MY TOP SHELF
[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
T S Eliot (1968)
We had the experience but missed the meaning.
Folio Society, 1968, printed by permission of Mrs T S Eliot and Faber and Faber Limited; bound in natural canvas small f’scap quarto with titles superimposed on parchment labels on spine and upper board (with spare title label) and matching ribbon, in card slip-case.
There is something unavoidably intellectual, antiseptic even, about T S Eliot. You wonder at times if the problem is worse in the poetry or the prose. What do you say of a writer who prefaces a book of poetry with the following, in upper case: ‘I wish to acknowledge my obligation to friends for their criticism, and particularly to Mr John Hayward for improvements of phrase and construction’? And he then follows that with fragments in ancient Greek from Heraclitus (in the old Greek spelling) from a German source, Die Fragmente der Versokratiker. What do you say of a poem that has these lines?
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
Don’t tell me your problems, Digger – you are supposed to be the bloody poet. This is about as moving as watching a desiccated Anglican prelate treat himself for constipation with castor oil. In the name of heaven, how precise is his feeling, or how undisciplined is his emotion, when he is on the nest? Could a man like this give himself to a woman or to God? It comes over you with all the charm of an etherized hand upon a table. Bring your own scalpel. And what happens to the ‘inarticulate’ after it has been raided?
Why is this book there then? This is a beautiful edition to read. This book would not be there in another form – another reason for doubting that you cannot judge a book by its cover.
Then, the author stands for me as a warning of our withering imagination and that Anglo-Saxon aversion to emotional giving, much less surrender. Twentieth century writing can be far too intellectual. Eliot and Joyce can look like show-offs. Someone wisely said that Milton had so much learning that it was a miracle that his imaginative drive had not been crushed. It is ironical that Eliot, whose imagination barely survived, should have led a reaction against Milton – to whose literary and political genius Eliot could not hold a candle. (And they both had trouble with women.)
But, then, like a Wagner opera, some light breaks through and you think that the effort may have been worthwhile. It is a book to be taken with an aperitif on an autumn evening, or, better, before a fire in winter with a bottle of red and the book read by the incomparable Paul Scofield.
From East Coker:
……………..There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
…………..Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
………………………..They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha,
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
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 darkness come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
This is from The Dry Salvages.
We had the experience but missed he meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form beyond any meaning
We assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations – not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.
I thought enough of the lines from East Coker to use them on the face page of a book. It was not a wildly romantic book. It was a book about the law – for company directors. The poet had earned a living working for a bank. He said: ‘The end is where we start from.’