Tag Archives: T.S. Eliot

Writing without too much hope.

“I am not myself very much concerned with the question of influence, or with those publicists who have impressed their names upon the public by catching the morning tide and rowing very fast in the direction in which the current was flowing; but rather that there should always be a few writers preoccupied in penetrating to the core of the matter, in trying to arrive at the truth and to set it forth, without too much hope, without ambition to alter the immediate course of affairs, and without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue.”

-T.S. Eliot

Our gaze is submarine.

O LIGHT INVISIBLE

O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.

O Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
We thank Thee for the light that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!

In our rhythm of earthly life we tire of light. We are glad when the day ends, when the play ends; and ecstasy is too much pain.
We are children quickly tired: children who are up in the night and fall asleep as the rocket is fired; and the day is long for work or play.
We tire of distraction or concentration, we sleep and are glad to sleep,
Controlled by the rhythm of blood and the day and the night and the seasons.
And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.
Therefore we thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled with shadow.
We thank Thee who hast moved us to building, to finding, to forming at the ends of our fingers and beams of our eyes.
And when we have built an altar to the Invisible Light, we may set thereon the little lights for which our bodily vision is made.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.
O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory!

-T.S. Eliot, from The Rock

(You may hear the poet himself reading here.)

From generation to generation.

Long before I found my home in the Orthodox Church, a friend introduced me to the Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrewes, which sustained my devotional life for a long time. Andrewes was one of the translators and editors of the King James Bible and died in 1626. Various arrangements of his prayers and sermons have been compiled; the edition I have uses the F.E. Brightman translation (from the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew of the original) of 1903, and includes an essay by T.S. Eliot, which I am reading again after a long time, having taken the book of prayers from my shelf to refresh my memory on several points.

Eliot compares the homilies of Andrewes with those of John Donne, and says that Andrewes is “the more medieval, because he is the more pure, and because his bond was with the Church, with tradition. His intellect was satisfied by theology and his sensibility by prayer and liturgy.”

When he writes of the emotional sensibilities of the preacher, it reminds me of the tone of our Orthodox worship:

“When Andrewes begins his sermon, from beginning to end you are sure that he is wholly in his subject, unaware of anything else, that his emotion grows as he penetrates more deeply into his subject, that he is finally ‘alone with the Alone,’ with the mystery which he is seeking to grasp more and more firmly….Andrewes’s emotion is purely contemplative; it is not personal, it is wholly evoked by the object of contemplation, to which it is adequate; his emotion wholly contained in and explained by its object.”

That dear man loved Christ! Here is the first of his Morning Prayers, typically rich in the words of Holy Scripture:

Following closely from that, the ancient prayer hymn of the church, known as “Gloria in excelsis Deo” or the “Great Doxology.” This was the one in Andrewes’s collection that most thrilled my heart and made it say, “Amen.” When prayed aloud it seems to carry the soul quickly to heaven while the body is most feeling its lowliness and affinity with the humble earth.

In the Orthodox Church we have begun the weekday Lenten Matins, and I managed to get there this morning and make that wonderful start to the day. One of the best parts of the service for me is our version of the “The Great Doxology,” which made me think about Christ-lover Andrewes, one of my first mentors in the kind of prayer that connects me to the church that has prayed through the ages.

Below is the text as we sing it in my parish, and here: The Great Doxology, is a video I found, if you would like to hear it sung, not too differently from what I’m used to. Of course, every parish and every choir does it uniquely, and I like the way we sing it the best.  🙂  This morning I was sitting on the other side of the cathedral from my usual, and enjoyed the perspective on the dome and the icon of Christ Pantocrator, with the words in the encircling border: “He hath looked out from His holy height. The Lord from heaven hath looked upon the earth, to hear the groaning of them that be in fetters.”

THE GREAT DOXOLOGY

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will among men.
We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee,
we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory.
O Lord, Heavenly King, God the Father Almighty;
O Lord, the Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Spirit.
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy on us;
Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;
Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father,
and have mercy on us.

For Thou only art holy, Thou only art the Lord,
Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.

Every day will I bless Thee, and I will praise Thy name forever,
yea, forever and ever.

Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the God of our fathers,
and praised and glorified is Thy name unto the ages. Amen.

Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, according as we have hoped in Thee.

Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.
Blessed art Thou, O Master, grant me understanding of Thy statutes.
Blessed art Thou, O Holy One, enlighten me by Thy statutes.

Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation.
I said: O Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul,
for I have sinned against Thee.
Lord, unto Thee have I fled for refuge;
teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God,
for in Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light shall we see light.
Continue Thy mercy unto them that know Thee.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
both now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

A pheasant disappearing in the brush.

poem-wynken-etcI was a child when poetry was still “taught badly,” according to some people. In fifth grade we had to memorize a poem, choosing from a collection that our teacher had compiled. Before that I remember reading some poems at home, like “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” which I came to love. It was in a children’s literature anthology my grandmother had given us.

From the options my teacher presented I chose “The Children’s Hour” by Longfellow. It seems that we had some weeks to learn our poems, and the practicing and reciting of the poet’s metered verse are a very pleasant memory for me. I did enter vicariously into the scene the poem describes, of a father surrounded by his affectionate and beloved daughters. I can still hear the music and feel the happiness even if I can’t remember many of the words past the first line.

Now, when I read about that particular poem on Wikipedia, I find that it serves as an illustration of one aspect of poetry that educators debate about: “More recently, the poem has been called overly-sentimental, as have many of Longfellow’s works. Scholar Richard Ruland, for example, warns that modern readers might find it ‘not only simple and straightforward, but perhaps saccharine and overly emotional,’ though he concludes it is a successful poem. Scholar Matthew Gartner, however, uses the poem as an example of how Longfellow invited his readers into his private home life in New England to refine them and teach them lessons in virtue.”

I have been lightly musing over these questions since reading a recent article by California’s Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who has for as long as I’ve known him been intensely interested in education, and how to restore among the populace the love for poetry that used to be commonplace.

dana-gioia-with-cat-photo-by-web-824x549In the article “Poetry as Enchantment” the poet discusses the huge changes that have taken place in the world of poetry over the last few generations. I can see how my own experience reflects some of the losses that occurred. After the one poem that I memorized (not counting lyrics of hymns and folk songs) there was to be no more reading aloud in school, or memorization. In high school I know we analyzed some poems, but nothing grabbed me. Despite this, our small rural high school retained vestiges of the past in the form of a literary magazine in which students might publish poems or stories that the student editors selected.

I tried writing some poems, of which I was of course ashamed soon after they were published in the magazine. Maybe the magazine was not actually a leftover from a previous era but a “progressive” thing, packed with material from untaught writers, screened by writers just as unqualified. And likely it was an attempt to hold on to a fuller experience of poetry than we were getting in the classroom. Gioia says that textual criticism and analysis is all well and good and can be very helpful — he does quite a bit of it himself — but that we require an encounter with poetry that engages more than our intellect. We amateurs should not be underestimated as readers of poetry:

Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?

Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary. The scholarly response may be accurate and insightful. The culture is enriched by specialized discourse about literary texts and traditions. But critical analysis remains deliberately outside the full experience of the poem, which is physical, emotional, subjective, and intuitive as well as intellectual.

poem-fisher-mizzly

Less than ten years out of high school, I was teaching poetry to my children. That was when I fully fell in love with many a good poem. Maybe all the analytical skills my high school and college teachers had tried to teach me came back and helped me appreciate the art, but I think much of the good effect came from starting from the ground up: teaching toddlers the fun of a sing-song nursery rhyme; reading A Child’s Garden of Verses to older children so many times that we couldn’t help but learn several by heart (skipping a few that didn’t seem to be teaching “a lesson in virtue,” to use the words of Matthew Gartner above); working the copying and memorization and reciting of poems into our homeschool curriculum; reciting/memorizing Frost’s “The Figure in the Doorway” as a family in the car while on a camping trip. We didn’t try to analyze or figure out hidden meanings, but I think we often intuited deep things. Probably many times we missed the primary intent of the poem, but we still were enriched in our humanity and our connection to the poet, and the world.

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
-T.S. Eliot, as quoted by Dana Gioia

More from the article:  Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought. As Jacques Maritain observed, ‘poetry is not philosophy for the feeble-minded.’ It is a different mode of knowing and communicating the world. There are many truths about existence that we can only express authentically as a song or a story. Conceptual language, which is the necessary medium of the critic and scholar, primarily addresses the intellect. It is analytical, which is to say, it takes things apart, as the Greek root of the word ana-lyein, to unloosen, suggests. Conceptual discourse abstracts language from the particular to the general. Poetic language, however, is holistic and experiential. Poetry simultaneously addresses our intellect and our physical senses, our emotions, imagination, intuition, and memory without asking us to divide them. The text may be frozen on the page for easy visual inspection and analysis, but the poetic experience itself is temporal, individual, and mostly invisible. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.’

poemstevenson-fairy-bread

In the passion of 20-yr-old pride I tossed out my copies of the high school magazine, but I can remember the first line of one verse I wrote: “Must we tear apart the thing, and analyze and criticize?” Even then I had no leanings toward being a literary scholar. But I am still in the process of getting a literary education.

“The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors;
its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings.”
-Dana Gioia

Against much resistance, when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia managed to implement a program he designed to restore some of the practices that encouraged a love of poetry in bygone years. Many of you are probably familiar with Poetry Out Loud, but I only learned about it in this article. High school students are having fun learning poems and reciting them in competitions, and this has been going on for ten years now! I’m hoping to attend the recitations in my area this coming January. It will do my heart good.

Get the fuller story of Gioia’s thesis and suggestions, and of the Poetry Out Loud events, by reading the entire article here.