I’ve always thought of Boxing Day – the setting aside of December 26 for gift-giving in England, Canada and elsewhere – as a wonderful invention. Associated with the Feast of St. Stephen but evolving separately, it begins the transition away from Christmas and toward the New Year without losing the celebratory aspects of the season.
Not all gifts arrive on prescribed dates, of course. Some arrive unexpectedly, and some unfold over time in the simple course of living. Of all the gifts life has bestowed on me over the years, I particularly cherish the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Regular readers of The Task at Hand know my regard for Eliot. His vision seems true and his language – difficult at times, if not indecipherable – still is able to wrap around the most inexpressible realities and give them voice.
For poets, it seems, “voice” is everything – not only as a metaphor for their own unique style but as a tool for the understanding and interpretation of their work. Even my great-aunt Ina, who is said to have produced truly bad poetry with the regularity of her egg-laying chickens, seemed to understand the importance of the human voice for poetry. Visiting her kinfolk, she’d chase cousins around the farm, waving sheaves of manuscript and imploring, “But let me read this to you!” In life, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Dickinson and the Brontës may have done the same thing. Today, we’re forced to depend on other people’s voices to revivify their words.
But thanks to technology, Eliot and his contemporaries aren’t quite as dead as Shakespeare. Photographs allow us to ponder his image and the circumstances of his life. Newsreels catch him in the course of travel, lecturing and receiving awards. Recordings allow us to hear him speak and, listening, I find his words vibrant, clear and remarkably approachable, as alive as any greeting I might receive on the street today.
That, of course, is part of the mystery of art and the way in which it communicates – not everyone hears the greeting, and not everyone is inclined to respond. Nevertheless, poets continue to flesh out their vision and craft their words with the human voice in mind, and the opportunity to hear a poet’s words in a poet’s own voice is a wonderful thing.
So it is that, caught between Christmas and the New Year, ready to move on but still uncertain of a path, I pause to offer one more gift: Eliot himself reading the concluding portion of Little Gidding from his Four Quartets. The absence here of the poem’s text or analysis, of propositions for debate or points for discussion is purely intentional. Now and then, it’s quite enough to hear the voice, and absorb the words, and experience the world from a poet’s point of view. What Eliot thought of his poem I can’t say – but it seems to me he succeeded, remarkably well.