Eliot’s yew

London is a walkable city. From time to time I have meetings at the London Mathematical Society’s headquarters, De Morgan House in Russell Square, Bloomsbury. I can walk there from my office in an hour and a few minutes.

An advantage of walking is that I know fairly exactly how long it is going to take. If I go by public transport, I have to allow for delays, and so usually arrive well ahead of time. But, even walking, I tend to allow plenty of time. So I usually arrive a few minutes early, and go into the gardens in the square to wait.

Just inside the gate nearest to De Morgan House is a young Irish yew, with a little plaque saying that it commemorates T. S. Eliot, and was placed there by the Indian High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, in the presence of the mayor of Camden and Eliot’s widow.

If you once read “The Waste Land”, this might seem an unlikely conjunction. But as it happens, Eliot’s Four Quartets has been one of my favourite works of poetry since I was a student. The poems contain several references to yew, and a section which is a meditation on Krishna’s words to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

Of course, a poem doesn’t have a single meaning, especially one as long and complex as Four Quartets. But to me the primary meaning of the poem is about the relationship between time and eternity, which is something maybe of interest to mathematicians as well as to mystics.

Curiously, the clearest explanation of what Eliot is saying that I have found is in a completely different work, Pilgrimage of Dreams by the artist Thetis Blacker, in which she describes a series of dreams she had which stood out as being completely different from the confusion of normal dreaming. In one of these dreams, “Mr Goad and the Cathedral”, we find the statements

“Eternity isn’t a long time


“Eternity is always now, but …”
“Now isn’t always eternity”.

In other words, eternity is not the same as infinity; it is not the time line stretched out to infinity. Rather, it is an intimation of a different dimension, which we obtain only because we are aware of the point at which that dimension intersects the familiar dimension of time. In a recurring motif in the first Quartet, “Burnt Norton”, Eliot says,

Time present and time past
Are both somehow contained in time future
And time future contained in time past.

and, in “The Dry Salvages”,

   … to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint

I read this, as a student, at about the time that I was becoming aware that there were other world views than the Christian one I had been raised in; what Eliot said seemed closer to the Hindu and Buddhist views. And in the meditation on the Bhagavad Gita, he summarises Krishna’s message to Arjuna in similar terms:

Not farewell, but fare forward

In other words, our job is to deal with the present situation, not to regret the past or to agonise over what might come.

In England, although there are fine stands of yew trees on the North Downs and in other places, the tree is associated with graveyards; in this setting it lives to an enormous age and grows and spreads to an impressive size. Since it is evergreen, it has been assumed by many commentators that its presence in graveyards is as a symbol of immortality. But this is not quite what Eliot is saying when he refers to “chill fingers of yew”; it seems to symbolise death, not immortality. However, the knowledge that our destination is the churchyard under the yew-tree has been recognised as one of the best reminders to live in the present. Buddhist monks meditate in graveyards, and Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan said “Use death as an adviser”.

Here to finish are two other interpretations of this theme: William Blake’s “Eternity”:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

and Philip Larkin’s “Days”:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

You can almost hear Krishna asking Arjuna, “Where can we live but days?”

Is it entirely far-fetched to suggest that the relation between a theorem and the discovery of its proof is similar to that between eternity and time?

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in doing mathematics, geography, mathematics and .... Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Eliot’s yew

  1. sris says:

    Beautiful. I hope you go to your meeting earlier more often.

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  3. A. Stranger says:

    To me the relation between a theorem and the discovery of its proof suggests to a certain extent the relation between the Manifest and the Unmanifest: the Unmanifest in this case being the theorem before its proof and the Manifest being the theorem after its proof. As an example of this sort of duality, in the Gita (8.18) Krishna says to Arjuna:

    “From the unmanifested all the manifested (worlds) proceed at the coming of the “day”; at the coming of the “night” they dissolve verily into that alone which is called the unmanifested.”

  4. uncudh says:

    Your post reminds me of the following quote from Thoreau’s “Walden”:

    “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

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  6. I got an “A” at Caltech while earning my double B.S. in Mathematics and English Literature, on Eliot’s metaphysics of Time. In that class, I met and conversed with the widow of Eliot (circa 1969 or 1970). She’d been invited by the professor the late (now) J. Kent Clark. She was delighted by my question on Eliot’s smile in a famous portrait versus real life.

  7. Sven says:

    Wow, very nicely put. Makes me want to be at my appointments way ahead of time =)

  8. I got another piece of information today, on my way to a meeting in a different location.

    At the corner of Russell Square opposite Eliot’s yew, just across the road, a plaque on a building reveals that this was the offices of Faber and Faber where Eliot worked for 40 years, including the period when he wrote Four Quartets.

    Curiously, the building is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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  11. Errata (finally) corrected – sorry it took so long!

  12. Jon Awbrey says:

    Leibniz • The Present Is Big With The Future

    “It is one of the rules of my system of general harmony, that the present is big with the future, and that he who sees all sees in that which is that which shall be.”

  13. Jon Awbrey says:

    These are the forms of time,
    which imitates eternity and
    revolves according to a law
    of number.

    Plato, “Timaeus”, 38 A
    Benjamin Jowett (trans.)

  14. I was in Russell Square for a meeting again today, and arriving a few minutes early, I went to pay my respects to Eliot’s yew.
    It has grown, and is now twice my height; and it has some berries, the first time I have seen this. But it differs from the one in the poem in one respect: the chill fingers don’t reach down, but stick straight up. It is an Irish yew, and its shape is quite different from that of most yews I have seen. (But give it a few centuries, and see what happens.)

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