly, the once-separate worlds of the slow and fast sections are brought into harmony with one another.

But Beethoven isn’t finished. He keeps searching for a more fundamental resolution. He focuses in on the now five-note melodic idea and reduces it again to just the first three notes. He is approaching something essential. Each instrument in turn investigates these three notes, and Beethoven discovers that he can reduce these three notes down to just two. He realizes that his whole melody line, his whole pattern of thought, is about these two notes. And not just any two notes. These two notes—F and E—are the same notes that began the whole piece. I don’t mean just the Heiliger Dankgesang movement; I mean these are the notes that began the entire quartet. “In my beginning is my end,” T.S. Eliot writes in the Four Quartets, and “in my end is my beginning.” Beethoven finds that two notes present in the beginning of his quartet are the most essential elements in his melody line.

And then the finale. The instruments of the quartet pass around these two notes, moving higher and higher up the scale—heavenward, in fact—until finally Beethoven reduces the two notes to one. One note—F—resolves the whole movement. Beneath the eight note melody line and the contrasting fast and slow sections and fugue subjects and countersubjects Beethoven finds a single, fundamental, ultimate unity.

With this in mind, look at how Eliot ends his Four Quartets: (and treat yo’ self to reading this out-loud!)

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Like Beethoven, Eliot distills his thoughts down to two final notes: the fire and the rose. Eliot uses fire as an image of the suffering throughout the Quartets and, borrowing from Dante, he uses the rose as an image for heaven (in the Paradiso, Dante sees heaven as an ever-unfolding “Rose of joy” with saints and angels on every petal praising the Trinity at the center).

Eliot, like Beethoven, then discovers that his two final notes—the fire and the rose, the longing for heaven and the experience of suffering—can somehow resolve into one.  There is one point where suffering and salvation meet; there is one point where suffering becomes salvific. That point is Christ on the cross.

Suffering is real and there’s no escaping it. Beethoven wrote his quartet while suffering from an extreme and debilitating illness; Eliot wrote after illness and with an intense awareness of the spiritual sickness of humanity in his time. But through what Dante describes as the “pivot point” of Christ, Eliot discovers the possibility of purgatorial suffering—suffering which prepares the soul for entrance into the heavenly banquet.

As noted earlier, Eliot’s final vision is a mystery—it cannot necessarily be made sense of by the intellect alone. The union of the fire and the rose is a mystical image, and the conviction that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” is a mystical thought (and a direct quote from the mystic Julian of Norwich). Rationally, perhaps, this idea that “the fire and the rose are one” appears to be a contradiction in terms. How can we reconcile the fire and the rose? How can there be suffering and also salvation? But the element of music in the Four Quartets emphasizes the fact—or the mystery—that humanity is more than the intellect and that reality is more than that which can be apprehended by the intellect alone. Purely rational language may fail in this eschatological realm, but Eliot’s poetic voice, which joins music to language, can say something significant about “the fruits of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering.” Eliot hoped to get something of Beethoven’s “heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety” into verse before he died, and do I believe he did.

Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor | Listen to just the Heiliger Dankgesang
Read Eliot’s Four Quartets

“Notes will help him who is in need”

This post is about Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of my all-time favorite poets. Too many English classes that cover Eliot begin with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and end with The Waste Land—two modernist poems that operate in the ironic mode and present pretty despairing visions of the world.  The problem with this is that Eliot’s life and work don’t end there. (Did you know Eliot won a Tony award for his lyrical contributions to the musical Cats? Or that he was a great admirer of Groucho Marx and exchanged letters with that heavy-browed comic genius?) If you only make it to The Waste Land, you might think that Eliot only ever despaired about the fate of humanity. But he didn’t. He escaped the ironic mode. Or rather, like Dante, he made it through the ironic mode. He too journeyed into the depths and beheld the ultimate vision of despair, and then he kept going and came out on the other side and started toiling up Mount Purgatory. And that’s why I think he’s a good person for us to get to know today.

In 1977, author and critic (and Inkling) Owen Barfield wrote that

. . . perhaps the one [menacing sign] which fills people with the greatest foreboding is the growing general sense of meaninglessness . . . How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?

More than fifty years before Barfield wrote, Eliot wrestled with this question in The Waste Land, a long poem which looks especially at the loss of meaning through the breakdown of language.

I have to confess that I first read The Waste Land in junior high because I had a vague idea that Eliot was an important writer and that The Waste Land was some sort of famous work. Somehow, I also had the mistaken notion that the mere act of reading The Waste Land would suddenly endow me with all the powers of literary insight that I desired.

So I bought the poem (at the best little used bookstore in town!) and got home and read these opening lines (the poem’s epigraph):

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα
τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

In the words of Wayne Campbell, “Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?” I had no clue what the lines meant. With the help of some good teachers, I’ve since learned their meaning. But on the first read, I could make no sense of them at all. And that’s sort of the point.

Throughout The Waste Land, Eliot makes all sorts of obscure references and uses lots of non-English phrases. I don’t think he expects readers to understand every allusion, and I don’t think we’re supposed to to stop and look up every explanation or translation either. I think Eliot writes this way partly to give the reader a sense of the loss and separation that he encountered in the modern world. The Waste Land was published in the wake of World War I, a war that shocked and shattered western culture. When we read Eliot’s poem, we encounter words which we know must have some meaning, but the meaning is mostly lost to us because we lack the knowledge to translate. Written words devolve before us into mere marks on a page. Suddenly, as readers, we find ourselves, like Eliot, searching for meaning in a confused and reeling world.

The translation of The Waste Land’s epigraph reinforces this idea. Taken from a 1st century A.D. work called the Satyricon, the lines describe the Cumaean Sibyl, an ancient Greek priestess/prophetess. According to legend, she asked the god Apollo for everlasting life, which she got, but she forgot to ask for everlasting youth. Translated, the lines read:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, ‘I want to die.’

The image of the sibyl fits into what Northrop Frye describes as the ironic mode of the imagination. The sibyl is a weak and pitiful character, cut off from and persecuted by society. But in this case, it is Apollo, not society, who ultimately causes the sibyl’s suffering. This pushes the ironic mode’s despair to the extreme: divinity itself conspires against humanity. Given her long life, the sibyl speaks as something of the voice of human history. However, her experience has profited her little and she desires to escape her sufferings through death, but even that action is denied to her. The sibyl, and, by extension, humanity, appears doomed to go on shrinking and withering, with the increase of years only bringing an increase of sorrows and offering no way out.

Eliot ends the first part of The Waste Land by applying an image from Dante’s Inferno to his vision of contemporary humanity:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street . . .

On their own, these lines sound despairing enough, and considering the reference to Dante compounds the despair. When Dante first enters hell and sees the souls crossing the river Acheron, he says: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot takes Dante’s words about souls in hell and applies them to souls still living in London. Not a very cheery thought.

Given this despairing view of the modern world and human society, it seems impossible for Eliot to move beyond his vision of humanity trapped in the ironic mode. Yet he does. And he articulates the whole process in another long poem called The Four Quartets (first printed as a single work in 1943). As the title suggests, music is central to The Four Quartets. Eliot wrote about being inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132, and the similarities in theme and structure between the two works are pretty astonishing! The next post will look at some of the shared qualities and how Beethoven’s music can shed light on the path that Eliot took to move from despair to true hope.