Four Quartets

Eliot's Four Quartets begins, in 'Burnt Norton', with abstract speculations about time, returning to the Bergsonian concepts that had governed his early verse: 'Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past'. But the problem that this conception of time presents to Eliot in the 1930s and 40s is that it amounts to a rejection, or at least a devaluation, of history and culture, in favour of the subjective experience of the moment. The aim, then, is to relate the subjective moment to shared history, 'to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless', though the speaker admits that this is 'an occupation for the saint' and in practice 'For most of us, there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time' (1969a: 171, 189—90). Nevertheless, taken together, these barely perceived moments in and out of time are what constitute our collective history:

history Is a pattern Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel History is now and England.

History is not only a time but a place, and the geographical particularity of Four Quartets, with each quartet named after a location, looks forward to Eliot's argument in Notes towards the Definition of Culture that 'a culture should be analysable, geographically, into local cultures'. Culture, according to Eliot, is best transmitted between generations by families living in the region of their ancestors, preserving local cultures that contribute to but are not identical with the national culture (1967: 15, 52, 58). In 'East Coker', named after the village in Somerset from which Eliot's ancestor Andrew Eliot emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1660s, Eliot presents a vision of the local culture passed down through his own family, quoting from a 1531 treatise written by another ancestor, Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490—1546). In an open field, we hear 'the music / Of the weak pipe and the little drum' and watch the sixteenth-century villagers 'dancing around the bonfire / The association of man and woman / In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie, a dignified and commodious sacrament'. The dancing, and Eliot's description of it, repeats the orderly pattern of the seasons, 'Keeping time, / Keeping the rhythm in their dancing / As in their living in the living seasons' (1975: 177, 178), and repeats the pattern of history itself.

The governing motif of the Quartets is identical with that of Notes towards the Definition of Culture, and also looks back to Eliot's doctoral research at Harvard: Eliot has consistently been concerned with the philosophical examination of the relationship of the part to the whole, the one to the many. On this issue, Eliot is a cultural relativist: in Notes towards the Definition of Culture he affirms 'the vital importance for a society of friction between its parts' in generating creativity and preventing totalitarianism (1967: 58—59). At the same time, his association of culture with religion, and English culture with the history of the Anglican Church, leads Eliot to aspire towards a society based on Christian principles. In 1939 Eliot published a volume that was a forerunner of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society. The book developed from conversations with a small group of Christian thinkers called the Moot, especially from discussion of proposals for a new Christian order put forward by the French Catholic philosopher (and former Action Française member) Jacques Maritain in his treatise True Humanism (1936) (Eliot 1982: 42, Kojecky 1971: 131). The Idea of a Christian Society was also a response to the threat of fascist and communist totalitarianism, as Europe moved toward a second world war. 'Deeply shaken' by Britain's capitulation to Hitler in the Munich Agreement, Eliot wrote, 'we could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us' (1982: 82). To Eliot, the only 'positive' element in a culture he deemed 'mainly negative' was Christianity, and he therefore recommended that England be restructured and run according to Christian principles.

Munich Agreement. Agreement made on 29 September 1938 between the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy that required Czechoslovakia to surrender the German-speaking Sudetenland adjacent to the German border to Germany. The agreement was made to avert war with Germany, but Hitler reneged on the agreement and marched into Prague the following March.

Four Quartets resolves its questions in 'Little Gidding', the title referring to a Cambridgeshire village whose history represented an ideal sympathy between Church and State for Eliot: it is the site of a seventeenth-century Anglican community that sheltered Charles I during the Civil War. Eliot describes the approach to the community, imagining Charles I's arrival at night, a 'broken king', but emphasizing the continuity of the village's culture:

If you came this way, Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

The intersection of the timeless moment occurs not through individual thought ('sense and notion'), but behaviour that has been repeated by generations ('kneel / Where prayer has been valid'). This is why religion and culture are so closely connected: 'behaviour is also belief', Eliot wrote in Notes towards the Definition of Culture, and this 'gives an importance to our most trivial pursuits', not only praying, but dancing around the bonfire, or - to use his 1940s examples - watching a cup final and eating Wensleydale cheese (1967: 32). All contribute to the local and national culture.

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