Off-Piste Reading

In our Y12 English Language & Literature lesson today, the burden of assessment objectives, and mark bands grew ever more tiresome, and talk turned to English Club and thence to T S Eliot, and then to fact that most of the literature I learned to love back then had not been taught in class.

I was reminded of a post from over two years ago when I asked the equivalent class back then, towards the end of the AS course, after their exams, to share a piece of writing that meant a lot to them. I thought it only fair, that I should do likewise, and wrote the following:

For me, just choosing one example is almost an impossibility. I’m also increasingly aware of all the fine words that have been written and spoken that I will never even get to read before I shuffle off this mortal coil. This morning, I happened to recall my moving encounter as a teenager with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and how my anger and upset at the injustice explored in that novel had me weeping with sadness and throwing the book across the room in fury and frustration when I finished it. Incidentally, having re-read Tess a couple of times, I’m now almost as likely to be angry with the character of Tess for succumbing to her fate with so little fight, but that’s a different story.

There are a number of poets that I keep returning to over and over again. T S Eliot is one of them, as my Lang/Lit group also know, having watched the superb Robert Webb documentary focussing on his poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to teach The Waste Land a few years back. But at the moment it is Eliot’s later work, Four Quartets that probably resonates with me most. The beginning of the first part, Burnt Norton is now probably among the most famous passages in English Verse:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
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.

I suppose one thing that first attracted me to this -and still does – is the way that it combines serious hard thought with a desire to express ideas in beautiful form, and perhaps recognises that there are some questions where pure logic can only get us so far, and metaphor needs to take over. It starts with philosophical speculation about the nature of time in a way that, in tone, seems quite academic, dry and logical. That tentative adverb ‘perhaps’ in the second line, immediately conveys that these are not the words of a mind trying to express scientific certainty, and the latinate abstract nouns, abstraction (itself pointing up the distance of these opening words from our typical experience of everyday reality) and speculation reinforce the sense of someone grappling with ideas that are difficult to grasp. Later in the poem, Eliot discusses how the very language he uses is inadequate to the task he is trying to make it do:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still

And yet, even as the poem opens with an expression of some frustration at the apparent pointlesness of such speculation, it sums that feeling up in a metaphor of desolate beauty:

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

Look at the richness of that apparently simple image!

The immediate impression of the image seems straightforward: it’s as if it were saying ‘why rock the boat?’ or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ – why disrupt an otherwise settled life with this awkward wrestling with difficult and eternal questions? The choice of verb: disturbing suggests a mental disturbance. But what will that disturbance do? It will reveal the rose-leaves in the bowl that are otherwise obscured by dust. Why rose leaves and why in a bowl? I think of pot-pourri: the leaves plucked from the living rose to be used for their fragrance. But the dust (the unnoticed accumulation of life experiences? the ‘common sense’ ideas and routines that seem settled but prevent us from thinking more freely and creatively?) obscures that fragrance. Both the visual and olfactory beauty of the rose leaves is obscured: our full physical and mental capacities are subdued by the everyday business of living. Disturbing the dust is – yes, disturbing; but it allows the possibility of revealing something far richer and more satisfying beyond. But rose leaves also make me think of the power on the one hand, but inadequacy, on the other of language which is also a theme of this poem. Remember Shakespeare’s a rose by any other name would smell as sweet? And notice that the dust is merely disturbed: it is not removed: disturbed suggests merely shifted from one place to another: we get a brief glimpse of the eternal, but the dust settles again and the rose leaves are once again partially smothered.

Oh, I could go on and on about this, exploring the way different elements and images throughout Eliot’s Four Quartets interweave and ramify. The musicians among you will notice that the title of the four-part poem evokes the idea of the musical quartet, so musical ideas of harmony and counterpoint and so on would be much more valuable for you in responding to the work than they are to me. I hope you’ve got the tiniest glimpse, though, of why I find literary analysis such a life enhancing thing to do. It so far removed from the dry and dull impression that the focus on exam board assessment criteria and the like can so easily make on us that it sometimes makes me nearly weep that I’m forced to introduce people to this stuff in such an unhelpful environment. I just hope that in some small way, the opportunity to break free of those assessment tramlines for a while will give some of you a brief scent of those rose leaves, and a glimpse of their waxy sheened beauty.

If I were writing that piece now I would almost certainly add these lines:

every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate

because every new start at the moment really does feel like a ‘different kind of failure’, but at least that feeling hasn’t yet prevented me from continuing to make new starts.


So here is a new start, at encouraging wider reading, and wider writing about that reading, than the narrow runnels of our exam specifications allow. I will ask again:

What piece of writing has affected you the most?

If it’s short enough, quote it here, or give us a link, and explain in as much detail as you can why it is important to you. If, like me, you are spoiled for choice, go for one that you feel you can say plenty about. It can be poetry, fiction, journalism – anything you like. Do feel free to join in, whoever you: teacher or student, in my classes or not, from McAuley or elsewhere.

If the comments section below remains a yawning vacuum, well, it will just be a different kind of failure.

But perhaps it won’t.

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5 Responses to Off-Piste Reading

    • Mr Heald says:

      Wonderful! I wonder if you need a mortgage, bills and broken washing machine to really appreciate this? I didn’t much care for her early stuff when she was still a teenager, but that was probably just envy. Did you see that this was a poem of the week recently?: (For anyone not yet aware, the Guardian’s wonderful poem of the week feature is always linked to from the McAuley English Facebook page ( and gives a really good model of well-written critical analysis).

  1. Faye says:

    I read Heavy Petting Zoo years ago and didn’t like it but was pleasantly surprised by this one. But I think Clare Pollard and I are of an age, so maybe the teenage one was too close for comfort!

  2. Charlotte Count says:

    The Kite Runner, although our studying English text, struck me. The mention of Amir’s father, Baba, going to work at the gas station in America, despite his previous prosperous status in Afghanistan, reveals many things about his character. An inner depth, self worth and pride is discovered and especially significant when in contrast with the General Taheri. The General is adamant as not to ‘lower himself’ by earning a living through partaking a job ‘below him’. Yet happily accepts hand-outs, benefits and ‘free dinner tickets’. The contrast between both characters; both a similar age, and from the same culture and homeland; Kabul, Afghanistan, intensifies the stark difference.

    I think that this explores the modern-day outlook on working, money and pride. Many people nowadays in England will hapily accept benefits, not just the state benefit, yet confusingly, live a prosperous and lavish lifestyle. Somehow accepting such goods and services etc, for free, does not affect their own self-worth, yet splashing out of luxury items proves their worth and displays their ‘status’.

    Perhaps this is in due cause of representing the current situation and opinions of the current generation(s). To impress unknown exterior parties is held in higher opinion than making closer loved ones proud of good-old-fashioned ‘graft’. However in this instance, the situation and stark juxtaposition between the two characters, may allow the reader to realise the shallow nature of being ‘too proud to work’.

  3. kieran says:

    kieran says:

    November 30, 2012 at 9:24 am

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too:
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same:
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;
    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss:
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much:
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

    I picked this because its probably the most inspiring thing that I’ve ever read, so much so that it had me driven to near tears. To think that one of the greatest writers ever Rudyard Kipling (who by all accounts had up until when this was written had quite a hard life) could sit down and pretty much put the ten commandments into a poem is truly amazing. The last two lines are what truly makes this poem great as well, the fact that if you actually do follow everything which Mr. Kipling talks about then you truly will be one of the greatest people to have ever walked the face of the earth,shown by the fact he says ‘yours is the earth and everything that’s in it’. The very last line is just great as well because it suggests that unless people can follow what the poem says then they’re a true man. The fact that Kipling’s also able to make such a moral and feel good poem rhyme tops it off.

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