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The Words of T. S. Eliot

British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 – 1965) was one of the twentieth century's major poets. Born in the United States, he moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25, and was eventually naturalised as a British subject in 1927, renouncing his American citizenship. His poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), was seen as a masterpiece of the Modernist movement. This was followed by The Waste Land (1922), ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925), ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), and Four Quartets (1945), some of the most famous poems of the Twentieth Century. He also wrote plays including Murder in the Cathedral (1935). Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, particularly for Four Quartets, which is made up of four long poems, published at first separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942), each of which has five sections. They address theological, historical and physical concepts in relation to the human condition.

In Burnt Norton, a narrator walks through a garden, describing the images and sounds - a bird, the roses, clouds, and an empty pool. The goal is seemingly a ‘still point’ and ‘a grace of sense’. The narrator later contemplates the arts as they relate to time and the poet's art of manipulating words, concluding that ‘Love is itself unmoving, / Only the cause and end of movement, / Timeless, and undesiring.’

East Coker continues with the theme of time and meaning. Eliot suggests an answer for those who despair: ‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.’

The Dry Salvages explores images of river and sea and makes efforts to contain opposites: ‘The past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled.’

In Little Gidding, Eliot imagines meeting Italian master-poet Dante during the German bombing of Britain in the war, and, like Dante, comes to see Love as the driving force behind all human experience.

The Quartets end with the affirmation of Julian of Norwich, an English Christian mystic and theologian: ‘All shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.’ Indeed, the Four Quartets cannot be understood without reference to Christian thought: Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of Dante and others, and mystics like St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich on his journey towards a ‘deeper communion’.

Here are some of his words, from his poetry and other writings:

'Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.'

‘Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity'

'Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage we did not take, towards the door we never opened, into the rose garden.'

'We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us... and we drown.'

'If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, then you must accept the terms it offers you.'

'Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from these.'

'Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow’

'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.'

'You are the music while the music lasts.'

'Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.'

'Humankind cannot bear very much reality.'

'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'

'What is hell? Hell is oneself.

Hell is alone, the other figures in it

Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from

And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.'

'Love is most nearly itself

When here and now cease to matter.'

'Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.'

'If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?'

'It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.

Resign yourself to be the fool you are...'

'The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.'

'Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.'

'I learn a great deal by merely observing you, and letting you talk as long as you please, and taking note of what you do not say.'

'Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’

'Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.'

'The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man’

'Success is relative. It is what we make of the mess we have made of things.'

'We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.'

'The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.'

'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 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.'

'Where does one go from a world of insanity? Somewhere on the other side of despair.'

'Do I dare Disturb the universe?'

'There is one who remembers the way to your door: Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.'

'We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.'

'To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man's life.'

'I must tell you that I should really like to think there's something wrong with me - Because, if there isn't, then there's something wrong with the world itself-and that's much more frightening! That would be terrible. So I'd rather believe there is something wrong with me, that could be put right.'

'Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.'

'Teach us to care and not to care'

'We do not pass through the same door twice

Or return to the door through which we did not pass'

'I love reading another reader’s list of favourites. Even when I find I do not share their tastes or predilections, I am provoked to compare, contrast, and contradict. It is a most healthy exercise, and one altogether fruitful.'

'This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.'

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