Study Guide

Four Quartets

by T. S. Eliot

Four Quartets Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Simpler, more direct in style than much of his early work, Four Quartets stands as the masterpiece of Eliot’s poetic maturity and as an index of the extent to which his poetic concerns had changed and his spiritual concerns had deepened. Each poem of the group, as C. K. Stead has ably documented, is in five movements in quartet or sonata form. The first part of each concerns the movement of time, in which fleeting moments of eternity flicker. Dissatisfaction with worldly experience is the keynote of each of the second parts. Part 3 is a spiritual quest for purgation and divestiture of worldly things. The lyric fourth part comments upon the need for spiritual intercession, while the concluding part probes the issue of artistic wholeness, an issue allied to the achievement of spiritual health.

Formed from lines originally written for Murder in the Cathedral, “Burnt Norton” (1939), the first of the sequence, is thematically linked to the play but goes beyond it, as Eliot probes more deeply the motivation for action and the role of the poet as a participant in the Logos (Word). His epigraphs from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus concern the neglect of the law of reason (Logos) and cite the paradoxical phrase, “The way upward and downward are one and the same.” A problematic proposition, “If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable,” is part of the poem’s meditative opening, which also reiterates Thomas à Becket’s line from the play, “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.” The ascendent spirit and descendent body are the Heraclitean oppositions of part 2, in a continuing meditation on the limits of time and its eternity and the desire to purge the human condition of its limitations.

In “a place of disaffection,” the narrator seeks to approach the condition of fire with a “dry soul” (part 3); part 4 celebrates the dark night of the soul, “at the still point of the turning world.” The final segment treats words and music...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Four Quartets Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

T. S. Eliot’s mini-epic of modern malaise, the poem The Waste Land (1922), was followed by a quest for spiritual certainty that led him to abandon his early fascination with Buddhism and join the Church of England in 1927. A year later he described his commitments as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” Invited to write something for a religious festival, he wrote Murder in the Cathedral (pr., pb. 1935), a drama about the murder of the twelfth century archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket. During the same year, he wrote a long, meditative poem after visiting Burnt Norton, a country house in the Cotswolds that was so named because it had once been set on fire by an unruly master. Where he had earlier taken the voice of a prophet—a modern-day Tiresias observing the spiritual emptiness of life in London after World War I—Eliot now assumed the role of a Christian thinker explaining the nature of time, both clock time and God’s time.

Four Quartets is divided into four parts: “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” Each quartet has five numbered sections. In musical terms, the sections are arranged in rondo form (ABACA). Each quartet has a theme (A), developed in fairly conversational verse, joined by two departures in lyric form (B and C). Both lyrics intensify the meditation and prepare for what follows; however, the first lyric tends to give a vision of fullness, while the second gives a vision of emptiness, these counterparts representing two sides of the spiritual life. The meditative sections move similarly from a present moment to...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Four Quartets Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Perhaps the best way to approach the Four Quartets is to view it as Eliot’s spiritual autobiography. This long work is by far the poet’s most personal poem. In it, he drops the many masks of his earlier verse—Prufrock or the multiple speakers of The Waste Land—and meditates on the meaning of life and God. The poem is divided into four sections, the “quartets” of the title: “Burnt Norton,” the name of an English country house with a memorable garden; “East Coker,” the village from which Eliot’s English ancestors left for the New World; “The Dry Salvages,” a group of small islands off the New England coast, to which Eliot would sail as a young man; and “Little Gidding,” the name of a religious community led by Nicholas Ferrar, a seventeenth century Christian mystic.

Much of the language in this poem is undramatic, abstract, and philosophical. In fact, it is important to remember that Eliot was trained as a philosopher, so that when he uses common words such as “time” or “future,” he has thought carefully about a very particular definition. As the poem makes clear, for Eliot “time” was not at all a vague concept.

“Burnt Norton” opens, as did The Waste Land, with a memory of childhood, although this time the memory is Eliot’s own. He recalls a garden where children played hide-and-seek. The surroundings are calm, quiet, and lovely—like the memories themselves. The following parts of this first section approach the passage of time in different ways: the change of seasons as it is charted by the movement of constellations, the “still point” of religious illumination and its contrast with the “internal darkness”...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Four Quartets Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Four Quartets is T. S. Eliot’s last book of nondramatic poetry. Each of the quartets, which were written over a period of eight years and published separately, has the same structure and helps develop cumulatively the same themes. Eliot said that transitions in poetry can be similar to those in a symphony or quartet, and that these quartets are written in a five-movement sonata form.

The personal and historical significance of the place names in the poems’ titles are the points of departure for the themes developed in the first part of each quartet. The theme of “Burnt Norton”—an old Gloucestershire house—is the nature of time and personal memories and experience. “East Coker,” which is the name of the English village from which Eliot’s ancestor left for America in the seventeenth century, is a consideration of the meaning of history and an explanation of the idea of spiritual rebirth. “The Dry Salvages,” a group of rocks off the coast of Massachusetts, which Eliot knew as a boy, continues the meditations on time and history and includes reflections on human endeavor and the nature of experience. These themes are all also present in “Little Gidding,” whose title refers to an Anglican lay community founded by Nicholas Ferrar.

All the themes are present in each quartet with different emphases, and the subsidiary themes are directly related to the major ones. What distinguishes these poems from Eliot’s earlier verse is that, in addition to the elements of surprise and rapid transition that mark his earlier works, these include transitional passages. The same symbols also occur in each of the quartets, and their multiple and shifting meanings are resolved in “Little Gidding.”

In “Burnt Norton,” Eliot writes, “What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end which is always present.” Here there is no placing of experience in time (“do not call it fixity”); it is instead a “stillness,” a point beyond experience “into the rose garden.” To reach it requires the negation of flesh and spirit. Eliot repeatedly considers this way of purgation, which requires release from desire and compulsion. Meaningful experience is both in and out of time, but life is too full of distraction for this to be often attained. The description of that distraction is a vivid realization of the contemporary predicament: “Only a flicker/ Over the strained, time-ridden faces/ Distracted from distraction by distraction.” The passage following these lines presents “the way down” toward the dark night of the soul, “desiccation of the world of sense.” However, there are times in the realm of art when the moment can be prolonged “as a Chinese jar still/ Moves perpetually in its stillness.” A further theme in the quartets, the nature and difficulty of poetic creation, creates a contrast to the image of the jar. The struggle with words that “decay with imprecision” introduces the Word, which is subject always to temptation. “Burnt Norton” ends with a repetition of the vision of hidden children laughing in the rose garden, a motif from the first movement. Such immediacy is contrasted with the usual bleakness of existence.

Time in “East Coker” involves the consideration of human history. This, the most despairing of the quartets, approaches complete and unredeemed bitterness. Eliot stresses the cyclic nature of life and experience. Fields give way to factories that crumble to dust, and the life cycle of humans and the earth is presented as if in a vision after the poet has gone down the dark lane into the somnolent village. The second section begins with a lyric on November, which is followed by a characteristic reversal: “That was a way of putting it . . ./ A periphrastic study in a wornout poetical fashion.” The theme of the bitterness and deception of time...

(The entire section is 1579 words.)