On a book named "The Poetry of Postmodernity" (written by Dennis Brown), on the chapter dedicated to Ted Hughes' Crow, the author comments (you can read it here):

Crow read like some checklist of postmodernist techniques [...] [Including] allusions to the Bible or Dante (with a sly parody of Eliot's later style - "Will this cipher divulge itself to digestion / Under hearing beyond understanding", "Crow Communes", 25)

The Poetry of Postmodernity, pg. 80

What does the author refer to regarding Eliot's later style?

(Note: The author passed away on 2006)


@DukeZhou correctly referred me to Eliot's Four Quartets. After reading it thoroughly, I think that the passage quoted on the question refers to the following lines of the last part of the third quartet - The Dry Salvages:

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Here the impossible union

Of spheres of existence is actual [...]

Note 2 important things:

  1. Eliot refers to Incarnation, which is a central Christian idea, especially in the context of the Eucharist rite, also known as the Holy Communion. The title of the poem whose lines are quoted in the question is "Crow Communes", and the "digestion" mentioned refers exactly to this Christian sacrament.

  2. Eliot writes about a moment when a music is being heard, and refer to it as a "hint" which is only "half guessed [...], half understood". Accordingly, Hughes writes about a "cipher", being divulged "under hearing", and which is "beyond understanding".

To end with, here's an interesting piece of information regarding Eliot's reference of the Incarnation (read it here):

"Eliot would not be drawn to comment when the capital 'I' of 'Incarantion' was questioned by a reader of an early draft: was this simply the embodiment of the spirit or the full Chrisitian sense of the word? One must surely say that for Eliot it was the latter [...] But the reader must make of it what sense he can: a non-doctrinal meaning may be open to him, but he needs also to be aware that the meaning would not have satisfied the author."

T. S. Eliot: The Poems, Martin Scofield, pg. 227

For further reading about the Incarnation in the context of Eliot work, see here: 1, 2, 3.


By Eliot's later work, this is almost certainly referring to Four Quartets, Eliot's most post-modern poem.

See: T. S. Eliot bibliography > Poetry

If you've read a lot of Eliot, there is a great deal of evolution between Prufrock (1917) and the Quartets (1940-43). Rather than attempting a breakdown of the differences between the Wasteland (1921) and the Quartets, I'll use an example of the convolutional passages that feature strongly in the latter work. The Quartets begin:

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction, remaining a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what have been point to one end, which is always present.

The meter of the Hughes excerpt seems a direct reference to "time before and time after", featured in part III of Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.

Although, the Hughes passage feels more in the spirit of the Hollow Men (1925): "Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion".

"Cipher" in the Hughes relates to the layers and layers of meaning in Four Quartets, which is closer to the "neurolinguistic code" some very smart people have used in reference to Finnegan's Wake.

For Eliot, this is partly a function of:

"The intolerable wrestle with words and meanings"
East Coker

Hughes' The Crow is regarded partly as an attack on Christianity, where both the Wasteland and Four Quartets can be understood as an attempt to reconcile Western and Eastern religious ideals. (Specifically Christianity and Hinduism.)

The Hughes society also categorizes Crow as an attack on humanism

It was his most controversial work: a stylistic experiment which abandoned many of the attractive features of his earlier work, and an ideological challenge to both Christianity and humanism.
Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow

Eliot's work, by contrast, is highly humanistic. If you're interested in this theme in Hughes, I'd highly recommend the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, who precedes Hughes, per Jeffers' central theme of inhumanity.

  • What makes you interpret Hughes' excerpt as a reference to "time before and time after"? – HeyJude May 7 '18 at 21:02
  • @HeyJude Just the meter of "under hearing/beyond understanding", but that may just be my ear (four stressed beats with a pause in the middle). There are probably lines in the Quartets that mirror Hughes more precisely, or more closely in spirit, but that's the passage it first made me think of. – DukeZhou May 7 '18 at 21:08

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