I spent a lot of time with T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” both in my undergraduate and graduate academic pursuits. It is a poem about the dissolution of culture and society in the aftermath of the first world war, when jingoistic illusions of the security of the “Old World Order” gave way to far more sober outlooks on the world. The form of the poem — and the form of much of high modernist poetry and literature — reflects this existential uncertainty in its shapelessness, its jarringly trimmed lines alongside its sprawling stanzas, its resistance to all attempts at containment and order.
There are many interpretations of the final stanzas of Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and most of them require a seemingly encyclopedic grasp on Western and non-Western literary traditions, so far-flung are its allusions. Some read its final, highly intertextual stanza as a fatalistic descent into madness and chaos, in which varied literary traditions jangle against one another discordantly, voices groping around in the dark, angling wildly and impotently at meaning:
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
Amidst this pastiche of allusions, there is a moment of optimism (or at least I read it as such):
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
I love this line and its startling promise. It is, both in what it says and how it says it — both in its import and in its very positioning in an otherwise whiplash-inducing string of allusions that send us ping-ponging through literature in pursuit of meaning — a literary life-raft amidst debris.
Perhaps because of the imagery used elsewhere in the poem, in this particular line, I imagine a soldier shouldering his weight against a crumbling edifice, shoveling sand and grit and detritus scattered across a desolate beach in order to stave off imminent collapse, and then heaving a deep sigh as he realizes he has successfully evaded destruction through his efforts. Only in this case, the flotsam and jetsam he uses are pieces of poetry, excerpts from books, bits of cultural phenomena gathered across the expanse of dozens of canons.
There are many reasons to read, but one of them is to make meaning out of the sensory and emotional overload of living. And here, T.S. Eliot is showing us that the discursive fragments of art he has collected can be used to “shore up” against the ruinousness of life. .
I think of this verse often when I come across a line in a book or a poem or a song that stops me in my tracks or reframes things for me, as one did just earlier this week, when I realized I had forgotten to be grateful for the normalcies of daily life amidst the footslog of caring for two small children. It made me pause and think about the other fragments I have shored against my own ruin, and wondered — what might yours be? What are the excerpts, quotes, lines, lyrics that steer you through life? (Please share in the comments!)
Here are a few fragments that I carry with me:
“Oh baby don’t you know that the
Time will do the talking
Years will do the walking
I’ll just find a comfy spot and wait it out.”
– Patty Griffin (more on these lyrics here)
“It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.”
–Mary Oliver, “Breakage” (more on this poem here)
“She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”
-J.D. Salinger (more on this quote here)
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.“
-Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” (more on this poem here)
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35 thoughts on “These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins.”
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before”. (Willa Cather).
“To cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception; it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity.” (Soren Kierkegaard)
“Where does spirit live? Inside or outside
Things remembered, made things, things unmade?”
These are absolutely fabulous. The Willa Cather is striking. It reminds me of the old English lit premise I learned about, that there are two types of stories: one in which the hero leaves home on adventure, and the other in which a villain comes to town. Reductive but largely true.
“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” The thin red line
I loved ‘the Wasteland’, but needed much assistance in slogging through the literary allusions. Your comments are also appreciated. Since your readers are sharing quotes, I also maintain a large database of excerpts from my readings and here’s one worthy of sharing:
“Intellectual vanity betrays men into an overweening confidence in the certainty of the deductions of reason, and a disregard for its proper limitations. Most speculative errors may be traced to an unwillingness to acquiesce in inscrutable mystery as one of their sources. The crowning absurdity of this intellectual conceit [is] the axiom that nothing can be believed which is not also intelligible. [i.e. Hitchens’s Razor: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”]. Men forget that, while the evidence on which we believe must be intelligible in order to produce rational belief, the proposition evidenced may be in large part unintelligible and yet be most manifestly true. There is nothing so familiarly known that it does not involve an incomprehensible mystery. [It is] not known what is the incomprehensible tie which connects the conscious spirit with the corporeal senses, through which alone [one] studies and observes.
The limited domain of any finite mind may be aptly compared to a circle of light bounded by darkness. Let man increase his knowledge—he has increased also that circumference of ignorance by which his knowledge is bounded. “With the lowly is wisdom.” In the numerous gradations of wisdom and excellence, any person who is neither in the lowest place of all nor in the seat of divine perfection has both superiors and inferiors. Since it is the nature of humility to measure itself by things nobler than itself, and of pride to compare itself only with the viler, humility is the ennobling, aspiring temper, and pride the abject and degrading. And, it may be justly concluded of every system of education, or of social or religious institutions, that just in proportion as they generate conceit, they are mischievous and corrupting”. pp. 192-5.
D.H. Hill, ‘Concerning Conceit’, ‘The Land We Love’, Vol. 1
This may be my favorite blog post ever. I don’t know why it surprised me to find that I am not the only person who collects little snippets of poetry and prose. I loved reading yours and the comments and am hungry for more!
Here are a few of my favorites.
The following line, when I first read it, startled me right off my seat, and led me to the incomparable Mary Oliver:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
There are so many wonderful lines from her poems that have stuck with me (including your selections above) but that one will always have the greatest effect on me – it’s so economical – 16 words – but it captures the most important idea in the world.
There is also a line from a song originally by Tom Waits, The Long Way Home, introduced to me via Norah Jones’ cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xC12Pr2i_To
“Money’s just something you throw off the back of the train.”
I’m not sure why it speaks to me so much or pops into my head at random times but I take it as a sign to not worry so much about the corporate rat race and material definitions of success.
Something I always try to remind myself: “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” (G.K. Chesterton)
It’s also amazing me how many repeats there are, just in your comments section, and how many of those same quotations mean so much to me. I love e.e. cummings’ work and no matter how many times I hear “i carry your heart” read at weddings (including at my own), I still get goosebumps…”here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life”
I’ve shared the Cheryl Strayed’s ghost ships passage with many friends who were grappling with serious either/or decisions (most commonly, either have children or do not have children), as the same has been such a comfort to me in my own life .
In sum, it just blows me away how powerful words can be.
I love love love all of these! Beautiful. Especially that Oliver quote, which I had forgotten, but which — as you will see — I am planning to weave into a post early next week, as you will soon see. Thank you for sharing these!
Late to this lovely party but mine are: “Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door; Let’s go,” from e.e. cummings ‘pity this busy monster, manunkind,’ (I have it framed in my son’s bathroom), “There is such a thing as a tesseract,” from, of course, ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ and the first sentence of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I guess I like a mix of wandering and appreciating where I am. I do love Elliot, though— Prufrock is one of my favorites.
Ooh I love that “mix of wandering and appreciating where I am.” That kind of reminds me of a quote I grappled with a few months back: “Bloom where you are planted.” At first I hated the idea of being anchored somewhere against my will and forcibly figuring out how to thrive there. I have felt in recent years that I must be proactive in all things — you can’t just let things happen to you, in other words. But over the past year I have come to see that different circumstances require different levels of proactivity. Sometimes it’s good to take things slow and easy, to sit still for a minute, to get comfortable and dig down. Sometimes it’s better to keep moving, keep looking, keep exploring. It’s just been a process of figuring out which circumstance requires which toolkit.
Anyway, great quotes (I expected nothing less from you). xx
I love the Highlights feature on my Kindle for exactly this reason. There are so many lovely sentences out in the world and I only have so much space to recall them all! Here are a few of my favorites.
“For the record, I think they [miracles] look nothing like a touchdown in the last seven seconds of the game or even missing a flight that then mistook the side of a mountain for a runway. A miracle is the first time you touch your child’s downy skin; it is every time you hear her laughter. It is a mouth you love upon your own; it is the life you purposefully forge with another person.” – Camille Pagan, Forever Is The Worst Long Time
“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” – Alice Adams, Invincible Summer
“Most important, Ronan taught me that children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.” – Emily Rapp Black, The Still Point of the Turning World
“I’d been waiting to see him hold our daughter for five years, if you count from when we started trying to have a baby. Or nine years, if you count from that first forever-long kiss. Or my whole life, if you want to know the truth.” – Kelley French, Juniper
Oh my gosh. I don’t know whether I’m just weepy from exhaustion (rough night with little boy last night) or what, but two of these quotes actually brought tears to my eyes. The last one (oh!!!) and “A miracle is the first time you touch your child’s downy skin; it is every time you hear her laughter.” So sweet. Thank you for sharing these. xxx
I loved this!
My favorite, which struck me through the heart when I first read it, has become something of a mantra for me. I just wish I had wrote down what book it was from!! Ugh I have I scoured the books I was reading around the time of noting it and cannot for the life of me find the text. Anyway- it reminds me of the inevitability and universality of mystery in love and life (surely it will deepen!) and instead of trying to master it and perfect it, appreciate how far I’ve come instead. I find that I always find rest in that moment of gratitude. xx
“Tomorrow, love will surely deepen its mystery. All that, tomorrow. But tonight, after a long journey: rest.”
Is your quote from the book Less? See: last line of this review: https://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Less-by-Andrew-Sean-Greer-11300207.php
It does sound like it — thanks for ferreting that out!
Gorgeous. Love that quote. It’s also a reminder for patience and forbearance in all things, but especially in the unfolding of relationships, something I wish I’d known earlier in life. xoxo
NICKI! You’re my hero! Thank you!! I can’t tell you how I’ve agonized over this! xx
I am SO glad to hear that. I searched Google Books and then Google News 🙂
I started a photo stream on my phone three years ago where I can save things like this and find them quickly, I’ve always loved quotes and poems for their ability to succinctly and beautifully describe something usually complex and intricate.
Love is thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive
it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky
– e.e. cummings
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
– e.e. cummings
“we carry our families like anchors, rooting us in storms, making sure we never drift from where and who we are. We carry our families within us the way we carry our breath underwater, keeping us afloat, keeping us alive. I’ve been lifting anchors since I was 18. I’ve been holding my breath since before I was born.” – The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler
Beautiful, beautiful. I love these. Poetry is so good at nailing an emotion in the span of a handful of words. Thanks for sharing these, especially the Swyler piece, as I’m not familiar with her work!
Way more low-brow than all these other comments, which are wonderful and literary. Just a note to say I love those Drunk Elephant bronzing drops, but to clarify they are bronzer, not self tanner (i.e. they wash off at the end of the day with my face wash). I was confused at first too, so wanted to clarify for others considering them 🙂
I forgot to comment about the D-Bronzi drops! I have them and love them, but yes, they definitely fall into the ‘bronzer’ category. I mix them with my moisturizer. xx
THANK YOU for weighing in on this! Appreciate it!
I wish I had more dear literary fragments to mention off the top of my head, and will have to think about this further — but one that immediately came to mind was a line from Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children” (from The Prophet): “Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness”
The last few lines of this poem always make me cry, as they remind me of my own parents — how they provided me with the most stable and loving upbringing, and also how much my father in particular loves this poem. This particular line I mentioned has always stood out to me, though, and I tend to think of it as a quasi-spiritual reminder that I should gracefully accept the changes that life has in store for me. Not sure if that’s even remotely close to what the author intended, but I ascribed that meaning to it when I was much younger and have carried it along throughout my life.
Oh, just thought of another piece with memorable fragments I carry with me: Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That”. I immediately loved this piece when I read it in my early 20s but was shocked at how much I identified with it by the time I was turning 30 and leaving New York myself. She’s one of my favorite writers.
Both are gorgeous and I think it’s totally fair to assign personal meaning to a work of art. Love that expression from the Gibran poem; been turning it over in my mind for awhile. Gladness is such an unusual choice of word — I like it.
This is an all-time favorite. P.S. love your writing!
“My goofiest-sounding secret is that I also believe in magic. Sometimes I call it God and sometimes I call it light, and I believe in it because every now and then I read a really good book or hear a really good song or have a really good conversation with a friend and they seem to have some kind of shine to them.
The list I keep of these moments in the back of my journal is comprised less of times when I was laughing or smiling and more of times when I felt like I could feel the colors in my eyes deepening from the display before me. Times in which I felt I was witnessing an all-encompassing representation of life driven by an understanding that, coincidence or not, our existence is a peculiar thing, and perhaps the greatest way to honor it is to just be human. To be happy AND sad, and everything else.
And yeah, living is a pain, and I say I hate everyone and everything, and I don’t exude much enthusiasm when sandwiched between fluorescent lighting and vinyl flooring for seven hours straight, and I will probably mumble a bunch about how much I wish I could sleep forever the next time I have to wake up at 6 AM. But make no mistake about it: I really do like living. I really, truly do” -Tavi Gevinson
Oh, I love this and I love her choice of word — “magic.” I know just what she means, too — those moments that startle you out of your headspace and you find yourself floating around thinking how good it is to be alive. Thank you so much for sharing, and for the generous compliment at the start of your note!
I have so, so many of these. Here are a couple that actually seem related, now that I pause to think about it. Perhaps it’s obvious that I struggled with indecision a lot in my college years/20’s! Ha.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke
“I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” –Cheryl Strayed
These are fantastic — the Strayed quote is especially stirring, and I can’t yet decide whether I fully agree with it (said politely!). I don’t know that I can make peace with the “Sliding Doors” mentality, that there are all these “other things” and “other paths” and “other realities” that could have / would have been. Living like that makes everyday life so high-stakes and removes the possibility that there is a certain pre-ordainment to the way things unfold. On the flipside, I like her way of making peace with the decisions she’s made, of saying, “Yep, that could have been, but I did this, and this is my life.” I’m talking out of both corners of my mouth here, and you can obviously see how much I grapple with this precise intersection of fate vs. agency. I think about it constantly. Thanks for stirring it up and giving me another occasion to think…xxx
A favorite excerpt from ‘The Dash’ by Linda Ellis (we read it at my grandmother’s funeral and still something I look to often in times of stress/ frustration):
“…… He noted that first came the date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years
For that dash represents all the time
That they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
Know what that little line is worth
For it matters not, how much we own,
The cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect
And more often wear a smile,
Remembering this special dash
Might only last a little while “
Ahh, love this. So many beautiful reminders in these lyrics. xx
oh, i love this. a few of my own fragments:
‘thank you, whatever comes.’ and then she turned
and, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
went swiftly from me. nay, whatever comes
one hour was sunlit and the most high gods
may not make boast of any better thing
than to have watched that hour as it passed.
erat hora, ezra pound
‘what can i do with my happiness? how can i keep it, conceal it, bury it where i may never lose it? i want to kneel as it falls over me like rain, gather it up with lace and silk, and press it over myself again.’ -anais nin
Oh my. That Pound. “…any better thing // than to watched that hour as it passed.” Heartbreakingly beautiful. Thank you!!
I have this book called Ask Baba Yaga, which is the book version of an online advice column written in the voice of an old Russian witch (yes, really). Anyways, this was her response to a someone’s question along the lines of “all my friends are growing up/getting married/having kids and I’m not and it makes me feel weird, what should I do””
Everyone dies, alone in their own cauldron — your death will be no more or less gruesome than any other’s. Happiness is a thing that passes through you, not a thing you meet and hold in your deathly grip for ever afterwards. You are afraid; of being the last at a party without the others, but the others have gone on into a wood they do not understand. It is the same wood you stand in, weeping. And the trees look at all of you the same, and say nothing.
It’s not warm and fuzzy, but I find it comforting anyways. I think it’s a stark reminder that nothing is permanent, change is the only constant, and we’re all in this together, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
Yes, totally — a bit bleak at first blush but I agree there’s something beautifully reassuring about it. What an intriguing book, too! xx