Eliots Four Quartets

The Four Quartets - published during the late 1930s and early 1940s -remains the most impressive achievement in the twentieth-century mediti-tative lyric. Eliot wrote the Four Quartets in England, where he had been living and working since the 1910s. The poem has been claimed by both American and British readers as a part of their respective national literatures. By the time he wrote the Four Quartets, Eliot appeared to identify more strongly with the traditions of his adopted country than those of his native land: three of the poem's four sections are set in England, and the elegiac style is a definitive return to English poetic tradition. Since the publication of The Waste Land, his social and religious beliefs had changed dramatically: he had converted to Christianity and become a member of the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, the poem is saturated with both the language and the history of England. Nevertheless, the influence of The Four Quartets on the development of American poetry cannot be doubted: in the work of Theodore Roethke, for example, we see clear echoes of the poem. Though Roethke claimed to reject "the meditative T. S. Eliot kind of thing,"1 he turned in his later works such as "North American Sequence" to an intensely meditative style reminiscent of the Four Quartets.

The Four Quartets is a metaphysical exploration ofboth the poet's personal history and the more public history of the two countries in which he lived. The importance of landscape and geographical place is suggested by the titles of the poem's four sections, each of which is a place name. The first section, "Burnt Norton," focuses on the rose garden of an English country house; the second quartet, "East Coker," is set in the village in Somerset from which Eliot's ancestor Andrew Eliot traveled to the New World in the seventeenth century in search of religious freedom; the third section, "The Dry Salvages," focuses on both the Mississippi River of Eliot's Missouri childhood and the rocky coastline of New England; and the last quartet, "Little Gidding," takes place in an English village founded as a seventeenth-century Anglican religious community.

The poem is a meditation on time as well as place. Eliot explores temporality and the way in which human beings experience time: as historical progression, as temporal moment, or as a part of eternity. The poem begins with the famous proposition,

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past . . .

All moments in time, Eliot goes on to say, are "eternally present": thus there is no need to divide our experience into that of the historical past, the lived present, and the expected future. The temporal meditation of the poem is also reflected in its musical structure. Each section of the poem is itself a "quartet" (analogous to the string quartet as classical musical form) consisting of five "movements." These movements are used to explore and develop the language, ideas, and symbols introduced in the poem.

The primary tension in the poem lies between the temporal and phenomenal mode in which we generally experience reality and the search for a pattern, form, or design that could help us to experience the spiritual or eternal ("the still point of the turning world"). Eliot proposes certain images that allow us to attain this "stillness" - a Chinese jar, for example - but he finds that language itself is incapable of conveying such a pattern:

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.

Other symbolic structures in the poem are the four elements (air, earth, water, and fire), and the four seasons. The final quartet, "Little Gidding," begins with a fusion or confusion of the seasons which symbolizes the intersection of earthly time with the timeless realm of the eternal:

Midwinter spring is its own season Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

Each quartet is also dominated by a particular element: the primary element of "Little Gidding," for example, is fire, as we see in Eliot's brilliant use of fire imagery in the opening section:

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches, In windless cold that is the heart's heat, Reflecting in a watery mirror A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon. And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier, Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire In the dark time of the year.

Awed by the unusual combination of "frost and fire" which creates a blinding glare in the midst ofwinter's darkness, Eliot is moved to an evocation ofthe "pentecostal fire" by which the Holy Ghost came to Christ and his disciples. The references to fire in the poem also suggest the air raids conducted by the Germans on London during the war. The German dive-bomber is figured as a "dark dove with . . . flickering tongue," an image that is more fully developed in the fourth movement:

The dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror Of which the tongues declare The one discharge from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre -To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Here we find Eliot's writing at its most compressed and most visionary. Adopting the formal structure of rhymed tetrameter, Eliot plays on both a formal and a metaphoric level with resemblance and difference. The stanza's three rhyme sounds are nearly identical; at the same time, the two kinds of "tongues" represented here (that of the firing dive-bomber and that of the Holy Ghost) display a structural identity but an opposite effect on the world. We can only be redeemed from one kind of fire (that of war and human destructiveness) by the other (the refining fire of religious belief). At the end ofthe poem, Eliot unites this fire image with that with which he began: the rose. As he enters the garden once again (simultaneously the rose garden and the Garden of Eden from which the human race was banished), he hears the voices of children and the song of the thrush first introduced in "Burnt Norton." The poem has come full circle, as has the speaker, who now realizes that "the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And to know the place for the first time." The collapse of the distinction between temporality and eternity ("Quick now, here, now, always") brings about a sense that "all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well." The poem's final image, that of "the crowned knot of fire," contains within it three ideas: the spiritual intensity of fire, the beauty and ideal pattern of the rose, and the solid knot tying them together.

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