Four Quartets

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Four Quartets represents the culmination of Eliot’s career as both a modernist and a Christian poet; he completes the spiritual quest that has been apparent in his work since his first published poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The conclusion of this quest is in what Eliot calls “the timeless moment,” those points in life where the eternal and the temporal intersect, making meaning possible in an otherwise trivial world.

Eliot explores these timeless moments in four specific settings that have significance in his own life, three in England and one in New England. Among the themes common to the quartets is the need for escape from the tyranny of self and from the emptiness of a distracted and distracting world. Another, explored in the same section of each quartet, is the questionable ability of language, specifically poetry, to serve as a vehicle for meaning.

Eliot finds ultimate meaning in an emptying of self that makes possible recognition of a truer self in union with God, “the still point of the turning world.” He seeks this union in the concreteness of his own life, realizing at last the optimism at the heart of faith--that, despite appearances, “All shall be well.”

This work typifies Eliot’s later style--it is more personal, symbolist, and philosophical than the poems that made him famous. It shows an Eliot who, while still struggling, has reached a new level of peace and acceptance....

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Burnt Norton

*Burnt Norton. English country house in Ebrington, that T. S. Eliot once visited. His 178-line philosophical poem about the nature of reality and time begins and ends with references to the house’s gardens. The speaker suggests an edenic world of innocence and timelessness when he imagines walking through the door that opens into the rose garden, following the elusive voices of the hiding/playing children echoing in memory there, and following tentatively those sounds. But this “first world” is hardly a lush verdant place teeming with life and simple beauty; rather, the speaker takes readers into an empty alley, to look down into a “drained pool.” The dry concrete pool, stands for the illusiveness of time and meaning. In fact, the lack of extensive specific description of place in the poem is a deliberate teasing about the tangible boundaries of the physical world, underscored by the haunting suggestion that humans cannot bear much reality.

*East Coker

*East Coker. English village in Somersetshire where Eliot’s ancestors originated and where Eliot himself is buried. Again, the specific place is valued only because it stands for a general, universal process of dying and regeneration. This poem is about the idea of origin and destination and ironic redemption. A key to understanding Eliot’s detachment from actual place is seeing the essentially paradoxical nature of place: “where you are is...

(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cooper, John Xiros. T. S. Eliot and the Ideology of “Four Quartets.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Considers Eliot’s public persona as an Anglo-American poet creating images of cultural continuity for a wartime world badly in need of coherence.

Ellis, Steve. The English Eliot: Design, Language, and Landscape in “Four Quartets.” London: Routledge, 1991. Suggests why Eliot’s landscapes are usually devoid of living people: They belong to an internationalist view of place that avoids strictly sentimental attachments.

Foster, Paul. The Golden Lotus: Buddhist Influence in “Four Quartets.” Sussex, England: Book Guild, 1998. Lists many Eastern texts that Eliot might have used in the course of advancing the thesis that Eliot’s kingdom of heaven is very like the Buddhist Nirvana.

Frye, Northrop. T. S. Eliot: An Introduction. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1962. Brief guide to Eliot’s thought and writing, by one of the twentieth century’s most famous literary critics, with a final chapter on Eliot’s Christian poetry.

Gardner, Helen. The Art of T. S. Eliot. London: Cresset Press, 1949. A skillful and informative analysis of the poetry and verse dramas of Eliot. The chapter treating the Four...

(The entire section is 478 words.)