It is fitting that T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages is the poem that contains the quotation that introduces this question, for Eliot provides several examples of what he describes in Burn Norton as “the still point of the turning world.” Indeed we can find nuances in poems as early as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Prufrock) and all four of the poems in “Four Quartets” seem rich in his examination of these moments. Eliot is, however not the only writer of the first half of the 20th century to look at these moments. Lawrence, in Aaron’s Rod also provides examples of these still moments that provide reflection and communion with our soul.
Perhaps the first task of this essay is to define “these moments” in more definite terms than either the question or the quotation. Williamson describes “Four Quartets” as “exhausting the movement and meaning of time” The poems explore (among other themes) the historical and spiritual in time and timelessness and this is typified by the quotation, in its larger framework it is a comparing of the timelessness of the spiritual Word and the more mundane historical time where ordinary man can only approach the spiritual in the “still point” or as we have it here the “unattended moment.”
In the second stanza of section II of Burnt Norton we have Eliot giving us the perfect summation of these moments — “The still point of the turning world. … at the still point there the dance is \ But neither arrest nor movement. … Except for the point, the still point, \ there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” Here we have Eliot saying we only move in these moments, that are not movement or a lack of movement but just “still”.
Time is often addressed in Eliot’s work, we can find it examined throughout his works. If we examine Prufrock the first question is if he has such moments. Prufrock seems lacking the spiritual peace of the “sill point” and “unattended moment” for he only has “time yet for a hundred indecisions, \ And for a hundred visions and revisions.” These points continue through the poem, with “time \ To wonder ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’ \ Time to turn back an descend the stair.” Here is Eliot examining the internal noise that perhaps stops us coming to the still point. Prufrock does have his moments of reflection and peace when the “afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!” but even here he is talking of having to “force the moment to its crisis” and fills the moments with questions “Should I” and admits that “in short, I was afraid” so ends up filling them with “Do I dare?” and “decisions and revision”. Yet in the end he has “heard the mermaids singing, each to each” and so has had his unattended moments.
“Four Quartets” opens with lines from Burnt Norton that may give another clue to Eliot’s thinking about these moments. “Time present and time past \ Are both contained in time future \ and time future contained in time past.” Here we have Eliot collapsing the concept of time, proposing that all moments are one. He also gives us another view of the “unattended moment” but here from its aftermath where “Footfalls echo in the memory \ Down the passage we did not take \ Towards the door we never opened.” Eliot is presenting us with the consequences of our still points on his concept of a collapsed time. This concept closely echoes the Incarnation from Chorus VII of The Rock “A moment not out of time, but in time … a moment in time but not like a moment in time, \ A moment in time but time was made through that moment.” As Williamson summarises it “If history itself is made by time, time is made by meaning.” Here Eliot is talking about that most critical still point, the moment of Incarnation.
In Aaron’s Rod we can observe Aaron in several unattended moments. If we see this as a classic ‘picaresque’ novel, as discussed in the Introduction to the Penguin edition of the work, then Aaron is always an outsider and therefore an observer. We perhaps see this most strongly in Chapter IV, concerned as it is with Aaron’s observation of his family and home. This observation is his real moment of departure, though it is days since he has been home and his wife has received the letter from the bank telling here he has left and will send her money. The unattended moment is signalled at the start of the third paragraph with “His attention strayed”, though at this point he is uneasy. By the next paragraph “He felt himself almost in physical contact” and here is strong evidence that Lawrence and Eliot are talking about the same sort of moment.
Earlier still in the novel we have another brief moment. The paragraph that starts on page 11 presents an “unattended moment” with Aaron shaving, “the unspeakably familiar. The war was over, nothing had changed. Yet everything was changed.” Lawrence signals the moment as different with “a drop of water fell with a strange, incalculable rhythm from the bright brass tap into the white enamelled bowl, which was now half full of pure quivering water.” Lawrence sums it up superbly with “the changeless pleasantness of it seemed unthinkable. It prevented his thinking.”
In these two passages Lawrence is using the mundane to present these moments. The images of all the domestic and everyday, things such as a drop of water while shaving or a row of lights across neighbourhood backyards contrast strongly with Eliot’s images of music and dance.
If we want to find a moment in Aaron’s Rod that comes close to Eliot’s more spiritual moment we can see one when Lawrence comes back to the scene of Chapter IV in XI, “More Pillars Of Salt”. Here we start once again with Aaron sitting in his garden shed, but it is noticeable that here he is more like Prufrock, disturbed and upset with “his bowels stirred with violent but only half-admitted emotions” It is only after he has once again left the house and family behind that he can have an “unattended moment”. This time it is in a more poetic setting, lying back on the corn sheaves looking at “the stars in the September sky.” Here too we find Aaron ruminating not about the domestic as he does in Chapter IV but thinking about love, his soul and conscience, topics much closer to the concerns of the spiritual Eliot.
Lawrence also seems to portray the sexual act as an “unattended moment” where the participants become the act. An example of this is the second night Aaron spends with the Marchesa. On page 273 we see them making love — “She was absolutely gone, like a priestess utterly involved in her terrible rites. And he was part of the ritual only, God and victim in one. God and victim! All the time, God and victim. When his aloof soul realised, amid the welter of the incantation, how he was being used,—not as himself but as something quite different—God and victim—then he dilated with intense surprise, and his remote soul stood up tall and knew itself alone.” Here we can see that Lawrence is using religious language and symbols to show us two people involved wholly in the act. They are, as Eliot would put it, at the moment where except for “the still point, \ there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” This may not seem an “unattended moment” but if we consider that at this point the two people are both “utterly involved” in the moment, they have become the act itself, we can see that it is indeed “unattended” in the way Eliot means it, for Aaron is not conscious of self, but only of the moment and the spirit of the moment and the two souls involved. Aaron and the Marchesa are defined by the moment. Once again this language and imagery is closer to Eliot than the first moment we examined. Lawrence is exploring these moments in both the mundane and the exotic.
Since Aaron is a musician it would be surprising if we could not find a passage in the book where music allows someone to transcend the physical and indeed there is a fine example in Chapter XVIII. Aaron is playing the flute while the Marchesa sings. “Then her soul and her voice got free, and she sang—she sang as she wanted to sing, … without that awful scotch, that impediment inside her own soul, which prevented her. … How sweet it was to move pure and unhampered at last in the music! The lovely ease and lilt of her own soul in its motion through the music! … And now she breathed full, deep, to the deepest extent of her being. … The song ended, she stood with a dazed, happy face, like one just coming awake.” Once again we can see that Lawrence and Eliot are similar in their appreciation of these moments and what they can bring. Lawrence once again talks of the “soul” and the “being”. Noticeably this time he talks of movement through and in the music, coming closer to Eliot’s vision of the “unattended moment” and the “still point”, we can have the Marchesa as “the music while the music lasts.”
We have seen Eliot describe in general terms these moments and we have seen how Lawrence gives us some examples, but does Eliot himself offer examples of them. I believe that Section II of Little Gidding offers one. When Eliot describes the “uncertain hour” and its happening he offers a moment that is both in and out of time, that is indeed “unattended”. It is a specific moment when Eliot is walking through the streets of London after an air raid, “After the dark dove with this flickering tongue \ Had passed below the horizon of his homing”, but before the all the clear that ends the section, “the blowing of the horn.” It is in a specific place, “Between three districts”. At the same time Eliot shrouds the moment in uncertainty; it is an “uncertain hour” and “at the recurrent end of the unending” for indeed Eliot has probably seen many moments like this one an will see many more in war-torn London. Even the person that he meets is a ghost, indeed a “compound ghost”, not one specific person but a mélange, and though it is “familiar” it has the look of someone “known, forgotten, half recalled” so that they have no real person. Indeed Eliot sums up this confusion of certainty and uncertainty perfectly with “this intersection of time \ Of meeting nowhere, no before and after” we have a moment that agrees the The Dry Salvages “in an out of time.”
So is there a difference between the way Lawrence and Eliot understand these moments? No, there may be a difference in the times that they feel they occur; Lawrence in Aaron’s Rod has them occurring in a wide variety of times from the mundane drop of water to the surreal transport ofthe Marchesa by her duet with Aaron. Lawrence and Eliot both, however see them as moments of transcendence, of communing with the soul. There is however a difference in construction.
The way Eliot constructs his poetry, including this beautifully precise passage, reminds me of a long forgotten definition that poetry is the best possible words in the best possible order or as Eliot puts it in Section V of Little Gidding, “every phrase \ And sentence that is right (where every word is at home, \ … The common word exact without vulgarity, The formal word precise but not pedantic, \ The complete consort dancing together).” Each word is chosen and placed with a precision that conveys his ideas and moves us and reminds us of our own struggle to lose oneself enough to really see and be part of the beauty around us. Yet Eliot’s words are not complex or difficult to understand, they are the simple everyday words and images in our immediate experience yet often ignored.
The poet involves out senses, the gentle touch of sunlight, the smell of the unseen thyme (an interesting use of a homonym), the flash and sparkle of light and the sound of the waterfall until in the final image we aee part of the beauty “while the music lasts.”
The paradox also excites interest. Can we be both in and out of time? Eliot suggests through his work that we can. Can we be both the listener and the music, the dancer and the dance? As I read “but you are the music while the music lasts” it seem true to me, the reader.
Lawrence’s language, too, is simple although his images are homelier. Yet the way he has chosen to describe the drops of water on page 5 lifts it out of the ordinary to create such a moment as Eliot describes, specifically named in the poetry and implied here. A paradox is also present in and around the moment: everything is changed by the war, yet it stays the same in this house built before the war. The feeling is of a hardly acknowledged but very deep pain. It stops his thinking. If he begins to think of this paradox it will be unbearable unlike the exultation of the final image in the quotation from Dry Salvages.
A less homely example of being one with the moment is Lawrence’s description of Aaron’s love making with the Marchesa on page 272. There the images of body and soul are united i the physical act. The words chose are more elemental, more disturbing although the sexual act described may be us at our most human. The placement of the words do recreate the building up of a climax as in the sexual act. Yet as with the example of the tap Aaron is alone, it is almost as if the woman is not present and indeed in the end of this paragraph it is clear that he would prefer it to be so. Here we have a different feeling to that of Eliot when he suggests we are one with the music. While this moment transcends the ordinary, in Aaron’s Rod we are thrown back into what it means to be human.
There is also difference in the presentation of the moments. “Four Quartets” has no real narrative, nor indeed do any of the four poems themselves. They are a blend of episodic moments and theosophical discussion, though we should not see this as criticism, it is one of the differences between the novel and poetry that a novel almost demands a narrative line. In this context the discussion of the “unattended moment” and the one or two moments themselves stand almost isolated reflecting on the theme of time. Lawrence, it can be argued, in Aaron’s Rod lacks a strong narrative thread. It is, however, still there and Lawrence places the moments into this context. In so far as man’s struggle is a theme of the novel, and the concluding discussion between Lily and Aaron would support this, these moments provide a reflection on that struggle. It is here once again that Eliot and Lawrence are once again on the same path for Eliot is using these moments as illustrations of his view of mankind, his place in the universe and his struggles in this world.
So, in conclusion, we can see that both Eliot and Lawrence use simple language to convey a message of depth and complexity about the moments in our lives where we transcend the moment and become more than just self. While Lawrence does this through moments that are both special and everyday, sitting in a backyard, shaving, making love and playing music, Eliot does it by making more general observations about the human condition and the soul.