Eliot's Search for Perfection

The first Eliot Memorial Lecture at the Royal Society of Literature on 27 February 2003: '“What Might Have Been and What Has Been”: Eliot's Search for Perfection'. For fuller details see Eliot: An Imperfect Life.

Eliot reading his poetry in public

Eliot had a vision of a perfect life. It came to him, at first, in what he called 'unattended moments'. There are 'hints and guesses' in his early poems: the memory of a pure love, 'looking into the heart of light, the silence' in The Waste Land, and at the end of that poem the message of the thunder coming in rumbles of Sanskrit: datta, dayadhvam, damyata, shantih. But in his maturity, Eliot was able to integrate earlier 'hints and guesses' in the grand design of Four Quartets - the poem that he regarded as his masterpiece. 'The Four Quartets: I rest on those', he told the American poet, Donald Hall, in an interview in 1959.

One reason why Eliot is amongst the greatest poets is that he had a plausibly distant vision of perfection, the far-off vision of an imperfect person. This makes it not too remote for the rest of us imperfect people, unlike the far-offness of the medieval ladders of perfection on which he draws, those of Dame Julian of Norwich, the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and St John of the Cross. I must own, at the outset, that my own far-offness from Eliot's models may come from being Jewish and South African, distanced inescapably by that background. But from my experience of teaching, far-offness is no problem with Eliot himself. On the contrary, he speaks intimately. His words pierce our souls, whoever we are.

This evening, I want to celebrate a poem in which Eliot follows a particular search for perfection in a particular time and place, 'now and in England'. 'Now' is 1935-1942, the England of the late Thirties and the Second World War. And I want to pose two questions: first, how did he start out on a search for perfection, and second, what formula for the perfect life does he discover in the course of that search?

Where the mystical guides start already on the outposts of ordinary existence - beyond most of us - the extraordinary reach of the Quartets is set in motion from the most ordinary and familiar of places: a country-house garden in Gloucestershire; an ocean liner (familiar enough in Eliot's day); or a London Tube train. During the war, Eliot himself travelled by Tube to Hampstead to bath at the Fabers, since his landlady could supply only one jug of water. Starting with commuters by Tube to Hampstead or Highgate, or with visitors to the garden at Burnt Norton near Chipping Campden, he takes us to 'the frontiers of consciousness where words fail, though meanings still exist'.

To set the search in motion involves a challenge to set narratives of lives. Eliot proposes ways of looking at lives that would revolutionise the biographical sequence from pedigree to grave. He acknowledges the routine plot of existence - 'in my beginning is my end' - but he will reverse this: 'in my end is my beginning'. Of course, this looks to eternal life beyond death. But in the second quartet, East Coker, where Eliot plays with this reversal, he is thinking also of the life of his expatriate ancestor, Andrew Eliot, sailing in 1669 from East Coker, Somerset, across the North Atlantic - a dangerous, three-month voyage - to Salem, Massachusetts. Here is one model life: the risk-taker who can begin again in middle age, who takes off, emblematically, for the New World, from which, in the seventeenth century, there's no likely return. This voyage, at the mercy of the sea, continues to the Dry Salvages, three submerged rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachuetts where, in his youth, Eliot used to sail.

There are plodding elements in all our lives, but a life worth telling, Eliot argues, has an alternative to sequential biography as we routinely practise it. 'It seems to me', he says in the third quartet, The Dry Salvages, 'That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be mere sequence /Or even development'. Repeatedly, the Quartets disrupt set stories laid like Roman roads across our lives moving towards a retired old age. Instead, Eliot says, 'Old men ought to be explorers.' He alerts us to alternative dramas which may be visible in the surface of lives, like Andrew Eliot's migration, or they may be private like an entry into the rose-garden at Burnt Norton when the visitor stares, once more, into the 'heart of light'.

Four Quartets can touch one in different ways at different times, and rereading it over the last two weeks, as I thought about this talk, I happened to be wrestling with a difficult late chapter to a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. My difficulty was the conflicting reverberations of her life after it ends, and so I was consoled somewhat by Eliot's recognition of the writer's 'intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings'. At the same time, I was stimulated by his suggestion that beginnings and endings can be called into question. Is the end of a life only the beginning of that life's reverberation in others' lives? 'The communication /Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living', I read in the last quartet. My editor warns against going much beyond Mary Wollstonecraft's early death, because that would be 'an anticlimax', and yet I don't see death as 'end'. I see a continued transmission of different versions of Wollstonecraft's life: the posthumous slanders of a supposed wild woman (continued to this day in Simon Schama's History of Britain) versus the impact of that life on the next and following generations. Where does a life end? Can it be that an 'end' hasn't yet come, even now, two centuries on? 'We are born with the dead', Eliot reminds us. 'See they return, and bring us with them.'

In the same radical way that he questions sequential and set narratives, he questions also the mirage of objectivity. Twentieth century biographers became bent on objectivity in reaction against Victorian hero-worship. Biographers of the past century were anxious to have no agenda, and to hold onto as many documentary facts as they could accumulate. Eliot challenges the limitations of record with passages of reflection. When I reread his famous line, 'we had the experience but missed the meaning', his simple need for meaning came as a kind of relief. Eliot pictures biographical activity as something 'anxious, worried women' do in the middle of the night: a man, it may be, has not come back, or he may be in danger. And so, these women try to make sense of their bits and pieces of biographic data, 'trying to unweave, unwind, unravel /And piece together the past and the future'. Whether we are worried women or professional recorders of lives, we must question ready-made narratives, 'the assurance /Of recorded history', by taking our own backward looks, over the shoulder, at moments of 'agony' or 'illumination'. Whatever meaning is to be distilled from such reflection is as permanent as 'a ragged rock in the restless waters' of time and change. That ragged rock lies under the surface events of biography - it's what (in The Dry Salvages) 'is covered by the currents of action'.

Biography of this kind points to unknown event and to a narrative that can't be seamless if it claims to be true. The shadows of different narratives haunt the gaps in lives, the apparently vacant spaces where purpose, in the routine sense, may be withdrawn, and past and future, in the purposeful sense, don't exist.

Since Eliot was an expatriate, like his ancestor, it's not surprising to find images of travel and migration: the long train journey and the ocean crossing. As the furrow narrows behind the ship, a traveller is neither the person he was, nor the person he will be on the farther shore. In the biographic structures of the Quartets this hiatus in a life-span, this non-being, is his central focus. It's potentially fertile, yet, because it lies inchoate in shadow - unrecordable - it's not the focus for traditional biography.

While I planned this talk, I happened also to be reading the letters and journals of Claire Clairmont. It occurred to me (as Eliot's biographic plot pressed upon my practice) that a biographer looking only for the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft on Claire Clairmont might be drawn to her unconventional youth: her relations with Shelley and Byron, and the illegitimate daughter she adored. But more significant for women of the future, I'm coming to see, was Claire's silence and invisibility during 1823 when, following the deaths of Shelley and her child, she went to Russia to become a governess.

She was ill - tubercular - and it seemed insane to travel north into the Russian winter, 'my ice cave' as she called it. Still, she had to earn her living, and earn it where no one knew her 'dark history'. At this point, when her life was almost destroyed, there was this silence. 'The world is closed in silence to me', she records in her Journals four years on and still in Russia. Friends thought they would never see her again, but that silence, in so powerful a character, has a different quality, as Mary Shelley, her stepsister, guessed.

The gaps, the non-events, the apparently vacant waiting as a life unravels, can be its most momentous event - however unrecorded. Pause. One must pause. Keeping her secret in the alien ice cave, entirely cut off and alone, distrusted at first as a stranger, Claire Clairmont entered some kind of chrysalis in which she shed her tried and familiar narratives of sexual surrender, abandonment, and unrequited love, together with the motherhood that had been taken from her. During that hiatus, she stripped herself of feminine hopes and the marriage plot. A fellow-tutor in Russia, a German intellectual, fell in love with her, but she had to refuse him. For she had become something else, a fiercely independent creature who could endure. It's this resilience, this power to remake herself, that's of the same ilk as Mary Wollstonecraft, apart from what she learnt from Wollstonecraft's educational principles which she began to practise. 'My soul', she jotted in a stray leaflet, 'seems to have been regenerated in the fountains of adversity into which it fell; there is a vigour and an elasticity in my spirit which it never knew even in the spring of life.'

Here is a secular instance of Eliot's idea that only those who expose themselves to unmaking, to waiting ('I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope'), only those who are, like the blinded Samson, in the dark ('O dark, dark, dark', Eliot echoes from Samson Agonistes) - only those are candidates for the route to perfection. For darkness, Eliot tells us, is 'something to purify the soul'. It's associated with absence of self, humility ('humility is endless'), abnegation - in religious terms, the via negativa, or what St John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Soul.

This is, of course, a narrative of transformation or conversion, disrupting a routine plot where we put one foot in front of the other through the hours of the day and through the days of a lifespan. Emily Dickinson has a wonderfully succinct version of the alternative existence, erupting under the surface of her hourly domestic routine:

I tie my Hat - I crease my Shawl -
Life's little duties do - precisely -
As the very least
Were infinite - to me -

I put new Blossoms in the Glass -
And throw the old - away -
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there - I weigh
The time 'twill be till six o'clock
I have so much to do -
And yet - Existence - some way back -
Stopped - struck - my ticking - through -

The parallel to this in the Quartets is a quickening brought on by the heart of light at Burnt Norton:

Quick now, here, now, always - 

In both instances, what actually happened can't be told because its perfection is beyond even the language of poetry. Where Dickinson uses dashes to push the language apart, Eliot breaks the line with panting commas. This 'hint' of heaven seems incommunicable, except for its transformation of one who's had the experience.

So much for the first question: how intimations of this kind come to centre themselves in a dominant narrative, displacing the standard biographic sequence. Two lines in the first draft of the last quartet sum it up:

Remember rather the essential moments
That were the times of death, and birth, and change…

I want, now, to move to the question what exactly is this alternative life? What is the formula?

Recently, Stephen Pinker in The Blank Slate has restated the two positions on perfection. There is the utopian position, found in Rousseau and William Godwin - and I'd add, on behalf of women, Mary Wollstonecraft who looks not just to 'rights' but to a future understanding of women's nature, through her invitation to shed the demeaning artifice. Also, Virginia Woolf, proposing an Outsiders' Society of anti-war and anti-arms women on the verge of entry into the public sphere. And, due this spring, a book by Melanie Phillips, called The Ascent of Woman, is said to anticipate the feminisation of that public sphere and control of sexual aggression. The utopian tradition would change human nature through changing institutions. Its creed is that we must not allow political and social arrangements to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.

The other route to perfection, Pinker calls tragic. This takes the view that humans are inherently limited in wisdom and virtue, and all our arrangements must acknowledge these limits. Kant said: 'From the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made.' It's in this camp that we find Eliot with his Puritan New England background. His premise of innate imperfection is the starting point for his Quartets: the Fall from 'what might have been' to the intractable fact of 'what has been'. The bomber over London during the Blitz, 'the dark dove with the flickering tongue', translates easily into our present unease in the face of international terrorism, biological weaponry, and the gun culture - all that aggression built into our species. When I park near the supermarket, there's a graffito on the wall that reads: 'testosterone is the most dangerous drug on the planet'. Eliot takes so pessimistic a view of human flaws that, for him, the answer is to strip away the worst of our nature. Radical surgery ('the healer's art') begins when a surgeon-creator 'plies the steel / That questions the distempered part.'

Eliot, like others in the tragic camp, looks to the past for redemptive structures. His formula for the perfect life is familiar and simple: it comes from Exodus, a journey through the desert waste towards a promised land. Amongst its many parallels are the grail quests through the dank forests of medieval Europe, and the seventeenth-century pilgrims' progress from the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City. Eliot reformulates and tests this traditional scenario in his own life and times: the trials of the Blitz and, preceding that, his own private trials in the Thirties when his first marriage ended and he lived for a while in a Kensington clergyhouse. There's an autobiographical resonance to Eliot's original title, 'Kensington Quartets', which he kept in mind almost until the publication of the complete work in 1943.

Each of the four quartets starts with the poet himself taking his moral pulse in a place that has a particular significance in his life. Burnt Norton, East Coker, and Little Gidding are places he visited between 1934 and 1937, years when he was trying to remake a life after he left his wife, Vivienne, in 1933. Unlike these, the Dry Salvages took him back to his youth in America: the summers on Cape Ann, and linked memories of his childhood in St Louis on the Mississippi. The drama could have been too far-off from most of us, without this individual test, an individual who can't live up to an inherited model of a perfect life, but continues to try to do so. Repetition, for the flawed and fallible, is the very message of the poem: 'for us there is only the trying.' The scenario is to try again, and again, and a fourth time, to make some progress, but to remain ever falling short of those whose lives 'burn in every moment'. The speaker, moving into a transformed or 'new life', has to confront the flaws in his nature: 'things ill-done and done to others' harm'. When I first met the great Eliot scholar, Helen Gardner, in 1973, I remember her saying that Eliot's appeal lies in that honesty.

It is, then, in part, a personal poem, but it quickly sheds the husk of the personal to reveal a biographical formula: the struggle in the wilderness towards some promise. We might call it divine love, as the final quartet, Little Gidding, puts it towards the end: 'Love is the unfamiliar Name…'. In the fourteenth century, Dame Julian of Norwich ends her series of Revelations in the same way, but words, as I've said, can't convey this higher Love. More accessible to those of us who have to own that we have not, alas, experienced that, is the journey rather than arrival. Journeys dominate parts III of the Quartets, and these journeys are approached with a secret formula - in riddling Greek - 'the way up and the way down are the same'.

The way up is unplanned. It's the intimation that comes to the poet in the garden of Burnt Norton. This particular 'unattended moment' follows haunting memories of what 'might have been': an attachment that preceded Eliot's unhappy first marriage. It's a formal garden with a straight walk leading to two empty, concrete pools. The pools, when I saw them, surprised me. They weren't the sort of pools one associates with a miraculous moment. They looked like vast, dry, unpromising swimming pools. But in Eliot's imagination some sort of miracle did take place there: a pool was filled with water out of sunlight.

[A recording followed of Eliot  reading these lines.]
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotus rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

The problem with the 'way up' is evanescence, as the speaker falls back into his routine life with an acute sense of loss:

Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

In The Waste Land the waste was a place, the 'Unreal City'; here, the waste is time - time unredeemed by a sense of the timeless. The implied question is how to recover what is timeless. And so, the seeker turns around to face the other way, to take the alternative route, the 'way down', which the next three quartets will pursue.

The way down is a process of transformation, stripping everything we know and are. 'Unhealthy souls' are told to 'descend lower' and undergo 'internal darkness', wiping out our senses and superficial interpretations of the soul. East Coker, published in 1940, the first of the wartime quartets, shows houses crumbling and explosions of chaos. Helen Gardner spoke of the extraordinary impact of this quartet on its first readers when London was being bombarded. Eliot himself was an air-raid warden in South Kensington; invasion threatened; England was disrupted. At this time Eliot spoke intimately to his readers:

In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.

This is not about fighting back, even in self-defence. It's a completely different, internal scenario, a chance to be remade, to become so 'other' that the spirit is ready to meet the otherness of the divine spirit.

In the following seascape of The Dry Salvages, the seeker is totally exposed to the 'ground swell that is and was from the beginning'. It's like Genesis where 'the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters'. It's also a distinctly American nature, not the benign Wordsworthian kind - nature as the nurse, guide, and guardian, with which the English are 'deeply interfused'. It's a godlike and terrifying power which a frontiering man like Captain Ahab, or Ishmael, or Huck pits himself against. Epitomising that nature, the white whale, Moby Dick, is like Jove 'as he divinely swam'; when Ahab hurls his harpoon, he means nothing less than to pierce the enigma of creation. Voyagers like Andrew Eliot or like the Cape Ann fishermen of Eliot's youth take similar risks, living on the outer edge of existence and close to mortality.

The treacherous rocks, under water at high tide, are the farthest point at which land juts out to sea, and this sea is the farthest horizon of the Quartets, a place of exposure to the unknown. This is not an element in which an ordinary person can live, and it is in the process of exploring the seascape of the Salvages that the seeker comes to see that he is too fallible to endure, as do the saints, 'a lifetime burning in every moment'. For him, as for most of us, there is only the 'unattended moment' or music 'heard so deeply /That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts'.

A voice descants in the rigging like the quickening of the strings in the finale to Beethoven's A Minor Quartet (opus 132) which Beethoven composed when he was deaf, and which, Eliot said, had a sort of heavenly gaity. The voice descants 'not to the ear' but to the spirit, and speaks 'not in any language'. Out at sea, at the farthest verge of a time-bound life, there is this renewed intimation of immortality that was to bring Eliot, in the final quartet, into unison with the timeless poets of the past.

Having crossed the sea, the seeker comes to rest in a place called Little Gidding. It was an Anglican community in Huntingdonshire, founded in 1625 by Nicholas Ferrar. It was a highly regulated way of life: a unique combination of monastic and family life. Eliot saw Little Gidding as a place of refuge after trials (as it was for Charles I after his defeat at the battle of Naseby). It was a place which suffered in time of war, for its church was vandalised by Cromwell's soldiers in 1646 - a reprisal for giving shelter to 'a broken king'. But, primarily, this was a holy place. Of course, it's important to Eliot that it's a Christian place, but he does make it clear that it could be any holy place, anywhere, at any time.

Here, kneeling 'where prayer has been valid', the seeker undergoes yet again a lacerating examination of his flaws, publicly condoned, yet rankling in the conscience. Public rectitude is itself part of the pain, for 'fools' approval stings'.

This self-examination takes place in the aftermath of an air raid, with dust still suspended in the air, as Eliot would have seen London from his rooftop. It's here, seen through the dust and smoke, that he encounters 'a familiar compound ghost', a compound of the immortal poets whom he is now to join by way of this poem. 'I met one walking', he reports, ' I caught the sudden look of some dead master' on a down-turned face still forming in the half-light. And in the deserted street after the all-clear, they talk about art, and they also talk about sin ('the bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit'), and they talk about rage, and the re-enactment of shame, of motives late revealed and things ill done.

At this stage of Eliot's life, the only redemption seems to come through pain, the refining fire of purgatory: 'To be redeemed from fire by fire'. In the end, this is a poem not of paradise but of continued trial and purgation. When the seeker offers us, finally, the promise that 'all shall be well and /All manner of thing shall be well', he offers not his own words but those of Dame Julian of Norwich. She had the 'condition of complete simplicity' he longed to have.

Eliot said that he wanted to go 'beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in the late quartets, went beyond music. In 1931 he had written to Stephen Spender that he had the A Minor quartet on the gramophone.

' I find it quite inexhaustible to study', he wrote. '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.'

Here is a recording of Beethoven's finale. It seems to fit Eliot's idea of feelings 'which we can only detect …out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus …feelings which only music can express'.

In youth, Eliot had dared to hope for heavenly bliss ('your heart would have responded /Gaily… beating obedient / To controlling hands'), but in his fifties he had to content himself with 'reconciliation and relief'. In the final lines of Four Quartets he reaches towards, though can't himself attain, reconciliation of pain and divine love: 'the fire and the rose are one'. He ventures to formulate this sublime equation in hopes that, some day, it might call out a perfect life. And so he leaves us his formula for the perfect life as a vessel the spirit might fill.