Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets by Thomas Howard.
I have a bit of a confession to make before I go off ranting and raving about this book: There is no way I can be either impartial or brief about this subject (but this is my blog and I can ramble at great length if I want to). T. S. Eliot is my favorite poet and The Four Quartets are arguably his best work, certainly my favorite of his poems. And I can say that definitively because I’ve read all of his published poetical work. In fact, that was my junior project at the University of Dallas. (But if I went into the details of that it would be a whole other blog entry, so I’ll restrain myself to saying it was the highlight of my academic career thus far, and that includes the work I did for my MA.)
In any case, that’s a long-winded way of saying I knew more about Eliot than my professors when I was done with the project. I’ve read the major critics (at least up till 1996) and am pretty solid on what people have written about his works. So when I say that this is the best work I’ve read about any of Eliot’s work, it’s not based on any lack of knowledge of what’s out there.
As Howard himself says in the introduction this is not a work of scholarship or criticism rather it is a “reading”. In other words, reading it is like taking a lovely stroll, line by line, through one of my favorite poems with someone who has walked the path many times before and thus is well equipped as a tour guide to point out interesting features along the way to one who has also walked the way before (as well as to give a friendly arm to those who are coming this way for the first time, to correct a stumble and navigate a clear path through sometimes difficult tangles.)
During my Eliot studies I read many academic works that were completely tone deaf to Eliot’s Catholic faith. Howard cuts to the heart of the matter; Eliot, he tells us, is a Christian and a sacramentalist. We cannot understand this poem without understanding where Eliot stands. Howard points us to Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic faith and especially to the Mass as crucial landmarks we must keep in sight as we are navigating the poem. I wouldn’t trust any guide who was blind to these looming features of the landscape.
This book was a pleasure to read, like a cup of hot cocoa and a warm quilt on a cold night. It will be an even greater pleasure to return again and again to savor all the bits I skipped over in my first hungry gobble.