During times like these, when one must spend more time alone and the mind is unsettled, it can be difficult to sit and focus on studying or reading for long periods, particularly when attempting continuous or difficult texts. Poetry, however, requires less sustained concentration and shifts the emphasis of importance towards single lines or short passages, rather than requiring the reading of a whole chapter in order to acquire meaning. It allows more time for ponderance and interpretation, encouraging the mind to drift, meditate and remember. It’s a different type of mental focus than required when following the narratives within novels, or attempting to navigate complex academic books or articles.
There are certain poets whose words were written in, or about, isolation during unsettled times. One such poet is T.S. Eliot, whose life until he met his second wife Valerie was solitary, with years spent writing while working as a banker and editor in London. His year at Merton College was summarised with the words: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead’. Two of his most famous works, The Wasteland and Four Quartets, were written after or during times of great uncertainty, the former published in 1922, when the horror of WW1 was firmly printed in living memory, and the latter in 1941.
The Waste Land is bleak and offers little consolation, but the Four Quartets offer more optimism and hope while at the same time communicating his mental and physical isolation more clearly than any of his other works. The last three movements were written when London was being heavily bombed; something which Eliot observed in his time as an Air Raid Warden on the roof of the Faber & Faber publishing house in Russell Square. He fully acknowledges the war going on around him, referencing the Blitz using Christian imagery:
‘The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror’.
Nor was he afraid to realise the realities of time and death:
‘Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended,
Dust inbreathed was a house –
The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.’
Yet, in taking on these challenges he nevertheless offers many lines of acceptance and hope, one of the most prominent being the Julian of Norwich quote: ‘And all things shall be well, And all manner of things shall be well’, found in the concluding passage of the final Quartet. The combination of this optimism with the abundance of references to his isolation (‘….the light falls, Across the open field, leaving the deep lane, Shuttered with branches’) can offer a new way of looking at one’s own time spent alone in times of stress or anxiety. Here we find an outlook where we see that temporary isolation can refresh our sympathy with others, and allow us to take our loved ones less for granted. Eliot even offers us solace for the future, when the difficult times have passed. In the opening stanzas of the Four Quartets he conveys the futility of regret
‘What might have been is an abstraction, Remaining a perpetual possibility, Only in a world of speculation.’ Eliot is here in uncharacteristically personal, empathetic and optimistic form, feelings of which were possibly borne out of the trauma of living during WW2.
Sometimes, when encountering challenges or dilemmas in the past, I have found that poetry can help me to relax and look at things in a more detached and meditative manner, due to the low level of solid and sustained concentration required to read it. Perhaps it can express things that sentences and paragraphs cannot. It may highlight to us things that we believe to be true yet sometimes fail to act on, such as the usefulness of occasional optimism. Eliot, not exactly known for accessibility, is one poet who can offer very simple advice in incredibly beautiful terms. His Four Quartets, and an awareness of the period of his life in which they were written, highlight the utility of temporary self-isolation and reminds us that all turbulent times will pass. It tells us that during such times we may see certain facts of life more clearly, as well as appreciating what we usually take for granted. I think that perhaps poetry’s greatest and most immediate effect is to make us see more beauty in less. The expression of these sentiments through the thought-provoking form of poetry makes his work a great source of consolation for some when experiencing anxiety or doubt, and I feel that poetry is something more of us should turn to when feeling unsettled and unable to relax.