Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

During the Italian Renaissance, an art form emerged known as the sacra conversazione or “sacred conversation.” Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, later Titian and others painted the Madonna and Christ Child talking with saints and sometimes the artist’s own patrons. Recalling Dante’s beatific vision, figures otherwise separated by time and space meet in the planes of these paintings. Continue reading Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione


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.