Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

From time to time, I read something published within the last few years. Call it “cultural literacy,” or making up for not reading much from the 20th Century when I was in high school, or whatever. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I love short stories, I have often chosen collections of smaller works over longer ones, although I do occasionally pick full length novels like Open City, which I read earlier this year.

But I do love me some short stories. I think that they are actually harder to write than novels, because everything about them - the setting, the characters - needs to be apparent in a minimum of words and time. One cannot waste words, but must polish a few until they are perfect. I tried writing a few back in high school for assignments, and discovered that, while I was reasonably competent with prose, I was hopelessly bad at fiction. (I’m just not creative enough to have stories in my head, I’m afraid.) 

Hall of Small Mammals was published in 2014, and it is Pierce’s debut collection. Most (although not all) of the stories are connected with animal life in some way. From the opening story, which involves a Discovery Channel style show with a science fiction twist (they clone extinct animals), to the closing story featuring enormous guard dogs which can only be calmed by a secret password, the human animal and the other animals interplay in an intriguing dance of character and relationship.

In general, Pierce’s writing is good, his characters compelling, and his situations emotionally and relationally believable (if not entirely situationally believable).

I’ll mention a few that were particularly good. “Shirley Temple Three” opens the collection. What would you do if your semi-estranged son showed up with a pygmy mammoth in his car, and asked you to care for it for a few weeks until the government stopped looking for it? Well, mammoths aren’t all that happy in the sweltering Southern heat either. An interesting way of approaching the issue of relationships.

I also liked “The Real Alan Gass.” In it, the protagonist’s world is shaken when his wife confesses that she has a parallel marriage with a man named Alan Gass. Except, he doesn’t actually exist (at least in the physical world), and their marriage exists only when she is asleep and dreaming. Oddly, this isn’t a fantasy marriage. She and Alan have an ordinary, mundane life, and do ordinary, mundane things. In fact, much like in on television, the sex is all off stage. Still, the protagonist is disturbed by how vivid and detailed the dreams are, and he sets out to find out if there is a real Alan Gass behind the stories. Perhaps she is having a real affair on him, he muses. So he dives in and finds all the Alan Gasses in the phone book for his local area, then the entire nation. He ends up meeting with a few of them, and sharing the story. The parallel twist, if you will, is that the wife is a grad student in advanced physics, working on a theory of parallel universes and chains and other stuff which is beyond me (and the protagonist.) Perhaps she even chose her field of study because of her hyper-realist dreams, which started when she was in high school. It’s an interesting idea, fantastic, yes, but ultimately illuminating. We who are married or in long term relationships with others (whether friends or otherwise) know deep down that others have an inner world as real as our own. Just like not everything that goes on in my mind is known to or understood by others, they too have their inner lives. This story just makes that more apparent. Claire may have two marriages, but there are a large number of Alan Gasses, each with their own lives and stories, and they can be viewed - as Claire does her particles - as different manifestations of the same thing. (Perhaps Douglas Adams portrayed this best in his Hitchhiker's Guide series: as an infinite string of probabilities, like an endless sausage…) Best line from this story: “The daisy is a candidate for the smallest particle in the universe, but no one has devised a way to observe or prove the existence of one. Doing so would probably require re-creating the conditions of the Big Bang, which everyone seems to agree would be a bad idea.”

Another good story, one generally lauded by critics (I looked up a few reviews after I read the book) is “More Soon.” A man dies unexpectedly overseas, and his brother (who he was not close with) ends up responsible for the body. Except the body never arrives, because the death turns out to have been caused by some bizarre and inexplicable virus, which starts killing anyone who examines it. So the body is shipped around the world, with nobody willing to take it. Finally, it is encased in a sealant, and scanned and reduced to data. The best part about the story is that the brother has to deal with the bureaucracy, who is always delivering shocking and horrifying news, but with the promise of “more soon.” More details, more answers, more...resolution, which naturally, never really comes. Unless you can count a digital file where one can view cross sections of the body. Darkly humorous, and a bit too true to life when it comes to bureaucracy.

One more line was worth quoting. It comes from “Why We Ate Mud,” a tale of a childhood romance that never quite worked for the adults.

“When I was little, we went to church maybe once a month,” she says, “But I prayed every night, and I had this magazine cutout on my wall, and I thought it was a picture of God but I later realized it was just Allen Ginsberg.”

I can’t help it, that line makes me laugh every time I read it.

Hall of Small Mammals is an interesting collection. While not in the pantheon of greats, it is a worthwhile read, and gives an indication that the author has an eye for human personality and relationship drama. I intend to keep an eye on him in the future, and see if he further develops his craft.


Some other reviews:

The best of the short stories I have read since I started blogging are these:

Other favorites from my pre-blog days would be O Henry, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Saki.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Great Sand Dunes National Park

This is part of my continuing series on the National Park System.

Last year (2015) was our best year for park exploration. We visited 11 parks, including 7 that we had never visited before.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of three that we visited on our first-ever trip to Colorado. We spent most of our time at Mesa Verde National Park and at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, so we didn’t have a lot of time to spend on other things. However, both Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison were on our way, so we made time to at least see them.

For Great Sand Dunes, we ate lunch there, then had an afternoon to explore. Alas, such a limited time was not nearly enough to see all that I wanted, but it did at least give me enough to work with for a future trip.

Part of the challenge in this particular park is that it has so much. The dunes are the key feature, but there are a variety of habitats, from grass and wetlands to dunes to forests, to alpine tundra at over 10,000 feet. The dunes are tucked in a corner of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. The wind piles the sand up in the dunes, while a couple of creeks wash it back. It is a perfect confluence of factors which keep the dunes intact and in place. The mountains themselves contain alpine lakes and streams, while the wetlands in front of the dunes are home to diverse wildlife.

Because of our limited time, we were only able to explore a little corner of the dunes, and then wait out a thunderstorm in the visitor’s center. The kids got their Junior Ranger badges, and then we had to make tracks for Colorado Springs.

I very much want to come back and spend a week or so. I climbed a ridge, but there was insufficient time to summit the high dune. (These are the highest dunes in North America, by the way - 900+ feet) If we come back in the spring, the creek is flowing, and you can “surf” the surges. Likewise, you can rent sleds and sandboards for the dunes. The kids REALLY want to do that next time. Another visitor let them borrow a sled for a single run, but they want to try the boards too. And then, I would love to take a strenuous hike up one of the mountain trails. The campground looks pretty good too, which is good, because the park is quite literally in the middle of nowhere.

Photo list:

Three habitats (Dunes, creek, mountains) 

Near the top.

Kids sledding.

From the top of the ridge, I could see this thunder cell approaching. It was about 15-20 miles out, so I figured I had just enough time to get off the ridge and across the creek. As it turned out, we made it back to the parking lot just before the deluge. 

This is the ridge that I was on and the dune behind it. Once the cell hit, the wind was gale force. Those sand plumes are easily 30 feet tall. Glad I wasn't up there.

The Thieving Magpie. (Cue Rossini...)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

Source of book: Borrowed from my wife

Without a doubt, this is the fluffiest book I have read this year - and in some time. But it is rather fun fluff. I will also have to confess that it is chick lit - of a sort - which is something I generally do not read. I wanted something a bit light, however, and my wife found it amusing, so why not?

Winifred Watson was an interesting character. Born in England near Newcastle, she expected to follow in her sisters’ path and attend university. Unfortunately for her, the Great Depression hit her father’s shoe business hard, and she had to seek work to help support the family. She took a job as a typist, but found herself with free time in the morning. (Her employer wanted her there just in case - and advised her to bring knitting.) Instead she ended up writing - on a dare no less. When she complained to a sister about the rubbish that was getting published, the sister dared her to write a better book. Over the course of the next few years, she wrote and published six books, the best known (and least characteristic) of which is Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day.

It was a rather dramatic event which terminated her writing career. During the Battle of Britain, her fussy infant son wouldn’t sleep, so she brought him downstairs. A bomb hit the house next door, and blew the chimney into the nursery. This may be one of the few instances in which fussiness had a decidedly positive result. In the wake of the destruction of the two houses, changes had to be made. Watson and her husband and child - and the next door neighbor - all moved in with Watson’s in-laws. With all the people and no space to be alone, Watson found she couldn’t write. Even after things went back to normal, she found she had lost the desire.

The war also put an end to the planned movie based on Miss Pettigrew. Watson would, however, live to the age of 95, and see the book re-released shortly before her death. Posthumously, the book would get the movie treatment, starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. (As usual, the movie appears to have taken significant liberties with the plot.)

The titular character, Guinevere Pettigrew is a 40ish governess mired in poverty. She isn’t particularly good at her job, and admits that children scare her more every year. After losing her job with a rather terrible sounding employer, she is sent by the employment agency on a lead. When she arrives, she finds that her prospective employer is Delysia Lafosse, an actress and socialite. Immediately, she is thrown into crazy situation after crazy situation where she is expected to save the day, whether it is helping Delysia juggle the three men she is involved with, or helping Delysia’s salon-owning friend Edythe win her man back. Along the way, Miss Pettigrew has her first drink (and a few more - but not too many to keep her wits), gets a makeover, visits a nightclub (unthinkable for a vicar’s daughter), and is kissed for the first time.

She feels as if she is being dreadfully wicked, what with drinking and flirting and wearing makeup and hanging out with people her parents would consider thoroughly disreputable. But she finds she likes it, and revels - for a day - in a world she had never experienced.

Miss Pettigrew is in the tradition of the Cinderella story. The dowdy wallflower turns out to clean up well, and discover a wit and charm she didn’t know she possessed.

What gives this particular book its pleasure is that it is from the viewpoint of the disoriented Miss Pettigrew, who discovers that she isn’t who she thought she was after finding her world turned upside down. The small naughtinesses are more thrilling because the prim Miss Pettigrew is experiencing them, and her triumphs are all the more exhilarating because the author makes her character’s nervousness and unintentional audacity real. We discover just what talents Miss Pettigrew has right along with her.

The dialogue is rather fun, with characteristic British wit. In particular, I found the moment when Edythe takes a professional interest in Miss Pettigrew’s face, explaining in graphic detail all the things that need to be done.

Also delightful are Mary Thomson’s drawings. 

 Edythe and Miss Pettigrew

The one thing that grated a bit was more of an affectation of the period and style. Watson subscribed (at least in print) to the idea that women couldn’t resist the appeal of a man who was forceful and aggressive. (Or as Anne of Green Gables would put it, a man who, if not quite wicked, could be wicked and chose not to.) Of course, this fits with the general tenor of the book, which is the allure of almost, but not really quite, scandalous behavior.

I never thought I would go for a book like this, but it was rather fun in its own way. Certainly not deep, but witty and full enough of gentle humor to carry it off.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot

Source of book: I own the complete poems of T. S. Eliot.

Probably most of us who received a typical education ended up reading “The Hollow Men,” and at least a bit of The Waste Land. If nothing else stuck with us, we can at least recognize “This is the way the world will end / not with a bang but a whimper. For my wife, she had some exposure to the Prufrock poems - enough to turn her off to Eliot in any case.

More recently, I read and reviewed The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which is Eliot in a more whimsical mood.

I decided to read Four Quartets because I have two friends who recommended them. The first is Mackenzie Mulligan, an online friend whose book on Saint Peter I reviewed here. The other is my cousin-in-law, who is married to theology professor J. Todd Billings. So really, two theology major sorts, but also some of the few I know who care enough about poetry to quote stuff. How could I resist? Now that I have read them, I can say I have no regrets, and hope to revisit these beautiful poems from time to time. 

I’ll start by saying that I am somewhat knowledgeable about theology, but not particularly into it. I spent a bit too much time in my youth around people who cared rather more about being right than doing right, shall we say. This is not to say that everyone who studies theology turns out to be an arrogant prick, but some certainly do, and I have known a few too many like that. On the other hand, those who recommended these poems are rather to the other side of the spectrum, thoughtful and at least a bit poetic. (Let me specifically mention Todd as the one Calvinist theologian I actually like.) I mention all of this in large part to say that I will not be delving deeply into the theology of these poems, although it is interesting. For all I know, I will miss major themes and ideas simply because of the lens through which I read them.

This is not to say at all that I dislike religious poems. Christina Rossetti was one of my first poetic loves, and I still enjoy her devotional poems for their sincerity of thought, depth of faith, and technical perfection. I also wrote about George Herbert, whose devotional poems may be more old fashioned, but still speak to our hearts today.  More recently, I have discovered two of my all-time favorite poetry books, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (“Song Offerings”), and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. Both are delightfully mystical expressions of longing for the Divine, and transcend any one narrow theological tradition to touch something universal about the quest for transcendence.

Four Quartets moved me much in the same way.

I will admit to being a bit puzzled by the title after reading the first poem and parsing the form of the others. These are not “quartets” in the sense of “four” like one might think. There are four poems, but each is divided into - not four - but five sections. I couldn’t quite understand the point until I did a little research.

Eliot explained that he had in mind both the idea of weaving together three or four “superficially unrelated themes” into a whole. So you sort of have the “four” here. But what he really meant by “quartet” wasn’t a number, but a genre. He toyed with the idea of calling them “sonatas” but decided the term was too specifically musical, and would make sense more to musicians than other readers.

Once I understood this, it made sense. The poems represent in a certain sense, a verbal form of the “sonata form” which forms the basis not just for the vast majority of the String Quartets in the repertoire, but indeed forms the basis of the Symphony itself. A lecture on this goes beyond both the scope of this post and the general interest in the average reader. Those who wish to explore further I would encourage to take a basic music theory class.

In any case, one could understand the format of the poems in light of a movement in Sonata Form.  There is an exposition, laying out the two primary themes (these are parts I and II in each poem), followed by a development wherein there is both a wrestling with the themes and a prayer for resolution (parts III and IV of each poem), followed by the recapitulation, in which all is melded into a final statement and synthesis of the problem and its resolution.

Alternately, one could view the individual poem as not just a sonata-form movement, but as the entire sonata (whether Quartet or Symphony). I am particularly reminded of a couple of Beethoven’s works, which seem to follow the basic form. (The 5th and 9th Symphonies in particular.) Parts I and II more or less represent the first two movements (the 9th fits so well here, with the dissatisfaction of the second parts of the poems matching the frenetic scherzo), a disavowment of sorts in the third movement (and part III), with a transition as part of either the 3rd or 4th movements in which there is a searching - a prayer - for resolution (part IV), with the final movement (part V) breaking free in a synthesis of joy and epiphany.

Okay, it’s at least one thought.

Other things that Eliot brings together in the poems are the ideas of the four “elements” of ancient times: air, earth, water, and fire. These are well evident in the poems, in that order. The last two are particularly obvious. Some have seen the four seasons in them as well. Certainly the last poem combines the ideas of fire and winter in a delightfully striking way. Not sure I see the other seasons as well, however.

Other themes that pervade the poems are time - the way that past, present, and future are connected; and the relationship of man, the universe, and the divine.

So, with this introduction, and the observation that there are multiple layers, only a few of which I am confident I have teased out, here are the lines that spoke to me the most.

The set opens with this:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

This sets the stage for the entire cycle. Eliot wrote this poem some time before he decided to write the others, so this one stands alone in a way, but is also the key to understanding the others. He will explore the idea that the past, present, and future are combined and circular in some way. Thus, the present is what we must live in, but we are haunted, if you will, by the wounds of the past and the speculation of the future. In eternity, all become one.

Eliot captures the feeling of being in the moment, the way that really only poetry can.

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.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Just brilliant. What can I say? I love these lines and love them more and more the more I read them. Or how about this (near the end of the first poem, “Burnt Norton”):

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

I can find no indication that Eliot was a musician, but he must have been a lover of music performed live. Music does move only in time. We can look at the notes on the page, and understand the structure. But the experience in real time - whether as a performer or a listener - is different. There is only now, and music moves only in time. And yet the pattern set by the composer will reach beyond the duration of the performance. And for a well-composed piece, the genesis of the end is apparent at the beginning, and both were always there. This is the sort of truth that the masters of the form - Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms - knew and internalized. Another truly brilliant passage.

The next poem, “East Coker,” continues the theme of time and unity. Where “Burnt Norton” represents the air, “East Coker” looks to the earth, to rock and soil and death and decay. Eliot starts with a refrain which will recur throughout the poem, and echo in some sense in each of the four:

    In my beginning is my end.
There is an interesting technique used in the first part of this poem. As Eliot begins to describe a rustic dance, the spelling and words begin to be in Middle English, rather than the modern English of the rest of the poem. We have “daunsinge” for “dancing” and “betokeneth” and “eche” before the words return to normal later on. Intriguing idea.

Later, Eliot combines astronomy and astrology in a description of the November sky. Whether it is Scorpius setting soon after the sun, or the Leonid meteor shower, Eliot has his facts right.

Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

But then after this flight of fancy, he confesses he doesn’t much like it.

That was a way of putting it - not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

Eliot had hoped, as he puts it, to have somehow achieved the calm serenity and wisdom of age. Instead, he realizes that this is a chimera, and that the aged have both deceived us and themselves. Experience doesn’t bring wisdom after all. Rather, it imposes a false pattern and the old now interpret through a falsity that brings only fear for the future. In the end, the wisdom that matters is the wisdom of humility. I’ll quote the whole passage.

What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us,
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
but all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. 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.

There is so much I feel about this, given my own history and my own struggles with the generation before me. There is a lot of pain, and a feeling that mostly what has been bequeathed is indeed mostly just a receipt for deceit.

Eliot wrote this in part as his response to the devastation of World War I and the realization (in 1940) that a second war was enveloping the world. The “wisdom” of the elders had proven false, and catastrophe had once again struck. Ultimately, Eliot sees the resolution in a personal, inward journey, rather than the political hopes of the rulers.

The third poem, “The Dry Salvages” is about the element of water. The ocean and the bells of the lighthouses predominate. The setting is in Eliot’s native America, rather than his adopted Britain. The poem is both hopeful and pointed, contrasting the lust for gain and profit with a release of self (Eliot invokes Krishna among others) and focus on the divine. The resolution in the last part is thought provoking.

Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of evidence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.

The intersection of timelessness and time - this might be the theme of the cycle reappearing again.

The final poem, “Little Geddings,” picks up the theme, this time with both winter and fire as the metaphors of choice. Again, the time and timelessness, the beginning and the end, appear.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

One of the best parts of this poem was a discussion between the poet and a ghost representing the wisdom of the poets and persons of the past. At the time this was written, the bombing of London was underway, and Eliot himself was in failing health. The poem contains descriptions of the Battle of Britain and the fire that rained down from the skies. But the conversation is intriguing.

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
   To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
   First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
   But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
   As body and should begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
   At human folly, and the laceration
   Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
   Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
   Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
   Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
   Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
   Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
   He left me, with a kind of valediction,
   And faded on the blowing of the horn.

This part is sort of in the terza rima format of Dante, but not quite. But what a bit to unpack here. That last one, the pain of looking back on what we have done, and realizing the harm we have done to others that we believed was exercise of virtue. If I were to list the things that I regret from my youth, these are it. The things I said that I believed at the time to be virtue, which hurt others. Likewise, the deepest wounds I have taken were the same, the death dealt in the name of virtue.

The ending, though, is optimistic. The purging fire of Pentecost has done its work, and there is hope ahead. The very end is perhaps the most famous, and is drawn from the female mystic of the 14th Century, Julian of Norwich

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

It is indeed a beautiful ending, and one that I love indeed. Perhaps that is the greatest longing of a Christian or all that seek the transcendence of the Divine. We long to see the restoration of all things, when all shall be made right.

But let me not give short shrift to the bit right before that, which is in many ways my own journey, not just Eliot’s.

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, unremembered 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.

I find in this an echo and a contrast to the lines in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” where the aged Odysseus cannot lay down his own desire to explore and learn. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

For Eliot, one still strives, seeks, and finds. But ultimately, one does indeed yield. Not in the sense of giving up, but in the sense of arriving. Where Odysseus seeks to revisit the scenes of his triumph and adventure, Eliot returns to his beginning, where everything is found to be new, because seen through new eyes. For Eliot, the circle is complete. “In my beginning is my end” and in his end, is the new beginning he seeks.


A bit of music? There are so many great String Quartets to link. I settled on one of my favorites by one of my favorite composers: the “Rosamunde” Quartet by Franz Schubert. It’s on my bucket list for when I have time to spend my evenings playing chamber music. (I think this is the dream of every serious string player…)