Voldemort to bring poet TS Eliot back to life
Can a 78-year-old poem have lessons for modern society? The Harry Potter star will perform Eliot’s late masterwork, Four Quartets, with its profound messages about memory and civilisation.
In the not-too distant future, Ralph Fiennes will take to the stage. Perhaps he will nod to the audience, and then he will utter these words, written in 1936: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.”
The star, who played Harry Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, has announced that he will soon tour theatres performing TS Eliot’s poetic sequence Four Quartets.
Four Quartets was the poet’s last major work. Eliot finished the collection of four poems in 1943, but Fiennes said yesterday that Eliot’s verse speaks just as clearly to the present. It is a personal meditation on the passage of Eliot’s own life – set against a backdrop of a much larger crisis.
When Eliot wrote the poems, it seemed possible that fascism would conquer the world, and part of the collection is about describing values that might outlast the war – values which he associated with the history of England.
The UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said yesterday that democracy is in crisis around the world. Some suggest that we are now going through dark times similar to the 1930s – what the second Quartet calls “l’entre deux guerres”.
Here are four possible lessons, one from each of the four poems, for our modern times:
1) Humans can’t bear too much reality. If you are looking for an explanation for the popularity of fake news, Eliot offers you this idea. For Eliot, the struggle to find meaning without turning your back on the disorder of reality is almost heroic compared to the lazy option of believing conspiracy theories.
2) Be still. Eliot puts forward a corrective to an age of social media that is, like his own, “distracted from distraction by distraction”. He suggests that we should spend more time contemplating our mortality. Four Quartets makes a strong case for the rewards of calm reflection and meditation in the hurly burly of life.
3) Embrace your past. Few people thought harder than Eliot about the meaning of tradition. As Britain, like many nations, debates its history and the legacy of its empire, Eliot wants us to see why these arguments matter and how they can easily be toxic before they become liberating.
4) But live in the present and keep moving forward. Eliot’s great work stresses that the present transforms tradition. The final poem of the Quartet, Little Gidding, speaks of the blitz and of how one might preserve and rebuild the world without repeating history.
Much has changed since Eliot wrote, but perhaps no one described how we register that change better than he did. As he once wrote, and as Fiennes will soon find himself saying: “Last year's words belong to last year's language, and next year's words await another voice.”
So, can a 78-year-old poem have lessons for modern society?
Of course they can, say some. Eliot’s Four Quartets speaks about faith, time, identity and history. These are hardly issues that have become irrelevant. Poets have spoken to people across generations and continents, as Joe Biden showed when he quoted Seamus Heaney. They shape the way people talk and think for far longer than they live. As Eliot himself writes: “my words echo / Thus in your mind”.
No, say some. There is little to be learned from a man of Eliot’s time other than his prejudices. Besides, poetry is not for learning lessons. Eliot himself always refused to acknowledge that his poems contained any messages. When asked by an undergraduate what he meant by the line: “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree”, he replied, “I meant Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.”
- Is the best work of art the one that the most people like?
- Is it wrong to judge the politics and morals of authors from the past by the standards of the present?
- Write a poem titled Modern Life. Try to mention at least three things that did not exist when TS Eliot published the Four Quartets in 1943.
- The poet Henry Reed wrote a parody of Eliot’s Four Quartets called Chard Whitlow. After reading it alongside the beginning of Burnt Norton, write either a parody of Eliot or of any other poem you feel you can do an injustice to.
Some People Say...
“The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did. Precisely, and they are what we know.”TS Eliot (1888 – 1965), American-English poet
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is widely agreed that TS Eliot is one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. The poet and critic William Empson once said: “like most other verse writers of my generation, I do not know how much of my own mind he invented, let alone how much of it is a reaction against him”. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is still held up as the ultimate example of a “modern” poem, nearly a hundred years after it was published.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is about the difficulty of Eliot’s poems, especially The Waste Land. For some, his work is where poetry starts to go wrong. It is too difficult, too obscure and is full of learned references. For others, the poem grapples with the confusion of life in the 20th century, as technology, war and revolutions were transforming the way people lived. For them, as Eliot himself once said, “poets in our civilization as it exists at present must be difficult”.
- Someone’s greatest enemy. The word comes from the inevitable downfall of the main character in Greek tragedy.
- Eliot’s full name was Thomas Stearns Eliot, though most of his friends called him Tom, and he sometimes went by the nickname of Old Possum.
- It was much more common (in England at least) to speak of England rather than Britain in the early twentieth century. Eliot was actually born in the USA, but came to the UK to study at Oxford in 1914 and stayed behind, becoming in many ways more English than the English.
- L’entre deux guerres
- French. Literally “The between two wars”. In Europe, the period between the First and Second World Wars was often seen as an era of tension and of conflicts that had yet to be resolved.
- The state of being subject to death, as opposed to immortality – eternal life.
- The bombing campaign conducted by the Germans against the UK in 1940 and 1941. Eliot himself was an air-raid warden, which meant that it was his job to raise the alarm and lead people to underground shelters when a bombing raid occurred.
- A short statement that is meant to contain a complicated truth.
- Slavery or oppressive service.