The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind blankets the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.
As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of No-Longer and the land of Yet-to-Be. Perhaps a moonlit shard of truth reveals itself to revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into forgetfulness, while that which is yet-to-be stirs toward vitality.
Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence, even as their grandparents sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn.
Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against this backdrop of continual change, a torrent of words flows on: a steady sluicing of syllables seemingly without end. For those who read, and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the river it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts. nourishing the creativity taking root along its course.
Still, for the poets, novelists, and essayists among us — for every wordsmith stepping into and hesitating around this outpouring of words — another truth clamors for recognition.
Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization. Syllables rearrange themselves; paragraphs take on life; sentences fade into obscurity. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.
Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” whispers of an experience every writer knows:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…
Within the context of “The Hollow Men,” these words carry particular meaning. But within the context of Eliot’s life and work as a whole, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood and uncomfortable truth. Words are not ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners in the poor cupboards of our mind or twisted beyond recognition, words maintain their integrity, and words will have their way.
The shadow of wordlessness that comes upon us from time to time, our sense that language itself has grown as old and tired as the vision of our spent imaginations, is rooted in our misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify narratives which refuse to be reclaimed. When the turning of the year has come, no formula, no key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars can guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.
But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. There are emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon they are, in fact, our New Year’s words.
Whether and how we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will. Perhaps not. But among those who have dared to ford the swiftly-flowing river of words, some have sent back bulletins from their newly-discovered territory, granting us guidance for our path.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres —
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”