I haven’t read much of Eliot’s poetry since my schooldays, though I did spend some time studying the “Four Quartets” a few years ago, curious as to why the poem as a whole did not stick in my mind the way “The Wasteland”, for example, did. In preparing to lead a discussion of Eliot’s poetry for our local poetry group, I did reread this collection, along with some critical essays on his work.
Although I’ve always appreciated Eliot’s poetry—the range of thought behind it, the attempt to address great themes, the individual lines that one can never forget—I can’t say that it has moved me deeply. An exception is this remembered section from “Little Gidding” that had sent me back to the “Four Quartets”:
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Not to sound like a character out of the tv series Lost, but speaking with the dead, speaking for the dead, has been an obsession of mine for some years. Perhaps obsession is too strong a word, but certainly an obligation. What I found in rereading this collection was a short poem that affected me as though the dead were in truth speaking to me: “Rannoch, by Glencoe”. You can read it here:
I don’t recall having read it before, but coming as I do from a long line of MacDonalds, I am shocked that I might have skipped over or forgotten anything referring to Glencoe. The Massacre of Glencoe lives on in the minds of MacDonalds; one has only to read Alistair MacLeod’s excellent short stories and novel to see its effect played out in the present. On February 13, 1692, three troupes of Campbells, who had requested and been granted hospitality by members of Clan MacDonald, rose up in the night and murdered their hosts. 38 MacDonald men were killed; 40 women and children later died of exposure after their houses had been burned. Coming as it did after the defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne and the end of the rebellion, the massacre of the Royalist MacDonalds by the Parliamentarian Campbells was unnecessary and egregious, the crime exacerbated by the abuse of the unwritten law of hospitality.
A few years ago, I happened to meet a colleague in an Irish pub, and he introduced me to one of his clients whose name happened to be Campbell. I said that I was a MacDonald. In no time, we were refighting the battle, pulling out justifications for each side. The incident made me realise yet again how we carry the past with us. It also made me look with new eyes at today’s conflicts that are fueled by old wrongs.
Eliot’s poem is a marvel of compression. It captures that eerie sense of dislocation that one often feels revisiting an old battlefield, as one member of the discussion group said, recalling his own visits to Gettysburg and Antietam. Another member pointed out that though the beginning includes wildlife appropriate to a pastoral scene—crows, deer—they are “starving crows” and a stag that “Breeds for the rifle”, leaving us disturbed and uneasy. She also noted that the closeness of the sky overhead, “scarcely room/To leap or soar”, creates a sense of claustrophobia. The closeness of the past, the memory that seems to be bred in your bone: Eliot captures these perfectly. And his later description in “Little Gidding” of how these old foes now stand together makes me wonder again what we owe to the past, to the dead.