Sarah Glazer goes back to the source of a favorite poem and muses on the power of poetry—and other great writing.
I think of myself as a prose person. I read novels for plot (yes I skipped all the descriptive passages when I devoured Dickens at age 12 and had a perfectly good time doing so). I write non-fiction as a journalist, where “facts” are checked as presumably fixed truths and hawk-eyed editors delete contradictions and ambivalence. And I have little patience for the most fashionable post-modernists like Foucault, where fact dissolves in a miasma of philosophical half-truths.
So when it comes to poetry, I’m often an impatient reader, searching for the plot or an anchor in fact that will tell me what’s going on.
But somehow, more than 30 years ago, T.S. Eliot’s fourth quartet, “Little Gidding,” spoke to me. Here’s my first memory of the encounter: I am sitting in the Poetry Library aerie of my Chicago campus looking out on a frozen expanse as I hear Eliot (through earphones), describing in lugubrious tones the very scene before my eyes—“midwinter spring. … When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire\ The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches …”
I didn’t really have any idea what it was all about, but certain lines seemed so familiar, or about things I had half-thought myself. (“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.”)
When I heard that a highly regarded poetry teacher, Graham Fawcett, was leading an expedition to the hamlet of Little Gidding, (the place itself!) just a few hours from my home in London, to read the poem, I knew I had to go.
It wasn’t midwinter spring, but it might as well have been. A glorious November day, it was unusually bright for normally gray England this time of year. It felt warm enough to sit outside in the sun in our heavy jackets, at the Christian retreat where Eliot had stood, looking out on grazing cows and hills covered with fiery yellow and orange foliage.
Yet the day was short enough that we got to see the little chapel a few hundred yards away, just as Eliot had, when the day was ending: “So, while the light falls\ On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel/History is now and England.”
(England, that mythical place of Jane Austen novels, and now I was here!)
What I learned was that the poem was about many things I never thought about in Chicago: Dante’s journey through "The Inferno” (Eliot even lifts some lines from Dante almost word for word); the 17th century Christian community (cult?) devoted to prayer founded on the very site where we sat; Pentecostal fire (not just the “frost fire” I took as a literal description of winter). And of course Christianity, Christianity, Christianity--presumably of the high Anglican sort that American Eliot converted to. There are so many things about Eliot I don’t relate to or find distasteful: his anti-Semitism, locking his wife away in an insane asylum—even the convert’s new-found reverence for High Church symbols.
But as I listened the other day to Israeli novelist David Grossman, interviewed
upon receiving the German book trade's Peace Prize, I realized that Grossman's description of reading marvelous writing is exactly what Eliot and other great writers do to me—even if they were thinking of something else when they wrote it. “Suddenly you breathe differently,” Grossman said, struggling for the right words in English, “In this world of anonymity … someone brought back your face to you”—your original self.
Who can’t help feeling that on hearing lines like these?
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Tell us, She Writers: What poems bring back your face to you
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