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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1,511 words.)