The Rending Pain of Re-enactment: TS Eliot’s Little Giddings
Recently I finally got around to watching Philomena, the based-on-a-true-story of an Irish woman searching for the son that she was forced to give up for adoption starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. In the movie, Philomena Lee, pregnant out of wedlock, is sent to live in a Catholic abbey where she gives birth to her son. As was common, the abbey nuns sold the child to American parents and through the use of some dubious legal documents, forbid Philomena the right to track her son down at any point thereafter.
It was an enjoyable movie, touching throughout and laugh-out-loud funny at times. I’d certainly suggest it. This isn’t a movie review, however. It’s more an examination of a brief moment from the film; a neat little bit of dialogue from Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith that lead me, as these things sometimes do, to TS Eliot.
Towards the end of the film, Coogan’s character quotes the following line from an Eliot poem:
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It’s a striking line, and as I haven’t posted anything about the Modernists in sometime, I decided to follow up on it.
The line itself comes towards the end of Little Gidding, the fourth and final poem of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The title comes from a small church that Eliot had visited in the 1930s, but like a lot of Eliot’s work, what the poem is about varies a lot with how willing the reader is to dive into the work. On the surface, the poem is a look at the landscape of England that Eliot describes so often; one ruined by war, caught in time, and peopled by a desperate population. It is a place caught in a “midwinter spring” and “suspended in time” where “the dead leaves still [rattle] on like tin / over the asphalt.” Throughout the poem Eliot’s language continues to evoke those same type of images of a land seemingly caught for eternity in the transition of seasons.
That paradox of being suspended in change is one that Eliot comes back to time and again in his poetry. His entire Quartets come back time and again to the idea of a life unable or unwilling to progress, while also feeling the inevitability passage of time. Eliot speaks of
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
in Burnt Norton, the first of the Quartets. He finds “[his] end is [his] beginning” in East Coker and a moment “when time stops and time is never ending” in Dry Salvages. At the heart of of it all, there are really only three things that Eliot seems concerned and worried by: the past, the present, and the future. The problem for Eliot is that these three states are forever interlocked and we are forced to constantly relive the same sadness and ruin again and again. It’s like Groundhog Day, but for the existential sort.
It’s that paradox of stagnant change and worry that provides the most weight to Little Giddings, as throughout the poem he wrestles with that which he thought he had moved past; be it a city, a moment in time, or a companion. And with each circle, for Eliot certainly gives the impression of having made this journey many times before, there is a sense of urgency to get things right, to halt the merry-go-round at least for a moment. But, like the whole of the work, Eliot’s urgency is warmed over and simply a part of the process of reliving a life much preferred to be forgotten. The hope, then, is that as we “arrive where we started” we’ll have the knowledge and grace to know the moment for what it is: a chance, perhaps, to step from the circle and move forward at last.
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