Wednesday, 2 January 2013

T.S. Eliot and the turning year

Poets tend to have mixed feelings about the new year. Here’s Tennyson (from In Memoriam):

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

RS Thomas, in ‘Song at the Year’s Turning’ offers only slightly more than naught for your comfort:

Winter rots you; who is there to blame?

The new grass shall purge you in its flame.

T.S.Eliot is good on the year’s turning. These lines seem particularly apt for a New Year’s day when, amazingly, after so much gloomy rain, the sun shines bright in a clear sky:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. (Little Gidding ll.I-3)

But the passage that always comes to my mind is the opening Chorus of Part II of Murder in the Cathedral:

Does the bird sing in the south?
Only the sea-bird cries, driven inland by the storm.
What sign of the spring of the year?
Only the death of the old: not a stir, not a shoot, not a breath.
Do the days begin to lengthen?
Longer and darker the day, shorter and colder the night.
Still and stifling the air: but a wind is stored up in the East.
The starved crow sits in the field, attentive; and in the wood
The owl rehearses the hollow note of death.

Fifty years ago I was a member of the Chorus in a school production of Murder in the Cathedral. The part of Thomas Becket, that turbulant priest, was played by John Methuen, himself one day to become a turbulent figure as Dean of Ripon. Somewhere I still have some photographs of the production, and I wish I could find them now. I remember his performance as Thomas: it had astonishing power and captured the essential inner stillness of Eliot’s Archbishop. I remember, too, that he later produced John Barton’s RSC anthology of dramatized readings, The Hollow Crown, in which I had a part. He was a generous and humane presence in a school where such qualities were not always to be found.

The producer of Murder in the Cathedral was Malcolm Ross, at that time Head of English at my school, and one of the key influences in my life. Later he became (and remains, fifty years on from that production) a national figure in the world of the arts in education. It was Mr Ross who, in the classroom, first introduced us to the work of modern poets: Eliot, of course, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes. Both in the classroom and outside it, he encouraged us to write poetry. Up until then, at prep school, my experience of reading and writing poetry had got no further than the Georgians.

Malcolm Ross was a great encourager, but strict too. He encouraged us to write in different ways and to experiment with different forms - Haiku, sprung rhythm and free verse - but he always took care to warn us, quoting Eliot, that ‘no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job’. Poetry was at the heart of all his teaching: at the same time as we were rehearsing Murder in the Cathedral, he was introducing us to Eliot’s Preludes and to Landscapes. We began to understand how to make connections. In class before lunch we read

                   Still hills
Wait. Gates wait. Purple trees,
White trees, wait, wait,
Delay, decay. Living, living
Never moving. (Landscapes II. Virginia)

After lunch, in rehearsal, we acted:

When the leaf is out on the tree, when the elder and may
Burst over the stream, and the air is clear and high,
And voices trill at windows, and children tumble in front of the door,
What work shall have been done, what wrong
Shall the bird’s song cover, the green tree cover, what wrong
Shall the fresh earth cover? We wait, and the time is short
But waiting is long.

Our rehearsals were in the school chapel, a very modern building, only consecrated that year. It had a raised nave that sloped gently like a theatre auditorium. This was where we were to perform the play. For a term and a half, aged 14, as a member of the Chorus, I lived with Eliot’s poetry inside my head and on my tongue. The performances themselves, four of them, just before Easter 1964, were – and remain – one of the most intense experiences of my life.

Eliot’s play is rarely performed these days. But, having once been one of the Chorus (‘we, the scrubbers and sweepers of Canterbury’) in Murder in the Cathedral, I can never think of the new year, and the seasons as a whole, except through the words spoken by the Chorus in the play’s concluding Benedicite, as Malcolm Ross directed us:

[All] Even in us [ pause: one beat]the voices of seasons, [Barlow] the snuffle of winter, [Bryant] the song of spring, [Delve] the drone of summer, [Norfolk and Moor] the voices of beasts and of birds, [All] praise Thee.

Adrian Barlow

Postscript: Malcolm Ross’s most recent book, Cultivating the Arts in Education and Therapy (2011) ends with a credo by my old teacher that speaks as powerfully to me today as his teaching and encouragement did many years ago:

It is the job of the arts teacher and arts therapist to cultivate the habit of art to enrich the lives of young people growing up, to repair the stricken lives of people who have lost, failed to discover or been prevented from discovering the power and confidence to act expressively …. The habit of art must be worked at devotedly, must be perfected as a way of life, worn as a familiar garment, easily and with confidence. pp.196-7

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