I love music of many kinds, so quartet brings to mind the Norwegian musicians – Vertavo String Quartet, or from a jazz perspective, the John Coltrane Quartet. However, What is forever etched on my mind are four poems, the ‘Four Quartets’ by T.S. Eliot.
The ‘Four Quartets’ are reflective meditations on humanity’s relationship with time. Eliot engages spiritual themes, and philosophy, and includes such influences as John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich (mystics), presocratic thinkers (Greek philosophy), and the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu). The poems were written between 1936 and 1945 and originally published separately, until 1948 when Faber published them in one volume. The period in which he wrote these poems is perhaps indicative of the content. The threat of war, followed by the long war and the blitz, which he endured, must have impacted his sense of mortality and time.
The Quartets are: ‘Burn Norton’, ‘East Coker’, ‘The Dry Salvages’, and ‘Little Gidding.’
My favourite of the four is Little Gidding, simply because it contains a profound observation of the human condition that is neither perfunctory, nor damning, but rather, somehow, encouraging. That observation of Eliot’s comes in part five of ‘Little Gidding.’
We shall not cease from exploration And at the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
As I’ve quoted before, Proust puts it well when he says: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Eliot is not at odds with Proust in this. He too is suggesting that we humans are curious, we are seekers of truth, of belief, fact, geography, place and space, and more. But, in spite of great travels and in spite of much learning, eventually we return to our roots, our beginning points, and see them afresh.
For me that means seeing the horizons of body, mind and soul with new inner eyes, being able to see with the eyes of wholeness, forgiveness, love, kindness, compassion, and self-giving. Eliot also speaks of how experience is transformative (if we allow it to be so). He also speaks to how we mature in those experiences along life’s journey, and how time affects us, that aging and experience might afford us opportunity to see ourselves afresh. We engage with our youthfulness and “kick the traces” as we used to say, rebelling; we turn to masks, we invent personae for the public I, denial is the trope of our lives. But in the end, at our very core, there is only ever, our true self, if we but look carefully. And if we attend to our true self, accept our self, love our self, we see ourselves whole as if for the first time.
In a stark reminder, he’s also suggesting that, as with the story of Adam and Eve, so with all of us, we never leave the awkwardness of self-awareness, separation, and a sense even an anxiety, that we could do better we could be someone. All of us strive to overcome those things, but find that we were/are, perhaps, a little too hard on ourselves and that we just need to see ourselves as good. The journey we engage is one to be whole and perfect, but yet, the end of our searching leads us back to where we began, that we were indeed whole in the first place, and that nothing is ever perfect.