‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
‘What is that noise?’
The wind under the door.
‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?’
Nothing again nothing.
‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’
– T.S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying 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. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.
– TS Eliot
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
– T.S. Eliot, from ’Journey of the Magi’
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.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always -
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
– T.S. Eliot, from The Four Quartets
Most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.
– From T.S. Eliot’s preface to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, 1927
Certain producers of plain prose have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum or flat can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy – the human bond with ordinariness. I doubt if much unmitigated ordinariness can exist. As Harold Nicolson, the critic and biographer, once observed, only one man in a thousand is boring, and he’s interesting because he’s a man in a thousand. Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe, a get-poor-quick attitude that wraps up everything in simplistic formulas never to be inspected for veracity or substance. Got up as a cry from the heart, it is really an excuse for dull and mindless writing, larded over with the democratic myth that says this is how most folks are. Well, most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else.
– Paul West