Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,

We only live, only suspire/ Consumed by either fire or fire

Or: On T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock, specifically the ending of the latter.

Make no mistake, I think that a great deal of the latter-- not just the ending-- is imbued with Eliot, but that is a much longer essay and one I think Jones may have already written, if I can find it.

Massive spoilers for Fire and Hemlock; dissection; close-reading. Part I of two entries, I'm afraid.

Now, it is a principle throughout the Four Quartets that the ending is contained in the beginning. The exact phrase, 'In my beginning is my end', occurs at least twice outright and in variations several other times; the inversion, 'In my end is my beginning', also occurs. This is absolutely true of Fire and Hemlock. All the elements of the ending are laid out very neatly quite close to the beginning.

After Polly first meets Thomas Lynn, when he has taken her out onto the porch to get her (and himself) away from the funeral and the two of them have started making up alternate story-identities as a game between them, they go out into the garden.

"As he spoke, they pushed out from between the gray hedges into a small lawn with an empty sunken pool in it. A brown bird flew away, low across the grass as they came, making a set of sharp, shrieking cries. The wind gusted over, rolling the dry leaves in the concrete bottom of the pool, and a ray of sun followed the wind, traveling swiftly over the lawn.

'For instance,' said Mr. Lynn, and stopped.

The sun reached the dry pool. For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of the light filled the pool deep with transparent water. The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom, were, just for an instant, floating, green and growing. Then the sunbeam traveled on, and there was just a dry oblong of concrete again. Mr. Lynn saw it too. Polly could tell from the way he stopped talking.

'Heroes do see things like that,' she said, in case he was alarmed.

'I suppose they do,' he agreed thoughtfully. 'True. They must, since we both are..." (pp. 15-16 of the 1986 Berkley paperback.)

They go on talking, continuing to make up the story of their alternate, heroic selves as they walk across the garden. Then Mr. Lynn has something to show Polly:

"He led the way up the lawn, against the gusts of wind, right up to the house. Three stone steps there led up to a closed door. On either side of the steps there was a short stone pillar with a stone vase on top of it. Mr. Lynn stretched his arms out so that he had a hand on each stone vase. 'Are you looking?' he said, standing in his bowed way between them. Like Samson in my book, Polly thought, getting ready to pull the temple down.

'Yes,' she said. 'What?'

'Watch.' Mr. Lynn's hand moved on the right-hand vase. The vase began to move slowly, grating a little. Two, three heavy turns and it stopped. Now Polly could see there were letters engraved on the front of the vase.

'HERE,' she read.

'Now watch again,' said Mr. Lynn. His big left hand spun the other vase. This one went round much more smoothly. For a while it was a gray stone blur. Then it grated, slowed, and settled, and there were letters on it too.

'NOW,' Polly read. 'NOW--HERE. What does that mean?'

Mr. Lynn spun both vases, one slowly, grinding and groaning, the other smooth and blurring. They both stopped at exactly the same time.

WHERE, said the one on the left. NOW, read the right-hand one.

Upon which, Mr. Lynn spun them again. This time when they stopped, the vases read NO and WHERE.

'Oh I see!' said Polly. 'NOWHERE! That's clever!' She moved sideways to look round the curve of the vases and found they still said NOWHERE, though this was because the left-hand vase now seemed to say NOW and the right-hand one HERE from where she had moved to. Both vases really said NOWHERE, but the letters were so arranged on them that you could never see the whole word at once on the same vase. Polly made sure, by going right up to them, ducking under Mr. Lynn's arm, and putting her head sideways to see the letters round the other side.

'Yes, that's right,' Mr. Lynn said. 'They both say NOWHERE really.' He spun them again, the slow grinding one and the fast smooth one, and this time they came up with HERE--NOW. 'Heroes see things like that,' he said.

'It's obviously an enchantment of some kind,' Polly said, humoring him.

'It must be,' he said. It sounded as if he was humoring her." (pp. 18-19.)

This is the heart of the book, these two selections, the images that explain everything. And the pool is straight out of Eliot.

"Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality."
-- Burnt Norton, I.

You will note, in the first Fire and Hemlock selection, that Jones has even kept the bird; also, it is autumn in both book and poem, Polly has come to the house on All Hallow's Eve. Earlier in the stanza which contains the image of the pool, Eliot is discussing things which never happened. The entire pool sequence takes place in an alternate reality, a possibility: "Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden." There are in fact two separate layers of unreality: the persons in the poem did not take the door into the rose-garden, and then, when they got there, the garden was full of ghosts (and Immanence), which dissipated, but they're still standing in the garden, where they didn't go.

And there are two layers of unreality to Tom and Polly's garden pool as well. They begin by walking along telling one another their names; they continue by telling patently untrue stories about themselves as mythical heroes; they see the water in the pool; the water vanishes; they continue walking along in the garden telling one another stories. It is the same progression. "Heroes do see things like that," Polly says of the greatest level of unreality-- you must be a hero, you must be in the realms of the unreal, in order to see that kind of thing at all.

The Nowhere vases, then, are the same metaphor, over again: you begin at NOW--HERE, you go on to WHERE--NOW, and you arrive at NOWHERE-- and then, if you spin again, back where you started. "Heroes see things like that," Mr. Lynn says, tying the Nowhere vases, the phenomenon of them, explicitly to the experience they have just had at the pool, and they both jokingly admit it to be an enchantment.

But, says Eliot's thrush, lurking in the transmutation of these images from poem to book, Go, go, go, it is all real, and you cannot bear it.

And it is. The house is the house of the Queen of Faerie. Both the vases and the pool are hers. Thomas Lynn is in durance vile and in a bondage from which he has little hope of escape. He is already living in NOWHERE. When Polly sees the water in the pool, the water which Tom must know is present in NOWHERE, it indicates that she can be the bridge between Tom and HERE--NOW, for they can both see the water at once when they meet in WHERE--NOW, the story that is more real than Tom's life and less than Polly's. The comparison of Tom as he spins the vases to Samson pulling down the temple is apt, for by showing Polly this metaphor (also, later in the book, the mechanism used to go between worlds-- spin the vases, change dimensions) Tom is tearing down his prison around him.

There are several other notable things in the beginning sections of the book: Mr. Lynn's physical strength, for instance. In HERE--NOW, for most of the book, he presents as weedy and gawky and thin and reedy, ineffectual, not terribly physically commanding. In WHERE--NOW, the story Tom and Polly tell each other, he is an ironmonger and hero and can lift immense weights and swing a sword. When he is spinning the Nowhere vases-- he is Samson.

Also, I think it is interesting that Polly comes to the house not only on Halloween, but on a day when she has already been observing various superstitions and taboos scrupulously; in a wild chase with her friend Nina, for example, after they see a hearse Nina says they must hold their collars till they see a four-legged animal, and they do. This keeps her safe, I think, even if some of it is accidental, for later on in the book, Seb, the creature of the Queen's who has been set to watch Polly, says that they knew she was a threat as soon as they saw her: she didn't eat and she didn't drink and she spun the Nowhere vases, so she had to be watched. (Not eating or drinking seems to have been something of a lucky accident, although also an example of why Polly is suitable to save Tom. There is a scene where she is offered a drink and politely accepts it and then leaves it on a chair, not wanting to be rude and drink in a house she does not belong to.)

Anyhow. For much of the rest of the book Polly holds onto Tom, as one does with Tam Lins, and holds hard; this by continuing the story they are making up together, the tale of WHERE? NOW. (Note that the chapter titles of Fire and Hemlock are basically every possible permutation and palindrome on the word NOWHERE, which is one thing that convinces me of the centrality of the metaphor.) There are all sorts of fascinating twists and tangles on this, but eventually the Fairy Queen convinces Polly to give Tom up, to let him go, and she does so, partly because of the Queen's lies concerning HERE--NOW, but partly because she is beginning to love Tom and is jealous of and confused by the Queen's sexual hold on him, and because she performs a specific act of magic intended to summon Tom and make him hers; acceptance of the reality of both HERE--NOW and NOWHERE on two separate levels of Polly's mind (neither of which believes the other) breaks her hold on WHERE--NOW.

At the end of the book, in the chapter appropriately titled NOWHERE, after Polly has decided that she must get him back and has realized that it is the end of the seven years and he is doomed shortly, she goes back to the house, following Tom, taking the Queen's train with him through NOWHERE.

Here is the garden, the second time:

"At first sight it seemed to be autumn in the garden. The trees there were an unmoving glory of rust, copper-green, olive-silver, and strong yellow fading to purple and deep rose red. But it was hot as summer. Polly's hair and Tom's parka steamed in the heat. Swallows flickered in the blue sky overhead, and bees filled the crowding roses to one side-- not white roses as Polly remembered, but heavy red and bronze and glaring pink. The shape of the garden had changed too. The lawn now sloped clear down from the house to the place with the empty concrete pool, which was in full view, flanked by six-foot growths of hemlocks. The pool was not precisely empty any longer. It was shimmering, all over a surface that did not seem to be there. Strong, colorless ripples bled up from it, like water or heated air, wavering the hemlocks and the trees where they passed. Polly could not look at it.

The people were all gathered in the upper part of the lawn, holding wineglasses. It could have been a harmless, charming picnic. They were in elegant clothes, the women in long dresses and picture hats, the men in white or in morning dress. There was a murmur of talk and laughter." (pp. 265-66.)

Also, Tom's musician friends, the fellow members of his string quartet, have been seated in the shrubbery, therein to make music, a minor point I find amusing.

This is Eliot's garden of ghosts if you have got into the wrong level of it. Only an intimation of what humans cannot bear (reality, immanence, timelessness, death, life, who knows-- it is too strong) wells out into the here and now. In Nowhere, it is too strong even to look at.

Polly begins to ponder Nowhere. "You slipped between Here and Now to the hidden Now and Here-- as Laurel had once told another Tom, there was that bonny path in the middle-- but you did not necessarily leave the world... Two sides to Nowhere, Polly thought. One was really a dead end. The other was the void that lay before you when you were making up something new out of ideas no one else had quite had before. That's a discovery I must do something about, Polly thought..." (p. 268) This means, then, that what humans cannot bear, the heart of Nowhere, is not inimical of itself. It can be transmuted, made into WHERE? NOW and from that into HERE--NOW, and is hence the wellspring of the imagination and of all good things, as well as the void of sterility and darkness. This is important for what happens next.

Which I am going to put into a second entry, both for length and because it is two o'clock in the morning; but I absolutely promise to have it up tomorrow, and hopefully this has been interesting and helpful for the time being. Next: more Eliot!

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