2

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.

I'm definitely interested in interpretations of the line, should people feel inclined to comment, but I'm really asking for is a technical breakdown of the grammatic structure. It's been bugging me for several decades.

Source: Little Gidding

Full text of the Four Quartets

  • What is your interpretation so far? (if you've been pondering it for several decades!) – marcellothearcane Jun 30 '17 at 19:54
  • 1
    @marcellothearcane it's clearly liminal, and my feeling is the ambiguity is intended. In terms of meaning, it may relate to the merging of the language of future and past, consistent with the opening of the poem "Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future/and time future contained in time past." LG II is the most Purgatorial of all the verses, and Purgatory is a liminal place. So we have a line that doesn't quite fit with the previous and subsequent sentence structure, but binds and connects them. – DukeZhou Jun 30 '17 at 20:07
  • @marcellothearcane but I never properly learned English grammar, preferring to memorize verse, and so I'm not qualified to diagram the sentence. ;) – DukeZhou Jun 30 '17 at 20:09
  • 1
    @marcellothearcane great advice. I added links. Reincarnation less, I think, than rebirth/resurrection of the spirit, but the overall poem is a fusion of Eastern and Western ideas: I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant-/among other things - or one way of putting the same thing:/that the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray/of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,/ Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened. [The Dry Salvages III] – DukeZhou Jun 30 '17 at 20:26
  • 2
    "Between two worlds become much like each other"--between is a preposition; "two worlds become much like each other" is the object; the later phrase stands for "two worlds that have become much like each other". The spirit moves easily between them (the living and the dead, perhaps). – Xanne Jun 30 '17 at 22:15
1

Syntactically most of the passage is reasonably straightforward. In fact, the main complication (in my view) is the approximately three lines that read as follows:

as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So,

If we set them aside for the moment, we get this set of lines:

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
But I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.

Rendered as sentences rather than poetic lines, this material looks like this:

For last year's words belong to last year's language, and next year's words await another voice. But I find words [that] I never thought to speak in streets [that] I never thought I should revisit when I left my body on a distant shore.

As I said, the syntax seems reasonably straightforward. Now let's return to the problematic lines:

as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So,

The trickiest element in this section is the verb become in the middle of the third line. But as Xanne notes in a comment above, the line becomes intelligible if you add "that have" (or perhaps, with a poetical flourish, "that are") before become:

as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds [that have] become much like each other,
So,

The other mild source of wonder in these lines is the use of "unappeased and peregrine*, a phrase that modifies spirit but appears after the noun instead of before it. If we flip the order of the modifiers and the noun, however, we see that the transposition is a misstep. The first two lines

as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the unappeased and peregrine spirit

seem fine, but the next line balks at attaching to it. Either we need to interpolate "[that is]" between spirit and between, which in a prose version of the wording would look like this:

as the passage now presents no hindrance to the unappeased and peregrine spirit [that is] between two worlds [that have] become much like each other,

or we need to undo the leftward movement of the two modifiers and interpolate "[that is]" between spirit and unappeased, which would look like this in prose:

as the passage now presents no hindrance to the spirit [that is] unappeased and peregrine between two worlds [that have] become much like each other,

In the second rendering, peregrine dominates the phrase (as it should). The word calls to mind the peregrine falcon, of course, but it also emphasizes peregrination in the human sense, as of the far-traveling praetor peregrinus of Roman times. In fact, according to American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011), peregrinus means "wandering" or "pilgrim"—a nice ambiguity for a description of the unappeased spirit.

The association of peregrine with a falcon that is notable for its speed and lethality as a hunter may seem odd, but AHDEL explains that the name came not from the bird's hunting habits but from the environment in which falconers captured it:

peregrine falcon ... {Middle English, translation of Medieval Latin falco peregrinus (so called because they were caught in passage rather than taken from the nest as were eyas falcons).}

The only remaining tweaks to a prose version of the passage would be to understand the as after "But" in the third line to mean "given that" and to understand the So at the beginning of the sixth line to mean "it follows that." These various substitutions and interpolations (plus some minor changes in punctuation) yield this prose form of the whole passage:

For last year's words belong to last year's language, and next year's words await another voice. But [given that] the passage now presents no hindrance to the spirit [that is] unappeased and peregrine between two worlds [that have] become much like each other, [it follows that] I find words [that] I never thought to speak in streets [that] I never thought I should revisit when I left my body on a distant shore.

That, it seems to me, is how the syntax works in this passage.

  • Your breakdown on "become" is quite simple and elucidating, and sheds light on on broader association with the binaries prevalent in both the passage, and the poem itself. "both good and bad", "last years words" vs. "next year's words", and ultimately, "the fire and the rose" that become one. Excellent, excellent answer! – DukeZhou Sep 3 '17 at 21:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.