Four quartets

“Four Quartets”

in the Light of Eliot’s Critical Theory

“Four Quartets” is one of the most serious and longest poems of T S Eliot. It is very much philosophical in its tone and theme. Eliot considered “Four Quartets” his masterpiece (Johnston: 2005), as it draws upon his knowledge of mysticism and philosophy of life. It consists of four long poems, Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, each in five sections or movements. The five sections are said to be symbolically representing particular elements like air, earth, water and fire; and they also suggest Christian holy days – Ascension Day, Good Friday, the Annunciation and Pentecost respectively (Sexton. 279). Although they resist easy characterisation, they have many things in common: each begins with a reflection on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect-theological, historical, physical, and on its relation to the human condition. Talking about the subject matter of the poem, Rees (64) remarks that the essential focus or unifying idea, of the Four Quartets is describing eternal reality which the poet tries to search through mortal time. He says that Eliot has tried to give a kind of philosophic cum artistic summary of his various social concepts and beliefs in these quartets. A reflective early reading suggests an inexact systematic approach among them; they approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, although they do not necessarily exhaust their questions. “Eliot proclaims that the Four Quartets are straightforward, told in the simplest language possible” (Bellin: 2003). However, Bellin argues whether the poet’s claim of simplicity i.e. acceptable or not. He quotes a few other critics who agree on the point that because the subject matter in the Quartets is not an ordinary thing, so the language used to describe such ideas mostly avoids simplicity. Dallas (193) gives her opinion, with special reference to “Four Quartets”, about Eliot’s consistency with his poetic standards in the practice of his own poetry. She writes that T. S. Eliot’s in his prose and plays or poetry has maintained an increasingly developed understanding and usage of the doctrines that an indivisible association is found there between form and substance in his work of art. She has specially written about the association between Eliot’s critical thoughts and poetic practice. She compares the content and structure of different poems especially of the “Quartets” and finds an appropriate correlation in them. “The form of a poem develops and takes its shape from the order which is inherent in the material, or substance of the poem” (Dallas, 194).

From various angles this long poem of four sections has been commented upon by critics. Many critics have found the Eliot’s proclaimed characteristics of impersonality in the poem. The relationship of mater and form of any poem is considered very significant to show artistic expertise objectively. Fussel (212) finds a correlation between the content and the form of this long poem. He says that the structure of “Four Quartets” as compared to its subject matter is both a innate and expected consequence of techniques and concepts formerly used by Eliot and, at the same time, exceptional not only in Eliot’s own poetry but also in the entire English literary tradition. However Fussel is also of the opinion that in the “Quartets”, what we are offered to view is not what every individual can perceive on his own but it is rather ‘the eyes of a single personality’ that shows us what we see. Even then the critic concludes that such is the skill to develop the theme that a reader feels himself as the part of the experience. His poetic works are a kind of externalization of aesthetic and emotional images mixed together with explanation and annotation by the interpreting understanding, a combination of personal contemplation and open public dialogue (Fussel. 213). He further says that the structure of Four Quartets is outcome of the poet’s experience, which is artistically developed by intellectual analysis and the depiction of emotional state.

Fussel also talks about Eliot’s concept of ‘unification of sensibilities’ but with mixed comments of achieving it. He says: “In the “Quartets”, the opposites of intellect and sensibility, thought and feeling, do achieve union, but the gulf is deepened while the bridge is under construction” (214). He means to say that in comparison to Eliot’s early works, the poem “Four Quartets” shows a delay resolution of the unifying devices, which the poet does on purpose. He says that Eliot knows the limitations of the modern man to understand the universal realities not so easily, therefore, first of all, he had to take to direct description of his religious thoughts and, then, by describing the concept of incarnation, Eliot achieves the union of the opposites in the “Quartets”. Dallas (6, 7) writes in detail Eliot’s use of opposite images to describe the opposite universal forces at work. She quotes lines from the different sections of the “Quartets”, which simultaneously mention life and death, cold and heat, haze and light, dead, and living and the beginning and the end. All this is to depict impersonally the dual effects of the subtle universal laws. The poet, here, requires the intelligence and concentration of the reader to feel and understand the undertone of the message of the poem.

Written between 1935 and 1942, they mark the end of Eliot’s major poetic achievement. As a poet, Eliot was by no means prolific. So much greater his merit of creating, in quite a few great poems, an imaginary world which has haunted poetry ever since. If he has not got whole shelves of books to boast of, he is, in exchange, an accomplished master of concentration and ambiguity. “We have seen him as an innovator, as a difficult poet, a magician of the understatement. “The Four Quartets” are his last feat of magic” (Vianu). The effect is mystifying. “Soothing is the first attribute that comes to mind in connection with Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (Vianu). If anything, then, these soothing Quartets are first and foremost poems of the mind. Emotion mastered, love reconsidered, sensibility dissected by serene thought. “The Quartets” have many names for their mystical goal of knowledge outside language – still point, pattern, love, consciousness” (Bellin: 2003). The masterly use of language plays very important role in bringing forth the desired meaning in a situation especially describing an abstract phenomenon. According to Bellin, Eliot has adequately used most of the language tools, which has made it possible for him to pronounce his mental feelings agreeably although, the poet has been denying his mastery over the adequate use of words. Bellin further says that such a paradoxical use of language can well be seen in Burnt Norton-the redemptive power of language and the distaste for language:

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Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness (li. 137-142)

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. (li. 149-153)

Bellin (2003) quotes Hay who comments, “One critic proposes that the poem uses a “stream-of-consciousness method…though whose consciousness is a crucial question” (Hay; 161); and he swiftly proclaims that in the poetry produced at some later stage, the perception and consciousness are clearly Eliot’s own (Hay 161). In case of the “Quartets”, the poet’s consciousness and the quality of the Quartets‘ impersonality come under question. Bellin, then, quotes Thompson who suggests finding out a certain formula as to read the “Quartets” impersonally as desired by the poet.

Melaney (151) appreciates Eliot’s mastery over the use of befitting language in “Quartets”. With particular reference to the “Quartets”, he says that Eliot usually enjoys adopting a style of expression that facilitates him to put forward abstract and theoretical proclamations as crystal clear and indisputable truths. The illustration of the time paradoxes in this poem is so h3 that it constitutes a kind of poetics for the young poets especially regarding the use of the appropriate language. Boaz (32), by quoting Ruth Berges, says that Eliot wanted to write “poetry so transparent that we should not see the poetry, but that which we are meant to see through the poetry.” And this is possible only through the use and application of a language that should be most befitting to convey the poet to the readers not only aurally but visually too.

Speaking about the start of the poem, Brown (2003) says that the imagery of the rose garden takes the readers along with the poet. He says that the world created by the poet becomes the imagined world of the readers; it is all because, “…the poetry creates the conditions to fulfill its own inter-personal invitation.” This is the relation between the poem and the readers, not between the poet and the readers. The poet has to be an observer as before the composition of his poem so he has to remain after its composition. This is what is skillfully done by Eliot in his “Quartets”.

To come back to the late summer of Burnt Norton, the poem goes on with memories of youth silenced by the lullaby of elderly thoughts. There is a “trilling wire in the blood”, and this blood still sings below “inveterate scars”. But the old wars are “long forgotten”, or, in Eliot’s words “appeased”. A “still” point is mentioned. It reminds the reader of the prayer to the silent sister in “Ash Wednesday”:

“Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still …”

He reiterates, time and again, “all is always now”, and it looks difficult for him to forget what he wants to forget i.e. “the loud lament of the disconsolate fantasy”. They are all there in a poem which, though is determined to forget certain things and events (old ideal of Ash-Wednesday), has not yet performed this task of forgetting things. Obstinate recollections of old troubles and excitements enliven it:

Quick now, here, now, always –

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after …

It is not only memories that hurt the poet, but also his struggle with the words, which should express them. In Burnt Norton, serene as the tone may be, peace of mind is wishful thinking, and the poet’s words reveal a restless mind trying its hand at relaxation, but …

“Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still”.

East Coker (1940), title of the second quartet, is the name of a Somerset shire village.  T.S. Eliot desired that, at the time of his death, his body should be cremated, and the ashes buried at East Coker. Which his second wife dutifully accomplished. This place was visited and inhabited by Eliot’s ancestors also. That is why we find the start and the main theme of the poem as, “In my beginning is my end”, reversed later into “In my end is my beginning”. “The specifically literary twist here is that the simple revelry of the imagined ‘rustic’ men and women is largely rendered in the words and spelling of a probable ancestor of the poet – Sir Thomas Elyot” (Brown: 2003).

In daunsing, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament. (178)

This observation shows that Eliot has tried to present a bygone time or persons in their own typical surroundings. This masterly skill of Eliot has been a great means of success to achieve the impersonal tone in his poetry throughout these fragmented poems.

The main space of Burnt Norton is, however, the “still point of the turning world”. Imaginary or not, who cares? Fact is that deep below, at the bottom of the poem, stillness and restlessness coexist. The poet has described here his past, his life philosophy, his achievements, his wishes and disappointments. A dynamic view of life has been mentioned in poetic style. A number of universal contrasting ideas have been put together in fantastic antithetical statements. Vianu, speaking of such opposite facts, says, “They sadly go hand in hand, with Eliot inertly watching”:

“Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die”.

A tendency of detachment and aloofness encompasses certain sections in theFour Quartets”: in “East Coker” where Eliot puts the metaphor of Christ, the wounded surgeon, in “The Dry Salvages”, where he mocks augury, in “Little Gidding” where he transforms German dive-bombers into the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit. Bottum (1995) confirms this wave of detachment in the quartets and says that this lack of involvement starts off as a final point in Eliot’s desire to turn his knowledge and experience into metaphorical symbols. The development of the performance of an artist, Eliot wrote when he was younger, is ‘a continual extinction of personality.” To him the poet is not experiencing his experiences here; he is only standing self-consciously outside experience in order to watch himself experience. In the “Four Quartets” the self- conscious poet stands outside his temporal experiences in order to find in them a metaphor for the temporal facts he has not experienced. “The fundamental experience in “The Four Quartets” – that experience to which all other experiences are ordered as metaphors-Eliot always describes in the conditional or the subjunctive or the future” (Bottum:1995).

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And all shall be well and

All manner of things shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

But here the views of Stevens (2004) are slightly different. He says, though, in poems like Prufrock and “The Waste Land”, Eliot is considerably successful in applying his theory of impersonality, “but it is certainly Eliot’s own voice that we hear in the later poetry such as “Four Quartets”.” Stevens is of the opinion that the poet, in Quartets, has become subjective and speaks personally of his own life experiences. He does not find the element of detachment but rather a h3 presence of the poet’s personality in the “Quartets”. Finally, Stevens says that “Four Quartets”, being a religious affirmation, gives way to certain discursive and expository elements that we do not find in his earlier poems.

Any how according to many other well reputed critics, Eliot has, in the “Quartets”, used the kind of images and symbols that as those in “The Waste Land” and “Prufrock”, bring forth the poet’s inner thoughts in an objective manner. Eliot has shown great skill of using characteristic images to expose very abstract concepts in the “Quartets”. Rees (65) is of the view that it is the use of images that has helped Eliot relate and yoke together the opposite themes in the quartets. He writes, Dry Salvages’ provide an excellent illustration of how Eliot presents his two related but contrasted themes in the form of dominant images.” He points out to the images of ‘river’ and ‘sea’, which represent the concepts of the temporal mutability and eternity respectively.

Esty (2003) is of the opinion that Eliot’s striving after objective style is a successful attempt to bring forth the intended impression of the poem impersonally. He says that the poet’s effort to make inner voice surrender to outer authority paves way for the artistic impersonality in his poem. For Esty the poetic techniques of Eliot are a practical show of his critical canons.

Dennis Brown (2003), talking about the psychological effects of the Quartets, experiences, “My own feeling is that the most powerful passages are those which engage the reader in an epiphanic experience which creates a ‘transitional area.” He speaks about the reader’s involvement in feeling the poet’s thoughts and says that the musical and the therapeutic effects while the description of times hold grips of the reader and engages their mind to be one with the poet. Brown calls this Eliot’s genius. 

Morris Weitz (1952) opines on the use of several symbols in Eliot’s poetry. He especially takes the symbol of rose garden and says that Eliot has used the symbol of rose garden at several places in his poetry to depict the temporal experiences, which exhibit the immanent character of the ultimately real.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind

Weitz is of the opinion that though the critics have defined the symbol of rose garden with different connotations, the essential meaning has the double impact – rose garden as an actual place and the symbolical use of the poet’s worldly experiences and their possible relation with the Absolute. “….the rose garden symbolizes those moments that show, more than any others, the meeting of the Eternal and the temporal” (Weitz:1952)

These “Quartets” are termed as a death and life effort with the words and their meanings. “The ‘poetry’ in them does not seem to matter, at first sight. It does matter a lot, at the deeper level of the poet’s mood and spirit of innovation” (Vianu). Here it is stated that Eliot is not giving preference to how to say out the things but he is more concerned with what to say. It is actually extracting out the emotion from the poet’s mind in its entirety in the shape of words. In doing so, though, the poet tries his best to put forward everything in the best possible way, the occasional lack of befitting words must not impede the true expression of the ideas especially in an impersonal way.

“That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory:

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter”.

“The irony falls back on the reader who sees nothing but poetry in the poem” (Craven: 2004). In the above quoted lines of the poem, Eliot seems to be talking modestly of his own genius. His critics are of the view that the “Quartets” do not exhibit only the sublimity of his poetic thoughts but his technical aspect is also at its heights in the “Quartets”. Craven further says that the readers are compelled to work through ‘the traditional suspension of disbelief’ while going through this poem. This again tells us Eliot’s skill of involving the readers to feel, understand and interpret his poetry in an objective way. However, according to Roger Bellin (2003), Karl Shapiro and George Orwell hold contrary views. Bellin reports that Shapiro “accuses the “Quartets” of ‘the complete abandonment of poetry’ (247), and Orwell insists similarly: “Perhaps what we need is prayer, observance, etc., but you do not make a line of poetry by stringing those words together.” Bellin also quotes Thompson’s opinion saying that a careful reading of the “Quartets” reveals the poem personalizing “the poet as a protagonist” in order, in reading, to “participate in his struggle” (Thompson 83).

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Talking about the use of adequate images in “Four Quartets”, Vianu refers to “Ash Wednesday” and says: “Ash-Wednesday is not far behind…. We feel we are drifting together with the poem on the waves of a whimsical sea. Our life, like anybody’s, is a “drifting boat with a slow leakage.” Here the learned critic understands the feelings of the poet who is trying to convey his thoughts. He speaks of horrors in a blank voice. We do hear about wailings, withering, wreckage, unprayable prayers, failing powers, wastage, primitive terrors, and “sudden fury” One thing, however, is changed, and this change makes all the difference. “Eliot is no longer trying to terrify. He shuns away his anger and revolt. He tries to look resigned” (Vianu). Sexton (280) has pointed out Eliot’s making of Cross in the “Quartets”. “the four quartets respectively concern ‘the way up’, ‘the way back’, the way forward’ and ‘the way down’ as spoken of by Eliot in “Dry Salvages III. We first see these four directions in “Burnt Norton II”. With these directions or movements in mind Sexton finds the traces of the making of Christian Cross in the poem. This shows a subtle way of portraying religious images in an objective way upholding the poetic concept of impersonality.

Eliot, the literary critic, repeatedly put aside from him the “flights of abstruse reasoning”. Of course, literary critics will go on dissecting the philosophy of the “Quartets”. Eliot’s wish was that poetry should be felt before it was understood. This is one of the reasons why these quartets should be handled carefully. We must learn to protect the fleeting feelings they delicately outline. Philosophy may have had a part in these poems, but only as a discipline of mind. The main thing is that these “Quartets” reveal something unique in Eliot’s poetry: a warm directness. This evidence of attachment to man and life in Eliot’s creation can hardly be stressed enough. Reading these lines, we realize why Eliot hated those critics who called him learned and cold. The more the poet writes about indifference, peace of mind, “detachment” and so on, the more attached he feels to everything. His former ties to the world were grumbling. He kept feeling hurt and howled out. This new attachment is spiteless; it is generous and warm. The warmth of a poet who hides in his poetry, a heart for all seasons. In his own words:

“music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts”.

Danby (79,80), evaluating the over all impact and feeling of the “Quartets”, says that here the poet makes the reader move along with him for the full satisfaction of the three dimensional experience while reading the poem. He means to say that Eliot’s poetry is so encompassing that it leaves nothing go unfelt. In spite of several difficulties, the poet is successful in ‘turning a whole generation of readers’ to experience the feelings. Danby further says: “They (Quartets) are themselves both poems and criticism of poetry” (80). Danby is stating here the corresponding accord between Eliot’s criticism and his poetry. “They also practice what they preach”(p.80). Towards the end of his article, Danby speaks about Eliot’s mastery of imagery. He says that the poet is quite capable of finding and using such comprehensive images that exhibit the complexities of the poet’s mood. “They are used as objective correlatives to feelings or thoughts (Danby: 84).

Although many critics have found the “Quartets” in keeping with the poet’s concept of impersonality, Melaney (148), like Stevens, parts his way with the rest of the critics. He writes, “His (Eliot’s) canonization as a literary icon has prevented his readers from considering his poetry as a record of personal change.” He says that the subject matter of the “Quartets” is not wholly in accordance with his critical canons. Here we find a great deal of his autobiographical account that makes the poem a personal life sketch. The account or subject matter may be personal, but it is the way of presentation that makes it personal or impersonal as defined by Eliot. Hence, if we look at the way things have been talked about in the “Quartets”, the impersonal tone is more obvious than the personal. Fussell (217) says, “in the “Quartets”, on the other hand, he forges a more personal form by using only the first person, and yet he creates an illusion of the impersonal by splitting up the single personality into contrasting moods and by giving the speaker a public as well as private voice.” Thus, apart from the observations of a few critics, most of the poem seems in conformity with Eliot’s concept of impersonality. The intended abstract idea of time has been presented in such an objectified manner that the reader feels one with the feelings of the poet while going through the poem.


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