Four Quartets Additional Summary

T. S. Eliot

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 following parts of this first section approach the passage of time in different ways: the change of seasons as it is charted by the movement of constellations, the “still point” of religious illumination and its contrast with the “internal darkness”...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 verse is that, in addition to the elements of surprise and rapid transition that mark his earlier works, these include transitional passages. The same symbols also occur in each of the quartets, and their multiple and shifting meanings are resolved in “Little Gidding.”

In “Burnt Norton,” Eliot writes, “What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end which is always present.” Here there is no placing of experience in time (“do not call it fixity”); it is instead a “stillness,” a point beyond experience “into the rose garden.” To reach it requires the negation of flesh and spirit. Eliot repeatedly considers this way of purgation, which requires release from desire and compulsion. Meaningful experience is both in and out of time, but life is too full of distraction for this to be often attained. The description of that distraction is a vivid realization of the contemporary predicament: “Only a flicker/ Over the strained, time-ridden faces/ Distracted from distraction by distraction.” The passage following these lines presents “the way down” toward the dark night of the soul, “desiccation of the world of sense.” However, there are times in the realm of art when the moment can be prolonged “as a Chinese jar still/ Moves perpetually in its stillness.” A further theme in the quartets, the nature and difficulty of poetic creation, creates a contrast to the image of the jar. The struggle with words that “decay with imprecision” introduces the Word, which is subject always to temptation. “Burnt Norton” ends with a repetition of the vision of hidden children laughing in the rose garden, a motif from the first movement. Such immediacy is contrasted with the usual bleakness of existence.

Time in “East Coker” involves the consideration of human history. This, the most despairing of the quartets, approaches complete and unredeemed bitterness. Eliot stresses the cyclic nature of life and experience. Fields give way to factories that crumble to dust, and the life cycle of humans and the earth is presented as if in a vision after the poet has gone down the dark lane into the somnolent village. The second section begins with a lyric on November, which is followed by a characteristic reversal: “That was a way of putting it . . ./ A periphrastic study in a wornout poetical fashion.” The theme of the bitterness and deception of time...

(The entire section is 1579 words.)