I’ve spent the week with T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and my own inner resistance to pretty much everything.
Every time I read one of Eliot’s poems, its meaning seems to fall away into some inarticulate depths. Some of it clearly pushes beyond dualities: “Except for the point, the still point/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” But when I try to put that together with “Garlic and sapphires in the mud,” it all goes spinning away.
Likewise, the more effort I’ve put into convincing myself to do any of the have-tos—get up in the morning, take out the trash—the harder it’s been to actually do them. Maybe this effort is exactly the problem in both cases.
Maybe the only way to grasp “Four Quartets” is to stop figuring it out—to let it wash over me and sink in until it settles down into the level it’s intended for, takes root, grows, and blossoms into meaning. Maybe if I stopped putting so much energy into the have-tos, whether by creating or resisting them, a new kind of life could take root and grow in me, perhaps exactly the kind Eliot is talking about. It takes a lot of faith, though, to trust that I’ll get up and go to work in the morning without the have-tos.
In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke has a lovely line about how to make this transition: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions…. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Here are a couple of poems from Rilke—one for frustrating weeks like this one, one to remind us that it’s all part of the journey, and both easier to understand than Eliot. Neither is titled.
If only for once it were still.
If the not quite right and the why this
could be muted, and the neighbor’s laughter,
and the static my senses make—
if all of it didn’t keep me from coming awake—
Then in one vast thousandfold thought
I could think you up to where thinking ends.
I could possess you,
even for the brevity of a smile,
to offer you
to all that lives,
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
-from Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy