Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965
Born in the United States and later becoming a British subject, Eliot is considered by many to be the major poet and critic of our time. With The Waste Land came a radical, new poetry, filled with innovative rhythms and woven with foreign phrases and classical allusion. Eliot sought a union of intellect and feeling, frequently dealing with themes of time and disillusionment with the modern world. Initiating a new tradition in criticism as well as in poetry, Eliot wrote from a Christian, anti-romantic viewpoint, and gave new importance to such writers as Dante, Donne, and the French symbolists. As a playwright, he experimented with poetic drama, attempting a modern equivalent of Elizabethan blank verse. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
In a little short of 900 lines, [the] subtle, magnificent religious poems [in Four Quartets] contain more beauty and sense than any book within recent memory. They are capable of charming, and teaching, many thousands among the great general reading audience.
T. S. Eliot has never been an artist likely to please the bulk of that great audience. Simply as a rather solemn American-turned Englishman, he is personally unsympathetic to many. His work lacks commonness in the good sense of that word as well as the bad. It requires a patience of ear and of intellect which many readers lack; patience not merely in one reading but in many. For a long time, too, it was easy to misjudge Eliot, thanks to certain of his admirers, as the mere precious laureate of a Harvardian coterie….
Eliot is, to be sure, not a poet in the grand antique sense of spontaneous and unprecedented song. But as a devoted artificer of words and as a distiller of experience, he has always been a poet, and a particularly fine one. Unlike many greater and lesser poets, moreover, he has constantly grown and changed. In his youth he was most notably a satirist; then a mosaic artist of exquisite sensibility, a man who used the perfected expression of past artists as frankly as he used his own, to arrange, fragment by fragment, edge by edge, an image of the desolation of his time…. (p. 120)
Of all his poems [the Four Quartets] are the most stripped, the least obviously allusive, the least ingratiating in image and in diction, the most direct. They are set in a matrix of subtly intensified, conversational style. To many readers they will look, and remain, flat and forbidding. But those who will give them the care they require will find, here, the finest work of a distinguished lifetime.
Readers familiar with the great "last quartets" of Beethoven will suspect that Eliot derived from them his title, much of his form, elements of his tone and content. They will almost certainly be right, for no other works in chamber music fit the parallel. Both Beethoven and Eliot are working with the most difficult and quintessential of all materials for art: the substance of mystical experience. Both, in the effort to translate it into art, have strained traditional forms and created new ones. Both use motif, refrain, counterpoint, contrasts both violent and subtle, the normal coinage of both arts, for purposes more profound and more intense than their normal coinage, for purposes more profound and more intense than their normal transactions.
Beethoven was a man of colossal genius, originality and definitiveness; Eliot is not. That might make all the difference in the world; it makes a good deal less than might be supposed. For Eliot, if he lacks major genius, is nevertheless a man of fine intellect, of profound spiritual intelligence, and of poetic talents which, if "minor," are nevertheless unmatched in his generation. And his subject is of a dignity which, if approached with these abilities, makes excellent poetry unavoidable and great poetry possible.
There is poetry of both kinds in Four Quartets.
The heart of Eliot's meditation is Time. Not time as that hypnosis of clocks and of history which holds all human existence captive—though this sort of time gets his attention too—but time as the mystic apprehends it, "at the still point of the turning world." (pp. 121-22)
There is an opposite pole to this stillness. It may be discerned behind "the strained time-ridden faces, distracted from distraction by distraction," of any great city, any "place of disaffection" … a darkening of the soul whose opposite and whose one cure is "the darkness of God."… (pp. 123-24)
Time, moreover, is our savior as well as our destroyer. It is the air we must breathe, the lens through which we perceive timelessness, through which we become conscious….
Upon this theme, in poetry rich in paradox and reward, in mystery, in symbol, in despair and, ultimately, in hope, Eliot develops his great variations…. Each of the poems has not only its earthly-mystical locals but its season of the year and its Aristotelian element as well—which for which is not in every case clear. Of the first, the season seems to be spring, and the element air. Of the second: summer and earth. Of the third: fall and water. Of the fourth: "Winter spring" and fire. (p. 124)
"At the Still Point," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly News Magazine; copyright Time Inc. 1943), June 7, 1943 (and reprinted in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Fall-Winter, 1976, pp. 120-25).