Tuesday, 3 September 2013

‘And the fire and the rose are one’

‘And the fire and the rose are one’ ... a candle and a rose on a dinner table in Minares on Vernardou Street last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

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.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


– TS Eliot, Little Gidding

We had finished dinner last night in Minares Restaurant on Vernardou Street, beneath the minaret of the former Nerantze Mosque in the old town of Rethymnon. We were sipping another glass of wine, and although it was late and most of the tables were empty, the waiters had left the candles burning on the tables, each table decorated with a small number of roses.

A boy of perhaps five or six passed by, and suddenly realised the appeal of the site before him. He placed his two palms on the table beside us, raised himself slightly on his feet and with gusto tried – but failed – to blow out the flame on the candle.

As he huffed and puffed, I could see the flame wave perilously close to a rose, imagined a small conflagration if the two became one, and recalled those lines from TS Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


TS Eliot was born 125 years ago later this month, on 26 September 1888, 100 years before my first visit to Rethymnon.

If most us know The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, Ash Wednesday, Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, then the four poems in Eliot’s The Four Quartets have informed my spirituality more than most poems.

Yet, as I sit sipping coffee – as one does at any time of the day in Greece – I also recall his lines in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Do I dare
Disturb the Universe?
In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all –
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons ...


An old house and its yard are falling to pieces behind an apartment where I stayed in the 1980s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As I stroll through the back streets of Rethymnon, I notice some of the crumbling buildings that I once knew, or shops that have closed, their windows covered in posters and reflecting the buildings across the street, or see abandoned houses where the grapes have been left to rot on the vine season after season, and I recall Eliot’s words in The Waste Land about:

... breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain …

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water…


In The Four Quartets, Eliot points the way for all of us who are looking for the heart of love, to find the well at the centre of the desert.

Strolling through the Municipal Gardens in Rethymnon this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In the centre of Rethymnon today I visited the Municipal Gardens for the first time, and spent an hour or so strolling through its tree-lined paths, with the perfume of late summer and early autumn blooms and the sound of birds above.

Later in the day, I spent much of the afternoon on the beach, enjoying swimming in the warm September waters of the Mediterranean and walking along the soft white sands on the shoreline.

Later, I walked a lazy route back through the old town, wandering down the laneways behind the first apartment I had stayed in during my first visit to this town, and realising, in the words of Eliot in Little Gidding

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.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;


There is only one house on Cavafy Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

This is the town where I first bought a real icon in the 1980s; this is the town where I first learned to swim; this is the town where I first started to read Greek poetry.

There in these hidden streets and alleyways behind the seafront, seldom explored by any tourists, there is one house on Cavafy Street, a tiny street named after the Greek poet CP Cavafy, who was born 150 years ago in 1863, and died 80 years ago in 1933.

May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time …


– CP Cavafy, Ithaka

‘Between two waves of the sea’ ... watching the sunset in Rethymnon this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Later in the day, beyond the harbour of Rethymnon, and below the rocky hulk that makes up the slopes of the old Venetian Fortezza, we sat in the Sun Set tavern and had dinner, watching the sun behind the hills to the west,

in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.


And I knew

... all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


‘ ... all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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