The Composition of "Four Quartets" Analysis

Helen Gardner

The Composition of "Four Quartets"

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In The Composition of “Four Quartets”, Dame Helen Gardner examines the process by which Eliot arrived at the final text of his major work, identifying the sources and experiences that lie behind Eliot’s poem and presenting all of the changes Eliot made in the text. It is an admirable work of scholarship and an immensely rewarding one, not only for the richness of material Dame Helen has tenaciously gathered from her many years of researching what Eliot called the “litter” of composition, but for the economy, tact, and restraint of her presentation. This volume is, and is likely to remain, the finest study of Four Quartets that we have.

In Part One Gardner focuses on the origins and sources of the poem. She informs us that Four Quartets was not planned but grew into a unified whole over a period of eight years, from 1935 (“Burnt Norton”) to 1943 (“Little Gidding”). Each poem is steeped in the experiences, both actual and remembered, of a man in his middle years:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-

Each poem arises from or is associated with a specific place, season, and element which helped Eliot in locating his thoughts and unifying his poetry. Although Gardner had remarked in The Art of T. S. Eliot (1950) that the sources of the poem are completely unimportant, that “no knowledge of the original context is required to give force to the new context,” she now argues that a familiarity with the background of the poem is necessary in understanding the deeply personal, confessional nature of Eliot’s work.

Many of the biographical sources Gardner cites are familiar. We already know, for example, that Eliot visited Burnt Norton, East Coker, and Little Gidding before writing each poem, and that the Dry Salvages refers to an area off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, which Eliot visited every summer in his childhood. But Gardner fleshes in these bare, known facts with qualifications (she tells us, for example, that Eliot knew nothing about the sinister history of Burnt Norton) and with additional details that enrich the possibilities of Eliot’s intentions and reveal his dependence on deeply felt experiences as catalysts for the creative process.

For instance, Gardner remarks that Eliot visited Burnt Norton in the autumn of 1933 with Emily Hale, a close friend from his graduate years at Harvard, whom, she suspects, he had seen the year before while on a lecture tour of the United States. It was after his reunion with Hale and his return from America that Eliot began to survey his life, questioning how he might have acted differently in his past. “It was a time of painful reflection,” Gardner writes, “on what had been and what might have been, of memories intertwined with the scenes of childhood and young manhood.”

In this reflective mood Eliot composed “Burnt Norton,” with its theme of the actualities and potentialities of the past, as well as a series of landscape poems under the title “Words for Music,” one of which, “New Hampshire,” shows Eliot looking back to his Harvard days: “Children’s voices in the orchard. . . . Twenty years and the spring is over.” The similarity of the two poems is evident in their feeling, imagery, and musical patterning. But a further connection may also be made: that in both, Eliot had Emily Hale in mind. This connection between Hale and “Burnt Norton” is strengthened further by the fact that the garden referred to in the opening lines of “Burnt Norton” carries with it associations with another garden, that of Hale’s aunt, Mrs. Perkins, which Eliot visited in the mid-1930’s and to which he alludes directly in an unpublished poem, “A Valedictory/Forbidding Mourning: to the Lady of House” (1935) and indirectly in “Burnt Norton” in the lines: “Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis/Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray.”

Although “Burnt Norton” revolves generally around thoughts of what might have been, these biographical details offer a more specific interpretation: that in the poem Eliot is addressing Emily Hale on their former ties together. The evidence lends itself to this reading, but Gardner does not draw any conclusions about it nor does she gossip about its implications, as some critics have done. Rather, she steadfastly refrains from speculating on what might lie behind the background of “Burnt Norton” or of any of the other quartets. What matters, she implies in her cautious presentation, is that Eliot’s four poems are meditations on the meaning of experience itself, and those experiences which inspired each poem, whether immediate, ancestral, or national in character, should be treated as impersonally as her remarks on the inclusion of the kingfisher in “Burnt Norton”: “Just as, when asked for the significance of ’autumn,’ Eliot replied simply that ’it was autumn’ so here he might answer those who look for mystical meanings in the sunflower, clematis, and kingfisher: ’There was a clematis; there was a kingfisher.’” Gardner’s approach is not...

(The entire section is 2171 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Encounter. LI, July, 1978, p. 69.

Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1410.

Listener. XCIX, June, 1978, p. 713.

New York Review of Books. XXV, December 7, 1978, p. 16.

Times Literary Supplement. September 15, 1978, p. 1006.