Friday, August 7, 2009

Gerontion[1]

T. S. Eliot

The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation[2]
Of the backward devils[3]
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use them for your closer contact?


The title of this poem, "Gerontion," is a derogatory Greek word that means "little old man." The poem opens with the line, "Here I am, an old man in a dry season..."

In the poem Eliot describes a man who has grown old and cold. He wonders, "Is the end of life to know that life has ended? Is existence thus without purpose and meaning--an empty show?" He looks back on his past with profound regret: he who once was close to God now finds himself far away. Beauty has been twisted into fear; fear into doubt. He has lost his passion for God. Why retrieve it when "what is kept" is no longer worth keeping?

The phrase, "I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch," is drawn from a poem by John Henry Newman in which he, as mind and memory faded, lamented that he had "Nor touch, nor taste, nor hearing (of God)."[4] He had lost sight of eternal reality and the age to come.

So, we too may lapse into senility and lose our grip on God,[5] but we have not made our "show" of faith purposelessly, nor have we reached our "conclusion" when at last we "stiffen" in our beds. Despite the weakness and futility of our final years, "the tiger springs." This is Blake's "Christ the Tyger." "Us he devours"; we are his natural prey. Though senility may obliterate our faith and passion for our Lord, he pursues us to the end, for he has promised to keep us from falling and to bring us into his glorious presence without fault or blame.[6] There, once again, we will find his face and hear our name. This is the assurance of One who cannot lie.

Henry Durbanville, a Scottish Presbyterian pastor of another era, writes of an elderly parishioner who lamented, "Pastor, I have forgotten all of God's promises." "Aye," replied Durbanville, "but he has not forgotten one of his promises to you."

DHR

[1] This is but a snippet from a much longer and very difficult poem.
[2] Concitation: The act of stirring up, exciting,
[3] The false-prophets in Dante's Inferno (XX), having presumed to foretell the future, were condemned to walk backwards.
[4] From "The Dream of Gerontius" by John Henry Newman
[5] I have a friend who lapsed into Alzheimer's Disease as he aged. For forty years or more he was a great lover of God and his word. My last visit with him is indelibly traced in my mind: He was sitting up in his deathbed...swearing like a pirate!
[6] Jude 24

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