Apprehensions of Reality
by Elmer G. Wiens
"Cascando," by S. Beckett (Poems 41-42), and "Burnt Norton," by T. S. Eliot (Quartets 7-13) express the poets' desire for love and union: Beckett, desiring a woman, expresses his apprehension of their love, and Eliot, wanting divine revelation, expresses his apprehension of God's love in creating the universe. Knowing the poets' personal circumstances, the artists' creative suffering can be discovered in these complex poems, as they struggle to discern the uncertain future, and to arrange to procure their desires. Beckett is "terrified again of not loving." Without love, for Eliot the "cause and end of movement," "sad time stretching before and after" is wasted. Can they obtain love? Or, is love unobtainable? Does the essence of time and mankind's free will preclude love? In answering these questions, the poems' creators' convey their philosophical beliefs about love, time, and free will, with the use of figurative language, diction, syntax, and particularly with repeated words and phrases, line and sound patterning. These poetic techniques interact with the meanings and associations of the poems' words, phrases, lines, and stanzas to contribute to our pleasure and understanding.
Optimism infuses the tone of both poems. When the poems were written (approximately1936), both poets — known to be depressed men — had reasons to be optimistic about their prospects. On the one hand, Beckett, who had undergone psychoanalysis for a condition diagnosed as "narcissistic regression and depressive episodes" (Cronin 202), published the poems "Echo's Bones" (Poems 15-31), and finished the book Murphy. He met a striking American woman, Betty Stockton, for whom he wrote "Cascando" after knowing her just a few days (Cronin 234-237). Lines from "Cascando" like "I and all the others that will love you" affirm Beckett's confidence. Eliot, on the other hand, separated from Vivien after 17 miserable years of marriage, had his religious play, "Murder in the Cathedral," produced to critical acclaim (Ackroyd 226-229). In 1934, he visited the garden of the poem at an estate called Burnt Norton, accompanied by his long-time soul mate Emily Hale, a woman he might have married instead of Vivien (Ackroyd 229-231). There he apparently experienced a supernatural vision, obtaining divine insight into the nature of the universe. This revelation inspired the poem "Burnt Norton," in which Eliot conveys his intuitive insight of man transcending his finite body, by means of such epigrams as "through time time is conquered."
But, the poets temper their poems' optimistic tone with pessimism and doubt. Beckett's lovers are at an impasse. Each lover needs the other's love to love. They are narcissistic archetypes, sprung from Beckett's psychoanalysis (Cronin 220-221). Using informal language, the lovers hammer out their dilemma. Their stalemate is the consequence of a failure in the infinite regression of their desire: "If you do not love me I shall not be loved." The lovers know what they are, and know the archetypal nature of their affair. To love, one lover must break the habit of being loved first, before loving in return. Beckett hammers at this habit, three times repeating the phrase "saying again." The lovers' misgivings hang on the line, "If I do not love you I shall not love." Will the lovers' self-absorption prevail, precluding their love?
Using formal language, Eliot's lover-poet converses with his companion, accounting for "what might have been," fantasizing about a life married to Emily instead of Vivien: "What might have been" had "what has been" been different. He projects the consequence of his rash decision to marry Vivien into the nature of time and the universe, repeating the antithesis of the subjective (microcosm) and the objective (macrocosm) throughout the poem. Is man narcissistic, vainly comparing his subjective knowledge with God's objective plan, groping for reality by searching for patterns in the universe, seeking God's love to secure either heaven or hell? Eliot hammers out the pattern of his poem, repeating the word "pattern" four times in "Burnt Norton." The poem itself is cyclical, like the rotating wheel of movement II, reconciling the diverse microcosms and the macrocosm (the universe) simultaneously. But, if the pattern in the wheel is infinite, with what possible key can finite humans unlock "the enchainment of past and future," and transcend to a reality unshackled from time (Smidt 173)? If "human kind cannot bear very much reality," if that "which is only living can only die," will not the self-indulgent world just continue "in appetency, on its metalled ways"?
Whereas Eliot reconciles the antithesis of microcosm and macrocosm by way of religion, Beckett draws on mythology. Beckett mediates the love of his lovers using the myth of Narcissus and Echo, alluding to the archetypal theme of love's frustration in the poems of "Echo's Bones" with "bringing up the bones the old loves." The lovers must reconcile — simultaneously — their individual desires for their love to be more than just "pretending." The macrocosm of "Cascando" equals the intersection of the microcosm of both lovers, a much smaller macrocosm than the one of "Burnt Norton." Beckett's "what might be" corresponds to Eliot's "what might have been," and the present of "Cascando," to the past of "Burnt Norton." The future of the lovers of the former is the door the lovers of the latter "never opened." The behavior of the lovers of "Cascando" determines their future. Did God determine the past of the ill-fated lovers of "Burnt Norton"?
Eliot presents his ideas about time in the manner of the Old Testament of the Bible. The first few lines of "Burnt Norton," cut from "Murder In the Cathedral" (Gardner 79), paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 1,9, and 3,15 (Appendix 3), repeat the word "time" seven times:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Eliot starts with conventional Christianity, strategically inserting the adverb "perhaps" in line two. With the word "perhaps" in mind, the Bible verses can be interpreted as follows: the choices we made in the past have partially determined our present circumstances, and the choices we make in the present will partially determine our future circumstances. So, our circumstances in the future and the choices we will then have available depend on the choices that will have been made until then. But, does mankind exercise free will in making these choices, or are our choices preordained? Eliot wants to show that time is redeemable, so he sets up the syntactically parallel (subject, verb, subject complement) couplet of lines 4 and 5. If time is redeemable, then all time cannot be eternally present, vitiating the deterministic notion that all time is one present moment unto God. A modern translation of Ecclesiastes 3,15 (Appendix 3) does that, since God "requires an account of what is past." Why have an accounting, if our choices are preordained? Furthermore, Genesis 6,4 (Appendix 3) states that the "the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them." Thus, a Christian reading of the Bible indicates that human kind's DNA might possess some divine genes, allowing us to transcend some time in the manner of God. Actually, Eliot is preparing for more than just a discussion of the nature of time and man's free will. He is arranging to share his feelings of embracing a religion of which Christianity is but one part, sanctioning the apprehension of a more sublime and inclusive macrocosm.
In "Cascando," time, like fluid decanting from a vessel (Beckett Proust 4), is running out for the lover-poet. Apprehensively, he considers his options, groping for the reality in their two-person macrocosm. Should he play it active or passive? One lover must make a move. Should he go for the pleasure or the pain? What are the consequences of loving, if the other lover does not love? The following six lines reveal his scurrying, cyclical thoughts:
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
The first and last words can be linked to form a loop, reinforced by the refrain "a last even of last times." The parallel couplet of lines 3 and 4 form the heart of the loop. Who will be begging? Who will be loved? The lover-poet is losing the game. Will he love a woman who can only love herself? Will the pressure of time prevent him from exercising his free will? The ironic contrast of "knowing and not knowing" equals "pretending." Can the lover-poet just pretend to love, breaking the cycle to start the infinite regression of their desire? Shall he wantonly love?
Whereas Eliot submerges the sexual sensuality of "Burnt Norton" in religion, Beckett's lovers consummate their sexual passion. The lovers, like wrestlers or cats ("grapples clawing"), thoughtlessly ("blindly") satisfy their lust. On "the bed of want," she lifts her legs ("bringing up the bones"), and he fills her love "sockets." Their curiosity satisfied, the hours "start dragging too soon." Again they must consummate their love, to satisfy "the black want." In the metaphor of the lines that follow, Beckett equates sexual intercourse with making butter in a churn:
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
The following substitutions can be made: vagina / "churn," penis / "plunger," intercourse / "pestling," the lovers' rhythm / "love love love thud," sperm / "whey," lovers repeated words of endearment / "stale words in the heart again," and lovers groaning at orgasm / "unalterable whey of words." Their gratuitous lust sated, the depressed lover-poet suffers, "terrified again of not loving," terrified of losing his lover, now just "pretending" to possess her love.
In movement III, Eliot's lover-poet takes in with dismay the disorder of modern London, whose citizens wantonly pursue their earthly desires. The vivid images of a society degenerating into chaos clash with the idyllic images in the rose-garden of movement I. Eliot replaces the "dignified" guests, "accepted and accepting," moving "in a formal pattern" in the rose-garden, with the "strained time-ridden faces" of men with "unwholesome lungs" who "whirled by the cold wind" erupt nightly from London. The laughing children hidden in the leaves are gone. England's market economy, democracy, and religion cannot produce a tolerable, ordered society. A new religion, incorporating concepts from Eastern philosophies and religions (Smidt 182-189), must emerge, to provide the center, or still point of movement II. Perhaps a new centralized, more authoritarian form of government is necessary too.
Can mankind replicate in the mortal world the order in the natural universe as apprehended in movement II, aided by such mystical concepts as the wheel, the center, and the "moving tree "? Can the new religion hinted at in movement IV and expanded on in movement V produce the vital order? Is God's love conditional on how we apprehend his objective reality? Will he again "stray down, bend to us" and "clutch and cling"? If man, influenced by love and the new religion, freely chooses his will in harmony with God's freshly apprehended reality, will "the hidden laughter of children in the foliage" rise again? Since "the end precedes the beginning," will not the cycle continue?
Clearly, the two poems differ substantially in structure and form. "Burnt Norton" has 178 lines of varying lengths, divided into five movements and eleven stanzas, while "Cascando" has 37 lines of varying lengths, divided into three parts and eight stanzas, two having only one line. Both poems are essentially free verse (written at a time when free verse was dominating poetry), although "Burnt Norton" has two lyrical stanzas, stanza one of movement II and the stanza of movement IV, with irregular rhyme patterns. "Cascando's" rhymed lines may form clusters, like the "begging," "loving," pretending," and "saying" end rhymes of part 2. Many sections of "Burnt Norton" have lines with three or four stresses per line. "Cascando's" meter varies from line to line, although groups of lines may have similar meters, like the first eight lines of stanza 3 having four or five stresses per line.
It is possible to represent each poem by an image, to capture its essence. After reading the poems numerous times, I get the picture of "Burnt Norton" as strips of honeycomb, with each cell packed with one of Eliot's images or symbols. To illustrate, lines 17 to 31 have the images of a dusty bowl, rose leaves, echoes in a garden, the bird, a corner, a first gate, our first world, the thrush, dignified and invisible people, dead leaves, autumn heat, vibrant air, unheard music, shrubbery, a crossed unseen eyebeam, and roses at which people had looked. These many, many images, the nutrients of the poem, entreat us to remove the wax cover of each cell, and to examine, combine, ingest, and digest the images, and thereby to obtain insight into the nature of time and love. In the same way, the word "Cascando" has the connotation of a cascading stream of water, a symbol for time in Beckett's poems, and the essential nutrient of life. What's more, the poem's logical structure, with its twists and loops, give the sense of the stream breaking around rocks and forming back eddies, and its undulating right margin, suggesting the rising and falling of waves.
Eliot uses many of the traditional techniques of poetry in the lyrical stanza of movement II. The meter is basically iambic tetrameter, as in the lines "Ascend to summer in the tree / We move above the moving tree." A trochee is substituted into the first foot of lines one and two. Thirteen of the fifteen lines end with a word of one syllable, with an interlinked rhyme scheme of "abaccbdcbbdeeec." Eliot, moreover, links each pair of adjacent lines, reflecting further the interdependence of the cosmos. As examples, consider the cacophony of lines one and two, linked by the gutturals ("Garlic," "Clot") and the dentals ("mud," "bedded"); the alliteration of lines two and three ("tree," "trilling"); the repeated syllable of lines three and four ("in," "inveterate"); the assonance and repeated syllable of lines four and five ("Appeasing," "long," "along"); and, the sibilance of lines six and seven ("dance," "circulation"). Although mankind, nature, and God's universe are linked, along with love, time, and free will, many of the binding, reconciling, synchronizing forces remain mysterious.
Both poems' syntax often seems packed together, with missing sentence elements. For an example from "Burnt Norton," the verb is missing in "Not here / Not here the darkness, in this twittering world," and for an example from "Cascando," the prepositions are missing in "is it not better abort than be barren." Furthermore, "Cascando" has neither punctuation nor capital letters. The idiosyncratic grammar opens the poems to many different interpretations, multiplying the connotations of their words and phrases. Thus, both poets invite us to collaborate wholeheartedly in determining the poems' meaning, enhancing the pleasure of reading and studying their poems.
Philosophers have always been much concerned with the concepts of love, time, and free will. Both Eliot and Beckett get across their feelings, while considering these concepts, as they attain their aspirations as artists. Both poets, one explicitly and the other implicitly, comment on their goals. In movement V, Eliot says, "Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach" the stillness. He strives to achieve through form and pattern the equilibrium — the still point — where all contrasts, conflicts, and forces that thrust themselves upon his emotions are balanced. Eliot seeks a time of exhaustion (Poetry 98), when the internal voices are quiet, and at least for now, he has said enough about love and time. Beckett, in contrast, seeks chaos (Hesla 6). He renounces his masturbatory habits, "the despaired occasion of word shed." With the phrase "better too soon than never," he pursues the impossibility of love and art in his poem — the disequilibria. The cycles may not be broken; the contrasts do not cancel; and, the retreat / pursuit conflicts are not resolved. The loving and not loving, and the chaos, continue: "With eyes like yours / all always is."
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
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?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
. . . . .
why not merely the despaired of
is it not better abort than be barren
the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives
. . . . .
King James Version: Genesis 6 verse 4
There were giants in the earth in those days: and also after that,
when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare
children to them, the same became mighty men, which were of old, men of renown.
New King James Version: Genesis 6 verse 4
There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward,
when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
King James Version: Ecclesiastes 1 verse 9
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be,
and that which is done, is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.
New King James Version: Ecclesiastes 1 verse 9
That which has been is what will be,
that which is done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
King James Version: Ecclesiastes 3 verse 15:
That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been:
and God requireth that which is past.
New King James Version: Ecclesiastes 3 verse 15:
That which is has already been, and what is to be has already been;
and God requires an account of what is past.
Works Cited and Consulted
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot. London: Hamish, 1984.
Beckett, Samuel. Poems in English. London: Calder 1961.
- - -. Proust. New York: Grove, 1961.
- - -. Murphy. New York: Grove, 1957
Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. London: Harper, 1996.
Drew, Elizabeth. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. New York: Scribner, 1949.
Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. London: Farber, 1944.
- - -. On Poetry and Poets. London: Farber, 1957
Frankfurt, Harry G. The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
- - -. Necessity, Volition and Love. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Gardner, Helen. The Composition of Four Quartets. London: Farber, 1978.
Gish, Nancy K. Time in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot. London: Macmillan, 1981.
Gross, Harvey and Robert McDowell. Sound and Form in Modern Poetry. 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1996.
Harvey, Lawrence E. Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.
Hesla, David H. The Shape of Chaos: An Interpretation of the Art of Samuel Beckett. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1971.
Holy Bible: King James Version. Racine, Wisconsin: Whitman.
Holy Bible: The New King James Version. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1982.
Smidt, Kirstian. Poetry and Belief in the Work of T. S. Eliot. London: Routledge, 1949.