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Matthew J. Milliner and Brett Foster


"The Dark Dove with the Flickering Tongue"

Seeing T. S. Eliot again, anew.

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Brett: Matt, I see the benefits of this "revaluation from a remove" that you describe, but I would also venture that neither Eliot nor his poetry are at risk of suffering a permanent exile. Certainly not among readers interested in texts of religious literature. And there is the built-in element of high modernist difficulty that ensures for his writing a lasting academic attention. (Eliot's contemporary James Joyce was very conscious about how modernist difficulty could help to bring about literary critical canonization.) There is a long tradition of scholarly scrutiny of Eliot's sources for what we might call the historical roots of Four Quartets. I have an abiding interest in this poet's being deeply influenced by Renaissance writers. Word choices such as "axle-tree" in "Burnt Norton" and this phrasing in "East Coker"—"Holding each other by the hand or arm / which betokeneth concorde"—contribute to the poem's elevated voice of the striver and meditative speaker. Those presences derive very much from Eliot's own literary critical work on Elizabethan or Jacobean authors such as George Chapman or Thomas Middleton. A new monograph on this topic has just appeared by Steven Matthews, T. S. Eliot and Early Modern Literature, and lovers of Eliot as a religious poet may also find of interest a special "forum" section in last spring's issue of Religion & Literature, on "New Directions in Religion and Literature Criticism of T. S. Eliot."

If these connections represent a more venerable historical criticism, increasingly Eliot scholars are studying anew how the poet's own biographical and historical contexts shaped his writing. We may be poised to read Four Quartets more deeply—if also more counterintuitively—as we increase our awareness of Eliot's London context in the early 1940s, during which he completed the poem's last sections. We begin to notice strikingly local details in a poem where we have been taught not to expect them—a paired example of "Asia" and "Edgeware Road" that is probably meant as a more tongue-in-cheek moment than we would typically permit in this most serious of poems, and the commuter's simile of an "underground train" that stops "too long between stations." Eliot is famous for demanding as a critic the presumption of the impersonal artistic personality in the writings of any strong poet. His model author channels tradition and is masterfully detached. Yet he could also acknowledge that the author himself is hardly a poem's controller: "the meaning of a poem may be something larger than its author's conscious purpose, and something remote from its origins," Eliot wrote in "The Music of Poetry" in 1942—the same year he was working on "Little Gidding."

The point I made in my talk at Gordon was that meaning may reside sometimes in something smaller and more localized, in the setting and the circumstances that inform an author's conscious purpose, whatsoever it be and however conscious he or she is of it. Maybe this sense of the local and the circumstantial helps to explain why Eliot spoke of "Little Gidding" as a "patriotic poem."

But you couldn't be more right, Matt, about the context of purgation. Eliot's London during the time he was completing Four Quartets was of course under siege as the Battle of Britain raged, and that fact by itself should keep us from reading the poem too serenely. If it is a grand meditation, it is one arrived at with great concentration, as bombs were regularly exploding and destroying large parts of the city. Eliot, as is well known, worked as an air warden during this time. (I have always cherished the thought of one of the 20th century's greatest poets preparing for his post by putting out practice fires in Kensington Gardens.) He carried out firewatch duty two nights a week, an experience that surfaces in "Little Gidding": "In the uncertain hour before the morning / Near the ending of interminable night / At the recurrent end o the unending / After the dark dove with the flickering tongue / Had passed below the horizon of its homing." We do the poem an injustice if we approach it as readers largely oblivious to the historical crucible in which Eliot, somehow, created this masterpiece of composure.

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