Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review: The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

The Four Quartets
T.S. Eliot, 1944
Buy it from Four Quartets

These four poems from T.S. Eliot are very complex modern pieces, but they're so lovely, they can be appreciated even if we're not getting the full meaning. Time and redemption are the big themes of the quartets, and each of them is centered in a single location the poet had visited. They also roughly correspond to one of the four elements: "Burnt Norton" (air), "East Coker" (earth), "The Dry Salvages" (water) and "Little Gidding" (fire). Each contains five sections marked  off with Roman numerals, and they are all free verse poems with bits of metered verse showing up in the second and fourth sections of every poem. We get some of that world-weariness shown in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or The Wasteland, but in these poems we also see the possibility of redemption.


"Burnt Norton" starts off all philosophical: "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." Everything has happened already--we can't change the past and the future will impose itself on us without our permission. But even so, time is the medium we all have to work with, so what little bits of transcendence or clarity we experience are going to happen in time. As in all the quartets, this one has a great musing on the problem of language and the imprecision of words: "Words strain,/ Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/ Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still." Words never mean exactly what you want them to--they lose meaning over time, and the more important the thing you have to communicate, the less likely it is that your words will bear up under pressure and adequately express your meaning.

The second quartet is "East Coker," the earthy poem. It begins with the phrase "In my beginning is my end."
and starts discussing the cycles of time; buildings that rise and fall, the lives and deaths of animals, the fertilization and subsequent harvesting of crops. Then there's an appearance by what seem to be faeries, out in the woods, having a rustic dance around a bonfire. Section II notes some disorder in nature--things that are appearing in strange mixes or that are in conflict. Just as the reader is wondering what it all means, a very prosy part of Section II mentions language again, and how it fails to satisfy certain needs and leaves you "still with the intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings." Section III begins in despair, showing the decline or death of all things, but Eliot turns the dark metaphor around and fashions the horrible darkness into a waiting period, a time of purification that an individual can emerge from. I think this passage may also be talking about England during WWII, how the situation seems desperate, and that to achieve their important cause, a person or a country must "go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy." Section IV drives this point home by saying: "to be restored, our sickness must grow worse." It's going to get worse before it gets better, but thank goodness, it is going to get better. Section IV is particularly full of Christian imagery, and though Buddhist imagery (lotuses, etc.) is used throughout the quartets, Christianity gets more pagetime and seems to be at the heart of all the redemptive passages.

"The Dry Salvages" is the third poem in the sequence, and is my least favorite, probably because it seems the prosiest to me. Also, as the water/ocean poem, it's full of nautical terms that I have to look up if I want to know what the poet's referring to. The supremacy and power of water are established early on--we may use the water for commerce and travel, but we must never suppose that we have tamed it. The poem moves on to Section II, which had always seemed like an awkward passage to me, until I found out that it was a modified sestina. It contains six stanzas with six lines each, and they keep up an extended rhyme scheme that probably took a  lot of labor to sustain, since the rhyme connections are word-strings like: emotionless-devotionless-oceanless, and renunciation-anunciation-destination. Section III shows that "time is no healer," and progress is pretty much an illusion. Section IV is a prayer for the safety of those who navigate the water, and Section V shows that moments of human intersection with the divine purpose are possible.

"Little Gidding" is my favorite of the whole collection, because it serves as an anchor poem that ties all the previous themes together. It deals a lot with chronos time vs. kairos time; the regular tick-tock progressive time, and the moments of transcendence where time seems to stop, but something important is still happening. In “Little Gidding”, the reader is shown that brief moments of sudden illumination are important connections to the divine, and the suffering of human existence is necessary for spiritual purification. Section II is written in verse and counts down the deaths of the four elements. Next comes a long unbroken stanza of prose-like poetry discusses an illuminating experience the speaker had during a German air raid. Section III quotes the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich by saying that “Sin is Behovely, but/ All shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well”. This, combined with Section IV's foray into verse to explore the connection between divine love and human suffering, reflects the more hopeful tone of this final poem. Section V ties together all the previous quartets by re-addressing the problems of language and time, and it contains the famous lines,

"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."

My copy of The Four Quartets has been living in my purse for the past four years. I pull it out when I'm standing in a long line, or when I feel the need to revisit some important, complicated literature. I've studied these poems for awhile, but I don't think I'll ever feel like their intellectual equal—for better or worse, they're beyond me. But that's no problem. Regardless of the results, I shall not cease from exploration. Grade: A+


  1. I have only read a few poems by T.S. Eliot, but I loved "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I definitely plan on reading more by him in the future!

  2. So you have me convinced to read the classics and possibly a play or two. Myabe by the end of the year I will have moved on to poems :-)

  3. Is it weird that I first came to these poems from reading a novel-length Harry Potter fanfiction? The two authors, writing in tandem, used excerpts from the Four Quartets; I was so intrigued that I bought a copy of the poems. I'm nowhere near their equal, but they are certainly fascinating. I've read them through just twice, but I can easily see how they would be your go-to reading while standing in line, or waiting in traffic for a train, etc.

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