In high school, my literary opinions were as absolute as they were ill-considered. T. S. Eliot did not escape unscathed; he wrote poems about cats, and I had thoughts. My reasoned criticism amounted to a judgment that T. S. Eliot was a moron. I do not remember how much later I re-encountered his poetry, only that it was the first of many youthful literary critiques I would later recant. A decade after rolling my eyes at Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, I had framed calligraphed lines from “Burnt Norton” on my wall:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
When I wasn’t formulating teenage literary judgments, I was usually in ballet class. I loved nothing more than to dance. Ballet is a pas de deux of blood and grace; I beat my body into submission. In my closet was a pile of broken and blood-stained pointe shoes. I danced after surgery, with injuries, even with broken bones. My feasibility gauge was, “If I can walk, I can dance.” But ballet is also what you have been given. I was given the requisite long neck, expressive hands, and high arches. I was also given a body far too tall for any hope of a professional career. (This was a grace of its own, sparing me from the cut-throat world many of my classmates entered). When I danced, the suffering and the soaring were inseparable and unpredictable. From the outside, it would be easy to see only a two-dimensional picture of one or the other. One might see the punished and weary body, while another sees only effortless long-limbed leaps across the stage. But neither is the fullness of reality.
Eliot’s fullness of expression does not allow for flattened caricatures; he has the courage not to shy from sharp edges. After the expression of the still point, “Burnt Norton” ends with the lines,
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after
In the subsequent poem, “East Coker,” he returns to the theme of stillness but within a bleaker setting:
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant…
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
Waste sad time, dark dark dark – It would be easy to read such allusions to suffering as overly melodramatic or a cry for help. Instead, with stunning bravery, Eliot unveils that hope untried by suffering is not hope at all. It is only through acknowledging the darkness that he can offer hope that is not merely sentiment:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
This is no glib, ill-timed, “Well, you know, God works all things together for your good.” Instead, it is a humane summons to embrace paradox. I must be still, yet this is something I can do. Neither arrest nor movement – there is wisdom in the stillness and virtue in its exercise.
It is easy to miss the epigraphs that begin the Four Quartets; Eliot includes two quotes from Heraclitus’s Fragments in the original Greek. A translation of the first reads, “Although logos is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.” Living with wisdom that is only our own at best results in gratuitous teenage literary criticism. But Eliot is not only concerned with wisdom but also virtue – wisdom embodied in the actions of our hearts and our feet. The second fragment reads, “The way upward and the way downward is one and the same.” He is concerned with not only what we think but also how we move. These are both embodied in the still point; it is wisdom’s lecture hall and virtue’s practicum.
From time to time, I hold an image in my mind when I pray. There are two opposing landscapes: one is a mountain lake with a resplendent sunset, the sky alive with shades of coral. The other is a dark forest, forbidding entry with gnarled purple branches. As I pray, I have my back to one, face to the other. They both exist – afflictions that feel neither light nor momentary opposing the hope of the eternal weight of glory. But I have a choice towards which landscape I will face. Which will be the perspective of the day’s work and prayers? Facing the lake, the still point is embodied. Recognizing the choice is wisdom and living the choice is virtue.
Eliot concludes the Four Quartets by telling us the cost and the reward of choosing the still point, using Julian of Norwich’s words of grace and truth:
Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
Recently I saw a question on social media with two options. First, you could go back and give your six-year-old self all the knowledge you now have. Alternatively, you could choose ten million dollars. I would choose the money. I expect that a sudden sum with that many zeros would be bad for my soul. But I think that knowledge and wisdom without cost would be worse. If you look closely, even after decades, the scars on my toes remain. I remember what it cost to dance freely in those days – torn toes always hidden from sight. Without the blood, there would have been no dance. And there is only the dance.