As a schoolboy in a Catholic boarding school in Derry, I was daunted by T. S. Eliot and all that he stood for. Nevertheless, when an aunt of mine offered to buy a couple of books for me, I requested his Collected Poems. Name and date–1955–were duly inscribed, so I was fifteen or sixteen years of age when the dark blue, linen-bound volume came into my possession: the British edition of Collected Poems 1909-1935, the one that ended with “Burnt Norton” and had by then been reprinted fifteen times. It arrived in a food-parcel from home, and it had an air of contraband about it, because the only reading matter we were permitted, I am shocked to recollect, was what the sparsely stocked college library held, or what our course syllabi required. So there I was in 1955 with my forbidden book in hand, with a literary reach that exceeded my grasp, alone with the words on the page.
For a long time that book represented to me my distance from the mystery of Eliot’s poetry and unfittedness–as reader or writer–for the vocation it represented. Over the years I could experience in its presence the onset of a lump in the throat and a tightening of the diaphragm, symptoms which until then had only affected me in math class. Later, during my first year at Queen’s University, when I read in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End an account of the character called Leonard Bast as somebody doomed forever to be familiar with the outsides of books, my identification was not with the privileged narrative voice but with Bast himself, pathetic scrambler on the edge of literacy.
Read the complete essay
Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.