T.S. Eliot and Plato on Love, Longing, Exile, and Edenic Echoes

Expulsion from ParadiseReading Plato’s dialogue the Symposium in conjunction with T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets is a rather fruitful exercise. In the Symposium, often considered Plato’s premier dialogue about Love, we find a group of males assembled for a night of festivities, which includes offering their respective panegyrics to Love. One alleged female voice, however, is permitted a hearing at this overwhelmingly male-populated gathering, namely, Diotima, the philosopher-priest. Yet one could argue that this female voice doesn’t actually represent full female subjectivity, but rather is ventriloquized and functions as Socrates’ mouthpiece, or keeping with the Dionysian themes animating the drama, Socrates’ mask—and a mask-wearer extraordinaire! Of the speeches prior to “Diotima’s,” I find Aristophanes’s account the most captivating. His discourse contains a myth about human origins in a primordial past when all was well or at least significantly better than our present fractured, fragmented, and estranged human existence. As Aristophanes explains, there were originally three kinds of human beings—male/male, female/female, and female/male. These originary pairs are described as spherical in shape, possessing four arms, four legs, and two sets of genitalia. More importantly, each partner was in perfect relational unity with his or her, so to speak, soul mate. However, for some inexplicable reason these original humans became proud and plotted to usurp the gods. The gods—rather nasty and needy beings, whose status and identity required sacrifices and continual worship—opted to punish rather than obliterate them. After some deliberation, it was decided that Zeus would cut them in half, thus producing their current embodied state, their experience of love now as shadowy incompleteness, discontented lack, and painful longing—an ever-present chronic desire for an intimacy and wholeness that was and is no more.

What I find incredibly interesting about this ancient Greek account of humanity’s “fall” and its explanation of our present restless condition is how well it resonates with T.S. Eliot’s Christian account presented in his poem, Four Quartets.[1] Listen to Eliot’s hauntingly beautiful word imagery in part I of the first movement of the poem, “Burnt Norton.” Having introduced his first major theme, “time,” or better our problem living with and in time and the dismal thought that our past might be unredeemable, a mere series of pointless and disconnected sequential events—a view, which of course, Eliot does not share—he urges us to confront our telos. That is, we ought not think of our telos as some far-off future event, but as an ever-present reality shaping our lives now.

Just as we find time and memory closely linked in St. Augustine’s Confessions, so too in Eliot’s account.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

Somehow we are drawn in by echoes sounding, presumably, in our memory. But echoes of what? Footfalls, that is, paths not taken, doors not opened. Thus, the echoes seem to be sounds ringing through our head of things lost, more specifically potential opportunities lost because we either choose not to pursue them. Perhaps we failed to act when we should have, or perhaps the opportunities were lost simply by virtue of our having chosen an alternative path. But what does the rose-garden symbolize? The Garden of Eden, childhood innocence, lost love? And why do my words echo in your mind? In God’s mind? A lover’s mind? Whatever the case, these faint sounds are infused with a hint of melancholy—surely the tonal center is minor, not major.

But Eliot continues, giving more content to these barely audible sounds. Now he introduces us to “other echoes,” which are, I assume, different echoes from those described above. Of these, Eliot writes,

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.

Here the “other echoes” recall a garden, which now more explicitly gestures toward the Garden of Eden, “our first world.” But this is precisely the place where, according to the Genesis account, we cannot go, as a sword marks our expulsion and bars our re-entry. When these particular echoes are heard, we come to recognize our exiled state. Stated slightly differently, our Edenic yearnings confirm our exilic state. For us as banished peregrinators, this “unheard music,” to which the bird summoning us somehow is somehow aware, falls upon tone-challenged ears. Or so it seems most of the time. Yet, when those tragic, heart-rending moments in life unhinge us, such times create the conditions for intense and rigorously focused soul-reflections. At such moments our sense of hearing, like a brief but all-too-needed extended interlude from the deafening daily grind, is attuned or re-tuned or a bit of both. Changing metaphors, we glimpse a vision of what we were originally created for and of what we could have been. In this vision we see pools “filled with water out of sunlight, and the lotos rose,” reposing quietly atop the water whose “surface glittered out of heart of light.” In the water, we see a reflection of them—but of whom we ask? Adam and Eve in their pristine state? Humanity as it once was? Suddenly, the vision ends. Our cataract sight returns, and “and the pool was empty.” Why, we ask?

Go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

As Howard observes in his excellent little book, Dove Descending, Eliot is not calling us to live in some illusionary nostalgia. Eliot is far too much of a realist for that. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. That is, like the authors of Scripture recounting what happens to prophets who experience theophanies—i.e., they tend rather quickly to fall prostrate—Eliot understands how fragile we truly are, how quickly we become undone when confronted with Reality. We can’t bear it. Thus, it is a good thing—even an act of divine mercy—that these soul-awakening encounters with Reality are meted out over time, and if the poet isn’t a liar, are somehow purposed with our telos in view—a telos that Eliot this early in the poem happily leaves ambiguous.


[1] My reflections in this post were inspired and shaped through my reading of Thomas Howard’s book, Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006

*The icon is entitled, The Lord Confronts the Disobedience of Adam & Eve; “The Expulsion from Paradise,” Nave Mosaics from Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. Mid 12th Century.