Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 826 words.)
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Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1579 words.)