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...
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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.)