Friday, May 20, 2016

Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot

Source of book: I own the complete poems of T. S. Eliot.

Probably most of us who received a typical education ended up reading “The Hollow Men,” and at least a bit of The Waste Land. If nothing else stuck with us, we can at least recognize “This is the way the world will end / not with a bang but a whimper. For my wife, she had some exposure to the Prufrock poems - enough to turn her off to Eliot in any case.

More recently, I read and reviewed The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which is Eliot in a more whimsical mood.

I decided to read Four Quartets because I have two friends who recommended them. The first is Mackenzie Mulligan, an online friend whose book on Saint Peter I reviewed here. The other is my cousin-in-law, who is married to theology professor J. Todd Billings. So really, two theology major sorts, but also some of the few I know who care enough about poetry to quote stuff. How could I resist? Now that I have read them, I can say I have no regrets, and hope to revisit these beautiful poems from time to time. 

I’ll start by saying that I am somewhat knowledgeable about theology, but not particularly into it. I spent a bit too much time in my youth around people who cared rather more about being right than doing right, shall we say. This is not to say that everyone who studies theology turns out to be an arrogant prick, but some certainly do, and I have known a few too many like that. On the other hand, those who recommended these poems are rather to the other side of the spectrum, thoughtful and at least a bit poetic. (Let me specifically mention Todd as the one Calvinist theologian I actually like.) I mention all of this in large part to say that I will not be delving deeply into the theology of these poems, although it is interesting. For all I know, I will miss major themes and ideas simply because of the lens through which I read them.

This is not to say at all that I dislike religious poems. Christina Rossetti was one of my first poetic loves, and I still enjoy her devotional poems for their sincerity of thought, depth of faith, and technical perfection. I also wrote about George Herbert, whose devotional poems may be more old fashioned, but still speak to our hearts today.  More recently, I have discovered two of my all-time favorite poetry books, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (“Song Offerings”), and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. Both are delightfully mystical expressions of longing for the Divine, and transcend any one narrow theological tradition to touch something universal about the quest for transcendence.

Four Quartets moved me much in the same way.

I will admit to being a bit puzzled by the title after reading the first poem and parsing the form of the others. These are not “quartets” in the sense of “four” like one might think. There are four poems, but each is divided into - not four - but five sections. I couldn’t quite understand the point until I did a little research.

Eliot explained that he had in mind both the idea of weaving together three or four “superficially unrelated themes” into a whole. So you sort of have the “four” here. But what he really meant by “quartet” wasn’t a number, but a genre. He toyed with the idea of calling them “sonatas” but decided the term was too specifically musical, and would make sense more to musicians than other readers.

Once I understood this, it made sense. The poems represent in a certain sense, a verbal form of the “sonata form” which forms the basis not just for the vast majority of the String Quartets in the repertoire, but indeed forms the basis of the Symphony itself. A lecture on this goes beyond both the scope of this post and the general interest in the average reader. Those who wish to explore further I would encourage to take a basic music theory class.

In any case, one could understand the format of the poems in light of a movement in Sonata Form.  There is an exposition, laying out the two primary themes (these are parts I and II in each poem), followed by a development wherein there is both a wrestling with the themes and a prayer for resolution (parts III and IV of each poem), followed by the recapitulation, in which all is melded into a final statement and synthesis of the problem and its resolution.

Alternately, one could view the individual poem as not just a sonata-form movement, but as the entire sonata (whether Quartet or Symphony). I am particularly reminded of a couple of Beethoven’s works, which seem to follow the basic form. (The 5th and 9th Symphonies in particular.) Parts I and II more or less represent the first two movements (the 9th fits so well here, with the dissatisfaction of the second parts of the poems matching the frenetic scherzo), a disavowment of sorts in the third movement (and part III), with a transition as part of either the 3rd or 4th movements in which there is a searching - a prayer - for resolution (part IV), with the final movement (part V) breaking free in a synthesis of joy and epiphany.

Okay, it’s at least one thought.

Other things that Eliot brings together in the poems are the ideas of the four “elements” of ancient times: air, earth, water, and fire. These are well evident in the poems, in that order. The last two are particularly obvious. Some have seen the four seasons in them as well. Certainly the last poem combines the ideas of fire and winter in a delightfully striking way. Not sure I see the other seasons as well, however.

Other themes that pervade the poems are time - the way that past, present, and future are connected; and the relationship of man, the universe, and the divine.

So, with this introduction, and the observation that there are multiple layers, only a few of which I am confident I have teased out, here are the lines that spoke to me the most.

The set opens with this:

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 has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

This sets the stage for the entire cycle. Eliot wrote this poem some time before he decided to write the others, so this one stands alone in a way, but is also the key to understanding the others. He will explore the idea that the past, present, and future are combined and circular in some way. Thus, the present is what we must live in, but we are haunted, if you will, by the wounds of the past and the speculation of the future. In eternity, all become one.

Eliot captures the feeling of being in the moment, the way that really only poetry can.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Just brilliant. What can I say? I love these lines and love them more and more the more I read them. Or how about this (near the end of the first poem, “Burnt Norton”):

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

I can find no indication that Eliot was a musician, but he must have been a lover of music performed live. Music does move only in time. We can look at the notes on the page, and understand the structure. But the experience in real time - whether as a performer or a listener - is different. There is only now, and music moves only in time. And yet the pattern set by the composer will reach beyond the duration of the performance. And for a well-composed piece, the genesis of the end is apparent at the beginning, and both were always there. This is the sort of truth that the masters of the form - Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms - knew and internalized. Another truly brilliant passage.

The next poem, “East Coker,” continues the theme of time and unity. Where “Burnt Norton” represents the air, “East Coker” looks to the earth, to rock and soil and death and decay. Eliot starts with a refrain which will recur throughout the poem, and echo in some sense in each of the four:

    In my beginning is my end.
There is an interesting technique used in the first part of this poem. As Eliot begins to describe a rustic dance, the spelling and words begin to be in Middle English, rather than the modern English of the rest of the poem. We have “daunsinge” for “dancing” and “betokeneth” and “eche” before the words return to normal later on. Intriguing idea.

Later, Eliot combines astronomy and astrology in a description of the November sky. Whether it is Scorpius setting soon after the sun, or the Leonid meteor shower, Eliot has his facts right.

Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

But then after this flight of fancy, he confesses he doesn’t much like it.

That was a way of putting it - not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

Eliot had hoped, as he puts it, to have somehow achieved the calm serenity and wisdom of age. Instead, he realizes that this is a chimera, and that the aged have both deceived us and themselves. Experience doesn’t bring wisdom after all. Rather, it imposes a false pattern and the old now interpret through a falsity that brings only fear for the future. In the end, the wisdom that matters is the wisdom of humility. I’ll quote the whole passage.

What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us,
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
but all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

There is so much I feel about this, given my own history and my own struggles with the generation before me. There is a lot of pain, and a feeling that mostly what has been bequeathed is indeed mostly just a receipt for deceit.

Eliot wrote this in part as his response to the devastation of World War I and the realization (in 1940) that a second war was enveloping the world. The “wisdom” of the elders had proven false, and catastrophe had once again struck. Ultimately, Eliot sees the resolution in a personal, inward journey, rather than the political hopes of the rulers.

The third poem, “The Dry Salvages” is about the element of water. The ocean and the bells of the lighthouses predominate. The setting is in Eliot’s native America, rather than his adopted Britain. The poem is both hopeful and pointed, contrasting the lust for gain and profit with a release of self (Eliot invokes Krishna among others) and focus on the divine. The resolution in the last part is thought provoking.

Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
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 evidence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.

The intersection of timelessness and time - this might be the theme of the cycle reappearing again.

The final poem, “Little Geddings,” picks up the theme, this time with both winter and fire as the metaphors of choice. Again, the time and timelessness, the beginning and the end, appear.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

One of the best parts of this poem was a discussion between the poet and a ghost representing the wisdom of the poets and persons of the past. At the time this was written, the bombing of London was underway, and Eliot himself was in failing health. The poem contains descriptions of the Battle of Britain and the fire that rained down from the skies. But the conversation is intriguing.

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
   To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
   First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
   But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
   As body and should begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
   At human folly, and the laceration
   Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
   Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
   Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
   Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
   Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
   Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
   He left me, with a kind of valediction,
   And faded on the blowing of the horn.

This part is sort of in the terza rima format of Dante, but not quite. But what a bit to unpack here. That last one, the pain of looking back on what we have done, and realizing the harm we have done to others that we believed was exercise of virtue. If I were to list the things that I regret from my youth, these are it. The things I said that I believed at the time to be virtue, which hurt others. Likewise, the deepest wounds I have taken were the same, the death dealt in the name of virtue.

The ending, though, is optimistic. The purging fire of Pentecost has done its work, and there is hope ahead. The very end is perhaps the most famous, and is drawn from the female mystic of the 14th Century, Julian of Norwich

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

It is indeed a beautiful ending, and one that I love indeed. Perhaps that is the greatest longing of a Christian or all that seek the transcendence of the Divine. We long to see the restoration of all things, when all shall be made right.

But let me not give short shrift to the bit right before that, which is in many ways my own journey, not just Eliot’s.

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.

I find in this an echo and a contrast to the lines in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” where the aged Odysseus cannot lay down his own desire to explore and learn. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

For Eliot, one still strives, seeks, and finds. But ultimately, one does indeed yield. Not in the sense of giving up, but in the sense of arriving. Where Odysseus seeks to revisit the scenes of his triumph and adventure, Eliot returns to his beginning, where everything is found to be new, because seen through new eyes. For Eliot, the circle is complete. “In my beginning is my end” and in his end, is the new beginning he seeks.


A bit of music? There are so many great String Quartets to link. I settled on one of my favorites by one of my favorite composers: the “Rosamunde” Quartet by Franz Schubert. It’s on my bucket list for when I have time to spend my evenings playing chamber music. (I think this is the dream of every serious string player…)


  1. I quite enjoyed reading that. I've shared it on my Facebook page, the Melbourne Literary Classics Society. I've really got to get around to reading some of his works sooner rather than later (especially the Wasteland).

    1. Thanks! I'm always happy to find others who share my love for poetry. It really is a shame that so few read and enjoy it these days.