“Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
After more than 35 years absence, when I did my literature degree and its inevitable expedition into the “modernist” poems of T.S Eliot, I am tentatively returning to the “Four Quartets”, “Ash Wednesday” and others as the inspiration leads.
I’m experiencing an emotional connection with the words that I never knew as a younger man. Perhaps the well chiselled logos is breaking open afresh the hardened crust of life?
I think it was Leavis who said:
“Poetry matters because of the kind of poet who is more alive than other people, more alive in his own age. He is, as it were, at the most conscious part in the race of his time…”
Poets are often the “prophets” to their generation. Plato banished the poets from his “Republic” as, through the mouth of Socrates, he saw them leading the people to imitation rather than truth. The poet’s described “bed”, compared to that of the carpenter or the ideal divine, was two steps back from ultimate reality. He saw only the “philosopher king” fit to rule.
In an attempt to deliver us all from the “philosopher kings” and take us into a deeper truth, let’s make our poetic bed and lie in it, lying under a juniper tree, “in the cool of the day” – the time God chose to speak to Adam after his fall in the first garden at the tree of knowledge.
I’m becoming aware that Eliot’s poems are probably best felt, or rhythmically heard, in the “conscious” rather than dissected in endless explanation. Stephen Spender, one of Eliot’s friends, confirms this sentiment when he remembered a student asking Eliot, after a group of Roman Catholics had studied the poem with Father Martin D’Arcy:
“Please, sir, what do you mean by the line; ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’”?
To which Eliot somewhat frustratingly replied:
“I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopard sat under a juniper tree.’”
Many people see this poem as a statement of Eliot’s religious conversion to Anglo – Catholicism. (Isn’t true conversion to a person rather than to an institution?) This is no doubt one layer in a many layered stratigraphy of “self.”
The “lady”, Mother, Mary, Dante’s Beatrice, Muse, Eve, Wisdom, Wife, Jezebel…all and none.
There are also hints of Eastern religious influence as well, as the “self” gratefully frees itself from the constraints of the body. In this sense the three white leopards may be the three paths (or yogas) of knowledge, action and devotion that lead a man to the abdication of a selfish life, growing into an illuminated state of being “born again”.
These leopards, unlike their counterparts in the mouth of the mourning prophet Jeremiah, have certainly not just changed their spots, but found an immaculate sheen.
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 13:23
No hiding either from the “Juniper tree” in the King James Bible, which offers shade to the discouraged prophet Elijah as he flees from the “lady” Jezebel:
“I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.” 1 Kings 19:4
Grimm’s fairy tale about the “Juniper Tree” may also be in mind, when the murdered boy, now a soaring bird, sings about his dysfunctional family:
“My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.”
The dry bones beckon us again to the Bible, and another prophet Ezekiel who intercedes for the resurrection of a nation. After speaking to the bones, he moves to another season of “prophesying to the wind!”
May “Ash Wednesday” lead us all into our own “new seasons” of life.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” Ezekiel 37:9