TS Eliot and a note inside the the Wasteland

'Dayadhvam: I have heard the key'

Engaged at this time on a new software project for this site, which I hope will bear fruit in the form of some kind of business interest in the future; and, in addition, having been trying to give a final satisfying form to my long poem, I am not ready to do what I had wanted to do respecting TS Eliot. But I do want to make the briefest of remarks about his work.

For the past couple of weeks I have been reading his entire collection of essays, and his collected poems; indeed, it is possible read everything he ever set down on paper for publication in a few days. His works are short, and mostly very important. Given the shocking singularity of his work amongst that of other poets of the twentieth century (I will not say amongst essayists and thinkers, but here too he stands above the rest), his work has already been discussed in detail by biographers and scholars in such depth that it is not necessary for me to go over old ground, when I know that what I have to say has already been said.

But I would concentrate on these few little points: the example of a conversion to Christianity which he provides; the reminder which he brings in his essays in particular that Christianity, while being still a state religion in the twentieth century in England, was not actually true Christianity, and that society as he saw it had already long since determined to commit suicide by basing itself on humanistic or secular values. He does not state it clearly in his essays on poetry and culture (see the Selected Essays, throughout) but he sees morality as deriving only from a relationship with God; and that this boils down to this: that God is watching you, and that you will have to account for what you have done immediately on the occurrence of your death, and thereafter.

Finally, reading through 'The Wasteland' the other night, and coming to the Notes at the end, I realised that I had not read these for many years; and that, now, for the first time I feel capable of understanding them. We all know that these ‘Notes’ were always meant to simply fill up a few blank pages. The scholarship is bogus, etc. However, see the rather lengthy and superficially pointless remark on the things which the ‘Thunder’ said, the one in question relates to this section:

Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.’
(‘The Wasteland’, ll. 410-416).

And the note:
‘411. Cf. Inferno, XXXIII, 46:
“ed io senti chiavar l’uscio di sotto
all’ orribile torre.”’

Which is a reference to the imprisoned father of a family who, being with his children confined in a jail without food, resorted to eating his children, and is found by Dante in the penultimate fosse of hell, told in the 33rd canto of Inferno; this particular scene may or may not have meant something important to Eliot personally, but I think it more likely that he just wanted to link his poem with that of Dante where the prison metaphor was in mind. I myself don’t think that Eliot had this particular door in hell in mind when he composed those lines of the poem.

Similarly, I don’t think he had the lines of FH Bradley in mind when he wrote the poetry, either. And yet, he does refer to Bradley.

‘Also F.H. Bradley, Appearance of Reality, p. 306.
“My external sensations are no less private to my self than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it…. In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.”’

These lines are of importance, however, to this website and to my own concerns. As stated in the first essay of this series, our existence is not simply isolated, it is absolutely isolated by the nature of our entire being. Our world is completely peculiar to me alone, because of the limitation opacity of the sphere in which I and others live.

To me, despite the flippancy of the quotation made in the Notes, Eliot held this principle of the individual and isolated independence from any possibility of contact with others as a foundation of his outlook. But this is natural, since it is obviously the truth of our situation, and we have no choice about believing in this or not. It is a fact, so to speak.

This clarity about our situation is not, for Eliot, simply an intellectual principle; he felt the idea, emotionally, and took it to heart. That is the nature of his objective, cold, darkly humorous poetry of the first two collections. And, of his works into his mature acceptance of his life as a Christian.

Indeed, the Four Quartets are integrally a meditation on the philosophical principle outlined above, set alongside the principle’s further consequence or the principle’s meaning. That the world is in us entire, and private, and we see in each person a complete world which cannot be affected by any other person, nor experienced by any other person. And hence, each individual is the foundation of the world, and finally, that each individual has it within them to seek out the God who made this so, and created us with this relationship in which, not having contact with others, we do have contact with Him. Not to push this too far in this essay, but Eliot’s purpose in the Four Quartets is to examine how any individual is the point of time where all things meet (past, and future), and where the present is usually ignored by our confused minds, by our distraction. That is to say, only in a prayerful attitude does one come to recognise and accept our position, and pay attention to the immediate moment.

‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.’
Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’, (II).

Here, Eliot is describing the Dasein of Heidegger, or, that difficult thing to name: our being here, our consciousness as if we are the centre of the sphere of all things. It finds consciousness of itself only in prayer and meditation in dying from life. Which is perhaps why there are no words for it of any easy kind. A prayerful attitude is a preparation for death, so to speak. And, an acceptance of our present. It takes a lifetime to learn the humility necessary for this position. Those who spend the whole of their lives next to God, but also in the world and acting in it, are saints. And, the rest of us exist in the world of memories and future possibilities, selflessly and pointlessly engaged.

History protects us from the nearness of God; and, in the final poem of the cycle, we must set out to redeem history (that broken king, or 'broken Coriolanus' again, in this case King Charles I). I will speak of this shortly.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.