Although the Logos is common to all, we live as if by our own wisdom
-Heraclitis, 6th century BCE- Epigraph to Burnt Norton
How do you find your way out of the Dark Night of the Soul? For Eliot, the journey of transformation and redemption was lit by connecting to the memory of the poems, stories and experiences of his youth and the wisdom of the ancient past. In following this journey of revisiting moments of his own innocence and seeking to "commune with the dead", he was following a well worn pattern also exemplified by Dante, Beethoven and Carl Jung: three giants of cultural history who faced their demons of despair by engaging in imaginal conversations across the centuries. Each one of them created new forms of expression born from the seeds of profound personal pain that gave full voice to paradox and the agony of the human condition. In so doing, they transmuted despair into beauty and grief into grace.
As Eliot struggled to come to terms with the horror of the world around him in the midst of WW1 and its aftermath and the utter failure of his doomed marriage, he turned again and again to Dante and Beethoven as guides through his inner underworld. Both creators exemplify the path of creative sublimation: turning the heartbreak of their "impossible loves" and personal failures into the source of inspiration for their most profound works.
Eliot carried Dante's Divine Comedy with him everywhere. It became a map for redemption and hope. We will discover how the Four Quartets mirror Dante's journey and are imprinted with its imagery from beginning to end. The name of these poems, however, is a direct reference to Beethoven.
Eliot wrote to a friend during his years of crisis that he turned over and over to Op. 132 and found it " quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die."
And indeed, this impulse became the decade long quest that produced not only his greatest masterpiece but a process of healing.
Op. 132 is one of five quartets that comprise the last works of Beethoven's life. Written when the master of music was in physical agony from liver disease and completely deaf, they represent a radical departure from his earlier "Heroic" style (best exemplified by the Symphonies No. 3 and No. 5) that reflects the power of a titanic will to overcome the assaults of fate. Instead, these difficult and intimate works draw their power for the holding together the tension of opposites and the radical embrace of naked vulnerability. These are the works of a many who had been broken open, not only by outer circumstances, but also who had come face to face with his own demons and dysfunctional patterns that had led to his adopted son's suicide attempt.
The work is in five movements and becomes the template for the five "movements" of each of Eliot's Quartet poems:
Assai sostenuto – Allegro (A minor)
Allegro ma non tanto (A major)
"Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart". Molto adagio – Andante
Alla marcia, assai vivace (attacca) (A major)
Allegro appassionato (A minor – A major)
The heart of Op. 132 is the profound slow movement whose unwieldy title translates into English as " A hymn of holy thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent in the Lydian mode". The lydian mode was an Ancient Greek mode associated with the temples of healing of Asclepius ( you can approximate this by playing a string of the eight white keys from F to F on the piano).
This music-- spare, slow, everything ultimately reduced to a timeless and still moment- is what Eliot sought to "get into words". The more familiar you become with the piece, the more parallels you will see between Eliot and Beethoven. "The still point of the turning world", " the condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything" are but two of the phrases that do, indeed, mirror the music of this hymn.
Listen to the lecture below, recorded at Stanford University, for an in depth and insightful analysis of the structural elements of this movement whose mathematical precision and construction is breathtaking.
The other element of both Dante and of late Beethoven's style that speaks to the "Logos" or pattern we will encounter in Eliot's quartets is the holding of the opposites. Divisions between "Pagan" and "Christian", "words" and "music" , "sacred" and "mundane" all dissolve into a grander synthesis where seeming opposites find new form and greater meaning. Listen below to the lecture on the Ninth Symphony - a work that was initially conceived by a youthful and idealistic Beethoven in response to a poem by Schiller but which took him over 30 years to complete in a journey, where like Dante's Divine Comedy and Eliot's Quartets, he poured the distilled fruits of a lifetime's learnings.
Eliot , Emily Hale and Impossible Love
Part of the background of the Four Quartets is the sublimated love affair between TS Eliot and his childhood friend and muse, Emily Hale, who represents the "road not taken". Eliot followed a pattern known well by Beethoven and Dante in finding himself in an impossible situation in regards to love: both his proper Puritanical background and his own dawning Anglo-Catholic religious convictions would have forbade divorce in order to pursue personal happiness with Emily, a far more suitable candidate for "wife" than Vivienne Haigh-Wood ever had been. In truth, Eliot was a deeply damaged man in regards to both emotional and physical intimacy and his relationship- often at great distance- from the brilliant Emily may have been exactly what was needed to create the condition of what Sigmund Freud would have called "optimal frustration".
It was through Emily's influence,that Eliot found himself in the midst of a midlife spiritual conversion. We have only recently had access to a remarkable series of letters Eliot wrote to Emily in which he calls her "his Saint", his "Lady of Silence" and his "Hyacinth girl" and where he writes, “ You have helped me to the Church and to the struggles of the spiritual life: and in the midst of agony a deep peace… ‘not as the world giveth’— but the peace of God.”
Read Ash Wednesday, TS Eliot's poem inspired by Emily Hale , here or listen to Eliot himself reading this poem inspired by the liturgy that marks the beginning of Lent here.