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Four Quartets is the name given to four related poems by T. S. Eliot, collected and republished in book form in 1943 (ISBN 0-15-633225-6). They had been published individually from 1935 to 1942. Their titles are Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding.
Eliot considered Four Quartets to be his masterpiece. It draws upon his study, over three decades, of mysticism and philosophy. Christian imagery and symbolism in the poems is abundant: he had converted to Anglicanism in 1927, and was a devout Christian. There are also numerous references to Hindu symbols and traditions, with which he had been familiar since his student days.
Each of the four poems, running to several hundred lines, is broken into five stanzas. Although they resist easy characterization, they have many things in common. Each begins with a rumination prompted by the geographical location in the title; each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect - theological, historical, physical, and on its relation to the human condition. Also, each is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire. A reflective early reading suggests an inexact systematicity among them--as if they were verse essays; they approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, and do not necessarily exhaust their questions.
Burnt Norton (1935)
Burnt Norton is a country house in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire that Eliot visited in the summer of 1934. The house's rose garden is the main spatial scenery of the poem.
Like all the Quartets, Burnt Norton is a deep meditation on the meaning of time and its relationship with human beings and the Christian meaning of Redemption.
The first verses are the best summary of the poem:
- 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.
With plastic images as "the passage which we did not take", "the door we never opened", a "rose garden" full of children who weren't there, the poet sees himself before those things which "might have been" but never were and perceives himself as a powerless witness of unreal things.
Then he meditates on the meaning of eternity, using a figure of which Eliot is very fond, "the still point of the turning world" (the center of a turning wheel remains in the same place) is really the source of movement:
- [...] Except for the point, the still point,
- There would be no dance
But human beings, still submerged in time and movement, are not able to perceive it, because
- Time past and time future
- Allow but a little consciousness
and consciousness is required to catch the glimpses of eternity.
The third stanza is a first clear statement on what the poet sees as the way to redeem time and to give a value to our actions in time: to free oneself from worldly attachments,
- Desiccation of the world of sense,
- Evacuation of the world of fancy,
- Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is a repetitive idea in Eliot's later (after The Waste Land) poems that will appear several times in the Four Quartets; reflecting his devotion for the Church's teaching concerning poverty and detachment, together with the parallel doctrines of Nirvana in Buddhism. The imagery in the stanza ("a dim light", "time-ridden faces, [d]istracted from distraction by distraction") was said to be inspired by Eliot's trips on the London Underground.
The philosophical tone of the closing stanza is brought sharply to a halt by the final lines, and their reference to children laughing, unseen, in the sunshine:- ...
- Quick now, here, now, always- (this line is repeated again at the end of Little Gidding)
- Ridiculous the waste sad time
- Stretching before and after.
A quotation from Burnt Norton appears around the water feature The River in Birmingham's Victoria Square - see . Another quotation from Burnt Norton appears in Thomas Harris's "Hannibal".
East Coker (1940)
East Coker is a village in Somerset, England from which Eliot's ancestors emigrated to Boston in 1660. T.S. Eliot visited the village in 1936-7 and his ashes are buried in the churchyard. Inside the church a plaque memorializing him was placed in 1965. It contains the words of his chosen epitaph, the opening and closing lines from East Coker: "in my beginning is my end"/"in my end is my beginning".
The poem's starting line
- In my beginning is my end.
which can be understood as a poetical expression of his desire that his ashes be kept there, is a derivation of Mary Queen of Scots' motto "En ma fin est mon commencement" ("In my end is my beginning").
The poem starts again with a reflection on the power of time to change things (reflected in the changes happened to the place), the inability of humans to prevent it and hence, the little use of getting anxious, with a clear parallel of Ecclesiastes 3:1-9:
- [...] there is a time for building
- And a time for living and for generation
- And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
- And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots...
Which is remembered again at the end of the first stanza
- The time of seasons and the constellations
- The time of milking and the time of harvest
- The time of coupling of man and woman
- And that of beasts.
The second and third stanzas are a sad and melancholic evocation of those who were before as, which brings to mind our own weakness and nothingness; there is nothing left from them as there will be nothing left from us. There is only one escape, for the poet, and that is humility:
- The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
- Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
But then, what hope is there? That of hoping against all hope (from Romans 4:18) and hence going through the dark night of the soul; here Eliot quotes almost literally St. John of the Cross' Subida del Monte Carmelo:
- To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not
- You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy [...]
- [...] the quote goes on for some ten verses [...]
- And where you are is where you are not.
This idea, especially the several paradoxes and their oriental imagery (typical of St. John of the Cross) made a deep impression in the poet (who read the Spanish poet's works several times and had quoted him already in the opening page of Sweeney Agonistes).
After the night of the soul, or maybe because of the detachment the soul has achieved, there comes Christ (disguised as a surgeon who has to produce pain in order to cure) to heal us, in one of the few rhymed parts of the whole work.
- The wounded surgeon plies the steel
- That questions the distempered part
- Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
- The sharp compassion of the healer's art
- Resolving the enigma of the fever chart [...]
Finally, returning to the present, the author expresses his awe at all he has seen before and his desire to do as little wrong as possible (this is a persistent idea in Eliot's works), and to find love in being as little active as possible. The poem ends with the aforementioned motto, as if the writer realised that, actually, his end (God, from the Christian perspective) is his beginning (he has been created by God and for God). Nevertheless, a Buddhist element is clear in his reference to the sublimination of the self, which acts as a compliment to the apophatical mystical references to Saint John of the Cross.
- Love is most nearly itself
- When here and now cease to matter.
- We must be still and still moving
- Into another intensity
- [...]. In my end is my beginning
The Dry Salvages (1941)
Eliot himself describes the place in a note at the beginning of the poem as "The Dry Salvages � presumably les trois sauvages � is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, off the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts." The family used to spend time in the area during Eliot's childhood.
Before placing himself at the title's place, Eliot starts describing his feelings towards the river as opposed to the sea. Being born in St. Louis, he had a profound child experience concerning rivers (the Mississippi). He sees the river as a
- [...] strong brown god � sullen, untamed and intractable,
- Patient to some degree [...]
but which men have been able to deal with in some way, and have come to forget. His feelings towards it are nicely expressed
- His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
- In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
- In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
- And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
This familiarity and even comeliness of the river is in deep contrast to the sea's strangeness and ruthlessness (now he is referring to the title)
- The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
- Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
- Its hints of earlier and other creation
- It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
- the shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
- And the gear of foreign dead men.
This behaviour makes the author reflect about the powers above us human beings, and how time, again, is something we cannot understand completely (the tolling bell of buoys and beacons [m]easures time not our time) and far from our control. Destiny is not in our hands.
The second part starts with six nested stanzas of six verses (which rhyme between stanzas, not in them) presenting life at the sea (seamen and their wives specially) as an image of ordinary life and its sufferings. Human beings cannot control time nor fully understand it, as fishermen cannot control the sea:
- We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
- Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
- Or of a future that is not liable
- Like the past, to have no destination.
But there is some hope: Christs' coming to the world,
- There is no end of it [...] (the suffering, wreckages...)
- [...]. Only the hardly, barely prayable
- Prayer of the one Annunciation.
The second half of this part is a painful description of time and life as seen by a man with an earthly outlook. The meaning of Happiness is not clearer than that of Pain, and both are above our possibilities. And time makes no difference: Time the destroyer is time the preserver.
Then comes (third stanza) another reflection on the future, and a long meditation on human behaviour and attitude towards life, comparing it to a voyage. Here, Eliot makes use of his knowledge of Hindu mythology, specifically, Krishna's words from the Bhagavad Gita. There is in life, as in any voyage, no point of wishing well, but simply of going on:
- Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging
and at the end,
- [...] Not fare well,
- But fare forward, voyagers.
The fourth stanza is a prayer (to Our Lady) for seapeople, but in view of the above, it may be seen as a prayer for humanity, also.
The poem ends (fifth stanza) with a description of men's efforts to understand history and divine the future (personal and human) by magic, horoscopes, etc... and stating that
- [...]; all these are usual
- Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press
what matters really is eternity and its link with men's history (which is the Incarnation of Jesus).
- [...]. But to apprehend
- The point of intersection of the timeless
- With time, is an occupation for the saint �
and other people (we, ordinary people) are unable to do it. At least, maybe our point is to understand its importance and its liberating power, which Eliot tries to explain in the final verses.
Little Gidding (1942)
Little Gidding is a village in Huntingdonshire visited by Eliot in 1936. It was the home of a religious community established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar. In 1633 Charles I visited the community; in 1646 he returned, fleeing Parliamentary troops who broke up the community.
A long and intense description of Midwinter spring starts the last quartet, the scenery being Little Gidding. Then, the poet warns the visitor of the place that its meaning is beyond any comprehension, and that even if there was any hint of "purpose" in the visit, it has been overcome by a superior one. Whatever the reason, the meaning of the place (the religious community that was there, the return of Charles I...) is over it:
- [...]. You are not here to verify,
- Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
- Or carry report. You are here to kneel
- Where prayer has been valid. [...]
There are two parts in the second stanza. The first one is a set of three stanzas with a rhythm that is in contrast with their content (vanity of human efforts and power of death over everything). They start with the famous
- Ash on an old man's sleeve...
Then a long passage, in nested hendecasyllable tercets, mirroring Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the works which most influenced Eliot's literary education (he usually carried a copy of it, and read it in the Tuscan original). This twenty-five tercets resemble Dante's accounts of his meetings with people in Hell, Purgatory and Paradise: description of the situation, meeting with the person in question (What! are 'you' here?), words of the writer to the other, answer of this one (usually somewhat cryptically) and parting of both.
The conversation deals with the usual topics of eternity and the little objective importance of human acts, and the gifts reserved for age: the expiring sense, the lack of true feelings, the rending pain of re-enactment // Of all that you have done, and been, the discovery of the real motives of one's actions... The parting goes as follows:
- The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
- He left me, with a kind of valediction,
- And faded on the blowing of the horn.
The third part is a calling to detachment, especially from self as the developing of one's being in time, to love beyond desire, and so liberation // From the future, as well as from the past.. Another rhythmical stanza recalls the people who used to live at Little Gidding and their differences, and asks not to judge anyone for his party, but to be above any division (citing explicitly the war of the two Roses), because
- [...] all shall be well and
- All manner of thing shall be well
- By the purification of the motive
- In the ground of our beseeching.
(the first two verses are from Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, and have appeared already at the beginning of the rhythmical stanza).
Fourth part is a patent homage to the Holy Spirit (The dove descending breaks the air), and an exaltation of his omnipotence and power to redeem. He is also the Love which is the opposite of the fire of passions (or even of Hell) and between which two lie our decisions:
- We only live, only suspire
- Consumed by either fire or fire.
The ending part recalls the beginning of East Coker
- What we call the beginning is often the end
- And to make an end is to make a beginning.
Later, a key closing line from Burnt Norton is recalled in a new deeper context.
- Quick now, here, now, always - (pre-penultimate line of Burnt Norton)
- A condition of complete simplicity
- (Costing not less than everything)
The poet meditates on the meaning of our actions, the many instances when we realize that what we called an end was just the beginning of another move, and vice versa (Every poem an epitaph). Birth and dying are moments of equal importance, we are born with the dead... but in God's hands, though we be unconscious, He takes care of us. The "crowned knot of fire" is an image of the Trinity. In the end,
- [...] 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.
And towards the end of Section 5, it evokes the great spiritual idea of coming home, redolent of the Prodigal Son story:
- [...] 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.
The final lines of the poem evoke the joining of the fire of [Dante]'s [Inferno] with the rose of [Paradiso], an image of the ambiguous duality of heaven and hell, right and wrong, and the mystic's search for the complete conflation of all reason in this world, with the unity only mystical experience can hint at.
References in music and literature
Part IV of Little Gidding was set to music by Igor Stravinsky in Anthem: The Dove Descending Breaks the Air (1962), and is also quoted in Brooks Williams's "Wanderer's Song". The Kennedys' song "The Fire & the Rose" takes its title and chorus from the last line of Little Gidding.
Sofia Gubaidulina wrote an Homage à T.S. Eliot (1985) which quotes from three of the poems. Composer George Tsontakis' Four Symphonic Quartets are an intuitive response to a variety of images conjured by the poems. Caitlín R. Kiernan's science fiction novella, The Dry Salvages (2004), was inspired by Eliot's The Dry Salvages.
- T. S. Eliot
- "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock"
- "The Waste Land"
- Encyclopedia Britannica's guide to the Nobel Prizes
- The Four Quartets Online
- Harcourt Publishers of Eliot's Poetry
- Audio of T.S. Eliot reading "Burnt Norton" aloud