At the end of October 1943, in the midst of the terrible violence, destruction, and slaughter of World War II, Faber & Faber, Eliot’s publisher since the mid-1920s, released Four Quartets. A relatively slim volume of poetry, it nevertheless brought together between its covers a single, coherent poetic work that would prove to be the final fruits of a lifetime of creative endeavor on Eliot’s part as a poet. It was a singular publishing event, for the Four Quartets came to be regarded almost from the first as one of the great literary masterpieces of a very rich literary century.
By then Eliot’s worldwide reputation as a poet was substantial enough to warrant such critical accolades, of course. Such is the achievement of the poem in question, nonetheless, that the modernist literary canon would have had to have found a place for it even if Eliot had been a relative unknown at the time. A survey of the four individual poems that would eventually compose this mature poetic achievement of Eliot’s, furthermore, also exposes much about the manner in which Eliot conceived of the relationship among poetry writing, the poem, and the personal experiences that provide a framework for the former two.
A GENERAL OVERVIEW
The Four Quartets’ individual quartets, in the order of their composition as well as their placement in the sequence, are “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” Read as if they were conceived and composed as the consecutive and interactive elements in a preconceived sequence to begin with, they will not disappoint any reader. Little by little, particularly as each quartet is read and reread in combination with the incremental experience in mind as well of having read and reread the other three, any careful reader will gradually come to notice features either that all four of the quartets share or that are contrasted significantly with one to another.
Each of the four quartets has for its title and as its primary subject matter an actual place that bears some degree of association with the poet. Burnt Norton is an otherwise obscure English country house that burned to the ground in the 17th century. It is located in Gloucestershire, the Eliot family’s ancestral region in western England, but more significantly, it is a locale that he visited with an old love from his youth, Emily Hale, who frequently spent summers with her relatives and Eliot in England during the mid-1930s while Eliot was separated from his first wife, Vivien. Similarly, East Coker is the name of the quaint country village from which Eliot’s ancestor Andrew Eliot emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony in the mid-17th century.
The Dry Salvages, meanwhile, are three rocks that provided sailors with a natural nautical marker off the eastern tip of Cape Ann in Massachusetts. There the poet’s family spent their summers in a spacious seaside home in Gloucester, where the young Eliot became an avid and able sailor in the waters off Cape Ann and up the New England coast to Canada. Furthermore, it was in this region of England’s colonies that Eliot’s family originally flourished for several hundred years until his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, resettled his young family in the 1830s in St. Louis, then at the very edge of the American frontier. The poet’s birthplace in 1888, this Mississippi River city would also, through its associations with that virtually mythic American waterway, figure in “The Dry Salvages.”
Little Gidding, finally, is an equally obscure but far more noteworthy place back in England. It has more general but no less intimate connections with the poet’s life. A well-born young Londoner who had been ordained an Anglican deacon, Nicholas Ferrar, founded a religious community there with his family in the early part of the 17th century. It was to this same settlement that King Charles I fled seeking overnight refuge following the repeated defeat of his forces by Parliamentary troops in the religious and political civil war of 1642 to 1649, a war that ended in Charles’s arrest shortly thereafter and his eventual execution and in, as well, the decade-long dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell under the title Protector of the Nation. Of the original community, only the chapel remains today, and it was to this spot that the poet came in May 1936.
In addition to the prevailing ones just noted, there are other similarities and associations embedded in each of four locations. Most of the locales have associations with the 17th century, for example, and thus reflect various aspects of that especially significant moment in English history when many were resettling in the overseas colonies as a result of religious and political turmoil at home. Also, the locales engage the poet’s personal life not in any single way but in a variety of categories: family, nation, friendships, beliefs, and so forth. This overlapping of relationships permeates The Four Quartets in a variety of other, equally interesting ways.
Each quartet is unique to a season, for example. “Burnt Norton,” with its sunlight and rustling leaves and rose gardens, bespeaks the summer. “East Coker,” with its hint of late-night harvest rituals and talk of late November, speaks the fall. The stormy sea that measures time in “The Dry Salvages” recalls New England’s wintry weather. “Little Gidding” talks of “sempiternal spring,” harkening to the weather that signals the movement from winter into spring, and then talks of May, that month that marks the heart of the spring in both England and New England.
As another outstanding organizing principle, each of the quartets also contains references and allusions that, without ignoring the other three altogether, typify a particular one of the four elements: air (“Burnt Norton”), earth (“East Coker”), water (“The Dry Salvages”), and fire (“Little Gidding”). Furthermore, that each quartet contains exactly five sections suggests the fifth, integrating element, the so-called quintessence that partakes of and harmoniously combines the individualized characteristics of each of the other four.
As with any Eliot poem, the complexities of those biographical, geographic, seasonal, and elemental associations are further intermingled with the kinds of discourse and imagery and thematic issues that each quartet accordingly employs. The tone of “Burnt Norton” is philosophical, for instance, betokening its associations with air. “East Coker” uses archaisms that hark back to a late Elizabethan English. “The Dry Salvages” mimics the rolling rhythms of the sea, while “Little Gidding,” the most openly religious in theme of the four, in a key passage echoes Dante Aligjieri’s great religious pilgrimage, the Divine Comedy.
This notion of combining a wide variety of disparate poetic resources in order to make harmonious the final product reflects what is perhaps the most obvious of Eliot’s organizing principles, and that is the poetry’s self-evident analogy to music. Eliot had early on used references to musical forms in his titles—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “Preludes.” There also has always been at least an analogous and often a direct relationship between poetry and music in Western literary culture. Surely, then, by calling these poems quartets, Eliot’s recognition of a return to the practice in his own right should not have been unexpected, even if it was not until the completed sequence was published that the idea that they were quartets at all was made public knowledge.
Earlier, however, the association was with specific forms of musical expression—love songs, rhapsodies, preludes—whereas now, with the allusion to a quartet, the association is with a particular form of musical performance. The quartet, that is, describes music composed to be performed by four distinct instruments, rather than a particular musical piece. The hint is that this is a poetry that is performative rather than communicative; it will show the reader through form rather than tell the reader through statement.
The reader will find, then, that, in the quartets, Eliot analogizes the musical, in other words, not by implying that the poetry will incorporate a particular musicality of tone and mood, but by suggesting that there will be both subtle and, occasionally, pronounced variations in the quality of the sounds produced and in how they interact. Sounds in poetry, however, are words and phrases and levels of discourse and shifts in diction and literary style, not mere musical notes. The reader ought to be prepared for a compounding of fluctuations and modulations in content and in meaning as each of Eliot’s verbal quartets progresses.
What has not been touched on thus far anywhere in this introduction is the poetry’s richest feature, and that is its disarmingly simple and straightforward treatment of themes that humans have apparently always regarded as the most profound. They are those so-called great imponderables regarding the nature of time, love, God, and individual life, the last of which also embodies the themes of death and of the nature and notion of eternity as an abode for the spirit.
THE PUBLICATION HISTORY
A work as intricately organized both from part to part and within parts as The Four Quartets is would presumably have been equally as meticulously conceptualized to begin with. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Whatever particular experiences had inspired Eliot to revisit in a poem those moments that he had spent at Burnt Norton with Emily Hale in the summer of 1934, the poetry of “Burnt Norton”—in fact, its opening lines—finds its source in lines that had been discarded from Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot was working busily on Murder in the Cathedral in early 1935 in close collaboration with the actor and director E. Martin Browne, with whom he had developed the poetry for The Rock, Eliot’s first venture into verse drama. As Eliot’s next theatrical venture, the Becket play, was preparing to go into production, it was Browne’s task to bring to bear his knowledge and experience of the stage to prevent Eliot from including dialogue that, while it might have its histrionic elements, did not advance the action on stage, a critical component for holding the audience’s attention during any dramatic performance.
Among those passages that Browne convinced Eliot to eliminate was one in act 1, when the First Tempter tries to encourage Becket to avoid renewing his old conflict with the king. Instead this Tempter urges Becket to renew with King Henry the terms of their original friendship when they were both far more interested in youthful carousing than in going head to head over issues of church and state. At that point in the drama, the Second Priest intervenes with comments on “[t]ime past and time present / . . . both perhaps [being] present in time future.” While their allusion to Becket and the king’s youthful friendship is germane, these lines were cut nevertheless—only to reappear several years later as the famous opening passage to “Burnt Norton,” which would be published in Collected Poems, 1909–1935.
Other lines and echoes from Murder also occur in “Burnt Norton.” When Thomas first appears on stage, for example, he speaks of there being a pattern to action and suffering, “that the wheel may turn and still / Be forever still.” That passage is reminiscent of “the still point of the turning world,” a metaphorical marker that takes on more and more significance as “Burnt Norton” and the rest of Four Quartets continue. The Third Tempter, too, will speak of how “time past is time forgotten,” and, far more noteworthy, Thomas, within moments of his death, will utter the line that later becomes one of the most frequently quoted from Four Quartets, let alone “Burnt Norton” itself, toward the close of the first section: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
Still, as literary history would have it, it is directly from that discarded speech of the Second Priest that the poem “Burnt Norton” sprang, and it may have been for no other reason than that Eliot regarded the discarded verse as too valuable a turn of phrase and idea to never see the light of day. (Lengthy parts of the never completed “Sweeney Agonistes,” for example, would eventually find their way into “The Hollow Men.”) Whatever the case may have been, while “Burnt Norton” would not be published until it appeared in Collected Poems in April 1938, it is reasonable to assume that, particularly in view of its inclusion in a collection bringing together Eliot’s poetry up to 1935, the poem was composed and completed in 1935. In any event, that seemed to be an end to it.
In August 1937, Eliot visited the Gloucestershire village of East Coker, taking photographs of such sites as St. Michael’s, the village church in this Eliot ancestral home (and in which Eliot’s ashes would eventually be interred in a memorial in a rear corner near the side entrance). By the late fall of 1939, compelled perhaps by the outbreak of war among France, England, and Germany following the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland in September of that year, Eliot began work on “East Coker.” A world and the values and way of life that it represented and that he had spent a creative and critical lifetime arguing to preserve seemed suddenly to be more in jeopardy than it ever had been before. He modeled the new poem on the five-part structure of “Burnt Norton,” its own structure modeled loosely, perhaps, on the five-part structure of The Waste Land.
“East Coker” was completed in draft form by February 1940 and first published in the Easter 1940 issue of the New English Weekly, a socially conservative newspaper with which Eliot had begun an active editorial association in 1934, publishing articles and poetry in it for the next decade. When Faber published the poem in pamphlet form in September of the same year, it would sell 12,000 copies, a remarkable commentary on both Eliot’s renown and the poem’s capacity to embrace something that the reading public must have come to regard as quintessentially English.
It was while he was composing “East Coker” that the further idea occurred to Eliot that he might compose four quartets, of which “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker” would comprise the first two parts, that would be organized around the themes of the four elements and the four seasons. He composed “The Dry Salvages,” originally titled simply “Dry Salvages,” during the rest of 1940, sending off a complete first draft to his friend and confidante John Hayward on New Year’s Day 1941. The finished poem was published in the New English Weekly in February 1941.
All that remained now was for Eliot to complete the fourth quartet, which would be placed in Little Gidding, the site of Ferrar’s community to whose remnant chapel Eliot had made a personal pilgrimage in May 1936. Thus far, world events had begun not so much to overwhelm as to preempt the focus of Eliot’s own poetic conceptions, however. He had wound up composing “The Dry Salvages,” which was to deal with the element of water, while England was fighting for its life to keep open the vital sea lanes between the United States and the British Isles, where critical shipping carrying war materiel and other strategic supplies was the constant target of deadly attacks by German U-boats, or submarines. Now, as he began, in early 1941, to write the poetry of “Little Gidding,” the quartet whose element would be fire, London and surrounding English cities had been undergoing merciless aerial bombardments virtually on a nightly basis by the German Luftwaffe, or air force, since the previous September. The Nazi air “blitz” or Battle of Britain, as it subsequently became known, involved heavy bombing and extensive destruction throughout the heart of London, frequently igniting turbulent fires that would rage throughout the night. On May 10, 1941, for just one egregious example, 3,000 Londoners died as a result of these Nazi air raids.
The destruction and its attendant fear not just for one’s life but for the life of one’s people and nation permeate the lines and imagery of “Little Gidding” and may account as well for the fact that, although a first draft of the poem was completed in July 1941, Eliot was not satisfied with it. He would not take up the poem again until August 1942, completing a final version on September 19 after it had undergone five drafts. “Little Gidding” was published in the New English Weekly in October 1942, and the now completed sequence, Four Quartets, came out in book form in October of the following year. The war was still raging, and London was still the target of German air attacks.
APPROACHES TO READING THE POETRY
In the spirit that forewarned is forearmed, any approach to The Four Quartets should encourage the reader to be prepared for a difficult read, but not an impossible one. Eliot was never a poet of the accessible, but there is reason to believe that one should also hold suspect poetry that is too accessible, certainly at least when it appears that the poet intended it to be that way to begin with. A remark like that is hardly intended as an argument for obscurity and obfuscation in poetry. Rather it is a reminder that, by its very nature, poetry confronts human issues and conditions that do not generally lend themselves to easy modes of representation, exposition, or explication.
Eliot himself has been known to comment on the troubling increase in the levels of difficulty that confront the casual reader of the best contemporary poetry, and like it or not, that would be the sort of modernist poetry that Eliot himself composed. Nonetheless, he pleads for readers to understand the circumstances of modern life that compel such complexity in the art of poetry, and he goes as far as to contend that readers, when they encounter particularly difficult poetry, should take heart that the poet in question should find it possible to write at all. When all is said and done, Eliot’s observations are a comment on the stressfully chaotic nature of the times, not on the finer points of styling poetry.
As regards the poetry of The Four Quartets, for all its apparently intentional obscurities, a style of writing for which Eliot, the poet of such modernist classics as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, had become understandably renowned, the obscurities of the Four Quartets qua poetry (a distinction that Eliot was often wont to make) are as well a comment on the stressfully chaotic nature of the times, during which a common body of cultural reference points was becoming more and more difficult to find even amid a culture as coherent and self-contained as England’s. That particular reality, more than anything else, accounts for the Four Quartet’s particular difficulties, which are not, however, as multifaceted as the difficulties to be found in much if not most of Eliot’s previous poetry. In approaching Eliot’s previous poetry, up to and including a poem as late as “Ash-Wednesday,” which had been published n 1930, a mere five years before Eliot composed “Burnt Norton,” a reader not armed with a cogent survey of the various sources that Eliot had called on for his network of allusions would likely feel unprepared for engaging the poetry. It is not to say that a reader familiarized with each and every allusion in these earlier poems of Eliot’s would in fact be any better equipped for deciphering the poetry, as it were, than one who had no such familiarity. However, the richness of allusion in Eliot’s sort of poetry fosters the misconception that readers without this knowledge are necessarily excluded.
There was a point in Eliot’s poetic career, when he was composing the notoriously obscure quatrain poems of the like of “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” when he may even have gone out of his way to foster such misconceptions. The case is quite the opposite with the poetry of the Four Quartets. It has its fair share of historical, literary, and biographical reference points, to be sure, but the separation between the poetry and the poet’s sources, whenever he brings them to bear, is so narrow that it is doubtful that gaining or missing the allusion will contribute in any serious way to gaining or missing the meaning. For example, Eliot’s use of the words of the 14th-century English mystic Julian of Norwich is a good case in point. These words of hers, most significantly “sin is behovely” and “all will be well,” come into play twice over in the closing sections of “Little Gidding,” and they help Eliot bring the thematic thrust of the entire sequence to a satisfactory resolution. Yet any readers totally ignorant of the literary source and historical context of those verses would not get so much less out of them that the lines would not achieve very much the same effect and thematic ends for the benefit of those otherwise ignorant readers.
A similar case is Eliot’s image in “Little Gidding” IV of the “intolerable shirt of flame” that he tells his readers is “devised” by love. Commentators identify it as a classical allusion to an episode in the life of the mythic Greek hero Herakles. For attempting to rape Herakles’ wife, Deianira, the centaur Nessus was slain by Herakles, but not before the dying Nessus convinced Deianira that the blood from his wound, if smeared on a garment, would act as a love potion on whoever wore the garment. Later, when Deianira was afraid that she was losing Herakles to another woman, she followed Nessus’s advice, but he had tricked her, perhaps in order to gain a posthumous revenge on the hero. The blood-stained garment did not act as a love potion when the unwitting Herakles put it on, but instead as a poison that caused Herakles such unbearable agony that he was able to escape the pain only by lighting his own funeral pyre and then ascending to Olympus in the consuming flames.
The reader who accepts this rendering of Eliot’s image may be no nearer an understanding of his exact meaning, however, than the reader who is familiar instead with the story of another fleshburning garment, this one from Euripides’ Medea. In that Greek tragedy, in vengeance for her betrayal by the hero and her husband, Jason, Medea sends a poisoned garment as a wedding gift to Jason’s betrothed, a Corinthian princess. The moment that it touches her skin, it burns her flesh off, and the king, her father, who then rushes to her rescue, suffers a similar fate the moment that he touches her.
Readers totally unaware of either possible source would still see meaning in the image if they were at least aware that it appears to allude to a moment from the London blitz. The notion behind the image is that of a Nazi dive-bomber firing its machine guns as it dives. Such a fusillade might very well devise figurative “shirt[s] of flame” for those poor human targets in the London streets below. Further, a reader armed with nothing more than a literary mind might catch in the idea of a “shirt of flame” an apt metaphysical conceit à la those 16th-century English poets such as John Donne whom Eliot was greatly influenced by in earlier phases of his career. In this last but hardly final case, the human flesh itself, rife as it is with the heat of desire and passion that is manifested in the blood coursing through one’s veins and arteries, is an “intolerable shirt of flame” enough for those who are subjected to the vagaries of human desire to give the passage both an equal richness and credence.
The point is that readers do not need a scorecard to keep track of Eliot’s network of allusions in Four Quartets as much as they need to do—or feel they need to do—with, say, The Waste Land, and that is for the simple reason that The Four Quartets does not rely on the intentional development of such a network for the sake of implying meaning to any significant degree. Nevertheless, the Four Quartets is neither easy poetry nor structured so as to make its purpose and meaning obvious at any one point. Nor is the direction that the poetry is taking always completely self-evident in its transitions from section to section within each of the four poems constituting the complete sequence or, for that matter, from one poem to the next. There are, however, certain cues and motifs that act as markers from one segment of the text to another— the elements, the seasons, the significance of the varying locales—but these are all in the nature of macrostructures, as it were, and not likely to be of much assistance or comfort as one moves from line to line and stanza to stanza.
How, then, one should read the poetry of the Four Quartets remains a problem even for the reader who approaches it as a self-contained poem. Indeed, neither will hoping to find a coherency in the poetry’s analogous musical structure, though it may carry the moment from time to time, carry the day. Music can be harmony, but harmony alone does not make for the sort of explicit statement that one has every right to expect of a poem as opposed to a work of pure music. There is, however, a consistent linking device from one line, one section, and one part of the Four Quartets to another, and it is a concentrated and concentrating sensibility. Whether that sensibility is Eliot’s or is a fictive projection (most likely it is some rich mixture of the two, inasmuch as no writer can be wholly himself or someone else), this speaker’s inquisitive and sensitively ruminative nature makes the various parts of the poem, for all that they may seem from time to time to be sharply at odds with themselves, flow one into another. The total effect is not hypnotic. Hardly. But the more one reads and, particularly, rereads the poetry, the voice of the speaker as he struggles toward an understanding of what can rightly be called nothing less than the experience of life itself becomes a reassurance both that this struggle toward understanding is worth the effort and that it can result not so much in victory as in peace.
In summary, Four Quartets must be read again and again in order for the poem finally to become an experience of truth and of beauty—old terms, but no less germane even nowadays. Eliot’s is a poetry of our time. It is a rare treat and distinct honor to live so near the origins of a work that will no doubt be read and studied for centuries hereafter. And if Four Quartets is worth the future’s attention, it is certainly well worth ours.
The extremely abstract nature of the poetry that opens “Burnt Norton,” the first in order of composition and placement of Eliot’s Four Quartets, no doubt is as likely to put even the most stalwart readers off as much as the confusions regarding voice and setting put readers off The Waste Land before they have barely gotten started. In the case of The Waste Land, however, even amid doubts as to who is speaking and what is being spoken about and why he or she is speaking about it, there is still the semblance of the concrete realities of the months and the seasons, dried tubers and Hofgartens and sleds, cousins and archdukes, to make a reader imagine that something is occurring somewhere to someone, even if none of it is very clear.
By sharp contrast, the opening stanza of “Burnt Norton,” which runs nearly as long as its counterpart in The Waste Land and even bears a resemblance to it in its arrangement on the page, is striking for its dearth of concrete reference points, so that the reader is left to ponder nothing more or less than the import of the words themselves, rather than to which external realities they refer or the particular nature of the speaker that they call to mind. Nor should readers imagine that that is not the very effect that Eliot is hoping to achieve. The poem begins with what by now has become its famous reflection on the relationship among the past, the present, and the future, replete with a “perhaps,” typical of Eliot, that undercuts with a further vagueness the vagueness of these musings.
Just then, this relatively metaphysical bit of reflecting on whether the future is a component of the past, the past and present components of the future, is ratcheted up a notch into a realm of thought that seems to be far more spiritual if not theological in nature. Terms redolent of redemption and eternity enter the picture, but if it is hard to resist the possibility that these matters may be far more critical than the tone of mere musings has initially implied, then the tone then drifts back the other way. Philosophically vague words such as abstraction and speculation now weave a spell of merely idle reflection again, until, it seems, at least some conclusion is reached. This is that “[w]hat might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present,” bringing the entire exercise back full circle to “time present,” where it had, a mere 10 lines earlier, begun.
A merry chase it has been, nevertheless, but even that resolution, such as it is, is only momentary. In a poetry that has thus far been nothing but abstractions, the sudden introduction of concrete details, even if they seem to have only a figurative reality, enter the reader’s consciousness with the very sort of thud that “footfalls echo[ing]” down a passage not taken toward a door “never opened / Into the rose-garden” call up with this sudden intrusion into the verse of the distractive and actual. The reader’s senses, however, are being flooded not with sensations but with their memory, and then the reader is rudely reminded that even these are just words, in any case, echoing in the mind, suggesting that these sensory realities are, in the final analysis, no more real or substantial than the earlier abstract musings about the nature of time. Why disturb the dust one finds “on a bowl of rose-leaves,” the speaker then asks, suggesting in good Eliot fashion again, that he does not know the answer. Yet why, too, gather rose leaves up in a bowl except to preserve them as souvenirs of an event associated with them, an event that one not only does not want to forget but also wishes to commemorate as well?
This querulous examination of the interface among time and the passage of time and memory is followed now by an equally puzzling mix of the likely with the unlikely, the possible with the impossible, the ponderable with the imponderable. The reader is invited to follow “other echoes” into the very rose garden that had just been introduced as one that has never been entered, although it may be, on reflection, that it has never before been entered by that particular door at the end of that particular passage. This strange push-and-pull of the poetry thus far, which asserts a reality only to undermine its validity, calls to mind Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland. With its vibrating between the literal and the figurative, the abstract and the concrete, such a poetic technique has been Eliot’s way of representing the kind of reality between dream and waking that he has explored so frequently in earlier poetry that it has virtually become a hallmark of his unique style of versifying. From the human voices that wake Prufrock only to drown him in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to the shadow that falls between the motive and the action in “The Hollow Men,” Eliot’s has always been the poetry of altered states of consciousness that have been altered not by external agents but by internal turmoil and confusions.
That is, in fact, the most peculiarly modernist feature of his verse, its focus on disruptions to interior states of being, and these disjunctions are no less prominent in “Burnt Norton.” Here Eliot, instead of presenting them at their extremes of difference, presents them at those junctures where the distinction between the one and the other—the past and the present, for example, or the present and the future, memory and experience—are so near to each other as to be barely perceptible. Rather than lamenting the disjunctions, it is as if he is celebrating their essential associations in the hope that they all must point in a single direction nevertheless.
Therefore, for all practical purposes, all distinctions become imperceptible, until, in this rose garden that may or may not be real, there is music in the rustling shrubbery and sunlight may appear to be water in a pool that a passing cloud can then suddenly “empty.” The bird that calls, the hidden children who laugh, are both there and not there as well, echoing the past as memory and the present as a remembrance of itself in its passing. All that one is left knowing, and certainly all that the speaker knows, is that one was there, and then one was not there. He calls it “our first world,” a state of being or mind or spirit (or all three) that may be childhood or innocence or the Garden of Eden (or all three) that point to something, collectively, that all of us have forgotten yet can suddenly remember.
In the same way, the children could be symbolic of a blissfully ignorant innocence. They could be, like any children, the speaker’s recollection of those first human associations that everyone has before processes of maturation occur. They could be specimens from the childhood of a human race now grown jaded with an excess of history and progress. Or they could be Adam and Eve, for that matter. For the reader somewhat familiar with particular details from Eliot’s biography, the children could even be more youthful manifestations of Eliot and Emily Hale. She was an early love with whom he took up again in the 1930s after his marriage to his first wife, Vivien, had dissolved, first emotionally and then socially, in the earlier part of that decade. Shortly before the poem’s composition, Eliot, it is known, had visited the ruined English country home that is the site of the poem, in company with Hale, while she was vacationing in England, apparently to be with him. Clearly, any one of these explanations, and many another, is as likely to be the answer that might resolve all these various possibilities, and these resolutions are as varied as the questions that readers might provide.
The real point is that the poem, like all good poems, and the poet, like all good poets, may raise but never answers these sorts of questions regarding source and meaning, since they raise a myriad of questions of their own within the text. These questions may be categorized under the general topic heading, “What Is Reality?,” and they seem constantly to point the reader in the general direction of coming to recognize that reality is of no fixed shape or meaning—at least not for very long. “What might have been, and what has been,” are all too often not very distinguishable from each other in the blur of memory in which, from the point of view of the present, the past is always contemplated. Seen another way, the present is a forever haunted by a never-ceasing past.
The poem’s locale, Burnt Norton, supports this somewhat spectral reading of Eliot’s intentionally enigmatic opening. The speaker is puzzled by the presence of the past in a present that is perpetually merging flawlessly with the future partly, at least, because he is himself standing in the unkempt ruins of the formal gardens of an English country manor that was completely destroyed by fire centuries earlier. Invariably, he has been made mindful of a structure, a great house as they say, that is no longer there, of pools in which water no longer lies, of sounds among the hedges and shrubs that resemble what they cannot be.
It is the ponderous weight of all this present reality— of how more has passed than there ever, at any one moment, can be—that brings these doleful musings, half philosophical, half spiritual, toward a purpose that even the speaker cannot discern but that the presence of a bird, in its own perpetual comings and goings, can nevertheless articulate: “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” Nothing conclusive comes out of all this; nothing should. It is, after all, only the beginning of a poem sequence that will not only involve the next half-decade and more of Eliot’s creative life, but that will, as the Four Quartets, become his greatest masterpiece.
Beginnings are, of course, important, although often their significance cannot be known until, ironically, they are recognized in terms of whatever they began comes itself into being. In the case of “Burnt Norton,” this beginning sets a tone and demarcates the ensuing poem’s thematic boundaries. With regard to tone, the poet who made his early reputation by displaying a rich talent for liberally mixing levels and kinds of discourse makes it clear that he has not changed his legendary approach one iota in this later poetry, although he has toned down his earlier flamboyance and audaciousness considerably.
There is as a result a rich variety of poetic voices and concerns expressed in this opening section, although the range of difference and contrasts among them might not have been executed so much in an effort to affront and confuse his reader, as Eliot had seemed to be wont to do earlier, as in an effort to represent honestly the confusion that experience, “reality,” is. Indeed, despite his constantly appearing to be frustrating each new line of reasoning or exposition as it occurs, in “Burnt Norton” Eliot seems to be far more interested in and intent on getting his point across, although the wary reader should always be on guard whenever Eliot’s intentions appear to be so transparent as to be self-evident.
There can be no denying that this opening passage, then, appears to enunciate a number of themes straightforwardly if not emphatically. The passage of time and its effects assuredly is one of Eliot’s themes. Place and its associations with individual identity and growth surely comprise another. The ramifications of thinking too closely on the event, as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet so nicely puts it, whereby the overintellectualization and analysis of experience become emotionally and morally paralyzing, may very well be a third major theme for the ensuing poem, especially if this first section is regarded as an indicator. It can be said, too, that as one continues to read through “Burnt Norton” and then on through the remaining three poems of Four Quartets, these thematic expectations will not go unrewarded or unfulfilled.
By the same token, however, this is poetry, not expository or persuasive prose, and expecting these or any other thematic considerations to be the be-all and end-all of either the poet’s aim for the poetic text or the reader’s reward for having read it will severely diminish the experience of the Four Quartets as poetry. It is particularly important, then, for the reader to remember that Eliot is not only a poet first and foremost but a poet who, in virtually all of his critical writings, stresses poetry as its own species of human communication, one whose primary consideration is hardly ever a purely thematic one.
In the 1942 essay, “The Music of Poetry,” which came relatively late in the period involving his composition of the Four Quartets, he seems to express what he had in mind when he struck, as he had often done in the past, a musical analogy to identify the quality and nature of the poetry that he was then writing. In that essay, though he confesses to having little technical musical expertise, he recommends that poets should think of those properties that poetry and music have in common, and he identifies them as “the sense of rhythm and the sense of structure.” Lest associations be made from the musical to the dramatic stage, an area to which he was devoting more and more of his own creative energies and attention, Eliot further recommends that poets begin to think more in terms of the concert hall than the opera stage for their musical models, a likely allusion to his intentions for the Quartets, which were then in the final stages of completion. Indeed, he concludes, “There are possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the different movements of a symphony or a quartet.”
What these later remarks on the music of poetry ought powerfully to encourage the reader both to imagine and to keep in mind is that, beyond and perhaps more significant than the substance of statement in “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Quartets, is its musical quality. That would be meant in those very broad categories of structure and of rhythms, exactly as Eliot has just described, nor are they difficult to discern.
Granted, those to-and-fro rhythms of the philosophical and spiritual and personal musings with which “Burnt Norton” begins are significant. They are significant, surely, for the interactions of the somewhat conflicting ideas that the poetry is expressing, but that should not be regarded as what Eliot might have meant by the musical substance of either the poetry or the poetic effect of those same verses. Rather, and especially if Eliot is taken at his word, their substance is found in the way in which the vagaries of those reflections conduct the reader’s responsiveness this way and that, mimicking the so-called wind of thought—those verses’ musical quality, in other words, as Eliot would later define it. This notion of thought as a wind is another one of those double-edged metaphorical swords that appealed to Eliot’s modernist love of irony and paradox. Thought is a wind in the way that it can inspire and reinvigorate; thought is a wind in the way that, for all its apparent substance and force, it is still finally just so much empty air.
To the litany of themes already set forth, then, yet another might be added: the manner in which patterns of thought and feeling and language themselves create meaning. These poems, beginning with “Burnt Norton,” are indeed, after all, four quartets. It may not always be easy to remember this metaphorically structural reference point that Eliot provides as one becomes caught up instead in the web of reference and insinuation that the poetry as statement alone inspires. Nonetheless, it would be a serious disservice both to the poetry and to the reading experience to forget the musical analogy altogether. Not that Eliot allows the musicality both of the poetry and of patterns of human experience that emerge from the poetry to be too easily forgotten. If music, like poetry, is patterns of structure and rhythm, so are the activities of nature and of humans. These are often called mythic patterns because, in their cyclical repetitions and renewals, they become the larger and larger patterns by which the human imagination both organizes life itself and renders it meaningful.
If the first section of “Burnt Norton” has established these basic themes and structural principles as being those by which Eliot likely composed the poetry, then it is by those same themes and structural principles that the poetry can, as it now continues, most profitably be regarded.
Accepting the poetry foremost as musical in both form and movement, there should be less of a shock to the reader’s expectations for a reasonable transition when the second section of the poem commences with a highly lyrical turn announced by the startling image of “[g]arlic and sapphires in the mud.” It is extremely doubtful that any reader’s knowing that this is a direct allusion, albeit translated, from a poem by the 19th-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé would assist that reader in knowing any better what the image, for all its richness, might mean. Nor would it be of much further help to know that Mallarmé was one of the French symbolist poets who had such a considerable influence on Eliot when he was first starting out as a poet during his Harvard student days.
Rather, as might be suspected, the image is best considered in terms of itself and of the apparent import of the lyrical passage that it now introduces. Once more the reader ought to discover that it is not sources and meanings but patterns—those musiclike formulations of structure and rhythms— and their interweaving that are at issue. In isolation from any possible associations with outside sources, this opening image seems foremost to recommend a contrast between that which is vital and organic and nourishing, namely, garlic, and that which is wholly inanimate and mineral and of little practical use, sapphires.
Those first recognitions of contrasts, whatever they may be for each particular reader, can call up only further ones, of course, all of them developing from the traditional associations that garlic and sapphire may call up: things of intrinsic value versus those of extrinsic value, things that are subject to decay and corruption versus those that do not alter except over vast spaces of time, things that are cheap because they are numerous versus those that are valued because they are rare, things that are commonplace and ordinary versus those that are precious because they are spectacularly extraordinary, things that are underrated and undervalued versus those that are overrated and overvalued. The list could go on, as each new series of associative contrasts calls up another. There are similarities, too, of course, the most startling perhaps that, lodged in a medium as thick and obscuring as mud, one could easily be mistaken for the other. The hard sheen of a peeled clove of garlic, after all, could easily match in both size and visual texture the cold sparkle of a sapphire when the eye catches sight of either and both are mixed in a substance as thick as mud. Indeed, the entire imagistic assemblage, in this light, provides an apt metaphor for the confusions of sense and outward things that sensory experience all too frequently is liable to be for the individual.
What, then, does the image tell the reader, if it is not what the first section of “Burnt Norton” has already taken pains to demonstrate in its confusions among past, present, and future, experiences and the memory of them, and that is that it is all too easy to confuse a thing not just for its opposite, but for something that is in sharp contrast if not even strong conflict with it. Pattern itself implies disruption, indeed, requires it in order for the pattern to emerge, whereas what the soul or the mind most desires is that there be some constant within the eternal present toward which all time and all possibilities point.
Shortly Eliot will give that constant both a name and a habitation; he will call it “the still point of the turning world.” But first there are other reminders of ceaselessly forming and reforming patterns and patterning that both measure out and disrupt the singular reality that makes up experience. As this lyric passage that opens the second section of the poem continues, the reader is told that the blood flows beneath “inveterate scars,” meaning ageless scars, just as flesh has been ceaselessly torn and healed and torn again. There are other patterns “figured in the drift of stars” and in “the figured leaf.” Yet another ceaseless pattern, the pattern of pursuit—“the boarhound and the boar,” the hunter and the hunted—follows. These patterns may be “reconciled among the stars,” but the stars are cast into ceaselessly unfolding patterns of their own. Reality seems to be nothing more, as a consequence, than patterns within patterns within patterns. Change one’s point of view and the pattern changes accordingly, but the pattern of those patterns is itself unaltered.
In such a view of things, there cannot be anything that is constant and yet still changing, a Great Pattern, as it were, complete and yet fluid, in flux. This one thing Eliot makes the desideratum, the grail that the speaker seeks, and, as already observed, he calls it the still point. There, he tells the reader now, “the dance is,” for it is that point where all patterns converge and merge. This dance is “neither arrest nor movement,” nor is it fair to “call it fixity.” It is not a movement up or down, from or toward, and while it is a place one can be, it is not located in time or in space.
The more he speaks of this “place,” the more it emerges as a state not of mind but of being. Its source can be traced in Eliot’s thought to his early studies of the British idealist philosopher F. H. BRADLEY and his concept of immediate experience, which Eliot discussed at some length in his Harvard doctoral dissertation, “Knowledge and the Objects of Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley.”
The poetry supports this assumption by introducing a term, Erhebung, that is drawn directly from the early 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose ideas influenced Bradley. Erhebung and immediate experience, with their insinuations of an elevation and authenticating of the ordinary, would both contain within themselves the ideas that Eliot is seeking to concretize in his still point, which is both within and outside ordinary experience. The fact remains, however, that this is poetry, not philosophy or any other kind of expository presentation. So, then, this “completion of . . . partial ecstasy” and “resolution of . . . partial horror” cannot ever be adequately expressed except through an accumulation of detail that is as lyrical as spiritual, as philosophical as literary, and as sensible as paradoxical, since all are patterns that poetry alone can reconcile into a semblance, itself “still and still moving,” of what the still point is.
Ultimately the idea is expressed in the religious terminology of heaven and damnation, but whichever way the poetry and, with it, the poet’s attention turns, the words can never quite do anything more than point to it in the perpetual image of the rose garden. “To be conscious is not to be in time,” demarcates one edge of the dilemma, yet “[o]nly through time is time conquered,” and that idea demarcates the other. Stretched across these extremes, human experience becomes something that “flesh cannot endure” except as it translates the purity of wholeness into those ceaselessly interweaving and interwoven patterns and pretends, as it must, to see all meaning and movement begin and end there.
For all their problematic qualities, and they are considerable, the first two sections of “Burnt Norton” provide the reader with the bright possibility of a common center to experience whereby all experience is rendered inherently meaningful. But that is in the rose garden.
The third part of this first quartet is in a different venue and a different key. The “place of disaffection” is the very icon of the vacuity and despair associated with modern urban life: It is the subway, in this case the famous London tube. Eliot was not the first poet to use the subway as a type for the vacuity if not hellish inevitabilities of modern urban life. The contemporary American poet Hart Crane, in his attempt at a modernist epic, The Bridge, depicts in one of the last sections of that work, “The Tunnel,” the dark side of city life through a descent into the sordid and filthy world deep underground in the dark reaches of the New York subway system. Indeed, as the editor of the Criterion, Eliot would publish Crane’s “The Tunnel” in that literary journal in the late 1920s. Not to say that, in terms of offering a hellish vision of contemporary life in a major Western metropolis, Eliot himself had not led the way, at least for English-language readers, with his image of the walking dead traversing London Bridge in “Burial of the Dead,” the opening section of The Waste Land.Images such as these from the early Eliot inspired the response from Crane that eventually became, in The Bridge, his positive vision of the modern city.
In “Burnt Norton,” Eliot takes his reader into a crowded subway car carrying its weary urban dwellers leading lives in which they are “[d]istracted from distraction by distraction.” Like the “hollow men” of Eliot’s 1925 poem of the same name, these crowds of humanity with their “time-ridden faces” find themselves in an infernal twilight zone, neither here nor there, caught in a “[t]ime before and a time after” (“suspended between memory and desire” is how Eliot had expressed the same idea in opening lines of The Waste Land). What these modern urban travelers are missing is any engaging present or engagement with it. That is why they seem dead, and their environ seems like hell—because for all intents and purposes they are dead to and within the living moment of immediate experience, “the still point” of part two of “Burnt Norton.”
Here, too, Eliot suggests, come false resolutions to life’s dilemma. The movement is movement for only the most trivial and transient of purposes, just as there are others who move not at all but to as little purpose. Meanwhile, “the world moves / . . . on its metalled ways” rapidly toward nowhere, and certainly not toward the rose garden, but carrying the vast quantity of modern urban humanity along nevertheless, mindless passengers staring vacantly ahead on their way toward nowhere. (An exposure to Eliot may very likely have inspired the Beatles 1960s anthem, “Nowhere Man.”)
As the poem continues, Eliot continues to follow somewhat the five-part structural model of The Waste Land, whose part IV, “Death by Water,” is the shortest of that poem’s five sections and seems on the surface to be an opaque lyrical interlude but proves to be instead a passage that summarizes all that has come before it. Similarly, the fourth section of “Burnt Norton” is equally short and, on the surface, puzzlingly opaque; yet it, too, makes a summary point that accounts for all the musings that have come before it in the present text.
The day is buried; a black cloud conceals the sun. The speaker ponders whether it is then that the sunflower will “turn to us.” In the absence of any other light, the poet seems to be asking, “Are we light enough for this dark world?” The reader quickly gathers that it is death—the thought of death and of its reality—that is catching up with speaker: Will the “[c]hill / Fingers of the yew be curled / Down on us?” The yew tree grows by tradition in English country churchyards, its tendrils fed by the corpses of the faithful buried there, lost now permanently to time before and after and present, at least on this plane of existence. It is, indeed, a chilling thought.
And yet, even in our absence or freedom from time, there still must be “the light . . . / At the still point of the turning world,” or the hope for it. With the individual’s engaging consciousness, or without it, the music goes on, and Eliot uses the kingfisher, a traditional image for the Christ, to stress that, while that may not be the way of the world, which tracks its own fixed—“metalled”—ways, it is the way of the eternity that contains all things and out of which the rose garden, like the lotos and the rose, the sunflower and the yew tree, blooms.
The fourth part having clarified what is at stake in no uncertain terms, the fifth part is able to reassert with an earned confidence the tenuous and querulous sentiments regarding time and eternity that parts I and II had barely been able to entertain, let alone sustain. The problem with all of Eliot’s poetry is that processes of clarification can often lead to oversimplification, if not in practice, then at least in appearance. This problem is peculiarly exacerbated in the Four Quartets for the very reason that Eliot is trying to write a less complex and convoluted poetry than had come to be expected of him; at the same time, he is dealing with such extremely knotty problems regarding time and life and death that generally must always resolve themselves, if at all, only in the hair-splitting ambiguities of paradox and double-think. Another way of putting it is that the kind of poetry that he is attempting to produce in “Burnt Norton” is not entertaining poetry, but it is worthwhile poetry.
That, however, is the very point why and where the musical analogy proves to be so valuable to his purposes. In addition to its analogous uses, after all, it should be clear by now how Eliot is using this musical analogy as a structural model as well. Specifically, music, like thought, advances largely through the principle of point and counterpoint. In other words, its harmonies, too, are based on the resolution of opposites or of terms in conflict, exactly as the paradoxical in thought processes operates.
If nowhere else in the sequence that is the Four Quartets, the fifth and final section of “Burnt Norton” operates on this very principle of musical analogy and on the structural similarities among music, thought, and language or poetry by addressing their perplexities directly and openly. “Words move, music moves,” the speaker, who had just identified the dangers of mistaking movement for meaningful action, tells his reader. But movement, though it may be a characteristic of life in the dynamic of its processes, is not a feature of the perfection that the speaker seems to be seeking, for “that which is living / Can only die.” Life is the burden, but it may not be the way. The problem is a serious one. If there is perfection, it must be an accessible reality, but anything accessed within the confines of lived experience, even something as abstract as music, can and must be constantly transmuted merely in order to exist and, so, is itself subject to decay and its own demise or at least termination, and neither of those ends can be regarded as having achieved the goal of perfection or of the still point.
That, surely, is why Eliot suddenly introduces the image of the Chinese jar. It is both still and, in its three-dimensional beauties and luster, still moving; yet, being a reasonably constant thing, it is not subject like words or like music to change and pass away before it has barely been contemplated. For any reader familiar with John Keats’s celebrated ode, his Grecian urn should be seen to be reappearing in Eliot’s jar, inasmuch as both poets seek to find a moving experience in a fixed object.
In neither case is the poet’s supposition true, of course, inasmuch as both objects, as objects, are as equally liable to ruin and decay as any other. But since such an otherwise solid object changes a great deal less rapidly relative to words or music (in Keats’s case, it was the song of a nightingale that “fled,” whereas the urn, though it is silent, does speak), the urn/jar’s capacity to sustain the illusion of changelessness is certainly a satisfactory resolution for the speaker since that is all that he is really after—a way of bodying forth something as insubstantial as the truth. Surely, if nothing else, the Chinese jar, as object, is far more substantial than words that “strain, / Crack and sometimes break,” and “slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision.” Worse, they “[w]ill not stay still,” whereas, like it or not, the Chinese jar will, so it suits the speaker’s purpose.
What ultimately suits the speaker’s purpose, however, is the theme of love. It will become more and more, as the poetry proceeds, the theme of The Four Quartets, superseding and eventually subsuming the great philosophical and theological themes of time and eternity with which the Four Quartets, by virtue of “Burnt Norton,” opens. Being brought to bear at the very close of “Burnt Norton,” this great theme gets from the speaker what may appear to be only a passing, perhaps even merely a begrudging or perfunctory nod: “Love is itself unmoving,” he says, and the reader should recall how important stillness is for this speaker, caught up like all the rest of humanity in the frenetic pace and distracting demands of life itself, let alone those demands as they are compounded by the social and cultural pressures of so-called civilization. Furthermore, love is “[t]imeless and undesiring,” and the reader should recall as well how crucial those traits are too to the speaker’s ideal experience, seeing that he has been obsessed by time’s passage and worldly distractions.
Love, indeed, seems to be a far more apt trope for what the speaker is truly seeking than any Chinese jar may ever be. In mind of love, he hears once more the laughter of the children in the foliage, a laughter that is lost in the rose garden but is, like Wordsworth’s blessed shore in his “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” never more than the next split second in perception away. Concluding “Burnt Norton,” one might almost go as far as to say that love is precisely what the speaker of “Burnt Norton” has been, or should have been, seeking all along. He still has a long way to go, however—virtually to the end of the Four Quartets, in the closing passages of “Little Gidding”—before he shall discover that for himself.
For now, he can only lament “the waste sad time / Stretching before and after.” Time past and time future both end in the present, be it what it may, and as “Burnt Norton” closes, the speaker has come no more than full circle, or so it appears. And yet, full circle may itself be progress, as the poet of “Ash-Wednesday” knows. In that signal work of his, published in 1930, Eliot’s speaker ascends a spiral staircase, so that although he comes upon a window opening on a vista that he has already seen, it is nevertheless being viewed from the vantage point of a higher plane.
In the same way, “Burnt Norton” may appear to be doing, and to have accomplished, nothing more than to be circling the same imponderables of time and space and one’s relationship to those intractable coordinates, but that is only if we judge the poetic presentation by the standards of proposition and conclusion. That is to say, if the poetry of “Burnt Norton” is viewed as a prose argument, which it resembles, by the poem’s closing Eliot does not seem to have extended the terms of the thematic engagement, only reiterated it—and that several times over.
If the poetic statement of “Burnt Norton” is judged by a musical paradigm, on the other hand, one in which a motif is not merely advanced but enlarged upon by repeated variations on it, then “Burnt Norton” is far more than repeated stabs in the dark at those ultimate mysteries connoted by time and eternity. It is rather a progressive enlargement of the imaginative means by which those mysteries can be expressed and visualized from the point of view of the experiences of a single individual, in this case, the poem’s speaker. In that way, too, “Burnt Norton” weds music, poetry, and, in the truest sense of the word’s meaning, philosophy, thereby setting a tone for the remainder of the Four Quartets to follow. For philosophy is the love of wisdom, and it is wisdom that the speaker of “Burnt Norton” is seeking.
As has already been established, Eliot uses several other overarching organizational principles in the Four Quartets, in addition to the primary ones of the poetry’s musical parallels. The most prominent among these other principles guiding the poetry’s composition, structure, and themes is a distinguishing emphasis on each of the four elements—air, earth, water, and fire—accomplished by identifying each of the four poems with one of the four. Also, each of the quartets is set in, if not ruled by, a particular, actual locale that has some associations for the poet, either of a biographical nature or of an intimate personal nature.
For example, as much as “Burnt Norton” may seem to reflect the element of earth, what with how much the poetry emphasizes those moments the speaker longs to spend free from longing in the rose garden, it is a critical commonplace that the poetry of “Burnt Norton,” with its obsessive interest in philosophical abstractions and metaphysical speculations regarding time and experience, in fact focuses on the element of air in the sense that that is what such deep and often fruitless or pointless thought is composed of—airy nothings. As a locale, meanwhile, aside from what is known of Eliot’s visit there with Emily Hale very near the time that he composed the poetry of “Burnt Norton,” Burnt Norton is not specifically noteworthy otherwise. Indeed, its sole claim to any enduring fame is the fact that it figures notably in one of Eliot’s major works.
The locale for the next poem in the sequence that together make up the Four Quartets, “East Coker,” shares some of the same characteristics with Burnt Norton. A small village in Gloucestershire in the southwest of England, East Coker is a pleasant enough place that would otherwise be no more noteworthy than dozens of similarly pleasant and picturesque venues throughout the English countryside had it not, too, achieved great literary fame as the focus of the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Unlike Burnt Norton, however, a locale that has specific but still only casual associations with the poet’s life, East Coker, by sharp contrast, has general but nevertheless indelible connections with Eliot personally. It was from this village that Andrew Eliot, the founder of the American branch of the poet’s family, left for one of England’s New World colonies, specifically Massachusetts, in the mid-16th century. East Coker, in other words, is the Eliots’ ancestral home.
“In my beginning is my end,” the speaker intones as “East Coker” opens, words that take on a fuller meaning in the light of the village’s particular significance for the poet. These words, reversed, are the motto of Mary Stuart. As Mary, Queen of Scots was one of the many villains/victims in the religious turmoil that tore the English people apart after Henry VIII severed all ties with the authority of the Roman Catholic papacy in 1533. A Catholic rival to Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, Mary devised the motto during her imprisonment in 1568. She was executed for treason in 1587.
Beyond this connection to late 16th- and 17th century English religious, social, and political history, the words of the motto have several significances of their own for Eliot’s immediate purposes. For one thing, once it has been introduced into the poetry, the idea continues to serve as a frequent philosophical refrain throughout the remainder of the sequence. If nothing else, it provides a handy means of picturesquely summing up of all those philosophical musings regarding time, memory, and mortality that permeated the verse of “Burnt Norton.” Regarded strictly in terms of itself, the motto provides its own anchor for verse that all too often seems to be on the verge of slipping away into the vagueness of reflection.
The idea that one’s death is contained in one’s birth, one’s goals in one’s aspirations, is not a uniquely new one, of course. Similar ideas are embraced in the image of eternity as a circle or ring, or as a snake devouring itself. The idea partakes of paradox as well, in keeping with a conceptual strategy already introduced in “Burnt Norton,” whereby every thought and feeling brought to bear seems to be accompanied by its own necessary and contradictory opposite. Certainly there is the same effect in the thought that one’s end can be found in one’s beginning. For “end” has an easily discernible double meaning. It can be one’s end in the sense of a termination point, but it can also suggest one’s aim or goal. As the poet had already warned his readers at the conclusion of “Burnt Norton,” words decay with imprecision. It should be no wonder that “East Coker,” by opening with a brain-teasing paradox, begins with a vivid reminder of just how true that can be. Words provoke meaning more often than they provide it, it seems.
Finally, there is irony if not bitter paradox, too, in the fact that the religious strife associated with Mary, from whose “tattered arras” the motto is taken, was just another, earlier chapter in the religious contention and persecution that continued to plague England well into the 17th century. Andrew Eliot would have been of a different religious party from the Roman Catholicism that had been practiced by Mary, numbering himself by his time no doubt among the dissenters from the socalled established church headed by the king. It is generally assumed, nevertheless, that it was for religious reasons that Andrew Eliot left East Coker, permitting his distant heir, the poet T. S. Eliot, to be born in St. Louis, Missouri. “In my beginning is my end,” indeed. From here the poet started, in a manner of speaking. To here the poet returns, also in a manner of speaking. Every beginning is an end, as he will soon note, every end a beginning.
This opening section of “East Coker” also clearly represents the element of earth, the “significant soil,” as the poet calls it, out of which all living things spring and to which they return. If “Burnt Norton,” then, had concerned itself with conceptual time, time as a philosophical construct of mind, “East Coker” concerns itself with generational time. Time here is the means of measuring and calculating the production of the harvest and the births, marriages, and deaths of those who plant and reap the harvest, and who are eventually planted in countless country churchyards, recalling the far reach of the chill fingers of the yew tree of the fourth section of “Burnt Norton.” This is the human universe of birth, copulation, and death, the be-all and end-all of Sweeney in “Sweeney Agonistes,” Eliot’s aborted verse drama. There Eliot makes those processes seem tedious, but it is from their cyclic rituals of renewal that the poet/ speaker’s own flesh, like all flesh, springs. The new emerges from out of the detritus of the past and then returns to it.
As the speaker strolls a lane in this country village where he is himself rooted and his roots are planted in the surrounding earth, itself compounded of all that and all those who came before him, he imagines a summer midnight in an open field, pipes and a drum and a bonfire, and his ancestors dancing. The archaic-sounding English into which the passage suddenly breaks is more than Eliot’s way of marking the moment as one belonging to that time when Andrew Eliot or his forbears would have been there. The words come from a 16th-century work by another Eliot ancestor, Sir Thomas Elyot’s Book of the Governour, and in the passage that Eliot has selected, Elyot compares the dance to matrimony, matrimony to a dance, in which man and woman are joined for the propagation of further life. Reading this passage, the reader may be made mindful of the still point from “Burnt Norton,” the point where the dance is. This present dance, however, keeps time with the passing seasons and their requirements, the “time of milking and of harvest / The time of the coupling of man and woman / And that of beasts.” Such a vision is both provocative and compelling, echoing as it does both the power of desire and the requirements of a biological necessity that drives all nature. It is interesting that the speaker only observes this scene and comments on it and that he seems to have little desire to join it or find his own place in it. And yet he neither can nor will deny that it is from out of that dance that his own flesh emerges, from which further emerges the questioning and isolated consciousness that dominates “Burnt Norton.”
Then the dawn comes, with the “heat and silence” of a new day. If that portends a movement back toward those places and moments of disaffection, where one is distracted from distraction by distraction, still, there is new knowledge in the clear implication that the lives of the speaker’s ancestors were ultimately no different. After such midnight revelries, there must always come the glaringly dull business of the workaday world, whose own demands, like nature’s, are unrelenting. The point is that now the speaker knows that that dance of nature and its forces, though shrouded and exercised in the darkness of its own ongoing mysteries, underlies the urban landscape’s zero day, for “I am here / Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.”
An evolving structural method for the sequence is also hinted at in the motto. This becomes readily apparent as the second section of “East Coker” opens with a lyrical passage, in keeping with the way in which the second section of “Burnt Norton” had opened. Just as each of the four poems that compose The Four Quartets as a sequence play variations on each particular theme that will then be given a different twist in the succeeding poems, so will the manner in which each section of each poem is laid out and constructed follow a common pattern, but in a way that is, of course, unique to each poem. This Chinese-box approach is, in essence, cubed so that the musical connotations of such a structuring principle take on a virtually prismatic effect, elements from one poem not merely resembling but reflecting and refracting coordinate sections from the other three. The result is that, although poetry, like music, is a linear art, the Quartets act on each other as if they were a simultaneous whole. “In my beginning is my end.”
The lyric passage of section two of “East Coker” introduces, as its earlier counterpart in “Burnt Norton” had, the theme from the point of view of its most poetic coordinates, assuming that poetic here means, in the popular sense, less keyed in to reality. In that sense of the term, the next 17 lines beginning with the words, “What is the late November doing,” are nonetheless hardly watered down in their substance or beauty, so that a reader fresh out of the more prosaic passages of the first section of “East Coker” would hardly imagine that these 17 lines, as beautiful as they are, are merely a setup on the poet’s part. But a setup they nevertheless indeed are, though to what purpose, or end, the reader is left to ponder. So, then, in those first 17 lines of the second section of “East Coker” the poet/speaker muses in rather expansively poetical terms on how all things move toward “that destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.” The poetic passage is appropriate, too, coming hard on the heels of the first sections long meditation on all those preceding generations that have gone under earth’s lid, as the old saw goes.
No sooner is the passage ended, however, than the poet, inasmuch as he may be regarded as the speaker, steps out of character to comment, negatively, on the poetic passage that has just transpired. “That was a way of putting it,” he tells his reader, and then he criticizes its “worn-out poetical fashion” in no uncertain terms, calling it “periphrastic,” that is to say, wordy and circumlocutory. Such is the poetic style, in fact, that had been all the rage and was on its way out when the early 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth had criticized it nearly a century and a half earlier. Wordsworth, however, had criticized it in a prose preface to his collection Lyrical Ballads, not in a poem and certainly not immediately after tricking his reader into accepting it as his own idea of poetry and then turning on it and betraying the reader’s trust by dismissing it all as just so much been-there done that rubbish.
Setup it is, then, but why step out of the performance by revealing it as a performance? If all things change, if they come only to go, and if it is ordained that there is nothing that is made that will last forever, it is a part of the poet’s performance and of his trust with his readers to remind them, even if that reminder appears to be offered rudely, that among the items on that finite but nevertheless lengthy list of things that do not last is poetry, including most assuredly all its passing styles, including the poet’s own. The poet who had told his readers in the closing fifth section from “Burnt Norton” that words decay with imprecision now has told them that poetic fashions not only change but also become outmoded.
Eliot is not saying anything new here either by telling his readers that even the highest form of all human verbal communication, poetry, can become outworn, nor must the reader imagine that Eliot is trying to startle. Nevertheless, while Eliot may not be the first poet to have opined regarding the limitations of word and the fading stylishness of any poem, seldom has a poet said this about words and about a poem that he is himself writing, in that very poem that he is writing. By thus compounding this otherwise commonplace point, Eliot makes his point: that there is no getting away from the decay of all human endeavor, even in the fabled realms of enduring artistry. Yet that is not itself the point, of course. “The poetry,” the reader nearly just as soon learns, “does not matter.” Nor should it. Rather it is that “intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings” that matters, engaging not only the poet but every other thinking, feeling human being as well—the effort to understand, to come to an understanding, to make sense.
No wonder, then, that the speaker does not want to “hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather their folly,” because after all has been said and done, “[w]e are only undeceived / Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.” The idea is, to be sure, an apt one, although it may give the lie to the very premise that it is trying to establish: that there is no utterance, no “wisdom,” that is human that is not, in time, dismissed as folly by those who succeed the utterer. All things pass, but none as fast as human wisdom, unless it be life’s joys. “The houses are all gone under the sea. // The dancers are all gone under the hill.”
The parallels between the structure of “East Coker” and that of the preceding quartet, “Burnt Norton,” continue in the third section of “East Coker.” In “Burnt Norton,” the speaker had turned from a contemplation of the individual’s aspirations for the ideal represented for him in the rose garden and in the stillness of a Chinese jar to a consideration of the frenetic and distracting pace of life for modern city dwellers caught in those collectively empty and meaningless moments as they rush to and fro on a subway.
In “East Coker,” similarly, the speaker turns from his contemplation of the ravages of time on individuals and on their joys and griefs alike to a consideration of how those same natural forces ravage as well all the trappings of earthly power and glory, defeating the goals of the mighty and powerful and self-important just as surely as those of the meek and the humble. There, in the same dark vacancy, are to be found “captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,” and even the generous and the distinguished among them “all go into the dark.”
Though the imagery is Dantesque, these worldly individuals are not portrayed as bad people in and of themselves, any more than the highly successful and worldly Lord Claverton in Eliot’s last important work, the verse drama The Elder Statesman, will be portrayed as a bad man, only an oblivious one. These are, however, individuals whom the world honors and admires, setting them aside, as if in some vague hope that not everyone and everything succumbs to the all-consuming nothingness that is time past. The speaker’s point is that in the hustle and bustle of the moment, when what is important to us comes near to seeming to have the same importance to the vast and impersonal universe, it is easy to be distracted and to forget the awful and persistent truth that no one and nothing survives very long.
The image introduced now is not one of passengers on a subway but of an audience in a darkened theatre: “I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God.” As ominous a view of life as such a plea implies, it is hardly unrealistic, for the stage set, all indeed is being “rolled away.” And then, suddenly, the image is one of being again on “an underground train, in the tube,” a stop between stations, and behind every face there is a “mental emptiness” that leaves “only the growing terror of nothing to think about.”
The metaphors are sure and accurate, illustrating the emptiness that intrudes when life’s planned distractions— the next scene in the play, the next stop on the way—suddenly does not come about exactly as expected and, freed momentarily from distraction, one is left alone in an ultimate darkness without any inner support or resources to call on. There one can only wait, without the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and charity, since they, too, are all contained in the waiting. This is what the philosopher might call the existential void when there is nothing left to prop up the unattended self. But rather than wallowing in such despair, Eliot’s speaker instead accepts the void by embracing its very essence as being itself a spiritual state—by embracing, that is, the very nothingness that one fears.
In mystical practice this process is called the via negativa, or negative way. Eliot borrows the idea wholesale from St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish Catholic mystic from whose works on spiritual discipline Eliot had already taken half of the epigraph that introduces “Sweeney Agonistes.” It is another work that darkly explores the edges of the hardly bearable. Now, however, in “East Coker,” recognizing the paradox that, for us poor benighted humans, enlightenment comes from embracing the darkness that swallows us all in any case, the speaker discovers freedom in surrender, and fulfillment in denial. Thus, “the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.”
At this juncture the poetry weds the paradoxical center of “Burnt Norton”—the stillness that is movement—with the paradoxical center of “East Coker”—the darkness that, for the soul, is light. If it is in paradox, not agedness, that wisdom comes, the speaker now repeats a litany of paradoxical moral and spiritual postures taken almost verbatim from St. John of the Cross’s The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. The negative way that he espouses there has much of practical wisdom about it, once the advice is read in the spirit of ironic truths. If one wants to have everything, desire nothing. If one wishes to achieve everything, achieve nothing. Once the idea is grasped, it is difficult to fail to get the point—and equally as difficult, however, to put it into practice: The less one wants, the more one gets.
In the hands of Eliot’s speaker, meanwhile, this same kind of advice may overwhelm the reader already somewhat overwhelmed by the onslaught of paradox and contradictory juxtapositions and apparent non sequiturs that frequently characterize his poetry, certainly the poetry of Four Quartets, and without a doubt this particular passage. But the speaker softens the psychic blow somewhat by dragging the reader into the text and making him a knowledgeable accomplice in the quest for resolution, even if that resolution is rendered as puzzles. Addressing the reader directly, the speaker suddenly says: “You say I am repeating / Something I have said before. . . . / Shall I say it again?” The reader is, of course, saying absolutely nothing but is brought nonetheless into the text and onto the page by such boldness of direct address. The “you” who then is schooled in the ways of dispossession is made that much more intimately connected to the reader through the speaker’s free use of such an informal mode of address in the midst of an otherwise intensely formal and dislocating presentation.
The direct exposure to the paradoxical way of thinking that the via negativa requires makes the deflections that come in the fourth section sound particularly reasonable. The “wounded surgeon” is an apt oxymoron, in the physician-heal-thyself school of moral insight. Everything, of course, contains its opposite and, so, calls it up. “Compassion” is “sharp,” “health” is “disease.” “To be restored, our sickness must grow worse.” All these things that sound impossible from the physical point of view of a strictly material universe are, of course, profoundly true from a spiritual point of view focused on eternity. From that angle, the death of the body is indeed the birth of the soul, and darkness here is light there, whereas light here is a source of darkness there, and so forth.
As in “Burnt Norton” and in the original model, The Waste Land, the fourth section is the shortest, in gathering and summarizing in stark metaphorical terms all that has come before it thus far and thereby preparing the reader for the poem’s resolution. If also in “Burnt Norton,” however, the fourth section appears to invoke God the Father in the still point of the turning world, the fourth part of “East Coker” clearly invokes God the Son in the image of the “bloody flesh” that is “our only food,” and it concludes by recalling the Eucharistic feast: “. . . [I]n spite of that, we call this Friday good.”
The notion that the day that the Christ was crucified is called Good Friday because of the benefit that Christians believe Christ’s sacrifice brought to all humanity caps the entire movement toward the paradoxical with Christianity’s ultimate paradoxical resolution—aside, perhaps, from the felix culpa of Adam’s sin that precipitated humanity’s fallen state to begin with. In keeping with the idea that all things not merely contain but are their own opposite, Adam is portrayed as “the ruined millionaire” whose error of eating the forbidden fruit that then led to his expulsion from the Garden of Eden ended up with his ironically and paradoxically “endow[ing]” this hospital/hospice called Earth, where all are born only to die.
If St. John of the Cross provides much of the text for the third section of “East Coker,” then there are the ghosts of such English metaphysical poets as John Donne and Andrew Marvell haunting the fourth section, with its extravagant conceits, or metaphorical comparisons. In the fifth and final section of “East Coker,” Eliot acknowledges these debts by having his speaker muse on the difficulties of achieving effective creation.
It cannot be overemphasized that the poet’s stepping not so much out of character as out of role by commenting on the poetic process, as he will do periodically throughout the Quartets, is not a distractive or coy device but an integral thematic and structural component of the total work and its effect. If a single note is being struck throughout, after all, it is that from virtually any vantage point, there is an immense measure of futility in all human action. While the reader may hope through hints only half-given thus far that that futility will eventually resolve itself into a more expansively hopeful vision of a life spent on Earth, it makes perfect sense nonetheless that the poet will not exempt his own particular kind of activity, the composition of poetry, from that pervasive sense of the futility of action.
The poet himself, then, more than any speaker or even poet/speaker, seems to be addressing his readers directly again as the fifth section of “East Coker” commences, and he addresses them not as readers but as if they are old friends with whom he has shared many moments in the past. Since the poet in question just happens to be T. S. Eliot, certainly one of the most celebrated English- language poets of his generation, he and his readers would indeed have, as it were, developed a special relationship with each other over the quarter century and more that he has been publishing. They have shared with him, too, the “[t]wenty years largely wasted” between the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, and the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.
He had already, at the end of “Burnt Norton,” lamented the sad wasted years stretching before and after. Now, as he comes to the conclusion of “East Coker,” he can perhaps better explain why someone who imagines that all human action is futile should lament the waste of time. Paradoxically, it may be because he had not thought that he was wasting it—might have thought, instead, that he was achieving things, just like those captains of industry, whereas in fact he was only “marking time.” For time spent in idle pursuits is the ultimate wasteland, the poet of The Waste Land has convincingly just now told his readers in “East Coker.” “[A]ll go into the dark,” he had intoned at the opening of the third section, and he would not say as much if he did not mean it.
Words, too, go into the dark, one generation’s way of putting it becomes the next’s outmoded fashion, and what holds true for a generation holds true for individuals as well. So, then, it is neither unfair nor inaccurate to say that each poem is a “raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating,” and one learns “only to get the better of words / For the thing . . . / One is no longer disposed to say.” The man, too, who had paid homage to his biological ancestry in “East Coker” only to admit that they are all buried now pays equal homage to some of his literary ancestors as well—St. John of the Cross, Marvell, Donne—only to admit that he cannot “hope / To emulate” them, for there is nothing more for each next generation of writers than “the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again.” Otherwise, “[t]he rest is not our business.”
Perhaps because its focus has been on things past, “East Coker” has not been a very pleasant experience. Its poetry seems to be largely the poetry of lamentation, complaint, and regret, all of those emotions that reflecting upon the past can inspire. “East Coker” draws to a close on a somewhat hopeful note, however. The poet who had dismissed the wisdom of old men as folly (he would himself be entering only his early 50s as he was writing “East Coker”) imagines a different fate for himself and his generation by borrowing a page from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses.”
The Tennyson poem presents the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, who has been back home on his native island of Ithaka for a long enough time that his spirit has become restless to return to the open sea with its promise of high adventure and knowledge of new lands and peoples. Tennyson may himself have borrowed a page from Dante’s characterization of Ulysses, in the Inferno, as a leader whose passion for knowledge brought catastrophe on himself and his fellow mariners, a passage that Eliot himself alluded to in the earliest versions of The Waste Land. As problematically negative as that possible allusion to Dante may make his characterization, Tennyson’s Ulysses is cited most often as an example of that never-say-die mentality that was thought to typify the sensibilities of Victorian England, particularly as he exhorts his fellow mariners that it is “not too late to seek a newer world,” that they should not “rust unburnished,” and that they should “strive to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
After the morose mood of much of the rest of “East Coker,” Eliot appears to echo these sentiments in the quartet’s close as he speaks of spending “a lifetime burning in every moment,” of the kind “when here and now cease to matter,” for “[o]ld men,” he concludes, “ought to be explorers” who must be “still and still moving.” Instead of his fellow mariners, as in the case of Tennyson’s Ulysses, Eliot’s speaker/poet has all those “undisciplined squads of emotions” to deal with. But dealt with they must be, particularly since one has no other choice, unless it is to vegetate in the dead world of a lifetime of meaningless repetition as is embodied in and by the subway travelers. To be still and still moving, for all its apparent paradox, is not so difficult a task to accomplish, however, although it may require more than a typical measure of self-discipline. As a practical sentiment, it is perhaps best expressed in a Latin tag that Eliot’s friend from his youth, the American poet Ezra Pound, adopted as his personal motto in his own advanced years: Tace et face. Loosely translated, it exhorts one to shut up and get to work.
The Dry Salvages” The significance of the name “The Dry Salvages” is conveniently glossed by Eliot with an introductory parenthetical immediately following the title of the third of his Four Quartets. Therein he tells the curious reader that the poem’s namesake, the Dry Salvages, is a “small group of rocks,” three in fact, off the northeastern coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The name is presumably a corruption of the French les trois sauvages, or “three savages,” and, as he goes on to explain, “salvages” should be pronounced so as to rhyme with “assuages.” As an added piece of information, Eliot concludes by noting that a groaner is a whistling buoy.
One of the least forthcoming of poets of the 20th century, Eliot seems to be going out of his way here to frustrate the ambitions and steal the thunder of any scholars or instructors who may be bent on revealing these relatively obscure bits of information themselves to the interested reader or student of the poem for the sake of showing off a mastery of geographical trivia. Trivia it may be, but for Eliot, the Dry Salvages would resound with as much personal significance as those equally obscure place names, Burnt Norton and East Coker, had. It would be unfair, then, to think that Eliot is intentionally trying to obfuscate or mislead by identifying the Dry Salvages so carefully, especially when he had not gone to anywhere near the trouble of identifying the no less obscure Burnt Norton or East Coker. It is as if he wants to be certain that there will be no mistaking the particular Dry Salvages that he has in mind.
All the more reason, then, that, as the poetic text begins, Eliot may catch the reader by surprise nevertheless by going on about a river after having just alluded in painstaking detail in his headnote to a maritime location. For it does seem as if one has missed a beat when Eliot, having taken such care with the headnote, then seems to preempt himself by beginning the poem that follows with the thought that, although he does “not know much about gods,” the speaker is inclined to “think that river / Is a strong brown god.” What is the wind up to, one might well ask, echoing the high-strung and befuddled lady of “A Game of Chess,” the second part of Eliot’s The Waste Land. And in that poem’s almost equally Alice in Wonderland terms, one might very well answer, in good Eliot fashion, everything and nothing.
There are, after all, obvious associations between a river and the sea, and that is that they both have to do with water and with the cycles of nature. Whereby the sea is constantly replenished by rivers flowing down into it, those same rivers are fed by inland rainfalls, which are themselves seawater evaporated by the sun and then condensed back into rain in the upper atmosphere. Every schoolboy and schoolgirl learns of this cycle in general science back somewhere in grammar school, as Eliot himself would have in his own boyhood.
So, then, it is just as curious and, finally, enlightening that the river that Eliot speaks of is spoken of in terms of the “nursery bedroom” and in the Whitmanesque details such as “dooryard,” “grapes on the autumn table,” and the circle of light cast “in the winter gaslight,” as if Eliot is recalling his own boyhood spent in the 1890s in his birthplace, one of America’s most celebrated river cities, St. Louis, Missouri, situated on the banks of America’s most celebrated river, the Mississippi.
To know further, then, that the Dry Salvages also have a powerful association with the poet’s childhood, opens a door on the poet/speaker’s past, exactly as the first two parts of the Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker,” also did, each in its own way. The Dry Salvages are somewhat off the farthest tip of Cape Ann, at Rockport, itself within easy sailing or driving distance of Gloucester’s Eastern Point, where the Eliots, after vacationing in rented accommodations for many seasons, built themselves a lavish summer home in 1896, when the poet was only seven going on eight. As a boy, then, spending summers sailing off New England’s Atlantic shore, Eliot would come to know the rhythms of the sea by sailing from Cape Ann, coming to know in the process the Dry Salvages and other landmarks and sea signs, the buoys and beacons put out to guide the mariner, exactly as he would have come to know the river traffic that formed a daily backdrop to the life of the city in which he was raised.
“The river is within us, the sea is all about us,” he can honestly observe, keeping all those many metaphorical reference points, in which the river is time, the sea eternity, intact while not in any way diminishing the import that the statement has for his own personal history. As a boy he became intimately acquainted with both the river and the sea—how they can serve us and even appear to be tamed, and then in an instant turn our human universe over on its head. In the river and the sea—but particularly the sea—Eliot finds the perfect representation of what he had struggled so hard to find in the first two quartets: a reality that is not our reality but that is no less real. In that way, the poet can keep it in metaphorical perspective yet not pretend to know it in any actual way, thus making the sea in “The Dry Salvages,” whose element, after all, is water, the perfect emblem of that elusive eternity where time past, time present, and time future meet, mingle, and become indistinguishable.
The sea keeps its own time, and while the individual can know its surface of currents and hazards, no one can ever know its depths or be completely comfortable on or near or with it. From out of its depth it “tosses up our losses.” The “torn seine, / The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar” each tells a story, but it is only the fragment left of a whole that can never be known. The sea has its “many voices,” none of which are human voices, though there may be attempts to humanize them in their “howl” and “yelp” and “whine,” or in the groaners and ringing bell buoys warning the mariner.
As its massive swells lift and ring those bells, here is indeed, too, a “time not our time,” a time “[o]lder than the time of chronometers, older / Than time counted by anxious worried women.” This that Eliot describes is the sea as sea people know her, a reality that both dwarfs and, by its persistent presence, validates our own, nearer than the dark interstellar spaces of “East Coker” but no less simultaneously both alien and familiar. It is time “[b]etween midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception.” It is time “that is and was from the beginning,” preserved in its own liquid constant, forever closed to human understanding, but present with us, “[c]lang[ing] / The bell.”
As the second part of “The Dry Salvages” opens, the reader has been put by the first part of the poem into an entirely different frame of reference from the one that city dwellers know on a daily basis. Based, too, on the patterns that have been emerging in the overall poem in “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker,” the reader has become used to expecting the second section to be a lyrical turn, one that seems to distill the quality of meaning of the first but that then may be followed itself by an almost prosaic commentary that undercuts both the lyrical passage and its insights and that laments the limits of poetry, indeed, of speech itself. One should have noticed by now as well, however, that what is actually being challenged in such commentaries is the value that experience has for an ego-constructed self. Put simply, experience from a limited point of view, which is what the experience of any one human being is, is of very limited value.
Because it is so inherently unknowable, however, the sea ironically enough offers the poet, and the reader, the opportunity of far less limited focus on experience, even if it is still somewhat constrained by what an individual can know. So as Eliot launches into the lyric passage that forms the second part of “The Dry Salvages,” it is more of an extended dirge, a melancholy sea shanty, and the commentary that just as invariably follows in this instance is less a criticism and far more of an endorsement of the insights that the poetry has gained. This may come as a welcome change from the degrading view of the poetic impulse that the speaker of “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker” may have indulged in almost a bit too liberally, as if even the poet doubted the efficacy of poetry, but the antidote presented here in “The Dry Salvages” exacts its own price from the reader by painting what is, on balance, no more rosy a picture of aggregate human experience.
The speaker’s “Where is there an end to it,” with its echoes of Elijah’s “How long, O Lord, how long,” begins the second section with some of the most witheringly bleak poetry that Eliot, who can seem to be intimately acquainted with the dark side of human experience, ever penned. That there is here no old-style punning—as if, for example, he is really just being cute, as he might have been back in his youth, by really only asking where something as vast as the sea might end—is made quite clear instantly. Images of “soundless wailing,” “silent withering,” “drifting wreckage,” follow in quick succession, ending on the note of a “calamitous annunciation,” which itself puts the reader in mind simultaneously of the life and passion of the Christ; the suffering of his mother Mary, whose heart would be pierced by grief like a sword; and the last word that is spoken of all mere mortals—that he or she has died. In answer to his own question, the speaker observes that “[t]here is no end, but addition,” until one is ready for what is, in the end, the only choice: “renunciation.”
Shortly, in the third part, the speaker will be speaking of the Hindu warrior hero Arjuna and the advice that Krishna gives him as he prepares for battle. In the passage, Eliot may better clarify what precisely he means by so unabashedly bold a directive. For now, however, the poetry continues with a resigned but not bitter litany of acceptance expressed in what is essentially a modified sestina, wherein six six-line stanzas rhyme not on six end words that are randomly mixed, the standard pattern for a sestina, but on a fixed pattern of six closing rhymes: -ailing, -owers, -tionless, -age, -able, and -nation.
Again, the reader should not be cloyed. Eliot introduces this complex rhyme scheme not to show off his skills as a poet, but to reaffirm the musical idea, expressed throughout the Four Quartets, that it is only through measured pattern that worthwhile meaning comes. From the beginning, in Burnt Norton, the poet has spoken of patterns. Now he begins to create them himself out of the formless chaos of the sea’s mindless movement and ceaseless moment. The “drifting boat with a slow leakage,” “fisherman sailing / . . . where the fog cowers,” “forever bailing,” and “the withering of withered flowers” are all literal tokens of a universe of decay and defeat, as well as figurative emblems of life’s vicissitudes, its ups and its downs, swells and dips, all toward a single end. From one point of view it is death, the God to whom our bones pray, for they are only mortal, condemned to the fate of the material universe. From another point of view, however, at that extreme, there is “[o]nly the hardly, barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation.” The initial capital letter tells the reader that by now, the end of the sestina, the possibilities of what that calamitous annunciation upon which the movement opened may turn one way, and one way only: Toward the Annunciation that is the Incarnation.
The sestina ended, its pattern concluded, the speaker’s commentary on the poetry commences. Having just completed a pattern in a sequence, he muses that, “as one becomes older” (as he just has) “the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence”—that is, a progress from beginning to end. For when and if it is looked at that way, as if life were a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it becomes “a means of disowning the past,” as if to be only in a perpetual present is one’s persistent goal. Clearly, the poet, in musing about time, now has come to realize that such a linear view of time leaves life devoid of any acquired meaning. Rather, passing along life’s way without developing any regard for discerning its meaning as it passes ends with one’s missing the meaning altogether, while “approach to the meaning restores the experience,” but “beyond any meaning / We can assign to happiness.”
The idea is less complicated than it might appear at first glance: Experience remembered is colored by one’s idea of what a particular experience ought to be, and so never can be, in the recollecting of what it actually, singularly was. “For our own past,” as the speaker explains it, “is covered by the currents of action,” and these are, as it were, fictions that are made up by each individual out of a pastiche of the experiences of others—“but the agony abides.”
The speaker concludes the second part of “The Dry Salvages,” then, with a rehearsal of the opening stanza and its reflections on the great inland river and on the sea off Cape Ann that the speaker/ poet had known as a boy. Here is “the ragged rock in the restless water,” the Dry Salvages. “Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it,” but like Shelley’s stars when the daytime sky is blue, the rocks are still there, “always a seamark / To lay a course by.”
In other words, one must have more than memories colored by what one has overheard and read and otherwise acquired, the memories of others; one must have something permanent and fixed that is one’s own, both to lay one’s course by and to measure one’s progress. In one of his sonnets, Shakespeare calls love an “ever fixéd mark.” The speaker of The Four Quartets, who had earlier observed, at the closing of “Burnt Norton,” that “[l]ove is itself unmoving,” may well be headed toward the same conclusion, but he has not arrived there yet.
If life is only a passage on not only uncharted but unmarked seas, then it is going nowhere, and no one has ever been anywhere but lost on the same featureless surface of unconsidered experience. “I sometimes wonder if that is not what Krishna meant,” the speaker observes, picking up the thread of the second section as the third section of “The Dry Salvages” begins. The speaker sounds as if he has been caught in the act of observing out loud. Wonders, that is, if all ways lead the same way, the way up the way down, forward back, echoing one of the Herakleitean fragments that provide the Four Quartets with its epigraphs.
Is it all the same thing at the same time, he ponders, so that one’s sense of before and after, success and failure, progress and decline, are all illusions determined by nothing more real than merely one’s point of view? And if so, what is the point of view that will save one from being pinned and wriggling forever on the wheel? What, or where, is that still point of the turning world? For if the speaker knows anything, he knows that “time is no healer; the patient is no longer here.” Or, as he put it only moments before in the poem, approach to the meaning will not restore it in any way that can be “assign[ed] to happiness.” For that, one must have the meaning to begin with, or at least have it, like those sea rocks, in sight.
In each of the two preceding quartets, the third part has eventually taken the reader down into the subway, emblem of a modern urban emptiness and sameness as the fixed world of human business moves on its self-defined and -limited “metalled way.” Now the subway train, which may be any train, becomes instead a type of one’s passage through time and space, the inevitable continuum that contains us all, or at least seems to. As the train moves, the passengers change, minutely in truth, but literally nevertheless, so that: “You are not the same people who left that station / Or who will arrive at any terminus.”
That, again, is not a mystical insight but a literal truth, yet, shifting the mode of transportation to a sea vessel now, the speaker knows that each passenger thinks that he will arrive when he gets there, whereas the speaker knows that every instant is an arrival, a new beginning and a new end. Thus, he can assert with considerable confidence that none of the passengers would think of how “ ‘the past is finished’ / Or ‘the future is before us.’ ” Yet that is equally as true even as each of us travels, ostensibly standing still, on nothing more or less than the Earth. Therefore, he can urge all to think, “ ‘Fare forward . . . ,’ ” since that is the direction all of us take, into the future, whether one goes there or not, knows it or not.
Thus comes, as advice to all of us, the words spoken to Arjuna by Lord Krishna, when Arjuna, on the field of battle, asked on what he should think so that he might triumph. “Think on me,” Krishna had admonished him, for the teaching is that one becomes one with “whatever sphere of being / The mind of a man may be intent [on] / At the time death.’ ” Should Arjuna think on Krishna as he fares forward, then he need not worry how he fare, or whether, in battle, he shall fare well or fare ill, because in life or in death he will be one with Krishna, who is with the One. So, then, the speaker who, at the end of the second part of “The Dry Salvages,” had admonished that each of us must have “a seamark / To lay a course by” now is able to extend the metaphor for the benefit of all “voyagers” through eternity: “Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers,” for that is the direction in which time carries us whether we will or no.
Any readers of The Four Quartets, even ones generally familiar with the intentional vagaries of literary modernism and somewhat comfortable with the forward thematic movement of The Four Quartets thus far, may nevertheless have their heads spinning by the time they begin the fourth section of “The Dry Salvages,” which opens with what can be nothing other than the speaker addressing Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. From one point of view, this should come as no surprise at all. Not only had there just earlier been a direct reference to the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel informed Mary that Jesus had been miraculously formed in her womb, but the poetry had already previously alluded to him and to the father.
Eliot would have had good reason to think that his readers would be aware of the veiled allusion to the first person of the Christian trinity, God the Father, in the fourth part of “Burnt Norton.” Then there was the far less veiled allusion to Christ, the second person of the Trinity, in the reference to Good Friday in part four of “East Coker.” Logic would suggest that the Holy Spirit, the Third Person, would appear here in “The Dry Salvages,” the third quartet. However, the Holy Spirit will in fact be invoked in the dove of “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, whose sign and element, fire, is more in keeping with the idea of the Holy Spirit, often typified as well as a flaming tongue.
The Virgin Mary, meanwhile, among whose other denominations in Christian liturgical rites and prayers is the Blessed Mother and the Mother of God, is appropriate to “The Dry Salvages,” whose sign and element is water. Water more than any other of the four elements betokens the feminine and the maternal, particularly inasmuch as its fluid state suggests the amniotic sac, filled with water, in which the human fetus develops in the womb. Even more so, a woman’s menstrual cycles coordinate with the cycles of the moon, exactly as do the ocean tides. That Eliot wants readers to think of Mary specifically in keeping with the tradition of her maternal role is further underscored in his referring to her, shortly, as “Figlia del tuo figlio,” which translates, from the Italian, as “daughter of your son.” The apparent paradox accounts for Mary’s human nature while honoring her, again, as the Mother of God.
Granted, then, all signs point toward Mary’s putatively none-too-sudden appearance here in the fourth part of “The Dry Salvages.” Yet this appearance may and perhaps should come as a surprise if not shock in the immediate context of the poetry, coming as it does hard on the heels of the preceding references not to Christian but to Hindu beliefs through Krishna and Arjuna. Should there be such a disconnect for the reader, however, it can be rectified in several ways, all of which will further illuminate the poet’s apparent intentions not only for the passage in question but for the entire Four Quartets. While it may not be readily apparent, the Four Quartets have been continually tending toward a Judeo-Christian resolution in keeping with the foundational religious values and the traditional belief system not just of the poet but, more important, of the culture that formed him.
This is not the place to enter into a lengthy discussion of works of Eliot’s as early as Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919) and as late as Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948), to name but two, in order to emphasize the importance and the nuances that Eliot places on the relationship between the individual and his or her unique culture, nor is his position on these matters a radically divergent one from what most would hold with regard to the importance of nature and nurture in shaping an individual’s values. Suffice it to say that, for Eliot at least, those values and beliefs, when they inform any work of literature, do so not in order to indoctrinate or proselytize the prospective reader but because they form a part of the author’s actual life experience. So when The Four Quartets are described as “Christian,” that should be regarded not as a doctrinal or sectarian denominator so much as as a cultural marker, exactly as one might describe the work of another as Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist. By the same token, however, since religions and values entail systems of beliefs, those beliefs will emerge as well not in their capacity to attempt to sway others to embrace them but in the manner in which they provide a foundation on which the poetry, as poetry, finds its own coordinates for valid expression.
When, for example, “The Dry Salvages,” as a poem, speaks at the end of the second section of “[t]he bitter apple and the bite in the apple,” since the locale is clearly once more the river with which “The Dry Salvages” opened, a reader who is something of a literalist might think of the actual debris floating on the water. Another reader, however, might think of Huck Finn and Jim from Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, which is also set on the Mississippi and which, at one point, has Huck and Jim vowing never again to steal and eat bitter persimmons (“the bitter apple”) and stick instead only to stealing and eating watermelons. The reader versed in the Judeo-Christian culture out of which the poetry emerges, meanwhile, cannot fail to think of the apple that Eve fed to Adam and that led to humankind’s expulsion from the Garden, our lost paradise that the rose garden of “Burnt Norton” seems to urge upon the reader’s consciousness.
Even if the Lady who is Mary has, then, for all the reasons already noted, a rightful place in these proceedings as “The Dry Salvages” continues, her sudden appearance nevertheless right after the reader has been served a heap of Eastern thinking cannot but seem out of place or, worse, contrived, except for one critical detail regarding Eliot’s lady: The manifestation of the Lady that he has in mind is unique to this maritime region and its legendary associations with the sea, but even more particularly to the town of Gloucester, where the Eliots made their summer home.
Anyone who has ever read Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous about the Portuguese- American fishermen who fish the stormy waters of the North Atlantic Outer Bank, or seen the 1937 classic Hollywood film version of same or the 2000 film The Perfect Storm with George Clooney, knows the treacherous relationship that the sea shares with the fisherman of Gloucester, for whom it is both preserver, providing them with a livelihood, and destroyer, taking their lives from them. (It has been reported that as many as 10,000 Gloucestermen have perished at sea since the time that the first Europeans settled there in the 17th century.) As a boy, Eliot would no doubt have heard tales of storms at sea and of lost fishing vessels and drowned men, for many of whom the Dry Salvages would have been their last sight of the seamarks off the Cape Ann headlands as they fared forward into the Outer Banks fishing grounds for what would turn out to be their last voyage.
Many of these fishermen, particularly from among those same Portuguese immigrants who later settled there among the original English settlers, may have been parishioners of a Roman Catholic church that stands to this day on a hill in the town of Gloucester overlooking the inner harbor, its tall façade looming over the harbor waters below and the many fishing boats moored there. For someone viewing the town from across that same harbor, the church structure is on a prominent enough promontory to rival the tall clock tower of the town hall, the only other outstanding landmark. This church, Our Lady of Good Voyage, to whom it is dedicated, is not only Gloucester’s fisherman’s parish but the church to which Eliot would have accompanied his Catholic nurse, a young Irish woman named Annie Dunne, for Sunday Mass during the family’s summer sojourns there. It is not known that the poet had this church in mind when he has the speaker address the Lady whose “shrine is on the promontory,” asking her to her to “[p]ray for all those who are in ships,” but neither would it be unreasonable to assume that Eliot was thinking of this church or, if not, some other very much like it, a shrine dedicated to those whose lives are on the sea, and so whose deaths may be there, too.
It was the poet/speaker’s recollection of the literal Dry Salvages as a sea mark at the end of the second section that led him to muse, at the opening of the third, on what Krishna’s words to Arjuna may have meant. The possibility that this lady of the fourth section, whose shrine is on a promontory, has very real associations with the Dry Salvages and the surrounding waters considerably shortens the poetic distance among the three: Krishna, the Lady, and the Dry Salvages.
Recalling that in each quartet the fourth section is the shortest and that this section is no exception, the reader finds quickly that the section consists of the speaker’s own prayer, directed to Mary, for those on ships, for their wives and their children, and for all those who have already perished and thus can no longer hear “the sound of the sea bell’s / Perpetual angelus.” The reader may now note, too, that the poetry has come full circle from the opening of the second section of “The Dry Salvages” to this closing of the fourth section. Just as the manmade sounds of the sea and their companions, the sea yelp and the sea wail, inspired the poetry of the second section, its auditory imagery had flowed out of the first and then into the musings of the third, concluding with the seamark by which one might set one’s figurative course for one’s literal life. And it was from that metaphorical reference point that the further musings on Krishna and Arjuna had emerged, with their injunction to fix one’s sight on, or course by, the mind and spirit’s most permanent features, rather than the transitory matters of time and tide, which are themselves as much subject to change as we are.
So, then, as one is further urged to consider that one is faring not well (or ill) but forward, it should follow that the appeal to the Blessed Mother of Christian belief fulfills and completes the circle of meaningful action organized around the still point that, simultaneously, the Dry Salvages, the bell buoy, Krishna, and the divinity of Christ all, to obviously varying degrees, represent. The significant difference, from the point of view of the speaker, is whether the individual comes upon this revelation in life, as the speaker and Arjuna each in his own way is doing, or in death, as happens to the drowned men, who cannot hear the sea bell’s angelus tolling the passage of time, which, with an irony all its own, passes in any case.
The focus from the beginning of The Four Quartets, with its opening meditation on time past, time present, and time future in “Burnt Norton,” has been the individual’s intellectual and spiritual quest for what does not pass, characterized repeatedly in the poem as the still point. As “The Dry Salvages” moves into its fifth and final section, the reader may by now have noticed that yet another pattern has emerged to give the sequence its developing form and character. For just as the speaker has commented periodically on the topic throughout the quartets, pattern itself must always be present but is not always apparent.
The fifth section opens, then, with a cataloguing of all the various ways in which humans try to finesse the future by fathoming its shape, “all these . . . usual / Pastimes and drugs.” It should rapidly become apparent that, just as “Burnt Norton,” with its emphasis on perceiving the here and now, deals with time that is the poet/speaker’s present and “East Coker” with its harking back to the Eliot family’s English roots had dealt with time that was the poet/speaker’s past, “The Dry Salvages” with its emphasis on uncertainty deals with time that is the future, represented in all the various imagery drawn from the vast expanses of the unknown and unplumbed sea that is itself a type both of time and of eternity, that is, of the timeless. There are more local reasons why the future should be so much on the speaker’s mind. Inasmuch as the topic is the uncertain prospect of faring forward into uncharted seas, there is indeed the sort of uncertainty and “distress of nations and perplexity” by which “[m]en’s curiosity searches past and future” in the warfare that was at that very moment being waged in Europe and in Asia as Eliot wrote his poetry.
“The Dry Salvages” was composed during 1940 and completed in early 1941, while the Battle of the North Atlantic was being waged. This naval effort to keep the vital supply lines open between North America and Britain would continue throughout the nearly six years, from September 1, 1939, to May 1945, that hostilities between Germany and England persisted, but it was particularly virulent at the time that Eliot was composing this quartet, whose motif is the sea. At the height of the sea conflict, in May 1941, German submarines were sinking 300,000 tons of allied shipping, or in the vicinity of 10 or more seagoing supply vessels, weekly. In plain terms, death and destruction at sea were likely more numerous at the time of Eliot’s writing than at any other time in human history, and as Eliot had raised in the fourth section of “The Dry Salvages” his prayer to Mary for those in peril on the sea, the immediacy of these concerns, and a general uncertainty about the future, could not have been far from his mind at any time.
The point is, one would have to imagine that the same state of mind on the poet’s part would hold true as well for his composition of the fifth and final section of the poem, the ultimate irony being, of course, that these same concerns for those in peril on the sea would be there to obsess the speaker, or anyone else, for that matter, even if there were no war then being waged at sea—would be there if there were no sea except for the sea of time. The future is forever an uncertainty, after all, except for those who “apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time,” but that, the reader is told, is “an occupation for that saint.”
Whatever that all may mean, the reader will have to wait for Little Gidding, whose theme is eternity, or the eternal, to find out. For now, and “[f]or most of us,” there is only the sidelong glimpse of such moments, a “hint half guessed, . . . gift half understood” caught in “only the unattended / Moment, the moment [both] in and out of time.” The speaker calls that very magic moment, in which an “impossible union / Of spheres of existence” is actualized and “the past and the future / Are conquered, and reconciled,” Incarnation.
That that concept resonates with the central mystery of Christianity is something that the reader has already been prepared for by the poet’s earlier introduction into “The Dry Salvages” of Mary and the associated miracle of the Annunciation, but as profound as those mysteries are in and for Christian beliefs, Eliot is not suggesting that this hint, this gift, is wholly sectarian in nature, a matter of doctrinal assertion rather than experience. Otherwise his poetry at this point, toward which he has been laboring throughout the composition of the sequence of the poetry that will eventually become the Four Quartets, will ring hollow for anyone who is not a Christian or, equally a challenge, unacquainted with Christian beliefs. No doubt, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is precisely what the speaker has in mind when he calls Incarnation the hint and gift that “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action” can make the individual conscious of as “[t]he only hope, or else despair,” that last phrase borrowed from “Little Gidding.”
The idea does not exclude those who are not of the Christian faith, however, since the speaker has defined Incarnation not in any theological sense but as the intersection of the timeless with time. In that context, Incarnation becomes the human condition, just as Christ is the ultimate human, the spirit made flesh, the flesh made spirit, “the impossible union,” again, “[o]f spheres of existence.” It is the Christian ideal, surely, but if the Christian tenet is true, it is that condition into which all humans, as spiritual beings existing in eternity, or the timeless, are admitted at the moment of conception, or the intersection with time.
That Eliot wishes to universalize in a temporal and secular sense such a complexly profound spiritual mystery is further manifested in his using not any Christian saint but the great hero of the Hindu faith, Arjuna, and the primary avatar of Brahma, Lord Krishna, as the exemplar in the presentation that concluded with the speaker’s introducing the notion of Incarnation as the key to salvation from time. For Krishna himself, as well as his injunction to Arjuna to think always on him, that is, on the eternal, confirms in no less spiritually adept terms the primacy of Incarnation as an article of Hindu belief. “For most of us,” then, “this is the aim,” not to achieve Incarnation, for that is the given, the gift, but to apprehend it as the ultimate truth of the human condition.
However, as “The Dry Salvages” concludes, the speaker has made it clear that to achieve such an apprehension here in this world is “an occupation for the saint,” not for the “most of us.” If to apprehend such a truth here must be our aim, it is nonetheless an aim “[n]ever here to be realised” by most, who otherwise remain “only undefeated / Because we have gone on trying.” The speaker, who has been wise enough to cast his own putative fate with the “most of us” rather than with the saints, lest he alienate his reader, ends by expressing the hope that he may at least be himself buried “[n]ot too far from the yew-tree,” that is, in hallowed ground but an otherwise common grave, where he too may nourish, like his East Coker ancestors and all else who have come before him—Arjuna among them, no doubt—the “life of significant soil.”
Though Four Quartets appears to be driving toward expressing or defining a state of contentment, it seems to have a hard time getting there, as, perhaps, it ought to. The poetry has made it clear that, ultimately, contentment can come only through belief, which is itself not always forthcoming or when it is easily obtainable. If nothing else, then, the poetry can be admired, even if grudgingly, for what appears to be an unstinting honesty and integrity of purpose. One might well ask, nevertheless, echoing the speaker of another ostensibly bleak Eliot poem, when, if not whether, the dead tree of such an all-encompassing existential despair will give shelter, even if that be only from itself.
Indeed, if readers of the Four Quartets wish to possess that biblical pearl of great value that costs nothing less than everything, perhaps it is Eliot’s intention to put his readers through the wringer before they find it. Nothing worthwhile comes easily, after all, especially wisdom. These readers have just heard the closing words of “The Dry Salvages,” which tell them that the best they will have for all their trying is the knowledge that they tried, and if they are really fortunate, they will thus be able, like the poet, at least to lie at last in a marked grave on dry land, unlike all those others for whom a watery grave was the final resting place.
It would make perfect sense, then, that the reader, like the speaker, would be ready to take refuge in an isolated and ancient chapel in the English countryside. The chapel at Little Gidding is the sole remaining structure once used by a religious community which Nicholas Ferrar founded there in 1626. Gidding is one of the oldest place names in Huntingdonshire, where the settlement is located, and is derived from the same Anglo-Saxon root as giddy, which means to be carried away by music or dance or to be possessed by God. It might seem that the poet chose this chapel for those associations alone, so much do they relate to overall themes in the Four Quartets, with its emphasis on music and dance and patterns and structures, as well as on theological and spiritual considerations.
Those associations are merely fortuitous, however, for Little Gidding, like Burnt Norton, East Coker, and the Dry Salvages, is another locale chosen because of its personal associations for the poet. While it may never be known exactly why he visited that particular historical site, because no one, not even he, could then have known that the last of his four quartets would eventually emerge from the experience, Eliot came to this spot in May 1936. Five years later and in an entirely different world, Eliot was busily at work on “Little Gidding,” the poem.
The German air war against England was then at what would subsequently be regarded as its peak, although no one could have known that at the time, either. Indeed, England at that time, May 1941, was not doing well in the conflict. Her French ally had fallen in June 1940, and Hitler would not take the pressure off the English by recklessly opening a second front with his invasion of Russia until June 1941. The United States did not enter the war until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the following December. The spring of 1941 must then have seemed like England’s darkest hour to many, Eliot among them. In any case, as he began work on the last part of The Four Quartets, he turned, for some reason, to the experience of that personal pilgrimage that he had made five years earlier to Little Gidding, whose historical associations are with another dark hour in English history—the 17th century civil war that had culminated, in January 1649, with the execution of King Charles I.
During the long, complicated, and chaotic course of that distant war, which began in September 1642, Charles at one point had taken refuge at Little Gidding. He had already had personal contact twice before with the religious farm community there that Ferrar, son of a wealthy and influential London merchant, had established as a household of prayer with his extended family. The first time, in the early 1630s, involved Charles’s interest in a gospel concordance in Ferrar’s possession. The second time, Charles actually visited the community. This was in March 1642, within months of the outbreak of civil war. By that time, Ferrar had already been dead some four years or more, a victim of malaria.
It is Charles’s second visit, when he arrived alone the night of May 2, 1646, that is particularly significant. At any rate, it is the visit to which Eliot directly alludes in the first section of “Little Gidding.” After continuous military setbacks, Charles’s cause had been all but defeated by the Parliamentary forces, and he was in the process of eluding capture when he arrived that May evening at Little Gidding. Indeed, John Ferrar, Nicholas’s elder brother and his hand-picked successor as leader of the community, was so anxious that pursuing troops would search the community compound that he removed the desperate king to a private home in the nearby village of Coppingford. Such measures were all to no avail, however. The king, who left the following morning, was captured several days later, on May 5, and as a result of their suspected assistance to him and allegiance to his cause, the Ferrar community was disbanded by force.
“The Dry Salvages” closes with a reminder of the current “distress of nations and perplexity,” so it is appropriate that “Little Gidding” opens with some serious stress on the persistence of calamity in human affairs. (The “calamitous annunciation” could be only the daily news.)
Eliot’s line, “If you came at night like a broken king,” from the first part of “Little Gidding” is a direct allusion to King Charles’s arrival at Little Gidding in the dead of night during his flight in an attempt to elude capture by Parliamentary troops. But seeking refuge from despair at the foot of the cross, as it were, is not a measure that Eliot would limit only to fleeing kings, except as each person is the desperate master of his soul and king of his own meager kingdom of self.
And that is why our speaker has come there now. So much, after all, has been the constant theme of the Quartets. Where, indeed, is there an end to it, is the question that any reader must ask. And that is why the speaker now, as “Little Gidding” opens, the turbulent seas of “The Dry Salvages” behind him, takes such pains to emphasize, recollecting the springlike day in midwinter that he himself had visited this quietly historic and powerfully spiritual site, that “[t]here are other places,” no doubt, equally well associated with distress and perplexity, confusion and frustration and exasperation. This one at Little Gidding, however, is for the speaker the most convenient and meaningful, because it is “the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England.”
It is here, too, that the same speaker who had just concluded “The Dry Salvages” by imagining that, for the “most of us,” there is only the thought that we tried, now seems to be convinced that “apprehend[ing] / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time” may not be possible only for saints. The complete renunciation need not be synonymous with utter resignation. Just as “the time of death is every moment,” the principle on which Krishna’s admonition to Arjuna had been based, so is the moment of the one Annunciation and complete renunciation every and any moment as well, and a matter not of chance but of choice. Thus, one is not here, in this case at Little Gidding, to “[i]nstruct . . . , or inform curiosity / Or carry report,” but rather “to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.”
Now that the speaker has recognized what constitutes faith, he is ready to act on it. For the very reason that “what the dead had no speech for, when living,” they can, by their example, now communicate through the beliefs that their lives modeled, beliefs “tongued with fire beyond the language of the living,” the speaker is ready himself, at last, to be still and still moving, ready to listen. What he “hears,” for the language of the dead is the model set by their behavior, is that prayer is action, too, particularly when all else has failed either to please or to fulfill. Rather than waiting for the unattended moment, which may never come or, coming, may be missed, the speaker opens himself up at Little Gidding, a space where “prayer has been valid,” to this “intersection of the timeless moment” that is “England and nowhere. Never and always.”
The transition from the first section of “Little Gidding” to the next will seem abrupt only for the reader who has not yet grasped the core thematic idea of the Four Quartets, which is being brought to fulfillment in this closing quartet. That idea is to find the complete conjunction of the personal, the historical, and the particular with the timeless and eternal.
Remember, too, that, although as many as five years separate the composition of “Burnt Norton,” begun sometime in the late summer of 1934, and “East Coker,” not begun until the fall of 1939, Eliot’s composition of “The Dry Salvages” began almost immediately on the completion of “East Coker,” and that same pace of creative energy carried over into the poet’s work on “Little Gidding.” The writing of “Little Gidding” did not go easily by any means. Indeed, although Eliot began to work on “Little Gidding” in early 1941, he would revise it extensively and not complete a final version until September 1942 some 20 months later. Still, the relative haste of composition of successive portions of the emerging Four Quartets meant that the poetic vision expressed in “The Dry Salvages” appears to carry over directly into “Little Gidding.” Furthermore, this same immediacy and consecutiveness resonates among the poetry in each succeeding section of “Little Gidding” as well, so that the relationship among its five parts is somewhat easier to discern than with, say, “Burnt Norton,” where the relationship between each of its five parts and the next is not always apparent.
As this second section opens, then, the reader, like the speaker, must continue to follow the path that Charles had taken those centuries before. For him, Little Gidding was not the end of the road; before him lay the humiliation of arrest and execution— complete defeat. Like him, then, the speaker and reader are, in the second section of “Little Gidding,” cast out of the peacefulness of the chapel at midnight, without the benefit of any warning, into that world of destruction and death that armed conflict betokens, a world that is never far from hand even when there is apparent peace.
As the poet has been stressing thus far throughout the successive poems of the Quartets, nature is never hospitable, nor is life ever not a struggle. When there is great public calamity, it may make such moments seem especially catastrophic, but the human catastrophe is never either greater or lesser in the aggregate, only easier at times to ignore. Still, “[i]t would always be the same,” for it always only ever is just that—the same. Now, however, is not a time for either the poet or his speaker to ignore the persistence of that truth.
The ash that falls “on an old man’s sleeve” as the second section begins is clearly the soot and dust in the air from London’s nightly fires in the present moment as the city endures the constant German air attacks. Where there was a house and the lives lived in it, there now is nothing. “This,” the speaker tells us, like a bell tolling the final hour, “is the death of air.” The litany of doom and terror continues as in each succeeding stanza the speaker makes the reader painfully mindful of the tragedies unfolding all around him. Existence collapses into its absence, which is death. There are the dead at sea washed up on sandy shores and the dead in the mud of the water-filled craters the bombs have left in their wake. “This is the death of earth.” There are the bombed-out churches, their ruins still smoldering, the foundation drenched and flooded with water, gone both “sanctuary and choir. / This is the death of water and fire.”
The world and all its glory having been thus reduced to its elemental baseness, which is dead, inert matter, the speaker suddenly finds himself on a foot patrol searching for smoldering fires through the ruined and deserted city streets after the bombing has ended but still during “the uncertain hours before the morning.” The succeeding 71 lines of poetry, from line 78 to line 149, both in the threeline stanza pattern and in the general tone of dark despair, are demonstrably in the style of one of the great pilgrims of eternity, the early Renaissance Florentine poet Dante Alighieri. On the basis of his rightfully celebrated masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, Dante holds an unassailable place as one of the premier poets of world literature on the topic of the relationship between the individual and eternity.
Far more to the point, however, Eliot had alluded tellingly and generously to Dante in major poems of his own from virtually the beginning of his poetry writing. It would not be fair to say that Dante has been conspicuously absent thus far from the verse of the Four Quartets since its poetry is not as copiously allusive as Eliot’s poetry was apt to be well into the middle of his career, in a poem such as “Ash-Wednesday,” published in 1930, for example. By the same token, Dante’s sudden appearance in the pages of a poetry even as idiosyncratic as the poetry of the Four Quartets comes as no surprise. In fact, there is a certain inevitability that Dante’s ideas, technique, or style, if not all three, would be reflected at some point in this poem by as assiduous a student of Dante’s as Eliot has been throughout.
A reader does not have to be aware of the Dantean influence on the “Little Gidding” passage in question in order to appreciate it, however. On its own, it is perhaps the most sustained and compelling poetic passage that Eliot ever composed, moving forward at a breathtaking pace and with a narrative coherence that satisfies the reader’s every expectation, and then some. The reader mindful of the passage’s fully intentional debt to Dante, however, cannot help but gain that much more insight and enjoyment from the experience of reading it.
In a 1950 essay, “What Dante Means to Me,” which was first delivered as an address to the Italian Institute in London on July 4 of that year, Eliot commented on his intentions for the passage and its place of honor in “Little Gidding,” calling it “the nearest equivalent to a canto of the Inferno or the Purgatorio [the first and second parts of the threepart Comedy], in style as well as content, that I could achieve.” By doing so, Eliot went on to say, he hoped “to present to the mind of the reader a parallel between the Inferno and the Purgatorio, which Dante visited, and a hallucinated scene after an air-raid.” To give this working tribute to Dante even more verisimilitude, Eliot found a way to approximate Dante’s terza rima (tri-rhymed) rhyme scheme by alternating multisyllabic and monosyllabic endings without the benefit of rhymes.
According to Eliot, the key concept is that the scene that now transpires is hallucinatory, and it is taking place on “a dead patrol” following an air raid in those darkest hours just before the dawn. In that hellish setting after the enemy warplanes, their mission completed, “[h]ad passed below the horizon of [their] homing,” the speaker encounters a stranger and sees “in the brown baked features . . . a familiar compound ghost.”
Since the speaker had first “caught the look of some dead master” in the specter’s features, the reader is allowed to imagine a number of likely candidates for the honor of being this “dead master.” There is first and foremost, of course, Dante himself. Not only is the entire passage indebted to him both stylistically and conceptually after all, but readers of the Inferno might see in certain details of the stranger echoes of Brunetto Latini, Dante’s own former teacher, whom the poet encounters in the third round of the seventh circle of hell where Latini’s features have been baked by the fiery rain falling on burning plain where the sodomists are punished.
A complete reading of the passage, however, brings several other candidates to mind. Any reference to Dante, for example, cannot help but call up the Roman poet Virgil, to whom Dante himself claimed a great debt and who had initially appeared to Dante, in the Inferno, as a “shade” or ghost before then guiding Dante through hell and purgatory. The tone of the passage, meanwhile, is also reminiscent of the scene in act 1 of Hamlet in which Hamlet, alone, encounters his father’s ghost, which then speaks to him, so another viable candidate for the dead master is William Shakespeare.
Toward the end of Eliot’s passage, for yet another example, there is a reference to “that refining fire,” which could call to mind the scene toward the end of the Purgatorio in which Dante encounters Arnaut Daniel, the Provençal poet to whom Eliot, in his dedication to The Waste Land, had earlier favorably compared his own poetic mentor and close friend, the American poet Ezra Pound, another candidate. That reference, however, is quickly followed by the idea that, in that refining fire, one “must move in measure, like a dancer.” While such an image is not unique to the Anglo-Irish poet W. B. YEATS, a friend and near contemporary of Eliot’s and Pound’s, Yeats ends one of his major poems, “Among School Children,” which itself uses as its central metaphor the notion of masters and students, with a celebrated image of a dancer: “O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, / How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” So Yeats is a likely candidate as well, particularly in view of the fact that he had passed away fairly recently, in January 1939.
James Joyce, the Irish modern novelist whose last masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, Eliot had published in his capacity as an editor for Faber & Faber, is another possible candidate, inasmuch as he, too, had recently passed away, in 1941. Here, however, the connection would not be a purely literary one so much as an iconic moment for Eliot. Eliot was just approaching his mid-50s while composing “Little Gidding,” and Joyce was only in his early 60s at the time of his death. Surely, with the war on the one hand and the calendar on the other, Eliot must have been becoming more and more conscious that both his generation and his epoch were passing.
Others, meanwhile, have nominated the 17th century English poet John Milton for the role. Whoever this dead master might be, and keeping in mind as well that he is a “compound ghost,” the ultimate point is that he is clearly a kindred spirit, one who, like Eliot, had spent his life as a poet engaged in the same effort to “purify the dialect of the tribe.” In that capacity, Eliot’s introduction of this figure into the poetry allows him again to muse on the limits of language in general and of poetry and art in particular, as Eliot’s speaker has done several times before in the course of the Quartets.
Once more, through this device, the reader is asked to consider how, like all things, even the words of the poet are dated material, “[f]or last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” All things pass, the poetry has frequently iterated, including poetry, and that paradox—that the means by which humanity muses on and communicates its feelings regarding life’s imperfections is itself imperfect— haunts the pages of human history as much as it does the pages of the Four Quartets.
This entire passage, finally, is more than just a commentary on the temporal quality of poetry and the language of poetry, however. Earlier, in “East Coker,” Eliot’s speaker had disparaged the idea that there is any wisdom that comes from age. Indeed, the futility of all human wisdom has become an underlying theme of the poetry, as the speaker seeks to come to grips with the distinction between what can be known and what should be known.
Is it any wonder, then, that the most critical information that this familiar ghost has to impart to the speaker should regard “the gifts that are reserved for age / To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort”? Nor should readers miss the ironic tone here, lest they suspect that the entire tenor of the poetry thus far, with its persistently expressed lack of faith in human endeavor, is about to be turned on its head. For the point, at least on the part of this ghost, is that there are no gifts reserved for age. Instead, the spectral figure speaks of a deadening of the senses, the “conscious impotence of rage at human folly,” shame and embarrassment over one’s errors, and the slow realization that praise was flattery and worldly honors ignominy.
It is a veritable litany of self-revelation and exposure that, as a theme, Eliot would essay far more fulsomely in 1959 in the character of Lord Claverton, the protagonist of Eliot’s last verse drama and major work, The Elder Statesman. For now, however, the ghost’s awful revelation succeeds in bringing the speaker back from the brink of a personal despair. Unfortunately, it succeeds in doing as much only by universalizing that despair. By this point in the last of the quartets, it appears that the poet is saying that all humanity and human enterprise is doomed to futility and vanity. As gloomy as that assessment may seem, it is only the same as the assessment of every other great religious, philosophical, and spiritual system in human history.
Poets do not rightly achieve their renown for saying anything new, however, or for saying anything that any reasonably thoughtful, feeling person should not already know by the time that he or she has reached some measure of advanced adulthood. Rather, we expect poets to share the common experience in uncommon ways, so that simple truths emerge renewed and refreshed, or else to share uncommon experiences in common ways, so that the rare experience of a singular individual becomes accessible to all. Surely, Eliot has been doing just that throughout the Quartets, so that a man visiting an English country home or riding the subway or watching for fires after an air raid or kneeling in an ancient chapel or pondering the flotsam on a river is not only the same man but the same as every other person if he or she, too, were followed through the rich varieties of experience that the typical individual may undergo in a lifetime.
The dark night of the soul of the second section ended, Eliot’s speaker takes deserved time out in the third section, as he moves again into a reflective mode to ponder the distinction among attachment, detachment, and the dangerous middle—indifference, which is dangerous because it can be mistaken for the ideal, which is detachment. If nothing else, the speaker has been learning—learning that while there may be patterns, they are endlessly repeating, even in the individual’s life, let alone the life of the nation, or people, or species.
Even in the midst of war and the distress of nations, one must be still and still moving, committed but not attached to the nation and its fate, and certainly not indifferent, imagining that not to care for temporal affairs is the way of the saint. Rather, it is a narrow, straitened path that one must tread. To see that the ways and the things of this world are important, too, is to recognize that they are “[o]f little importance / Though never indifferent,” as the speaker observes. What history is and is not can never be deciphered, but its passage is undeniably self-evident, and within its confines, we come and we go. “See, now they vanish, / The faces and places,” but only to “become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.”
The poetry now borrows from Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic. Dame Julian received her inner locutions or “shewings,” as they were called, in 1373, though she did not compose them into a book until 15 years later. Her Thirteenth Revelation came in response to her puzzlement regarding the purpose of evil in a world created by divine goodness. She is told, “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It is from this revelation that Eliot quotes quite liberally both here and at the end of “Little Gidding.”
Despite her 14th-century origins, Julian is yet another figure in the poem from the century and a half between Henry’s break with Rome and Charles’s hanging. During that time, a whole people, the English, the poet’s people, became embroiled in and disintegrated into the very sort of religious and political infighting and suppression that very likely resulted in Eliot’s own ancestor’s leaving her shores. Most assuredly, those conflicts resulted in the death of Charles, so it may not be at all coincidental that medieval English mystics, of whom Julian remains an outstanding example, were very much in vogue during the 17th century, perhaps because of their connectedness to an England where faith was a communal constant rather than a source of divisiveness. Even so, Julian serves Eliot’s larger purpose, emphasizing that every age is an age of conflict for the simple reason that life is conflict.
Julian, then, was a countrywoman whose life it was to remain cloistered in but not of the world (she did not take religious orders, for example). She was, as a result, free, much like Eliot’s speaker from time to time is, to meditate on first and last things—on humanity and eternity and God. On the basis of such a contemplative life, she had been led to conclude that “[s]in is behovely,” that is, that it is morally necessary. For reasons that we mere mortals will never understand, surely not in this life, sin is said to serve a purpose, yet, nevertheless, “[a]ll shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.”
It is what Eliot’s speaker makes of this in his own circumstances that should most matter to readers of The Four Quartets, of course, particularly now that it is nearing its conclusion. And what he makes of it is that, indeed, all “are touched by a common genius,” and all in the end suffer the same fate. Just as the “familiar compound ghost” had reminded the speaker that last year’s speech is for last year’s deeds, so are last year’s factions for the beating of last year’s drum. Now, instead:
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
The poet/speaker, who at the conclusion of “The Dry Salvages” suggests that the best that most of us can hope for is to have tried, can now, as the third section of “Little Gidding” comes to an end, raise that apparent cop-out to the level of the only heroic action that is available—to carry one’s cause to the grave, like that broken king, Charles I, not because the cause was right and true (no wholly human cause ever can be) but because it is a motive for action, and action is better than inaction, just as detachment is better than indifference. A commitment to action, even though that action may be futile and vain, is better than no commitment at all, and, furthermore, it forever remains as “[w]hat they had to leave us—a symbol.” It is, in fact, all, in the end, they had to leave us.
With the same beauty and power as the poetry of the Dantean scene from the second part of “Little Gidding,” the poem’s fourth part, which in each of the preceding quartets has been the shortest section, providing a lyrical interlude that both summarizes the poem to that point and gives entry into the concluding fifth section, brings us to the pivotal moment of terror and glory, fear and freedom, whose conflicting tensions have guided the entire sequence to this point.
The dove that is descending is a Stukker dive bomber, one of Germany’s most feared war machines, whose screaming descent put fear into the hearts of even the most battle-hardened troops, let alone civilian populations, and yet that dove is as well, in keeping with the mystery of divine will revealed to Julian, the Holy Spirit. If the disparity seems outrageously derisive, even blasphemous, comparing the third person of the Christian Trinity to a warplane, then the reader has forgotten the import of Julian of Norwich’s inner locution that “[s]in is behovely,” echoing the timeless religious conviction that even evil must serve God’s purpose, albeit in ways that we poor human creatures, limited by time, intellect, and the distractions of circumstance, can never hope to understand.
Perhaps Eliot’s rendering of the same idea is that something as awful as a Nazi fighter bomber strafing a London street before releasing its so-called payload can drive people to God by convincing them, through the furious suffering forced by its “flame of incandescent fire,” that if there can be such evil and violence, then there must be a God. Or perhaps it is the notion that such destruction, though wrought by humankind and, so, seemingly unnecessary because it is willful, is really no different from all the other species of violence and destruction that nature herself can work. The indisputable fact, nevertheless, is that such violence, whether it be natural or manmade, reminds the individual in vivid and dramatic ways that there is only “one discharge from sin and error,” and it is death. Otherwise, in recognition of free will, the speaker, as any of us do, reserves for himself the right to pick his poison, as it were, although the one means the life of the spirit, the other its death. He calls it “the choice of pyre or pyre— / To be redeemed from fire by fire.”
While all this may sound theologically complex, it really is not, building as it does instead on other religious paradoxes. One can burn with desire or burn in the fires of hell, or one can burn in the cleansing purgatorial fires, and that can be done here, in this life, as much as there, in that other, eternal life. The difference is that here we have the will to make the choice, whereas there the choice has been made for us. So, then, the “dove descend- ing breaks the air,” even if it is a dive bomber coming down on us, guns blazing, dropping its bomb with pinpoint precision, by forcing the choice upon the individual, enabling him or her indeed to make the choice to be “redeemed from fire by fire.”
If the premise that has just now been promulgated in the first stanza of the fourth part of “Little Gidding” is valid, it leads invariably to the query, “Who then devised the torment?” And it is followed by the equally incredible answer: “Love.” As much is incredible, again, only if it is taken in its immediate and temporal context, however. Julian, for example, was finally freed to compose her revelations when, pondering why she had been made privy to her revelations, she was told that if she would “learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing,” then she should know that “Love was the Meaning.” So, too, if Eliot’s poem’s unspoken assumption is true and there is a God, then all things are devised by love, for some purpose or meaning that we cannot ever fully understand or comprehend.
Sin is behovely for the same reason, and thus it is indeed the occupation of the saint to contemplate the eternally present intersection of the timeless with time. Even in the midst of such utter destructiveness, after all, nothing has truly changed except in the human universe of vainglorious illusions. From the point of view of eternity, that is to say, the physical realm has simply rearranged its molecules a bit, as it is perpetually doing with or without the assistance of human agency. But from the point of view of the individual human spirit, it is quite another matter. From that point of view, everything has changed for good or for ill forever as the result of the collusion of one’s own will with the moral equation that those molecules spell out for each sentient mortal being. “Love,” although few may be prepared to embrace such knowledge, most surely “is the unfamiliar name,” and surely is, as Shakespeare says, the ever fixéd mark that the poet/speaker has all along been seeking.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel of the 1920s, The Great Gatsby, which shares a great deal with The Waste Land as a criticism of contemporary life, there is a scene in which Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, suggests to the novel’s title character, the romantic tough guy, Jay Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby retorts, and he goes on with a typical American incredulity in the face of “can’t” by insisting, “Why, of course you can!”
The burden of the past, and even questions of what that burden may be in terms of the present, haunts The Four Quartets as well. Throughout the Four Quartets, the speaker has been undergoing a learning experience, teaching his soul to be still in a physical universe that is unceasingly moving, ceaselessly changing, yet persistently fixed as present in memory. In the earliest parts of the extended sequence, the speaker seems to think that the past can be recovered or at least restored to meaning. That moment in the rose garden, for example, becomes a lost moment that the speaker hopes to discover again by turning the right corner or opening the right door. However, as the Four Quartets continues, the speaker seems to become more and more conscious that, although time present and time past may be present in time future, as “Burnt Norton” famously opens, time past is otherwise lost.
This changing idea regarding the recoverability of the past reaches its final reversal in the idea, expressed in “The Dry Salvages,” that we must fare forward, for at every moment, even when we are ostensibly standing still, faring forward is what we are doing in any case. In that insight, nevertheless, the speaker does not find consolation; rather, he finds the vague hope that since only the saint can grasp the mystery at the heart of the moment of Incarnation in which the timeless intersects with time, he, the speaker, is left, like the rest of us, to at least live out his appointed time in trying. In his trying to do just that, however, what is never clarified is how one should conduct a life of “just trying.”
Only in “Little Gidding” does that clarity comes. The speaker recognizes in a figure like the doomed King Charles a symbol of how we all are doomed but must yet act on our convictions to the last bitter moment, satisfied not that we have tried but that we have succeeded by trying. For no life is a success, despite what the eulogists and journalists say, since all lives end in death. Yet it is love itself that brings us to this realization and recognition, not to humiliate us or frustrate our efforts, but to free us from their perturbation. Experience, when rightly viewed, leads us to freedom from its importance, but commits us to the importance of seeking an active correctness in all we do.
Such a clarity achieved, at last the poet is ready to conclude his poem, and the speaker his pondering. Schooled in all manner of thought and feeling, the speaker is prepared now to relinquish it in exchange for acceptance. If the speaker has grown in anything throughout the course of the quartets, it has been in awareness. He has changed from someone who had to ponder the relationship among time, the passage of time, and memory to someone who can appreciate living in an eternal present—the only kind of time anyone has—with a constant awareness of the past and its continuing presentness. More, he has become aware that tragedy and failure have a place in life and serve a purpose. He has grown, in other words, in understanding by coming to understand that it is itself limited but that the individual can extend those limits virtually infinitely.
The danger of a doctrinal faith, particularly from the point of view of the outsider, is that it encourages the assumption that once one has acquired the doctrine, one has acquired understanding as well, whereas in fact nothing can be further from the truth. The doctrine is there as discipline and prayer and observance, but understanding can come only through the experience of the dove descending, in whatever form the dove may take, since all forms are, like all patterns, the same form.
So, then, as the fifth and final part of “Little Gidding,” also the final section of the Four Quartets, opens, the reader is reminded of ends and of beginnings. The speaker is ready now to accept what may seem to be a commonplace bit of practical wisdom, but one that he has come to on his own through the continuing effort at prayer, observance, and discipline that the poetry of the Four Quartets has thus far represented. He has come to understand the circular nature of experience, its way of repeating itself in patterns, the patterns themselves permitting the repetitiveness of experience to emerge into consciousness, so that words such as ends and beginnings become meaningless, although there is still a need to recognize sequences, as one thing follows another. Language, then, the means by which poetry is recorded in memory, relies on sequencing, without which there is no pattern or progress: “every phrase / And sentence that is right (where every word is at home / . . . dancing together) / . . . is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph.”
As with language, so with action. All action leads the same way and follows the same pattern, recapitulating itself generation after generation just as the poetry recapitulates its own past moments: “to the block [Charles in “Little Gidding” III], to the fire [“Little Gidding” IV], down the sea’s throat [“The Dry Salvages” IV].” Each generation ends, thinking its actions cataclysmic and decisive. Yet from those endings, the next generation picks up its own beginning, which was the same as for the generations that have preceded it. Then that new generation reaches what it imagines to be its own cataclysmic ending, which was their ancestors’, too, so that we do, indeed, “die with the dying” and “are born with the dead.”
All moments, then, are from the point of view of eternity, the same moment, even if each individual, from his or her own point of view, lives a moment that appears to be unique and particular. That is, again, the configuration that the timeless shares with time. From one end of the telescope, the “moment of the rose . . . and of the yew-tree / Are of equal duration,” whereas from the point of view of natural processes, they are nothing of the sort. From the other end of the telescope, in the meantime, is the individual’s end: “[o]n a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel / History is now and England.” There is no essential difference, ultimately, but for the individual, it is all the difference in the world.
As the fifth part of “Little Gidding” draws to a close, it need only reiterate what the poetry has been persistent about. Though there may be no gifts reserved for age, the speaker asserts his will, as he does in the closing of “East Coker,” by proclaiming that old men ought to be explorers, faring forward as we all must, whether we will or not. “We shall not cease from exploration,” the speaker now vows with more certainty and purpose than he had when these spiritual and temporal explorations of his began. By doing so, by insisting on continuing to grow in awareness and in understanding all the days of our lives, we will able to “arrive from where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
The past, that is to say, cannot be re-created, but it can be made peace with and organized into significant patterns, both for a people and for individuals, and out of those renewing patterns a viable relationship with the present in its own continuous passage into the past can emerge. For the past is all still there, the poetry asserts as well, returning to its own past now back in the early pages of “Burnt Norton,” where the Four Quartets began. Looking back now, the reader can discern that the end was concealed in those opening ruminations on time in its flight, to be revealed now in “Little Gidding”’s ending, where is heard again the children’s laughter in the apple tree. Back in “Burnt Norton” I, that laughter was “[n]ot known, because not looked for.” But once sought, once looked for, as it has been through all the intervening pages of poetry, that childhood laughter is seen to be “[q]uick now, here, now, always.”
For if there is an eternity, then nothing is ever lost. To achieve such insight is indeed to achieve a “condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything),” exactly what one would pay for a pearl of wisdom of such great value. In the closing lines of “Little Gidding,” the place of such an honor is reserved for Julian, as the poetry not only echoes her visions once more in the confident promise that “all shall be well” but echoes itself, too. Having entered the realm of human experience by virtue of its having been written, the poetry of the Four Quartets, too, becomes a part of what we know, whether we know it or not.
Earlier, “East Coker” IV contrasted the images “the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars” with “frigid purgatorial fires,” and “The Dry Salvages” I offered a pair of similar images as it told readers that the “salt is on the briar rose, / The fog is in the fir trees.” Smoke and briar and fog, fire and roses, connote the ambiguous aspects of reality, wherein what seems solid can be a vaporous web, and what seems beautiful can be ensconced in thorn and pain. From the proper distance and the right perspective, what is only a chimera and what is the fragile petal can be virtually indistinguishable, just as, in some manner of truth and meaning that is far more than merely metaphorical or figurative, time and the timeless must, from the proper perspective, be virtually indistinguishable one from the other as well.
For the poet of the Four Quartets, that point is real, and there, as the poetry ends, those previous images are recollected into one extended image, where “tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.” That fire is wartime London burning; that fire is the sunlight catching the petals of a rose just so in the rose garden; that fire is the point where terror and beauty meet in the risen and crowned Christ in glory; that fire is Dante’s multifoliate rose, the image that he makes of the souls of the blesséd gathered about the throne of God, as they appear to Dante from the great distance from which he is permitted to witness the phenomenon and with which he ends his Divine Comedy. Finally, along with all its other potentials for meaning, that is the still point, and as Four Quartet ends, the poet permits himself to assert that the still point is more than merely a metaphysical concept. It is, rather, a real state of being. It is, at least, a basis for vision enough for the 20th century.
Any general summary of the significance of the Four Quartets as a poetic statement ought to begin by taking a page from the poet of the Four Quartets: In its end is its beginning, and the reader returning there to the poem’s beginning will know it again for the first time. Put no less straightforwardly but less colorfully, the complexities and befuddling puzzlements with which the poem opens are, on any subsequent reading, far less onerous, even if not necessarily a great deal clearer. That should ultimately come as no surprise, however. A poem that aims to tackle life’s greatest mystery, the place of the divine in human affairs, is not likely ever to read like a narrative romp. Yet the poem’s own mysteries, like life’s, are often matters of perception rather than fact and, once uncovered, prove to be no mysteries at all.
The two epigraphs that Eliot provided for the Four Quartets are a case in point. They are both taken from Heracleitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher whose thought has come down to us only in fragments. The two fragments that Eliot cites, when translated from the Greek, read as follows: “The word is common to everyone, but each man thinks that the word is his own” and “The way up is the way down.” For all their seeming ambiguity, those two epigraphs, taken together and appreciated for their insight, explain just about everything that anyone needs to know in order to grasp the central message of the Four Quartets. Once one has reached the end of the Four Quartets, one can return to those epigraphs and, as it were, know them for the first time as just that: explanations in a nutshell of what all of the poetry of the Four Quartets is getting at.
In terms of the first epigraph, it is hard to deny that human experience, for all its apparently endless variety, is a relatively common experience for everyone. Everyone imagines that his or her point of view, nevertheless, is not only a unique one but is generally the only valid one, particularly when it comes into conflict with someone else’s. In terms of the second, no matter from what point various courses of inquiry begin, assuming that they all arrive at the only satisfactory conclusion, it will be pretty much the same conclusion. The thrill, as always, is in the chase, not the capture. And is there any prey more elusive than the meaning, the purpose, of life itself?
Heracleitus’s are practical insights once their essential wisdom is grasped, and they are the same insights at which the speaker of The Four Quartets finally arrives. However, Eliot’s speaker had to earn his way to those conclusions, not simply accept them on the basis of the word of another. To imagine that Heracleitus is correct without testing his premises in experience would be to miss his whole point, which is that experience—not logic or doctrine or even belief, especially when that belief is based only on someone else’s testimony—alone matters. And that is why any reader must first experience a poem as rich as the Four Quartets before feeling secure enough to begin to try not so much to understand as to grasp, like Heracleitus’s, its insights, which are, in the final analysis and coming full circle, the same insights.
A danger is that approaching Eliot’s work this way may make it appear to be very clever, but little more. As with any element in an Eliot poem, however, the reader must be ready at all times to separate the appearance of such mere cleverness from a more meaningful possibility—that the poem has a far deeper richness, one of intent and of purpose. Cleverness, on the one hand, is James Joyce’s multilingual pun in calling his final novel Finnegans Wake, and it has deservedly been well recorded in critical circles, whereby Finnegan is a play on both an Irish surname and the words fine—“the end” in Latin—and again. Combined in that way, the play on words is connotative of beginnings and endings, too, particularly in the context of a wake with all its connotative ambiguities. A richness of meaning, on the other hand, is Eliot’s making even his epigraphs serve the purpose of mind-opening exercises in the extension of language into thought and of thought into paradox. Structure can be a means of extending meaning as well.
The intricate interweaving of levels of discourse and modes of thought with depths of feeling and both personal and public history can often, like the musical structures the poetry is meant to mimic, overlap in the Four Quartets in ways whereby the beginning of one motif or train of thought is lost momentarily or is completely blurred by another just ending, giving the endless impression that the poetry is nothing but a series of false starts followed by dead ends. In fact, however, it is these persistent over- and undertones of rhythms of thought and feeling that, on subsequent rereadings, give the poetry an overarching coherence. Modulated like pitches between major and minor keys, the poetry’s playing back and forth between reflections on time, history, and eternity, all against a backdrop of symbols drawn from a basic and unadorned natural landscape, gradually take on an internal harmony, particularly when they are presented within the narrative framework of the poet’s own cataloguing of significant places.
As its pace slackens and quickens, with a purposiveness that continuously grows in confidence as the poem progresses through each of the succeeding quartets, those feelings and thoughts that were first expressed with a hesitant philosophical certainty begin to take on themselves the semblance not of abstract speculations but of practical conclusions drawn from a relatively long life’s reflections on real experience. The resulting assurance with which the great imponderables are not so much resolved as they are successfully categorized becomes infectious, and the reader should complete the poem not convinced but confirmed, for by virtue of all these varied techniques, the poetry has managed the unmanageable but always imaginable possibilities that the very idea of eternity holds out to us poor creatures of time. As a result, Four Quartets itself succeeds in making coherent the normally incoherent and giving powerfully memorable shape to the vague but necessary dream that there is, in the words of W. B. Yeats, a purpose set before the mind, the profane perfection of mankind.
What is holiness, the poem asks again and again in a wide variety of ways, if it is only for the holy? Eliot’s speaker works this inquiry out, for the most part, against the backdrop of a Christian belief system, inasmuch as the inquiry is conducted in religious terms. Religion may seem to dominate the poetry from time to time, but as much could be said of a number of other human preoccupations—the getting and spending of wealth, the exercise of power, the passage of time, the longing for peace and contentment, the fear of death, and the knowledge of its inevitability. All these various strands or motifs or themes or topics, depending on whether the poetry is characterized with a weaving, a musical, a poetic, or a prose metaphor, accumulate as the poetry is developed, so that to isolate only one strand or motif or theme or topic is not to diminish the experience of the poetry of the Four Quartets so much as to demolish it.
What is holiness, if it is only for the holy? The answer that the poetry offers is that if there is holiness, it cannot be confined to a particular experience or moment or way of life or culture or belief system. It must be, too, a state of being that is recognizable and achievable, in which one can function in perfectly ordinary ways among perfectly ordinary people and things, as well as extraordinary ones. What passes for religion in Eliot, in other words, is often its own species, like Heracleitus’s, of good practical wisdom based on commonplace observations.
The problem, as Eliot himself was aware at least since the 1920s and his essays on Shakespeare and Dante, is that poetry is neither philosophy nor belief, although it may seem to emerge from both in no certain way and to no certain purpose. The result, especially in Eliot’s later poetry, beginning with “Ash-Wednesday,” is often a critical confusion whereby, depending on the individual commentator’s biases, Eliot is either praised or blamed, and his poetry is either commended or excoriated, according to the degree to which it appears to be advancing some species of religious faith.
The British essayist and novelist George Orwell, whose classic political satire Animal Farm would later be published by Faber & Faber on the basis of Eliot’s editorial recommendation, provides a case in point when he reviewed “The Dry Salvages” for Poetry in its October–November issue for 1942. Orwell makes it clear from the start that his monumental dissatisfaction with all three of the quartets that had appeared thus far was the “result of something lacking in myself.” Still, he concludes that Eliot’s poetic powers have diminished in proportion to how much the poetry reveals Eliot’s own Anglo-Catholic faith, which is one for which Orwell clearly has little respect. According to Orwell, Eliot’s “later poems express a melancholy faith and the earlier ones a glowing despair,” and Orwell, though he may or may not endorse the despair, dislikes the faith so much so that, for him, the poems themselves fail. Accordingly, taking his cue from Eliot’s speaker’s comment on “the intolerable wrestle / With words and meaning,” Orwell concludes, “I should imagine that the struggle with meanings would have loomed smaller, and the poetry would have seemed to matter more, if [Eliot] could have found his way to some creed which did not start off by forcing one to believe the incredible.”
Without taking issue with Orwell’s patronizing dismissal of the typically unprovable dynamics at the core of any belief system, the reader should note that Orwell is judging the poetry on the basis of what he knows of the poet’s personal faith, rather than on the basis of the poetry itself. That is a critical distinction, and one that cannot be easily overlooked or forgiven for the simple reason that it is distortions such as these, not the poetry, that make of poetry bad philosophy and even poorer religion. The Four Quartets is neither, and that is why it is great poetry.
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