“What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?”
Thomas Stearns Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton)
While writing The Reengineers, I had always thought of the above quote from Four Quarters as its epigraph, before settling for the quote from Dickens. The hero Chinmay’s adventure begins when he steps out from one library to another, and encounters a man who is likely to be his author. The much loved lines from Eliot were symbolic of the surreal adventure of Chinmay and his friends.
In the scene in Chapter Nine where Chinmay and friends sit listening to a conversation between Siddharth and Nivedita in which Siddharth refers to Amrita as ‘a phantom of delight‘ and when Nivedita tells him that ‘Amrita had her feet too firmly on the ground to be a phantom of any kind, and besides it was old fashioned to quote Wordsworth‘, the original scene extended to Siddharth replying that quoting Prufrock would suit Amrita better as she was a doctor, and reciting the poem afterwards. I removed both these references during the book’s final edit, but in the vision of the book in my mind, these lines from Eliot remain an integral part of the novel.
Here is the deleted paragraph:
“I listened enthralled as he went on to recite the rest of Alfred J Prufrock’s plaintive plaint, and choked when he came to the part where the mermaids wouldn’t sing to him. Many years later, whenever I came across Prufrock recited or quoted somewhere, it would all come back to me again, the hours that I had spent at the seeker’s school and Siddharth’s voice ringing through the warmth of that faraway afternoon.”
The protagonist Tom Richards in Muriel Spark’s novel ‘Reality and Dreams’ is conscious of the first line of Prufrock running through his consciousness throughout the novel, ‘Let us go then, you and I.’ While Prufrock is in a dream from where he states that he will remain ’till human voices wake, and drown him‘, Tom feels that he is in ‘no man’s land between dreams and reality’. Reality and Dreams is not one of Spark’s greatest works, what remained with me as a reader was the line from Eliot which threaded the novel’s narrative and premise together.
Studying Eliot is enthralling. As a modernist writer, as a philosopher poet, as an experimental playwright, there are so many layers into his work.
“Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.“, says Eliot in his review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.
“April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”
For the past three years, I have found myself reading Four Quartets afresh in mid-April, on every Tamil New Year, it has almost become a tradition.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Little Gidding)
Eliot is a poet meant to be re-read again and again, whose words are as compelling on each re-reading as the first time they are read, his poems both echo, as well as present themselves as profound spiritual and philosophical texts, and convey universal wisdom even as they allude to other poets, like these lines which evoke ‘Among school children’ by Yeats:
“music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but
you are the music
While the music lasts.”
― T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems
There is one more reason to love Eliot, his delightful ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’.
Here is a link to him reading ‘The Ad-ressing of Cats’.
A poet who loves cats is one after my own heart.