Poetry and the Kenotic Word
Words Against Words. Four Quartets and the Failure of Poetry
In Four Quartets, a long poem written by an ageing poet, with its interwoven motifs of plants and roses and slow meandering like a wide-flowing river, language holds back the current of meaning and stops still, forming pools of standing water. It might seem that we are dealing with a huge organism, a spreading tree with nests entwined in its branches, a warm wind stirring its green heights and sap coursing from root to topmost branch, circulating like the meanings of words. But in the backwaters of the poem, in their sudden ambiguities and consciously planned about-turns, a shadow has found its lair, a negative force that elbows out meanings and takes over speech, like a kind of virus attacking and breaking life down to its primitive elements without allowing them to be put back together again; or if at all, then only in the ironic form of language deprived of energy, language that speaks to us out of an overwhelming torpor and lassitude, gear in neutral.
In the Quartets as they are sometimes read, Eliot, to use his own phrase from the meeting with the “familiar compound ghost” in “Little Gidding”, “set a crown upon [a] lifetime’s effort” as a poet. Many critics see these pieces as the artistic and intellectual culmination of his poetic work, a kind of summation of his creative journey, a reckoning up and rounding off of themes that had appeared earlier, and now are gathered together, picked over and brought...
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