Book of a Lifetime: Four Quartets, By T S Eliot
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Friday 30 January 2009
Some books, like some pieces of music, works of art, conversations, people, change everything: once experienced, nothing is ever the same again. From many such before-and-after books I have chosen Four Quartets by T S Eliot (1943). I had read The Waste Land at school, but it wasn't until my first term at Cambridge that I discovered the Quartets in G David, a legendary second-hand bookstore. Pulling out an elegant Faber edition, I skimmed the first few lines of "Burnt Norton", felt the instant clamour in my head and heart and promptly threw down my paltry two quid. Rushing back to college, I gobbled up all four poems in one breathless, astonished sitting.
Four Quartets comprises "Burnt Norton", "East Coker", "The Dry Salvages" and "Little Gidding", all published separately before 1943. The poems are hardly "quartets" in a musical sense. Each is named after a place; they also ruminate, if obliquely, with references as sweeping as the Baghavad-Gita, Dante and Mary Queen of Scots, on one of the four natural elements. Some other common themes recur, but beyond that they resist convenient comparison. To me the poems are essentially abstract meditations on time, faith, war, nature, love, beauty, life, death, redemption. It does not matter who you are; what religion; what creed. Nothing is not there. Everything we might think or feel or question or experience as human beings is somehow evoked and explored.
That first reading, on a grey November afternoon aged 19, was a little like falling in love for the first time. I was giddily aware of being altered, even as I didn't quite know how, or why. The poems were on one level impossible to understand. But on another, I realised they were almost beyond "understanding" in a purely intellectual sense. Eliot's language, like love, or music, snatches at your soul before you realise what is happening; it is this ineffable power that so enthralled me.
The unassuming little book also had a more practical impact on my life. That same Michaelmas term I met a boy who happened to mention at a party that he liked Eliot; I cycled like the wind back to G David the next day to buy the last remaining copy; we went out for the next five years. My thesis on Four Quartets and music initiated a continuing fascination with the nature of language and music, and has shaped much of my work in those disciplines. As an actress, I always speak the poetry to warm up. And I have never yet found poetry to surpass this in its mind-reeling beauty.
Four Quartets is my book of a lifetime because it both changed my life and will, I know, forever be in my life. I return to it constantly, and it is always new. To paraphrase from "Little Gidding": I shall not cease from exploration, and the end of my explorings will be to arrive where I started and know it for the first time.
Clemency Burton-Hill's novel 'The Other Side of the Stars' is published by Headline Review
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Emma Watson on Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak: 'Even worse than seeing women's privacy violated is reading the comments'
- 2 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 3 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 4 Cee Lo Green: It is only rape if the victim is conscious
- 5 Nigerian witch-finder Helen Ukpabio threatens legal action against human rights organisations
Scottish independence referendum: Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai and Frightened Rabbit to play in support of Yes campaign
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Downton Abbey series 5 start date revealed: ITV drama to return in late September
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
Olivia Colman and Mary Berry top Radio Times' female power list
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain