Comprehending the Incomprehensible
In his essay on Dante T.S. Eliot famously declared that “genuine poetry is able to communicate something to us even before it is understood.” (http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw14.html ) Communicating caution about the fragility of life is what Eliot Yeats and Shelley were each likely attempting in their famous poems:
“The task of the poet, in making people comprehend the incomprehensible, demands immense resources of language; and in developing the language, enriching the meaning of words and showing how much words can do, he is making possible a much greater range of emotion and perception for other men, because he gives them the speech in which more can be expressed….” — T.S. Eliot
All three poems describe a world in disarray. A world unlike any, with which human beings are familiar. That’s mostly because the only world familiar to human beings is one of abundant life not the lifeless one the poets warn could return.
The current geological eon, the Phanerozoic, started 540 million years ago, with what appears to be the rapid emergence of a number of animal phyla; the evolution of those phyla into diverse forms; the emergence and development of complex plants; the evolution of fish; the emergence of insects and tetrapods; and the development of modern fauna.
The modern concept of Deep time was developed in the 18th century by Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726 — 1797). The age of the Earth has been determined to be around 4.55 billion years.. Almost 4.4 billion years later an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs when it hit Earth and released a slew of gasses that a recent study says sent the planet into a “nuclear winter.”
A nuclear winter is a concept “not likely understood by many”. It’s the severe and prolonged global climatic cooling effect hypothesized to occur after widespread firestorms following a nuclear war. The hypothesis is based on the fact that such fires can inject soot into the stratosphere, where it can block direct sunlight from reaching the surface of the Earth. It’s speculated that the resulting cooling would lead to widespread crop failure and famine.
Our only real understanding of a nuclear winter is what occurred after a six mile wide asteroid hit the earth around a half a billion years ago. Researchers suggest the planet was plunged into an extended period of extreme cold due to cooling and darkness as a result of the dust, soot and sulfur that was released into the atmosphere.
That drastic chill had a devastating impact on “life” on Earth at the time, leading to the mass extinction of more than 70 percent of the living species, including the dinosaurs. Researchers suggest the planet was plunged into an extended period of extreme cold due to cooling and darkness as a result of the dust, soot and sulfur that was released into the atmosphere.
The Chicxulub crater, underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, was discovered by geophysicists Antonio Camargo and Glen Penfield, during the late 1970s.
In 1980 physicist Luis Alvarez and his son, geologist Walter Alvarez, both of the University of California, were working together on a geology expedition in Italy. They accidentally discovered a band of sedimentary rock that contained unusually high levels of a rare element, iridium. Chemical dating techniques put the rock at around 65 million years old. The Alvarezes hypothesized that the iridium, which was in a very even, widespread distribution (not just in Italy), was the result of a giant asteroid that hit Earth, sending smoke, dust, and iridium into the atmosphere.
When the asteroid struck the Earth, in an area around the Yucatán Peninsula, about 75 percent of the known species were rapidly driven to extinction, including the non-avian dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus, the flying pterosaurs, the coil-shelled squid cousins called ammonites, and many more.
While Yeats, Eliot nor Shelley would have known anything about the asteroid and the nuclear winter that followed they had their own way of “communicating something to us even before it is understood and make people comprehend the incomprehensible” .
All three poets appear to have understood what Erwin Schrödinger described in his 1944 book, “What is Life?”, as negative entropy, or negentropy. Negentropy is reverse entropy. It means things becoming more orderly. By ‘order’ Schrodinger meant organization, structure and function: the opposite of randomness or chaos but entropy, not order is the nature of things. The poets remind us we could return to disorder because it takes tremendous energy to maintain order and energy requires work “making us comprehend the incomprehensible” that human beings could behave in a way that disrupts the energy required to maintain a life-sustaining, orderly world.
The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time but the earth is not an isolated system: it receives energy from the sun, and radiates energy back into space. It’s that energy that allows Schrodinger’s negative entropy or life to exist. A living system imports negentropy and stores it but during a nuclear winter systems required to support life and negentropy are shut down. In effect the Earth becomes disconnected from it’s energy source, the Sun, and the poets understood this could happen again
In The Second Coming Yeats’ uses The ‘gyre’ metaphor to describe a falcon getting further and further away from its centre, its point of origin. In short, it’s losing control, and ‘the centre cannot hold’.
Control is already being lost.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
As this trend continues there is an inevitable collapse of systems and society. Yeats delivers a vivid picture of the consequences, repeating the word loosed in tsunami-like imagery, as humanity descends into moral confusion. Yeats even references Shelley’s description of the abandoned and forgotten empire of Ramesses II in Ozymandias
“somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
In the Wasteland we find Eliot describing the misery of being learned in a world that has largely forgotten its roots. Eliot wrote it as a eulogy to the culture that he considered to be dead; at a time when dancing, music, jazz, and other forms of popular culture took the place of literature and classics, it must have felt, to Eliot, as though he was shouting into the wind.
Immediately, the poem starts with the recurring imagery of death:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain….”
Note the cadence of every –ing ending to the sentence, giving it a quick-slow pace that invites the reader to linger over the words.
Next follows a section which returns us to the ‘Wasteland’ of the poem’s title.
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”
In the Wasteland Eliot warns we can return to this. These are bodies of allied soldiers strewn about a bombed landscape in “No Man’s Land” in front of the Canadian lines at Courcelette in 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.
Here that surprising opening line begins to make even more sense. There is a sense of fear and uncertainty regarding the future, about what is going to grow out of the blasted land. This can be taken as a reference to the devastation caused by the First World War: with so many people dead in just a few years (not just the millions of casualties in WWI itself, but also the many millions of people who succumbed to Spanish Flu, in 1918–19), what will the future bring?
‘Starnbergersee’, and its shower of regenerating rain, refers to the countess Marie Louise Larisch’s native home of Munich.
“Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.”
Marie Louise Larisch stands as a symbolic reference to European decadence, and thus, unavoidably, of Imagism. Her presence in the poem can be put down to quite a few reasons — after the crushing misery of the First World War, she was a symbol of Old-World decadent Europe, the kind from before the war.
“And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s, My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.”
How can a civilization rebuild itself in the face of such drastic devastation? This spring will not be like others, ‘The Burial of the Dead’ seems to say. So many dead have been buried so quickly, through war or illness. This may explain the reference to ‘fear in a handful of dust’: the title of this section of Eliot’s poem, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, is a reference to the Anglican Prayer Book, and its prayer for the burial of the dead: ‘
“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.’ We are all dust, in the end. For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”
Surely in reading these poems and poets we come away “comprehending the incomprehensible”! The well being of our entire planet and all of us alive because of it’s life-sustaining mechanisms are at great risk when we fail to apply the energy required to maintain life.