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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 826

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 moving in time, artistic wholeness and spiritual health involving words as part of the Divine Logos, and love as a timeless present.

“East Coker” (1940) recalls Eliot’s ancestral home in Somerset (which is also his burial place). Pursuing the poet’s beginning in his end (1) and his role as craftsman of words (5), the poem contains a rueful look backward at “years largely wasted, years of l entre deux guerres” essaying to learn to use words. In this poem, the focus is on the earth from which the poet springs; it has relevance to God the Son in some readings (as in the first of the poems, air is the dominant element), and some see direct relevance to God the Father. In this interpretation, the next poem, “The Dry Salvages” (1941), has as its motifs Mary, the Mother of God, and the element of water, and “Little Gidding” (1942), the element of fire and the Holy Ghost. These remain suggestive possibilities for interpretation, but they are supported by the texts.

“The Dry Salvages,” a group of rocks off the Cape Ann coast, reflects the poet’s early life in the United States, as does “the strong brown god,” the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Much more explicitly religious in statement than the first two quartets, the poem has direct references to God and the Annunciation made to Mary (part 1), the tenets of Krishna (part 3), and the Queen of Heaven, figlia del tuo figlio, the “daughter of your son” (part 4). The occupation for the saint in part 5, “The point of intersection of the timeless/ With time,” is also the poet’s occupation, as Eliot continues to play out variations upon his themes.

His most famous poem in the sequence, “Little Gidding,” is also his last major poetic statement. This place name is meant to evoke its seventeenth century associations as a center of spiritual life and its contemporary symbolism for the poet as the place of “the intersection of the timeless moment” (part 1). Encountering “the shade of some dead master,” the speaker finds in the spirit’s disillusionment yet another cause to reassess the poet’s task: “To purify the language of the tribe” (part 2). The burden of the third part, that prayers and intercession are needful in the face of sin’s inevitability, reinforces each of the prior third parts of the sequence.

In the final segment, all birds coalesce to become one bird, as the Heraclitean fire of the epigraph is subsumed into the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The final and often-quoted and anthologized hymn to poetic practice as a means of achieving unity and spiritual health concludes the poem and the sequence in a complete affirmation unprecedented in Eliot’s poetry.

Taken together in the light of their ending, the poems of Four Quartets rank among the most highly accomplished works of devotional poetry and treatments of a poet’s vision of poetry itself. With this sequence, Eliot capped his career as a poet.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

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 an awareness outside time and back to the present. The final section of each quartet includes some reflection on the poet’s art.

Eliot’s earlier poem The Waste Land began famously with the effect of April rain, “mixing/ Memory and desire”: memory of the past and desire for the future, from both of which the alienated person of Eliot’s era was effectively cut off. The quartets likewise build on memories, largely associated with places, and deal with desires, at least with those of a middle-aged Christian (Eliot) living in a secular world. “Burnt Norton,” written before World War II (1935), establishes a faith in pattern. Words move in time but come to rest in a silent pattern.

The three quartets composed during World War II—“East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding”—all preserve the basic pattern of “Burnt Norton” but with significant variations. The imagery is varied, first of all. While “Burnt Norton” is dominated by earthy imagery associated with an estate and its grounds, “East Coker” has airy images associated with the vacant spaces through which people or planets dance. “The Dry Salvages” has watery images associated with the seacoast and internal waterways of America. “Little Gidding” develops fiery images associated with the Blitz, the German bombing of London during World War II, but also with the Pentecostal spirit and the purgation of sin.

The world of Four Quartets is purgatorial, preparing the poet and reader alike for the paradisal vision but never quite delivering it. In the fourth quartet, Eliot imitates the terza rima of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) in a section calculated to recall Dante’s encounter with his own predecessor, Arnaut Daniel, just outside the gate of Eden at the top of Mount Purgatory (canto 26). This gives the quartets a curiously cyclical movement, reminding the reader that just beyond the first of the fourth quartet, with its vision of the Dantesque rose, one can expect the garden of the first quartet.

“Little Gidding” begins outside the chapel in an Anglican community of that name, where King Charles II came to escape from parliamentary forces during the English Civil Wars of the 1640’s. Eliot celebrates it as a place “Where prayer has been valid” and celebrates prayer as something more than the words used. To some extent, the quartets are prayers, which seek the meeting of human time and God’s time. At the chapel he realizes that “History is now and England.”

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