Dylan, Eliot, Orwell, Rimbaud + Peterborough Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving Peterborough

Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh

Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.

Over two days earlier this week, mum and I walked 45km from Peterborough Cathedral to a tiny church hidden by trees in a tiny place called Little Gidding.

Little Gidding — named for the madness of divine possession — is the toponymic title of the fourth of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, a collection first published 1936-1942.

Last winter into spring, you might remember, we walked from the first of the quartets to the second: Burnt Norton to East Coker.

It was a journey of no particular end, but at least in its beginning was its end.

This week’s hike had no such defined beginning. As the house painter at our guest house said: ‘Why Peterborough?’

I’ll leave an answer to Eliot himself, from the first part of Little Gidding:

Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

In Fulfilment

Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving the bounds of Peterborough.

Now the hedgerow / Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom

The to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road’ voices the choir of our walk and we stop the night, like Turpin of old, at The Bell, a fifteenth century coaching inn at Stilton.

Bull in field. Frost. Cows with calves at foot. Stark shadows across the cropped fields. An animal skull. Church ruins.

But the fulfilment of footstrike on footstrike (Achilles heel on Achilles heel) is nothing compared to the loose connection of companions on the hoof.

‘We shall not cease from exploration…’ at the storm shelter, in the sunshine, overlooking a Lidl distribution centre.

The End You Figured

A pizza seller came up to me at a bar in Inverness last week and asked, ‘Hey, I’ve seen that book around — worth reading?’

It was a book of interviews with Bob Dylan called Dylan On Dylan.

The pizza seller wanted a yes/no; I gave him a synopsis.

The book is almost hypnotic in the consistency of Dylan’s responses to the question that’s dogged him since Blowin’ In The Wind: ‘What do your lyrics really mean?’

Like this television press conference, from 1965:

What’s your new album about?

Oh, it’s about, uh — just about all kinds of different things — rats, balloons…

What do you bother to write the poetry for if we all get different images? If we don’t know what you’re talking about?

Because I got nothing else to do, man.

Or this, a little more constructively, from Rolling Stone thirty-six years later in 2001:

What is your own description of what the songs on ‘Love and Theft’ are about?

You’re putting me in a difficult position. A question like that can’t be answered in the terms that you’re asking. A song is just a mood that an artist is attempting to convey. … I really don’t know what the summation of all these songs would really represent.

… I don’t consider myself a sophist or a cynic or a stoic or some kind of bourgeouis industrialist, or whatever titles people put on people. Basically, I’m just a regular person. I don’t walk around all the time out of my mind with inspiration.

Over fifty years of interviews, Dylan is enduring in his intention: he’s nothing more than a ‘song and dance man’, trying to capture a mood.

Whatever meaning you take from that mood, well that’s up to you.

Beyond The End

Little Gidding (the poem), I’m told, is about how ‘humanity’s flawed understanding of life and turning away from God leads to a cycle of warfare’.

Just reading and repeating those words makes me come up short: that’s not what it’s about. Not for me, anyway.

That’s the danger of reading the critics.

Good for them for spotting all these biblical references in the text, but I am Dylan The Relativist when it comes to poetry: I don’t want to be told what something means.

(Not even by George Orwell, who thought Four Quartets was a bit of an Anglo-Catholic, Royalist, political let down. Even so, as Orwell goes on to say: ‘To dislike a writer’s politics is one thing. To dislike him because he forces you to think is another.’)

I don’t know whether Eliot was of a similar mind to Dylan when it came to the interpretation of his work, but I know as a writer myself that part of what makes writing so magical is precisely the batshit readings that some crazies put on your work.

Writing scripts for radio means putting words into the mouths of actors. But it’s not a one-way track.

A great actor takes those words and spins them in a direction the writer never dreamed. And when it works: gold.

Not only does fantastical interpretation make my work easier (and make me look much cleverer than I am), in some sense, creative interpretation is the goal of my work.

I write down images, you recreate them in your head.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, those images land as significant — but never forget that it’s your recreation that generates the significance.

At best, I can be credited with nudging your thoughts in the vague direction that my own were heading.

Just as often, I’m sure, my words send you off another way altogether. And that’s fine.

(Of course, our efforts are usually a footnote in your lives and, all too frequently, our words scarcely survive as CONTENT, passing by your eyeballs for a moment’s distraction.)

But it’s right and noble for a writer’s words (or music) to be nothing more (or less) than a prompt for your own creativity.

That’s what Eliot does for me: his poetry prompts.

In this case, it prompted a hike.

Now: I suspect that a hike is not what Eliot had in mind as he laboured over his poem, while ‘highly civilised human beings’ flew overhead trying to kill him.

But my creative response is none of his business.

Altered In Fulfilment

I’m not saying that intended meaning isn’t important for everyday communication.


If I say something to you, I usually have a clear intention to communicate some kind of meaning to you. If you get it wrong and I find out, it’s likely that I’ll try again.

What I am saying is that, when it comes to poetry, interpretation is far more important than intention.

Art is what an artist puts before an audience. The work is done. It’s gone. There’s nothing more the artist can do about that. The monkey is out of the cage and the work stands alone.

That’s not to say that artists have no right to try again (and again) to capture and convey the mood they have in mind.

That must be what has powered Bob Dylan across eight decades of creativity: striving to capture and convey some element of ineffable human experience.

Otherwise why bother writing another bitter lover jilted ballad after Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (1963), a song so successful that it’s been recorded 237 times since?

Why should Dylan follow that up with One Too Many Mornings (1964), I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (1964), Mama, You Been On My Mind (1964), Like A Rolling Stone (1965), One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) (1966), She’s Your Lover Now (1966), Dirge (1974), Idiot Wind (1975), If You See Her, Say Hello (1975), You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (1975), Most Of The Time (1989), Love Sick (1997) and Forgetful Heart (2009) — to name, off the cuff, thirteen of my favourite songs, not only in the bitter lover jilted ballad genre, not only of Dylan’s, but in the whole of recorded musical history?

Dylan is trying to convey the ineffable. With great songs — or poetry — we get it. And each time we get it, we get it in a slightly different way, bringing our own past, present and future to the poem.

Bob Dylan consistently rejects the labels that other people want to put on his occupation and on his lyrics.

And I’ll do the same with Little Gidding.

We Shall Not Cease

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

Both Eliot and Dylan were influenced by the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the poet whose inept gun-running granted Ethiopia the arms to defeat the colonising Italians and remain the only unfettered nation in Africa.

The adventurer’s name etched on a temple block, Luxor, Egypt. Tut tut.

Rimbaud was once lauded as France’s greatest poet. Novelist Henry Miller decided that ‘contemporary French poetry owes everything to Rimbaud’.

Here’s a snippet of Rimbaud to give you a flavour:

It has been recovered.
What? — Eternity.
It is the sea escaping
With the sun.

I can see both Dylan and Eliot waiting to burst free.

But the word ‘Poet’ is nowhere near Rimbaud’s gravestone. It’s Arthur Rimbaud, Adventurer*.

Maybe that is some validation of my interpretation of Eliot’s poetry as a call to adventure (yes: it’s not Abyssinian gun-running, but even a hike in Cambridgeshire can be adventure).

It’s right there in the poetry of Little Gidding, too:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Time is cyclical. Creation is cyclical. Sunrise to sunset.

If I told you this was sunrise, would you believe me? If I told you this was sunset, would you believe me?

In My End Is My Beginning

So let’s read the batshit opening of today’s story again — and know it for the first time:

Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh

Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.

This nonsense poem definitely means something to me, something about walking through midwinter England with poetry on my mind and my ma by my side.

If I’m lucky, it might mean something to you. Something strange, maybe.

But if you know your Eliot and Dylan, it might mean something altogether else. If you look closely. Look closely.

Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.

It might entertain you to know that my little poem was written using only the fifty-two words found in both Eliot’s Little Gidding and Dylan’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

What does that mean?

Nothing at all — except that the little poem now exists in the world and maybe it means something to me and maybe it’ll mean something to you.

Besides, I got nothing else to do, man.


*I got this detail from an interview given by Bob Dylan to journalist Jonathan Cott in the January 26, 1978 edition of Rolling Stone. It’s not true. Rimbaud’s grave credits neither poetry nor adventure, only the resigned words ‘Pray for him’.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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