A quote, a line of poetry, a passage in a short story or novel – as I turn to reread old friends, I find their meanings transmogrified. (How about that for a 50¢ word?) What I see and hear in the passage is quite different from how I interpreted those words in my callow youth.
At this point in my life (long past the middle-years,) I have read enough of my particular story to look at comments and experiences from a seasoned viewpoint. Images and ideas are less scary, less serious, often less important than I’d once judged them…
Recently, I was rereading T.S. Eliot. In college I found Eliot’s voice dark and his reflections off-putting. But, I have changed, and while the words and lines remain the same, now I detect tang and sweetness, even humor in his poetry.
In Four Quartets, “East Crocker,” Eliot fleshes out what I’m wrestling with:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
Once the lines spoke to me simply of growing up, independence, aging.
Now, I smile at the strangeness of the world and recall my naïveté, thinking the world would grow familiar, less strange as my life unfolded. And what did I care, at 21, for the “pattern of dead and living”? Complicated? I needed time and experience to gain perspective, to see life’s intricate fabric, its warp and weft, the tang and sweetness.
Eliot unpunctuated line-ends tease meanings from each phrase:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older /The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated /Of dead and living.
Home is my touchstone, my starting point. And, the world’s complexity and variety contrasts with that starting point. Of course, the apex of that aging and strangeness is a deeper recognition of life and death – one braid of intertwined strands. And, I am just one thread in one strand…
And there, in the middle of the poem, at the heart of the matter – a negative: Not the intense moment /Isolated, with no before and after…” What a relief it is to have attained a point in life where intensity is not in the moment! How exhausting it was to be young, buffeted always by each new and inexplicable event and feeling. Context, now there is context for my experiences.
I love that next phrase, “a lifetime burning in every moment”. I can bring all my experiences and insights to bear each moment – if I’m “on my game.” My lifetime is a moment, and in my moment other lifetimes are “kindled anew” – those who are dead infuse my life with meaning and emotion, like Thomas Stearns Eliot.
“… old stones that cannot be deciphered.” Like the great sphinx of Romantic poetry, Ozymandias, we are, or will be inscrutable, old stones.
Ah, yes, Shelley would have enjoyed a long chat by the fire with Eliot, I suspect.