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T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets


By CE Chaffin



Four Quartets


Ronald Reagan’s official biographer gave up and wrote a fictional biography because he could not separate the person from the persona; the Teflon could not be removed. I encounter a similar difficulty in trying to unravel Eliot’s Four Quartets (4Q)—where, paradoxically, Eliot comes closest to being himself. Though initially it appears as the most lucid, direct and autobiographical of all his major works, such ease of comprehension is deceptive; it may also be the most inscrutable and opaque. At times it appears translucent, even transparent; but with repeated readings a fog from "The Dry Salvages" (DS) seems to descend on the ocean of our mind. Apprehending 4Q is like trying to catch the wind: something leaks out even as you read it, something evades you, some connection seen before disappears even as a new one forms, or some paradox (or antinomy) arrests rational thought so that you enter a semi-hypnotic state listening to the voice without really understanding the substance—all the while persuaded that you do.

In approaching Four Quartets, more and more I feel as if I am facing something like an inviolable sphere of steel, which I must find a way to drill open without damaging the contents. Or I feel like the woman in the box through which the magician passes swords, each thrust connecting empty spaces as I disappear below, or like a cave fish encountering light, or merely the poor guy in the audience who laughs after everyone else has gotten the joke.

With Eliot there is always the suspicion that he is having a joke on us. Despite his later fondness for Groucho Marx and whoopee cushions, I don’t think he intended his work as anything but serious. But being a private man who did not like to talk about his work, he deflected other’s questions with such infuriating responses as "If it was there, I meant it." I think the myriad and conflicting interpretations of his poems generally amused him. And who can blame him? In my readings I came across an essay of over 25,000 words which, although not without merit, tries to abscond with 4Q to promote Transcendental Meditation:

"Prior to the composition of the Four Quartets, Eliot had converted to Anglicanism, but the basis of the poem remains Eastern with the Bhagavad-Gita as the primary source of inspiration. Because Maharishi's Vedic Science is the most comprehensive discussion on the relationship between life in time and life in eternity, between ignorance and enlightenment, and because its practical methodologies—the Transcendental Meditation technique and the Transcendental Meditation Sidhi--program—provide the means for living life in eternity, it exists as the most appropriate body of knowledge for elucidating the full scope of Eliot's masterpiece."

(Time, Eternity, and Immortality in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, opening abstract, Terry Fairchild, originally published in Modern Science and Vedic Science Volume 9, No. 1, p. 51-101.)

What could Eliot have said about such a misguided polemic (thankfully written after his death) without being downright impolite? Eliot’s refusal to pass judgment on the opinion of others about his work can be seen as generous. His attitude also accords with his theory that a poem has its own existence wherein the author and audience meet in a shared experience, not as an address from author to reader. Still, given the quote above, who could resist a wisecrack:

Interviewer: "Did you really write 4Q with the Maharishi in mind?"

Eliot: "Well I’m told that the mind is his specialty..."

I think Eliot also knew the joke was on him, but he preferred to evade rather than explain, enjoying his works’ ambiguities as the perfect fodder for ambitious critics—or a manure pile in which to slip. For Eliot to have said "this or that critic got it right" would have spoiled the fun. It would also violate his poetic theory, as noted above, though especially in 4Q I find this theoretical distinction to be mostly smoke and mirrors. Although Eliot caged his pain and, later, joy, within a persona hidden beneath layers of "Modern Post-Symbolist Imagistic Neoclassical Poetry," his poems were nearly always about himself, however cryptic or abstruse. As has been well said, "All art is autobiographical."

Many casual readers may only apprehend Eliot’s evasive triangulation, when he was as much a confessional poet as any other (if one maintains a healthy disregard for his critical theories as applied to his own poetry). In "The Waste Land" (TWL), for example, he records the insomniac ravings of his first wife verbatim and quotes a fragment from an early American jazz song, "That Shakespearean Rag," while tossing in Sanskrit and quotes from Ezekiel. These were not intentional devices per se: they were fragments of his own consciousness rising to the surface like bubbles which he himself did not comprehend as he wrote them

another reason he resisted comment on his own poems (unless to dismiss them, as he did TWL, calling it "an insignificant grouse against the world").

To be fair, I think this not uncommon among artists. In the process of creation they are often too close to their subject to see its larger meaning, recognizing it only years later or perhaps never. As Eliot himself admits in "East Coker" (EC) V: 5-7: "Because one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it." (For this essay I use Four Quartets, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., copyright 1943 by T. S. Eliot and renewed in 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot, and the line numbers contained in that edition.)

Nevertheless we should not accept Eliot’s dismissal of TWL at face value. TWL was the cry of an exhausted, perhaps psychotically depressed man of limited physical energy, one the 19th century would have labeled "neurasthenic." As a supremely intelligent man with an education from Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford, descended from an upper class Unitarian Midwestern family with Bostonian roots, Eliot could not express his feelings as simply or directly as a Whitman or a D. H. Lawrence. It was more natural, if you will, for him to hide behind "objective correlatives"—fragmented images that better expressed his feelings than those his psyche permitted him through direct comment. When we read, "Bats with babies’ faces crawling up the wall" (TWL V), I think we all understand, at the very least, that the poet is not talking about happiness.

One criticism we may lay at the feet of Eliot is that he employed his critical faculties to justify his poetic method, especially that of TWL. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," when he writes of "the persona" and "the objective correlative," he leads us to believe that his method in TWL was intentional when I submit it was not—as the editing of the original manuscript supports. This is understandable in view of all the poets who have done the same (as in Wordsworth’s "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads"). It seems almost a prerequisite for poets to erect a philosophy to justify their art, though usually after their art has been created. Eliot’s literary theories may be helpful in approaching the work of others, but I think them dangerous when applied to his own work. It gives the Possum too much of an advantage.

To return to Eliot the person, he was by nature and upbringing forced to present his deepest feelings through multiple masks. Paradoxically, this is a testament to how truly sensitive a man he was. As I have said before, who needs a mask more than a man afraid to expose himself? Thus to accuse Eliot of planned obscurantism won’t wash. A reader attuned to Eliot cannot help but sense the poet’s feelings bleeding through the very tropes meant to disguise them. Eliot should not be read as a museum piece, a Chinese jar, or a pattern on a screen. We should read him as a lost soul seeking redemption in a world which, by its very nature, made him supremely uncomfortable.

"You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again?"

(EC III: 34-36)

I have made this point in previous essays, if not quite so forcefully. I am only enlarging upon it. And as 4Q proves, repetition, or anaphora, is not a bad thing: it makes for good teaching and good lyrics. To summarize, I think it not unfair to consider the multiple personae in Eliot’s major poems to be roughly equivalent to his own person at a parallel stage of development. Do I then contend that his utilization of the persona is a ruse? No, for his theory can certainly be applied to other poets such as Browning, and none us really knows who we are at the age we are. We see it only in retrospect for the most part. I merely mean to point out that in Eliot’s major poems the degree of separation between the poet and the persona is exceedingly thin, thinner than most readers imagine.


II A Personal Note

Eliot is essentially an idealistic poet and so constitutes the direct opposite of William Carlos Williams, which tempts me to reverse Williams’ axiom: "No things but in ideas." Because of this, the greatest criticism one can level at Eliot is that he is a bloodless poet. Even when he tries to write about physical reality it seems reified, as in EC I: "Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth / Which is already flesh, fur and faeces, / Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf."

If the reader will bear with me in a personal detour, I have lived a much more physical life than Eliot. It’s true he dabbled in boxing briefly at Harvard, forced himself to attend balls to overcome his shyness, and was reputedly a good sailor in his youth. But he was by nature shy and unathletic and acutely, perhaps painfully self-conscious, despite his privileged upbringing and education.

Here are some experiences he may not have had: I’ve been a dishwasher, bus boy, Fuller Brush salesman, shoe salesman, offshore derrick hand, housepainter, lab tech, warehouse donkey, phlebotomist, courier, musician, doctor, teacher and writer, even a professional heavyweight boxer in training prior to medical school. I’ve been beaten by police while shackled hand and foot inside a jail, afterwards watching the blood from my broken skull swirl down a cell drain. I’ve been in a mental hospital four times (Eliot was hospitalized once) and endured 12 courses of electroconvulsive therapy. I’ve crossed the Sierras west to east in nine days living mainly on trout; I’ve slept in Central Park and busked for change on the street to buy food. I could go on, but given the contrast in our lives, why am I so enamored of Eliot? Why, for instance, don’t I prefer Williams?

I think because at heart I, too, am an idealist. I, too, suffer to some degree from "The Peter Pan Syndrome"—the desire to never grow up, never truly submit to the depressing world of reality. I prefer to live life in my head, as Eliot obviously did, but either circumstances or my own bullheadedness forced me into a greater physical confrontation with reality, particularly as a doctor. Can you imagine Eliot manually disimpacting the acutely constipated rectosigmoid of an elderly patient? I had to get used to such things.

Albert Einstein grants us commonality on this matter: "I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.... This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience." (The World as I See It, pp. 20-21, by Albert Einstein, Copyright 1934, J. J. Little and Ives Co., New York).

It’s true that Eliot had ten circumstantially difficult years, from 1915 to 1925, when he had to hustle for money with lectures, chance editing, and a day job at a bank (until his fortuitous hiring by Faber and Faber in 1925). Still, isn’t it hard to imagine Eliot building a fence like Robert Frost, shooting a wounded hawk like Robinson Jeffers, or looking down the pus-coated tonsils of a kid who’s trying to bite him like Williams?

The power of Eliot’s poetry is depends on the world it creates, requiring, more than most poetry, the famous "suspension of disbelief" aptly named by Wordsworth and best exemplified in Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge’s "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner." It is no coincidence that I deem "Prufrock" and "The Rhyme" the two greatest poems in the English language—because they create such a consistently powerful alternative world, a world I, for one, find more engaging than our own, a world in which I can repeatedly lose myself. Yet neither poem constitutes pure escape, no ticket to a theme park: both have a message, and yes, a moral. Here I would repeat the distinction made in my first essay, that what sets "Prufrock" apart from "The Rhyme," or anything that had gone before, is that it is the first poem set entirely inside the protagonist’s head and therefore the first thoroughly modern and thoroughly psychological poem. Given that it was written in 1910, according to Conrad Aiken, it puts Eliot ahead of the entire Modernist curve, though Kafka and Joyce were not far behind.

At this point I should state my bias: despite my fondness for "Prufrock," I prefer 4Q over all of Eliot’s other poetry; indeed over all other poetry. Yet when I first read the poems I was disappointed and perplexed. The somewhat pedestrian and pedantic passages lacked the music and magic I had come to expect from his earlier work. Compared to the whirlwind of TWL or the imagistic journey of Ash Wednesday (AW), I was at a loss. How could 4Q be Eliot’s crowning achievement, as many critics held? That first impression, however, occurred in my mid-twenties. By my thirties I began to see the beauty, symmetry and wisdom of 4Q. If anything it is a poem of wisdom, the culmination of the one poem Eliot was always writing, the epic of his psychological and spiritual journey as one of the first truly modern men. 4Q is often referred to as Eliot’s "farewell to poetry," especially LG, and rightly so, since he wrote no poetry of importance afterwards.

Consequently, during my thirties 4Q became my favorite companion on backpacking trips and other extended journeys. I remember reading it out loud with my second wife as we drove my red convertible, top down, in a light rain through the coastal redwoods of California. And when I met my third wife, the love of my life and a fine poet in her own right, we read the quartets to each other on her veranda in upstate New York, their impact certainly heightened by the fact that we were falling in love. As she had not seriously read them before, her exposure changed her opinion of Eliot markedly, to my great satisfaction. (How else could we have gotten married?)

Most of us have heard the "desert island" question of literature. If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring only one book, what would it be? The best answer I’ve heard is that of the late LA Times columnist Jack Smith, who maintained a dictionary was the only rational choice. Others might prefer the Bible or Shakespeare. But what if we limited the number of words in any chosen text to those of 4Q? I, for one, would certainly prefer it over anything of comparable length.

In 4Q Eliot does not abandon his previous method of unconscious connections through imagery, best described by his oft quoted, "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood" (which comes from Eliot’s essay on Dante but applies even better to his own work). What is surprisingly, shockingly new in 4Q is that the mask of the persona is actually put aside and Eliot the man seems to speak to us directly. For the first time Eliot baldly expounds his meanings, albeit sometimes prosaically, in a way that opens him to rational objections. In other words, Eliot wants us to understand 4Q. It was perhaps the discipline of his plays, most of them written in the interim between AW and 4Q, that made him more aware of the limitations of an audience. Perhaps he no longer felt the need to hide behind complexities employed earlier in his search for himself and his spiritual path. Put simply, the voice of the seeker in TWL and that of the penitent in AW change in 4Q to the voice of the sage, or at least, a more mature pilgrim. And it is precisely because of the earlier poems that we believe this voice, because we know whatever wisdom it imparts was hard won. As a thought experiment, consider if Eliot had first published 4Q instead of "Prufrock." I submit 4Q would have been considered haughty and pretentious, pedantically intellectual and unnecessarily prosaic. But as his last work, most sympathetic readers can accept the new authority in his voice, even if it grates at times, because he earned it.


III An Apologia

I had planned to write an essay about Eliot’s minor and unfinished poems, but did not think the effort worth it, as I was eager to get on with 4Q. When writing about Eliot’s early work I took time to comment on the minor poems, especially in his second volume, Poems, while noting that only "Gerontion" deserved to be considered among his major works. I prefer not to repeat this tedium and assume that most readers outside academia have little interest in the lesser works as well. Choruses from "The Rock", despite its length, does not qualify as one of his major poetic works, as its language is less compressed, less lyrical and more bluntly philosophical than that of his major poems. Though I have never heard it performed, I find it tedious and slightly pretentious, at least on paper. The Coriolan poems are incomplete and lack Eliot’s usual lyricism. The "Ariel" poems hardly need comment save perhaps for some difficulty with "Animicula", though the four are a pleasure to read. Among his minor poems, "Landscapes" should also be recommended, whose fifth stanza begins: "O quick quick quick, quick hear the song-sparrow," which of course recalls the bird’s urging in BN I.

As in the example from "Landscapes" one finds in Eliot’s unfinished and minor poems the echoes of things to come, anticipating 4Q. In "Coriolan I" we read: "At the still point of the turning world"—a phrase that forms the basis for BN II. In "Fragment of an Agon" Sweeney says: "Birth, and copulation, and death," recalling a line from EC I: "Eating and drinking. Dung and death." From "Five-Finger Exercises" I. Lines to a Persian Cat, we read: "There is no relief but in grief," presaging "Their faces relax from grief into relief" from DS II. Such echoes recur throughout his major poems as well, as we have seen.

I also never planned to comment on Eliot’s plays. Having never seen one performed again puts me at a disadvantage and their revivals are rare. From my reading of them I think "The Cocktail Party" the most successful, confirmed by the fact that it had the longest run of any of Eliot’s plays, actually making it to the Old Vic and afterwards, Broadway. Yet "The Cocktail Party" is only the best among Eliot’s rather mediocre plays, a small distinction. In his plays his poetry suffers, and his chosen verse form works against drama. There is more drama in "Prufrock" than all of Eliot’s plays combined. Let’s face it and be done with it: Eliot was a mediocre playwright whose plays were largely performed because of his reputation as a poet and scholar. One reason he undertook them is that he thought his poetic well had run dry. His attempts are praiseworthy and well-executed but rather soulless. I would not say they constitute a failure, but they certainly do not deserve more than the rather modest reputation they have achieved.


III A Brief Philosophical Consideration

Eliot wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, the English idealist, some 25 years before 4Q was completed, so it behooves us to address the philosopher’s influence on the poet, most pronounced in 4Q. As a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Harvard, Eliot enjoyed what has been called "the golden age," studying under Irving Babbit, Georges Santayana, William James, Josiah Royce and Bertrand Russell. Because of his intellectual promise Eliot was more or less expected to join the faculty himself in time. Fortunately for us he opted instead for poetry. He achieved an M.A. in Comparative Literature at Harvard in four years then finished his dissertation on Bradley in England but never returned to defend it, thus was never granted a doctorate, The chief reasons for this dereliction were WWI, his impulsive marriage in 1915 to Vivien (who feared crossing the Atlantic in wartime) and the fact that Eliot was being more and more integrated into the burgeoning literary life of London and changed his citizenship accordingly. His London life included, besides his day job and literary activities, volunteering for the war—only to be rejected from service for England because of his poor vision and congenital double hernia. Still, before diving deeper into 4Q, the influence of Bradley’s philosophy should be acknowledged. Here’s a quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Bradley from an article by Dr. T. J. Winnifrith:

"It is for his metaphysics that Bradley has become best known. He argued that our everyday conceptions of the world (as well as those more refined ones common among his philosophical predecessors) contain hidden contradictions which appear, fatally, when we try to think out their consequences. In particular, Bradley rejected on these grounds the view that reality can be understood as consisting of many objects existing independently of each other (pluralism) and of our experience of them (realism). Consistently, his own view combined monism—the claim that reality is one, that there are not real separate things—with absolute idealism—the claim that reality consists solely of idea or experience. This vision of the world had a profound effect on the verse of T. S. Eliot, who studied philosophy at Harvard and wrote a Ph.D. thesis on Bradley."

What better foundation can we posit for Eliot’s anointing of "the timeless moment" than such boundless idealism? For those familiar with Eliot’s poetry, this summary strikes a prescient note. Eliot consistently sought, in his major poems, the unity of the ideal among the fragments of empiricism—fragments, which, like the desert rocks of TWL V, are devoid of spiritual succor. And just as Eliot used Tiresias as a unifying voice in TWL and the Mary/Beatrice figure as the unifying figure in AW, in 4Q he progresses to an abstract, unifying ideal: the dance of eternity. Although 4Q includes much concrete imagery, it is essentially an idealistic poem, the imagery directed toward one purpose—the experience of eternity within the limitations of the temporal. Call this philosophy Christian monism or Dantean symmetry, the ravings of an intellectual mystic or a poetic interpretation of Einstein’s new universe, it is clear that 4Q seeks closure for the spiritual and artistic journey begun with "Prufrock." The inner timidity of Prufrock, written almost two decades before AW, reflects an almost Gnostic repulsion from the flesh, which is a negative aspect of Eliot’s idealism, not the positive incarnation arrived at in AW and 4Q. As I said in my essay on AW, Eliot was always writing only one poem, the epic of his spiritual journey. Indeed, when Conrad Aiken saw Eliot’s early poems in manuscript for the first time (recorded in a leather notebook between 1910 and 1911), he remarked "how sharp and complete and sui generis the whole thing was, from the outset. The wholeness is there, from the very beginning" (from "T.S. Eliot’s Life and Career" by Ronald Bush). Thus Prufrock’s delicacy and isolation, the fragmentation of TWL, the despair of THM, and the tentative faith of AW "all point to one end, which is always present," culminating in 4Q. Eliot’s depiction of the eternal ideal in a timeless moment of temporal incarnation recapitulates "the immediate present" Bradley hypothesized as the only reality: one’s self and the ideals of objects contained in that self at a given moment, with no true corresponding external reality—as reality is all one, and limited to oneself. However evanescent this experience may be, it still trumps materialism and empiricism, because reality, according to Bradley and Eliot, is a unifying principle beyond time, physical objects, and our knowledge of them.

Such a philosophy may strike us as solipsistic but that is an oversimplification. It is rather all-inclusive, intending to show the unity of all reality. It does, however, support a form of personal isolation that is inescapable, as we can never share the same world with another person. In addition, perception is affected, as in these words I now write: they are not my words but what you incorporate of them into yourself; otherwise they have no real existence


IV History and Geography of the Composition

The first of the quartets was inspired by a visit in 1934 to a country house in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire, where Eliot was accompanied by his longtime friend, Emily Hale, whom he’d known from Harvard days. I was able to obtain photos of Burnt Norton from the Internet, which show a vast rose garden in front of the house contained in large, shallow, rectangular planters, but I could not was not able to obtain a picture of the dry pool mentioned in BN I. Because he was accompanied by Emily Hale, some think that part of the theme of BN, "what might have been," may refer to Eliot’s regret at marrying Vivien and not Emily (Elmer’s English 304 Magazine, "Apprehension of Reality" by Elmer G. Wiens). To the best of my knowledge Eliot’s relationship to Emily was platonic, which does not necessary preclude romantic tendencies, but given that Eliot was a virgin when he married Vivien and later a strict Anglican, it is extremely unlikely that his friendship with Emily was more than platonic. Nevertheless, as we shall later see, BN is the most romantic of the quartets, the poem most concerned with Sehnsucht for time past. Emily’s presence at Burnt Norton I think propitious, given that Eliot was the baby of a family with five doting older sisters, an Irish nurse, and a devoted mother, his only brother Henry being much older. As he wrote to Conrad Aiken in 1914, "I am very dependent upon women. I mean female society." Given the misogyny of his earlier poems, especially TWL, his close, dependent relationships with women no doubt contributed to his early textbook case of the "Madonna-Whore Complex," which he overcame in AW and seems to have resolved by 4Q.

The genesis of BN and thus the entire 4Q apparently began with Eliot having an epiphany in the rose garden at Burnt Norton. And what better place or time for it? He was finally free of Vivien after 17 torturous years; he’d had a year to get over the final separation; his worldwide literary reputation was secure; he’d been an editor at Faber and Faber for nine years, and he was walking the grounds of a beautiful house with an old and dear friend. The site is so attractive it is advertised as a wedding venue on Here’s a quote from that advertisement:

"Elegant venue in the heart of the Cotswolds—light and bright, tranquil and stylish... This private house, never open to the general public, is surrounded by splendid parkland and exquisite gardens... For dining, up to 80 guests can be seated in the Orangery. Light, bright, and stylish, this opens on to a courtyard filled with climbing plants and urns brimming with colour in spring and summer."

This description certainly reflects Eliot’s emphasis on light in BN, while helping to explain the rather strange passage in BN IV 3-8:

"Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us?"


East Coker is a village near Yeovil, Somerset, Eliot’s ancestral home. Andrew Eliot left East Coker for the New World in about 1669. Again by photo survey on the Internet I was able to obtain an impression of the village. It is tidy, fairly nondescript, its center composed of old and new brick buildings. Surrounded by pastures and sparse copses, it appears to be the hub of a farming community. After Eliot died in London in January of 1965, his ashes were interred in the Church of St. Michael’s in East Coker. The lines he chose for his epitaph come from the opening of "East Coker." At the top of the oval plaque in the church we read "in my beginning is my end"; at the bottom we read "in my end is my beginning." Between the mottos a more traditional inscription appears:







26th SEPTEMBER 1888 – 4th JANUARY 1965


Eliot’s burial in England affirmed his preferred identity as a naturalized Englishman, but his choice to be buried in the very place from which his ancestor emigrated also points to his American origin, closing the circle as his epitaph does. Duality was a habit with Eliot; as a citizen he considered himself British; as a poet, American.

Eliot, a heavy smoker, died of emphysema complicated by heart dysrhythmias. For a man who was never robust while addicted to a deadly habit, his attaining the age of 77 is remarkable. On the second anniversary of his death a large stone placed on the floor of Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey was dedicated to him. It contains his name, O.M. (Order of Merit), the dates of his life and a quote from "Little Gidding": "The communication / of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / The language of the living."

Eliot had visited East Coker in 1937 but did not publish EC until Easter of 1940, which means, like TDS and LG, it was completed during the blitz of WWII, when Eliot served as a fire warden, an experience he uses to good advantage in LG. The length of gestation of each poem before publication can only be guessed at. We do know that the entire work took eight years, if one calculates the years between his visit to Burnt Norton in 1934 and the publication of LG in 1942. It is likely, however, that his former method of composition was continued, where he wrote multiple passages at different times, afterwards combining them into an ordered whole.


The title of "The Dry Salvages," published in 1941, Eliot explains in a parenthetical note before the poem:

"(The Dry Salvages—presumably les trois sauvages—is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, off the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages. Groaner: a whistling buoy.)"

The setting for TDS is twofold, best described in I:15: "The river is within us, the sea is all about us." In Ronald Bush’s excellent short biography, previously cited, the connections between the river and the ocean in Eliot’s youth are nicely summarized:

"His father and mother brought the family back [from St. Louis] to the north shore [of Massachusetts] every summer, and in 1896 [when Eliot was eight] built a substantial house at Eastern Point, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As a boy, Eliot foraged for crabs and became an accomplished sailor, trading the Mississippi River in the warm months for the rocky shoals of Cape Ann. Later he said that he gave up a sense of belonging to either region, that he always felt like a New Englander in the Southwest, and a Southwester in New England" (preface to Edgar Ansel Mowrer, This American World [1928]).

Is it not a strange coincidence that America’s two greatest writers hail from Missouri by the Mississippi? I mean Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot, both born in the "Show Me State." In style what they most share is irony, though Twain’s humor trumps Eliot’s seriousness just as Eliot’s command of poetry trumps Twain. But as Eliot said in 4Q, "there is no competition."

Twain’s Life on the Mississippi portrays the river when it was still savage and constantly shifting course, while Eliot first encountered the river after the Army Corps of Engineers had somewhat tamed it. Most critics assume "the strong brown god" in the opening of TDS represents the Mississippi. The Thames, however, given its prominence in TWL, can be considered a secondary and not contradictory alternative, along with other London settings, such as the subway (tube) in DS III 9-18. As for comment on coastal Massachusetts, I think Eliot’s description of it in DS renders it unnecessary.


Little Gidding is a fit setting for Eliot’s last major poem, as it evokes not only the spiritual community which Nicholas Ferrar founded but also the fact that King Charles was granted haven there while fleeing Cromwell’s armies in March of 1646, as alluded to by Eliot mentions in LG I: 27: "If you came by night like a broken king." Three months later the revolutionary armies ransacked and looted the church and the house where Charles hid. John Ferrar and his wife, Susan Collett, restored the community and continued it until their deaths in 1657. King Charles had also visited Little Gidding in 1642 to receive a harmony of the gospels that the women of the community had produced in a cut-and-paste fashion, enriched by Italian engravings, five years after Nicholas Ferrar’s death in 1637.

Since Eliot famously proclaimed himself "a Classicist in literature, a Royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion," the historic edifices, still preserved, recall an Anglican and Royalist community—constituting two-thirds of Eliot’s defining loyalties. In a more distant connection, Eliot the critic saved metaphysical poetry from the ash-heap of obscurity to which Samuel Johnson condemned it. George Herbert’s poetry is preserved only because he made Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of Little Gidding, his literary executor—with instructions to burn his poems if they were not of profit to the Church or the Faith. I don’t doubt that Eliot would have made the same commitment if he had not become famous in life, unlike Mr. Herbert. Eliot’s publications made such a proposed sacrifice unnecessary.

The community of Little Gidding, first established in 1625 by Nicholas Ferrar and his mother, Mary, was truly Anglo-Catholic in practice They established a regular round of prayer according to forms of the Book of Common Prayer being evolved by Archbishop Cranmer. Nicholas made other additions, including day and night recitation of the psalms and daytime hourly recitation of the gospels. Because he refused ordination in order to remain a deacon, communion was given by the Vicar of Great Gidding during the second service of matins on Sunday. The depth of the community’s devotion as imagined by Eliot is recalled in LG I: 45-48: "You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid."

From the Little Gidding website,, comes a nice summary of its founding community:

"The Ferrar community at Little Gidding was the earliest example of the religious life for ordinary people in England, after the turmoil of the four previous reigns. This could be described by Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century as a middle ground between two extremes of Catholicism, which found its authority in scripture and church tradition, and Protestantism, which found its authority only in scripture. Hooker proposed a third way: that reason as well as scripture be a basis for action. This via media is the tradition we have inherited in the present Church of England."

Eliot first visited Little Gidding on May 25, 1936 in the company of Ferrar scholars who were, like him, Cambridge Fellows. The poem was not published until 1942. One assumes he had some sort of epiphany there just as he did at Burnt Norton. Here’s a quote from the Little Gidding website as to how the place appeared during Eliot’s visit:

"The roadsides would have been lined with the flowering heads of Queen Anne’s Lace (cow-parsley), and the hedgerows white with May blossom (hawthorn) [LG I: 24-25]. They would have driven down the rough road, and walked behind the brick-built pig-sty, turning in front of the farmhouse to catch their first glimpse of the church facade and the table tomb of Nicholas Ferrar."

In photos I acquired from the website, Little Gidding seems nearly unchanged since its restoration in the early 17th century. On the site listed above, quotes from LG are appended to the photos. The first photograph displays the road, which I take to be of cobblestone, along with the quote, "when you leave the rough road " (LG I: 29). The second shows the covered pig-sty, referred to in LG I:30, while the third displays the front of the chapel, mentioned by Eliot as "the dull facade" (LG 1: 30). Though the site does not append the quote, "And the tombstone," it does show a picture of the table tomb of Nicholas Ferrar, set some distance beyond the chapel’s entrance (a table tomb being a flat, rectangular table of stone which overhangs its more narrow pedestal).

I find these photographs, and those of Burnt Norton and East Coker, refreshing, because they affirm a grip on reality that Eliot’s other major poems don’t share: a geographic location in the real world. These are places we can actually visit. One could argue that the above holds true for TWL, with its Thames and London Bridge, or "Prufrock" with its yellow fog, but the surreal atmosphere of Eliot’s earlier poems render their references more mythical than concrete, while THM and AW give us no real locations.


V Overview

If we consider 4Q as one poem, it is Eliot’s longest. Written over the space of eight years, the unity of its separate poems does indeed form one poem, although each can be read with great profit separately. For delineation of the poems Eliot again employs the elements as a guide. "Burnt Norton" corresponds to air, "East Coker" to earth, "The Dry Salvages" to water, and "Little Gidding" to fire. Each poem contains the other elements as well, though to a lesser degree. In the second and fifth movements of "Little Gidding" Eliot attempts to unite all the elements. There are many other ways to characterize each poem and each of the 20 movements. They may be divided into time present, time past, time future and the timeless present, although the poems contain many other categories of time. The individual poems may even be divided by phases of matter: gas, solid, liquid, and the combustion of LG, which combines the other three phases through the operation of fire.

One can also look at the poems from the vantage point of the seasons, though this division is undermined by there being more than four, from "midwinter spring" and the "zero summer" of LG I to the "summer midnight" of EC I. We can look at the poems through the lens of light vs. darkness or vice-versa, employing God’s first division of creation at the beginning of Genesis. In this context "East Coker" easily qualifies as the darkest poem. We can also superimpose Dante’s trinity of the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradisio on the poems, with BN representing Dante before his disillusionment and banishment from society; EC the Inferno; DS the Purgatorio; and LG the Paradisio.

Yet 4Q is by no means as linear as The Divine Comedy. If we were to superimpose it upon Dante’s epic, Virgil would have to lead the pilgrim back to the upper circles and down repeatedly, as in the Buddhist maxim of "three steps forward and two steps back." 4Q is more disorienting than the Divine Comedy in both time and space. In Dante the reader is sucked down through the Inferno past the Devil’s hooves, after which the world is reversed, and down becomes up as the pilgrim approaches the Mount of Purgatory. Still, the progress of Dante is ever forward and need not be repeated, while Eliot forces us to go back even as we fare forward.

4Q is not so much a maze as a journey through ever expanding, self-referential circles. Throughout the poem, as in the development of themes in music, motifs are repeated, modified and extended. It is not a linear poem because Eliot’s approach to time, the putative basis of the poem, seeks "the still point" beyond time so that time becomes relative, as in Einstein’s theory.

One can even take a geometric approach, where BN emphasizes the rectangle or square, EC the circle, DS the line of the river and the shore, and LG both the triangle of a flaming arrow and the pointed cone of a missile ("the dove descending breaks the air").

Another hermeneutical approach might incorporate Eliot’s own distinction between the genius of Shakespeare and Dante, calling Dante "more vertical" and Shakespeare "more horizontal," which we may simplistically interpret as the empirical vs. the idealistic (though in all fairness Dante is more horizontal than Eliot). From this vantage point BN and LG are more vertical, EC and DS more horizontal. Still, 4Q makes for a more vertical than horizontal experience in Eliot’s terms from his essays on Dante.

This overview is a meager and perhaps arbitrary attempt to separate the poems in my own mind. Yet when writing criticism, my first suppositions may prove of no utility when I come to actually wrestle with each poem an Sich. This is the fun of writing criticism: if the critic is honest, his opinions may change as he proceeds, freeing him to discard or modify earlier assumptions rather than imposing a preconceived template.

Let us admit, arguendo, that the hermeneutical divisions by which to dissect 4Q are simply legion, and my few examples above by no means exhaust rational approaches. I suppose I could draw a graph and label each movement of 4Q according to a few designations, much like the chart I used to parse the 24 chapters of Ulysses as an undergraduate, each with its own planet, color, literary period and so forth. Yet any approach must obviously fall short of the 4Q’s entelechy. Indeed, any critical approach must yield to the poem’s superiority over the critic, since the work entire contains passages of blunt literary criticism from the foremost critic of English Literature in the 20th century, Eliot himself.

As to form, each poem in 4Q is composed of five movements, with an introductory lyric beginning each second movement and a short lyric comprising every fourth movement. The four separate poems may be viewed as complete in themselves (just as Dante’s Inferno can be enjoyed without the Paradisio), but each poem is more complete when read in conjunction with the others (forgive the oxymoron). Since their publication LG and BN have been the most anthologized, but my personal favorite tends to change with each new reading, as all the poems have something unique to recommend them. The great entertainment of 4Q is that (like all great literature) it can be read over and over again, imparting new felicities with every reading.

To a first-time reader 4Q may appear daunting, but it is in some ways less daunting than Eliot’s other major poems. It first impressed me as the most direct of his major poems, but after reflection I found it (paradoxically) the hardest to understand. Ezekiel’s phrase, "wheels within wheels," occurs to me. Its meaning is not so easily grasped as Prufrock’s neurosis, the search for fertility in TWL, or the existential despair of THM.

Like all great literature, 4Q cannot be mastered, only eternally approached, as an asymptote approaches the line of an axis. Still, as its main theme is eternity revealed within the temporal and the temporal informed by eternity, the poem inspires interpretations beyond time or place, making it hard for a critic to secure a foothold. As Eliot puts it in one of his typical paradoxes: "Only through time is time conquered" (BN II:43). (Thus the time invested in this essay may help this critic evade time, if only for a time.)

The main difficulty I have with 4Q is how to keep the individual poems and their movements separate in my mind. Too often the complementary passages run together like watercolors, and I have trouble recalling which movement of which poem denotes what. I find myself asking, "wasn’t that from EC?"—and again feel the need to return to the text for confirmation, even after many years of acquaintance. I do not have the same difficulty with Eliot’s other major poems, which may testify to the amazing unity of 4Q. So apart from interpretation, one goal of this essay is to aid myself and the reader to more easily demarcate the 20 movements that make up the poem entire. Whether this is possible remains to be seen. I think it best to begin with such approaches as the poem naturally suggests, namely time, the elements and the seasons.

Though not entirely consistent, I think BN best corresponds to time past, EC to time future past, DS to time present, and LG to time eternal. Admittedly, this is a broad generalization because each poem contains references to time past, present, and future, not to mention the timeless moment where eternity and the present intersect, signified by the "still point" or "the dance" of BN. The opening lines of BN endorse this schema, lines which were, incidentally, cut from Murder in the Cathedral. (Eliot the packrat tried never to waste a promising fragment in the patchwork method of his composition.) Unfortunately I found that my attempt to dissect the poem by its own categories of time failed.

For this reason I will not even proceed with the seasons and elements, as time has taught me (and I think the reader will agree) that in the experience of 4Q such divisions are of little value. If some daft English professor assigned a class to remember the poem by these divisions of time it could only be done by rote, which adds nothing to the appreciation of 4Q and should not be considered a form of learning, only the acquisition of trivia. The best divisions to follow in grasping the poem are the ones Eliot himself made in his division of the movements.

Best to think of time as the overall key signature of 4Q and the different permutations of time as notes in that key (including sharps and flats). Time thus provides an underlying structure for the poem but can in no way predict the sequence of its melodies or harmonies. These can only be filled in by the composer within limits established by the signature. The signature only establishes which notes we are more likely to play in the composition, but by no means prohibits dissonance and discord, should the composer wish to insert them. And Eliot does exactly that in some of his more prosaic and philosophical passages.

So how shall we proceed? Below I list some general themes to distinguish the poems from each other, but have little hope they provide a key to its complexity, or offer a general mnemonic for separation of the four.


Burnt Norton


I, II, IV, V, light; III, darkness.

Time past

More vertical than horizontal

Short theme: Where the garden of childhood meets the still point of the dance.

Signature quote: "I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where."


East Coker


I, light; II, III, IV, V, darkness.

Time past and time future past (a sense of longing for the past by imagining the future)

More horizontal than vertical

Short theme: Old age and the longing for home.

Signature quote: "In my end is my beginning."


The Dry Salvages


I, III, IV, V, light; II darkness

Time present and time future past.

More horizontal than vertical

Short theme: Where the ocean of experience meets the river of meaning.

Signature quote: "The river is within us, the sea is all about us."


Little Gidding


I, III, IV, V, light; II, darkness

Time future and time eternal

More vertical than horizontal

Short theme: unity of past, present, future and eternity, union of the four elements: vision of timeless eternity.

Signature quote: "And the fire and the rose are one."


These lists delineate some general tendencies in the poems, but as I have already said about divisions of time, I find all such general approaches inadequate. Maybe, like Reagan’s official biographer, I should simply give up and declare 4Q to be impenetrable Teflon at any rational level. I hold out the hope that a sequential exegesis may yet yield a more memorable portrait of the whole and its parts.

Here is my problem stated another way: Four Quartets is a self-referential and, ultimately, a self-interpreting poem. I know of nothing else like it among the major poems of the English language. Coleridge added his explanatory marginalia to "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" later, though I find them unnecessary, just as Eliot added his "Notes on The Waste Land," which are more obfuscatory than elucidating. "The Rhyme" is, of course, much easier to understand. What makes 4Q especially difficult is that Eliot has the audacity to criticize his own work even as he proceeds, mocking some of his best lines. This is reminiscent of AW, where, fearing an unhealthy attachment to his own poetry, Eliot dismisses some of his best lines as temptations. In 4Q his dismissal of his poetry is more blunt:

"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

It was not (to start again) what one had expected."

(EC II: 68-72)

If you happen to be a poet, you will know how utterly difficult it is to write convincing poetry wherein you criticize it as you go along. In most hands it nearly always undermines the effect, ruining the voice by inconsistency, calling into question the sincerity of the poem and thus alienating the reader by cognitive dissonance. Eliot advances by "hints and guesses" toward the unifying climax of LG V, while commenting on the poem as he goes—like a director interrupting his own movie. That Eliot gets away with this in 4Q is a testimony to his genius.

My wife, who is also my editor, suggested that perhaps 4Q could be likened to a Gordian knot, but I disagreed. If it is a Gordian knot, it unravels itself anew with each reading, then ravels itself up again. In saying this I must also acknowledge that Eliot describes this effect better than I ever could:

"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, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end proceeds the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end
And all is always now."

(BN V: 37-49)

Unless we try to read this passage in the "immediate present" that Eliot, in his dissertation, assigned to Bradley, it does not make sense. It forces us to change our consciousness of time and reality even as we read it.

Here’s another difficulty. While reading the poem, especially aloud, I think I understand it. Yet after it’s read I can’t truly remember it in any detail, only broad impressions. Thus at this juncture of the essay I am tempted to give up and quote the critical, self-interpreting sections of the poem as my essay—but that would proscribe any comment on the poetry itself, and be of no help to most readers.

Thinking of 4Q as an object I imagined a steel sphere. A sphere is the most economic form of matter, the form liquid takes absent gravity. It is also the basic component of Ptolemy’s cosmology and Dante’s Paradisio and the theology of Aquinas: "spheres within spheres," which, when in perfect harmony, produce "the music of the spheres."

Another vision I have of 4Q is that of an infinite cone expanding out into the universe, comprised of glowing, geometric shapes of random sizes, whose relative placement in space is impossible to distinguish in their continuous superimpositions. In this vision squares predominate, I suppose because there are four quartets, the square is important to dance, and BN’s pool is rectangular (among other recurring symbols).

Certainly one reason for my difficulty in remembering 4Q in any specific, orderly detail beyond a jumble of impressions is Eliot’s use of abstractions, which he usually manages to curtail just before the reader becomes disinterested by inserting some "real" poetry. Here’s an example from BN II:

"The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit."

(BN II: 70-76)

This is idealist philosophy clipped into verse. Yet near the end of the same movement he inserts a few lines of the poetry we had hoped for: "The moment in the arbour where the rain beat, / The moment in the draughty church at smokefall," which tease us onward in the hope of more.

Eliot’s use of lyrical poetry to advance his philosophical arguments in 4Q brings up another point. Although to my knowledge Eliot was no great aficionado of music, he took Beethoven’s late string quartets as an inspiration for 4Q because he said "they went beyond music." I used to own the whole set of them, and recall their music as not so much dystonic but avoidant, as if seeking to evade a recognizable melody even as they approached it (not the sort of thing one can whistle). Eliot said that in 4Q he likewise sought to go "beyond language," which may explain the confounding passages of philosophical abstraction, often in discursive prose, for the most part inadequately supported by what we think of as poetry. Then again, perhaps he only succeeded at converting an idealistic philosophy into a philosophical poetry more seductive, and therefore more convincing, by its alternation with his gifted lyricism. 4Q’s frequent profundities, couched in paradox, is another reason I find the poem hard to remember as a poem: it’s hard to whistle.

The most philosophically dense passages in 4Q remind me of St. Anselm or Descartes, though Bradley is the obvious reference. It is always hard to explain another’s philosophy in simpler terms because the terms defined by the philosopher are as important as his philosophy and form the basis of much of his argument. Philosophers delimit, by force of words, the very suppositions upon which they build, in a sense creating a new language to serve their thought—likewise Eliot in 4Q. Yet I can’t help imagining a poetry workshop leader’s response to such abstractions: "Tom, can’t you be more concrete? You should really read William Carlos William’s poem about stealing his friend’s plums."

Still, language is linear and so, in form, 4Q must also be—if only for immediate mechanical reasons of apprehension, unless one is gifted enough to incorporate Eliot’s theories into an actual first reading (something I doubt Eliot himself could have done). By nature readers at first try to impose a narrative sequence on 4Q, despite the "wheels within wheels" effect the poem ultimately achieves. Just as TWL imposes its myriad voices and imagery upon our urge to simplify it into a coherent narrative, 4Q does so in a much subtler way, each poem beginning in an actual place and afterward, by degrees, seducing us by propositions that at first appear plausible until supplanted by others. Hugh Kenner opined that the method of 4Q’s argument consists first of a conflict of opposites, as in LG III’s "attachment and detachment," followed by a false resolution, in this case "indifference," which gives way to a true resolution: "expanding / Love beyond desire." In an attack on DS Donald Davie expands Kenner’s argument by calling DS a false resolution before the true one offered by LG. ("T. S. Eliot: The End of an Era," by Donald Davie in T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Hugh Kenner, Prentice Hall, New York, 1962, p. 199.) I think both Davie and Kenner exceed the bounds of reasonable criticism with such assertions. They attempt to project a dialectical order on the poem which, though examples may be found, is not the dominant method of the poems’ internal logic. The main method of 4Q consists in an intentional disconnection between thought and feeling, an alternation between philosophical pronouncements and lyrical excursions, rendering each succeeding movement "a new and shocking valuation" of all that has gone before.

All my essays on Eliot, strangely, have been written in Mexico, and properly so, because it is a society where time is relative, where the concept of manana rules. I don’t doubt that Eliot enjoyed his timeless moments, but I think he would have been absolutely frustrated by a society that takes relative time for granted, where a missed appointment is impolite even to mention. (Imagine Prufrock without a watch!) But it has always been my practice never to hold an author to his own ideals, whether expressed in his criticism or poetry, because biography is not art, nor can the value of art be judged by the actual life of the artist. As for achieving "the timeless moment", Eliot himself admits:

"And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised:
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying."

(DS V: 224-29)


Burnt Norton

The two epigraphs that introduce "Burnt Norton," taken from Heraclitus, are the only epigraphs in 4Q, making one think that Eliot anticipated BN to be one poem, not part of a series.

The first epigraph has been variously translated. Grover Smith's translation (cited by Terry Fairchild whose essay is referenced above) is succinct: "Although there is but one center, most men live in centers of their own." More accurate is, "Although logos (universal wisdom) is common to all, most men live out their own individual logos" (mine).

The second epigraph is more easily translated: "The way up and the way down are one and the same." I will not comment further on these epigraphs since the poems themselves repeatedly explore their meanings in greater depth, as we shall see.


I Return to the Garden

It may be argued that BN is the most important of the 4Q, as it sets the form and voice for the three to follow. How Eliot arrived at this form is no great mystery, given that TWL is divided into five movements, as is THM, while AW has six (though, as I have previously opined, the fifth movement were better jettisoned). Notice also that in TWL the fourth movement, like all fourth movements in 4Q, is a brief lyric.

Before I wax rhapsodic about the first movement of BN, I should point out how Eliot always qualifies his assertions. BN begins with what I call "The Great Perhaps," and throughout the quartets, however far Eliot pursues spiritual questions into scholastic complexity, or the imagines the experience of a saint, he always grounds his work in qualifications. So the Four Quartets begins:

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.


If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."
(italics mine)

This is the secret of how Eliot avoids the appearance of dogmatism in 4Q, the presumption that he is actually telling us it how it is. No, he often presents himself as just a middle-aged poet indulging in speculation—Old Possum—while guarding himself with ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ and ‘buts.’ Even if Eliot ultimately believes in what he is saying, he leaves himself an out. Call it humility or cleverness, but he is not fool enough to confuse his speculations with true dogma.

Remember the gardens of AW, both the temptation of the garden of earthly delights and the purification of the garden in the desert? After its opening discourse on time, BN introduces a new garden, the garden of childhood wonder—where a sense of eternal play rules, communicated by the breathless urging of a bird: "Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children, / Hidden excitedly, containing laughter". (40-41) As this experience prefigures the "dance" of the second movement, we are again reminded how Eliot, throughout his works, builds on previous symbols. Implied by BN’s rose garden are, of course, the Garden of Eden and the garden of the Paradisio. It has also been pointed out that a short story by Kipling, "They," concerns an ancient house where both narrator and host are haunted by the voices of children which elude them. These examples are, however, incidental, since the theme of one central garden appears in world literature from time immemorial.

The garden gives us a Spielbergian jolt, the pure bliss of childhood. Such a notion is typical of the Romantic movement, whose excesses may be recalled in Wordsworth's line, where he famously addresses a young child as "Thou great philosopher." Still, without question, BN is the most romantic of the quartets and, with kudos to LG, the most uplifting.

As for the reality of the bliss of childhood, psychologists have shown that children with sufficient early bonding tend to have fond memories, including, perhaps, the bliss of the womb. Whether these memories are somewhat gilded in retrospect, they seem true. Eliot, for one, certainly had a happy childhood. In re-creating its magical atmosphere Eliot’s personal history shadows his persona very closely. However reformulated, how can a poet write about feelings he has not experienced? Yet any experience of the idealized garden of childhood must be tempered by realistic cautions, in Eliot’s view, and they are granted before and after the passage like rational buoys. The end of BN’s opening is thus cautionary:

"Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Toward the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden."

(BN I: 11-14)

Even so, the poetic experience Eliot imparts overcomes these cautions to delight us. The visit to the garden, with its hidden children and pool of light, is in no way diminished. The feeling the poetry conveys is more convincing than reality, just as dreams can seem more real than life. We do feel urged by the bird to a place of enchantment where voices of invisible children surround us with innocent laughter. Predictably, after this vision, Eliot needs to warn us of our mortality, as in "Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality."

It is marvelous how Eliot can create a passage of such intimate urgency through the device of the bird’s voice, a voice that impels us on a mad dash to a bliss we cannot bear for long. Sadly, BN I ends with a ponderous repetition of its opening: "Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present." In this terminal caution, Eliot reveals the method of 4Q: approach and retreat; neither from nor towards; the way up is the way down, or the Buddhist "three steps forward and two steps back." In many ways the poem performs an endless bait-and-switch: "Here’s some poetry to evoke feeling—here’s some thought to provoke thought, though the interpretation fails, sorry—shall we return to the poetry—even though it was ‘not what we expected?’"

This dance between intellect and feeling forms a deliberate "dissociation of sensibilities" that keeps us off guard, as if Eliot tried to solve the split he himself defined between the Romantics and the Augustans by employing each alternatively, while sometimes fusing them. Consequently we should neither overestimate nor underestimate the importance of the timeless epiphany, around which the poem is arranged, as the process of the poem frustrates rational thought in order to make us vulnerable to its immediate experience, which may open us to spiritual connections but is ultimately only a preparatory meditation. 4Q imparts no commitment to religion, rather an invitation to spiritual openness by manipulating our consciousness into a more receptive state, probably the closest Eliot could come to evangelism. Still his qualifications repeatedly dampen our joy in the illusions he creates:

"Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure."

(BN II: 79-82)

Like the vision of "the third heaven" granted the Apostle Paul, the timeless moment in BN’s garden is a place you can visit but not stay in.


II The Still Point of the Dance

BN II is composed of two passages, the first formal and lyrical, the second more discursive, a pattern followed by 4Q in all its second movements. Verses 47-61, written in iambic tetrameter with irregular rhymes, comprise the lyrical first passage. This sudden appearance of formality in a poem that was, up to this point, "free verse," gives us immediate pause.

What shall we make of this passage? In EC II Eliot criticizes a similar passage, saying: "That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory: / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion." (EC II: 68-69) In BN II no such criticism follows the lyrical opening, because BN is the most innocent of the poems, containing the right amount of optimism for us to endure the darker passages to come.

The main point of this slightly antique lyric is to convey scope, the Medieval idea of the great chain of life: as we proceed from grubs to men to angels we find comfort in an ascending order of being. This scope is conveyed from the specific: "Garlic and sapphires in the mud," (47) to the universal: "The circulation of the lymph / [is] figured in the drift of stars" (53-54). Finally, looking down from the stars, the speaker concludes: "Below, the boarhound and the boar / Pursue their pattern as before / But reconciled among the stars." (59-61 ) Thus the idea of the heavenly spheres, the great chain of life, the turning of the eternal pattern and the endless chase of the hunt help introduce the more explicit theme that follows of "the dance" or "still point."

The second passage of BN II (62-89) may be the best formulation of 4Q’s theme. Here are the main points boiled down:

1) That we are all conscious of another, more perfect world— whether you call it "eternity," "heaven," "the still point" or "the dance." As C. S. Lewis, a contemporary of Eliot’s, wrote, "If I find in myself a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most logical explanation is that I was made for another world."

2) The perception of this other world is sometimes accessible to us in the finite world of experience during "the timeless moment."

3) Such an experience, however inspiring, is not enough to sustain us in this fallen world, which requires a more mundane spiritual discipline, "prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action" (DS V: 214).

4) To be burdened by the mortal limits of time is a mercy, since it "Protects mankind from heaven and damnation / Which flesh cannot endure." (79-82)

5) Nevertheless, to recognize the mystical moment that transcends mortality is a gift not to be ignored.

One easy criticism of 4Q is that Eliot takes a tortuous route to say something fairly simple. Didn’t the Romantics teach this yearning for eternity, especially Blake and Shelley? And later, Rilke, not to mention the tradition of Christian mystics? Of course. Still, Eliot anticipates this criticism in EC:

"And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again."

(EC V: 182-186)

In other words, Eliot doesn’t claim to be saying anything new. Spiritual truths have been vouchsafed to mankind from ancient times. Eliot therefore endorses the importance of form, of saying old truths in a new way: "For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice" (LG II: 118-119).

Philosophers may argue that the myth of man’s immortality persists because no one can conceive of his own non-being, therefore we are impelled to imagine our own immortality as a defense against the unthinkable. The earliest anthropological inquiries demonstrate man’s consistent belief in an afterlife. Eliot’s genius in BN II is to describe this common yearning not in dogmatic Christian terms but idealistic ones. Remember that Eliot studied under William James, whose classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is a study of the supernatural experiences of religious conversion. One can also hear the echoes of Bradley’s philosophy in the second part of BN II:

"Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time."

(BN II: 66-69)

As to form, the second passage of BN II relaxes into a more conversationally seductive voice. The meter varies, beginning with long lines of heptameter, even octameter, before resolving into pentameter and tetrameter near the end. This metrical effect adds a sort of prosaic humility to Eliot’s spiritual assertions and qualifications. For the moment, ignoring the complexities of Eliot’s dialectical deliberations, I’d like to quote some lines near the end of the passage that speak to the hope of immortality and its evanescent intimations inside the timeless moment, a state accessible to all men of whatever creed:

"To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered."

(BN II: 86-90)

Through the remembrance of timeless moments we remind ourselves of the possibility of a better world. Our memories of such moments, re-awakened from the depths of time past like a bottom-dwelling fish hauled to the surface, thus enables us to conquer time—to the degree that such memories retain the power to reconnect us to the immediate present.


III Escape from Limbo

The third movement of "Burnt Norton" will be familiar to readers of Eliot, as it recalls both TWL I and THM. I have named it "Escape from Limbo," though I mean limbo not in a strict Catholic sense, more in the sense of the second circle of the Inferno reserved for men who merited "neither praise nor blame," which Eliot mentioned in his epigram to "Prufrock."

BN III, like BN II, divides neatly into two passages. Lines 90-113 describe the lost souls of London while lines114-126 discuss two remedies for their vacuous lives.

The first passage begins with a description of "a place of disaffection," turning to its actual inhabitants in verse 99. Their description is a little tiresome, as Eliot has covered this ground before, the difference being that here the empty lives are caught in "Time before and time after / In a dim light," (91-92) a place of neither "daylight... / Nor darkness." (92, 96) The indecision of "Prufrock" and THM is thus recast as a state wavering between time before and time after, where men are unable to grasp the present. The condition of these "unhealthy souls" recalls THM V: "Between the motion / And the act / Falls the shadow," as well as TWL’s scene on London Bridge. Yet there are no individual characters in this mob, Eliot, as always, preferring archetypes. The only real character in all of 4Q, besides the speaker, is the "compound familiar ghost" of LG II.

This passage is a redux of Eliot’s earlier criticism of those who fear to make choices in this life, whether for good or ill. Better a Communist than someone who doesn’t bother to vote, better a Muslim than an unbeliever, better committed action, even if wrong, than inaction. As Luther famously said: "If you sin, sin boldly." Eliot’s struggles with passivity and inaction, particularly in TWL, THM, and AW, I addressed in my previous essays.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the first part of "Escape from Limbo":

"Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction."


What precedes these lines and what follows are really an elaboration of the same, but I can’t help admiring "Distracted from distraction by distraction," showing Eliot as a master of word-play. Shakespeare was fond of similar devices.

The second passage of BN III, beginning with line 114, is more difficult. Here Eliot posits two means of deliverance from "a place of disaffection" where "tumid apathy" rules. The first way is to let oneself go, to descend and give in to deepest despair, to experience

"Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit."

The second way is "the same, not in movement / But in abstention from movement." Thus the two methods of transcending superficial existence (set in London per usual) are: 1) Either enter darkness wholly "to purify the soul" or 2) Enter into the "lucid stillness" beyond the chains of time before and time after "while the world moves / In appetency, on its metalled ways." (124-125) I wonder if in suggesting the first way Eliot may have been recalling his own clinical depression of 1919 as a purification. Yet in this, as noted in my essay on TWL, he may have mistaken a biological illness for a spiritual path, as Hopkins did in his depressions. Frankly I much prefer the seduction of unexpected happiness in BN I to the two modes of deliverance offered here, though the excellence of the poetry in BN I may have prejudiced me. Besides, as we proceed through the poems we shall have quite enough of darkness—where we find ourselves longing for the bird, the garden and the pool of light—which longing naturally helps intensify the burning conclusion of LG V.


IV Nature Returns Us to the Still Point

Just as I begin to complain about the darkness, wouldn’t you know it? Eliot throws a brief, lovely lyric at us in BN IV, taking us back to "the still point of the turning world." Employing the second person plural, Eliot includes us in a childlike question about flowers that emphasizes that magical narcissism of childhood: "Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis / Stray down, bend to us?" (129-30) In two short stanzas Eliot strikes just the right note of transition to BN V, injecting the magic of the garden back into the poem before weightier considerations, recalling the light of BN I with "After the kingfisher’s wing / Has answered light to light" (134-35).


V The Pattern of Stillness (Whose Detail Is Movement)

Each fifth movement of the quartets attempts a type of closure, or summary, of the preceding movements, just as the fifth movement of LG tries to embody, epigrammatically, the experience of the four poems entire. Each fifth movement also divides into two passages, the first being more discursive, with longer lines, while the second is more compressed, with shorter lines. Thus BN V naturally divides into two parts: lines 137-158 and 159-175.

The first passage concerns itself with the overall impression art makes upon us, arguing that "Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach / The stillness." That is, words move only in time, one by one, while the overall impression of an auditory work of art can exceed the linear strictures of time—as in the multiple voices of a symphony exploring more than a single melody. Visual art is, of course, immune to such considerations, as it presents itself all at once (excepting sculpture). In his prose works Eliot avoided criticism of music or art as he likely did not feel himself qualified to comment.

Speaking of the wholeness of works as forms, Eliot concludes: "And the end and the beginning were always there / Before the beginning and after the end / And all is always now," lines that prefigure the opening of "East Coker" ("In my beginning is my end"), but are here confined to a more narrow argument: how form may conquer time just as the timeless moment does. In my experience, I would add that to apprehend such a time-defying wholeness of form in poetry one must be very well acquainted with the work in question, as Eliot was with Dante. And certainly it is easier to conceive of the wholeness of form in a short poem, such as Yeats’ "The Second Coming," than in something like 4Q. I have read novels and plays whose pattern I find much easier to remember than 4Q. As for music, if I catch the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth on the radio, for example, I am automatically reminded of its thrilling opening, thus appreciating the wholeness of the form rather than its parts.

Eliot does open himself to ridicule with the tautology, "And all is always now" (149), the question being whether, in the poetry that precedes it, he has earned the right to pen such nonsense. In context it does make sense, though it requires more than tolerance to credit it—it requires charity from the reader, something Eliot’s art rarely begs of us. The phrase reminds me of a popular book from the late ’60s by Baba Ram Dass (formerly Dr. Richard Allport), called Be Here Now. I recommend it to those who do not have the patience to continue with 4Q, although the reader may first wish to sample Eliot’s dismissal of spiritual shortcuts in DS V.

The second theme of the first passage of BN V concerns the limitations of the medium Eliot knows best, namely language: "Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden... / Decay with imprecision." (149-150; 152) Afterwards Eliot makes a sudden connection to the Word, or Logos, the Apostle John’s term for the incarnate Christ. The difficulties in concentration required by the practice of poetry is thus compared to the Word in the desert attacked by "voices of temptation." Admittedly, writing good poetry is not an easy task, but to associate such struggles to those of the Word, or God Incarnate, certainly compliments poetry much more than God.

The second passage of BN V seems a little tacked on, as if manufactured in an attempt to end the poem. I find the same awkwardness in EC V, though not in DS V or LG V. Here Eliot expands the theme of form, or pattern, with further explication: "The detail of the pattern is movement / As in the figure of the ten stairs." (159-160) (The "ten stairs" refer to a series of ascending meditations practiced by St. John of the Cross.) "Desire itself is movement," Eliot continues (161). Thus a desire for deeper communion with God involves movement by us, while "Love is itself unmoving, / Only the cause and end of movement" (163-64). If the still point is always turning but is itself unmoved, making contact with it is a long shot, and an image occurs to me of trying to jump a very fast merry-go-round and being violently rebuffed. Put simply, if God is changeless, our approach to him nevertheless changes us, which constitutes movement.

The conclusion of BN nicely incorporates movements I and III:

"Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Even while the dust moves

There rises the hidden laughter

Of children in the foliage

Quick now, here, now, always—

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after."


(BN V: 169-175)


(Notice the amazing triple spondee of line 174.)


East Coker

EC is the darkest of the quartets, and for good reason. It is a meditation that begins with Eliot’s ancestral home, allowing him to mourn his ancestor’s emigration and the loss of a pastoral England. Secondly, it is the place Eliot wished to have his ashes interred. Lastly and most importantly, like the next two poems and unlike BN, it was written during war and the specter of war: Eliot visited East Coker in 1937 but did not publish EC until 1940, when the war was underway. One can only imagine the depressing effect of another "World War" on anyone who survived the first. Yet it is heartening to note that even as the world was falling apart again, great poetry was still being written and published


I The Cycle of Life

As in BN I, EC I brings us into intimate contact with a moment of joy, though the rest of the poem does much less to sustain it. It begins with Eliot’s own epitaph for his grave, "In my end is my beginning" (and vice-versa), which was also the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots, though I could find no connection apart from her pro-Catholic stance, since Eliot proclaimed himself "an Anglo-Catholic in religion." Still, given the community of Little Gidding’s practice of the via media, and Eliot’s veneration of that community, such a connection seems far-fetched.

The first passage of the movement, lines 1-13, lacks the prophetic intensity of BN I. It is no more than an account of the passing of time, the building and decay of houses, because "Houses live and die," (9). Eliot’s description reminds me of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, where the inventor watches buildings change and decay around him as time accelerates.

Lines 14-23 form a transition to the "soft" epiphany of country marriage toward which we proceed, just as lines 1-17 in BN I performed the same function, bringing us to the rose garden. Eliot sets the scene as we near the village of East Coker, which appears to be in the height of summer:

"And the deep lane insists on the direction

Into the village, in the electric heat

Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light

Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone."



After this description of time present, Eliot invites us to a rustic marriage celebration from time past that feels like time future past as we approach it:

"In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum."

"If you do not come too close" is another delimiting caution, much like the voice of the bird in BN I, but less urgent. Loosely paraphrased, I take this to mean, "If you do not press, rather open yourself to the possibility of time past still operating in the present, you will understand."

We are then invited to a pastoral wedding, for which Eliot employs antique English in some lines that were lifted directly from his ancestor Andrew Eliot’s diaries, as in: "The association of man and woman / In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie— / A dignified and commodiois sacrament." The whole passage is quite satisfying as poetry, which is the carrot that drives the stick of philosophy throughout 4Q, as already noted. Let’s enjoy a sample:

"Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

Mirth of those long since under earth

Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,

Keeping the rhythm in their dancing."



This scene is soon universalized, becoming an example of "The time of the seasons and the constellations / The time of milking and the time of harvest / The time of the coupling of man and woman"(42-44)—not the dance of the still point.

EC I does not impact us in the same way as BN I, as the antiquated celebration of a peasant marriage doesn’t share the intensity of the pool of light where children laughed and "the lotos rose." EC begins more easily than BN, with more concrete detail and less philosophy, describing the cycle of human life both in our monuments and our relationships, death and generation, though Eliot ultimately reduces the cycle to "Eating and drinking. Dung and death" (46). After the climax of BN, where "Sudden in a shaft of sunlight / Even while the dust moves / There rises the hidden laughter / Of children in the foliage" (BN V: 169-172), EC I is a wake-up call back to the business of mortal life.


II The Folly of the Wisdom of Experience or,

"There’s No Fool Like an Old Fool"

Like all the other second movements of 4Q, EC II begins with a lyric in tetrameter with irregular rhymes. Here Eliot not only changes gears, he changes seasons. While the approach to the village and the dance in the open field were set in summer, we find ourselves in late November in a season as exceptional as the "midwinter spring" of LG I. Eliot accuses November of deceiving us:

"What is the late November doing

With the disturbance of the spring

And creatures of the summer heat

And snowdrops writhing under feet

And hollyhocks that aim too high

Red into grey and tumble down

Late roses filled with early snow?"

(BN II: 51-57)

The sense here is one of nature behaving unnaturally, a theme Shakespeare often employed to accompany the evil of men, as when Macbeth’s horses kill themselves on the night of Duncan’s murder. Lines 58-67 expand the theme of nature disordered, proceeding to the chaos "that shall bring / The world to that destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns." (65-67)

Following this lyric comes a discursive passage (as in all the second movements of 4Q). Unlike the passage that follows the opening lyric of BN II (that wonderful digression about the still point and the dance), what follows here is dismissive of Eliot’s entire enterprise, famously so:

"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."


Taken at face value there is no reason to read further. But this is only a dialectical transition to Eliot’s dissatisfaction with the limits of poetry to communicate anything essential. He follows with a diatribe against the wisdom of experience and the folly of old age:

"What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,

Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity

And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders?"


The disillusionment of late middle age must exceed the disillusionment of youth, because there is less time left to become undeceived. Eliot’s question here is not just general but personal: having passed the half-century mark he rebels against the idea that one should expect to become wiser with each passing year—pipe in hand, slippers on the ottoman and a brandy snifter at one’s side. Eliot is not content with late middle age or the prospect of old age. The poet attacks the very premise of this time-honored myth,

endorsing Erik Erikson’s concept that the struggle in middle-age is between "generativity and stagnation."

"For the pattern [of knowledge derived from experience] is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been...

"Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God."

(EC II: 84-87; 93-96)

Here Eliot pulls himself up by the collar and takes a good look in the mirror: i.e., he is not going to become a better man by easing into old age, satisfied with the appearance of wisdom. Eliot warns himself and the reader not to fall into this trap, but to be on guard, because "We are only undeceived / Of that which, deceiving, could not longer harm." (87-88)

The second passage of EC II is about as angry as Eliot gets, like a stinging slap of aftershave. There is also something terribly sad about it, especially when one considers the circumstances: another World War. Though not mentioned directly in EC until the fifth movement, the war forms a dark backdrop for this and the rest of the poems. Had it not occurred, perhaps all four would have been as bright as "Burnt Norton"—but it was not to be. Given the circles in which Eliot moved there was no doubt great discussion about Chamberlain’s capitulation and Churchill’s warnings, while tea and toast went on. No one had the energy for another war, as the world had just endured a deep economic depression after the terrible attritions of the first war, in which England lost many of its best and brightest.

Returning to Eliot’s observations on old age, as a doctor I tend to agree with him. In making rounds on the elderly in hospitals and nursing homes, I was at first amazed at the pettiness and selfishness of so many of the aged. Those with generous hearts shone like diamonds, but they were the exception. I noticed that as people age they tend to abandon even common courtesies because the pretense has become just too much work. What character remains, more often than not, is more malignantly narcissistic than we wish to believe about the white-haired hordes, certainly at odds with the idea of Grandma in an apron baking cookies. It’s rather Grandma complaining that she doesn’t get enough cookies. (For more on this idea I recommend The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis, who does a fine job of analyzing this common psychological degeneration.)


III Out of the Silent Funeral

Whenever Eliot dissects a spiritual problem in 4Q, he also offers a means of deliverance. So it is in EC III, where verses 101-123 describe, in vivid terms, the darkness into which men are cast, while verses 124-146 suggest a way out, though none too easy. That the subject of death follows Eliot’s critique of the wisdom of old age is natural, although he never actually uses the word "death," only "funeral" and "bury," demonstrating his penchant for sustained ellipsis in avoiding the expected word, just as the word "God" is used but once in the four poems. Intentional ellipsis in diction is not periphrasis.

As the darkest movement in 4Q and one of the most powerful, though its conclusion strikes me as mundane, Eliot manages to reverse the emotional impact of the bird in BN I. Instead of "Go, go, go," we hear "dark dark dark."

"O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,

The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant...

And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,

Nobody’s funeral for there is no one to bury."

(EC III: 101-2; 109-111)

The intervening lines (103-108) offer up a list of any number of worldly, successful men, from "merchant bankers" to "industrial lords and petty contractors," all of whom have been summarily launched into the dark, swallowed up by the maw of death. Is this simply Eliot’s take on memento mori? No, this is more than a monument or a gravestone; Eliot would not be satisfied with something so simple. He feels impelled to tell us, paradoxically, that "we all go with them" but "there is no one to bury." As John Donne preached, every death diminishes us, but not to the degree Eliot assigns. Here is a wholesale departure, as if a great mob had died at once; perhaps the war was on Eliot’s mind as he wrote it. And what is meant by "there is no one to bury"? It could mean merely what he says in DS III: "You are not the same people who left the station / Or who will arrive at any terminus" (DS III: 139-140)—since time changes us, but that seems an inadequate explanation. What is the dark, what are the vacant interstellar spaces? I think Eliot means the darkness of unbelief, the creed of materialism, with no salvation to hope for after death—an opinion understandably adopted by many intellectuals after the horrors of WW I. If there is no God, there is no afterlife, no consciousness to outlive matter, thus no one to bury. Instead man becomes insentient matter, part of a compost heap. That is darkness indeed.

Beginning with verse 111 Eliot invites the darkness upon himself: "I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God." The three analogies that follow offer some of the best poetry in the poem, as Eliot seeks to define, in terms of human experience, the kind of solitary destitution he means by the darkness of God, alluding not to one of Egypt’s plagues but to the deep darkness that fell upon Jerusalem during the Crucifixion. This darkness is an emptying, the very opposite of the shekinah glory that filled Solomon’s temple, perhaps a prerequisite for any spiritual filling.

In his subsequent analogies, Eliot first asks us to imagine ourselves in a dark theater while the scenery is being moved, in a subway car stuck between stations "with the growing terror of nothing to think about" (121), and finally, being under anesthesia when "the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing." (122)

It has probably not escaped the reader that EC III resembles BN III thematically, the movement I call "Escape from Limbo," where Eliot offers two ways out: either experience despair completely or abstain from movement—another kind of renunciation. To escape the silent funeral, Eliot appears to favor the second method, playing off the psalmist’s address, "Why are you downcast, O my soul?" (Psalm 42:5):

"I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing"


Eliot does not renounce hope and love, rather suspects himself of misinterpreting them, thus renounces the danger of his own mortal expectations of these qualities. Yet he embraces faith, defined by the humbleness of waiting ("the patience of the saints"), which restores them to a future when he no longer needs to live by faith but will "see God," as Job says, who is a fine example of faith. This whole passage recalls I Corinthians 13: "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. And now these three remain: faith, hope, ad love. But the greatest of these is love." (vs. 9-10, 12-13). Waiting emphasizes the practice of faith, as the Jews still wait for the Messiah and Christians wait for his return. Having accepted the necessity of this existential requirement, the speaker recalls the still point and the dance of BN II as in a photographic negative: "So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing"— just as he previously reversed the bird’s urging into "Dark, dark, dark." Philosophically this may be hard to grasp, but the poetry that follows convinces us, at least emotionally, that we have returned to the garden by a back door:

"Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning,

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry.

The laughter in the garden echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth."

(BN III: 129-133)

After this brief poetic respite, Eliot further elaborates the path of renunciation in lines 133-146. His cunning anticipates our objections to further instruction after the reversal that returns us to the still point: "You say I am repeating / Something I have said before. I shall say it again. / Shall I say it again?" (133-135) Notice how Eliot obtains this convincing voice with one of his favorite dramatic effects: simplistic, almost nursery rhyme repetition, undermining critical reason, bypassing the conscious for the unconscious ear of childhood. One hears the echo of the anaphora employed in his other poems: "Although I do not hope to turn"; "Let us go then"; "Here is no water but only rock;" and "Here we go round the prickly pear." His rhetorical challenge, "Shall I say it again?," helps propel the reader through the rather tedious conclusion of EC III, where the paradoxes of renunciation are further enumerated: "In order to possess what you do not possess / You must go by the way of dispossession." (140-141) Christ put it much more succinctly: "In order to save your life you must lose it."


IV Adam’s Curse

EC’s fourth movement is the longest lyric of any of the fourth movements in 4Q, most resembling in form the two short stanzas of LG IV. Its pattern is three lines of tetrameter, one line of pentameter, and a final line of hexameter, with a rhyme scheme of ABABB. A fine lyric, it could stand on its own and likely would be anthologized as one of Eliot’s better short poems if it appeared separately. In this lyric Eliot departs from the intellectual paradoxes of renunciation and becomes quite graphic.

The substance of the movement is not hard to grasp: to be saved we must suffer mortality to its end. For those not familiar with Christianity this may present a few difficulties. The "wounded surgeon" of the first stanza is, of course, Christ, just as "the ruined millionaire" of the third stanza who endowed "hospital earth" must be God the Father, who created the world but also permitted it to fall into sin, which Paul called "the sting of death." As I think the third stanza the most difficult to parse, I’ll quote it entire:

"The whole earth is our hospital

Endowed by the ruined millionaire,

Wherein, if we do well, we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere."



To "do well" means to endure the suffering of our mortality and finally die in accordance with the will of God, or "absolute paternal care," that attends us in this life, that will not abandon us but also frustrates ("prevents") our ambition to exceed our human limitations—a good if perhaps unintended criticism of Fascism and Communism, the two great scourges of WW II, the former the cause and the latter an extension of the suffering the war inflicted. Both political philosophies are of course based on an over-idealized conception of man.

Stanza four, purposely overdramatic, describes the disease of mortality:

"The chill ascends from feet to knees

The fever sings in mental wires.

If to be warmed, then I must freeze

And quake in frigid purgatorial fires

Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars."


Here Eliot unashamedly employs the oxymoronic, Elizabethan clichés of love—i.e., "I burn, I freeze"—an acceptable adaptation in the tradition of Christian mysticism, reminiscent of Donne, though hyperbolic if taken out of context. The last line of the fourth stanza recalls the last line of LG: "And the fire and the rose are one." To assign a meaning to the flame of roses and smoke of briars, given the symbolism already broached, seems clear: the flame of roses refers to the burning of eternity that only the perfected can endure, whose joy is briefly prefigured on earth in the timeless moment. The smoke of briars suggests the burning away of the flesh, and thus the curse of death under which we live (recall that in the Bible only after man’s fall did God add thorns and thistles to nature).

Stanza five emphasizes that the Eucharist is more substantial than our own bodies, as it represents Christ’s incarnation. Despite the fact that this experience diminishes our mortal existence by comparison, we nevertheless "call this Friday good." And because every service of the Holy Eucharist is a Good Friday, there is no need to place this ritual in time. Here again we see the solution the pilgrim in AW finally achieved, the same solution we will encounter in DS: "The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." (DS V: 215)


V Apologia / Beyond Home

I wrestled with a title for EC V, but as it divides into two major themes, I had to settle for two. For mnemonic purposes I would, of course, prefer something better, but staying true to the substance of 4Q is more important than an aid to memory. As I already said ("Shall I say it again?"), the pattern of is 4Q is extremely hard to remember because its substance and imagery are woven so deftly together that the individual poems tend to blend into each other— an effect the author certainly intended.

The first passage of EC V, which I entitled "Apologia," is the most autobiographical in all of 4Q. Here Eliot absolutely (if this can ever be said about poetic voice) discards the mask of persona he sought so long to preserve (though if one accepts my previous arguments, we know it was he all along, speaking to us through many voices and masks). As he did in EC II, when criticizing his own lyric as "worn-out" and "periphrastic," here he speaks with brutal honesty about himself and his work:

"So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it."

(V: 172-78)

I cannot help but believe Eliot to be sincere in this passage, but by any normal person’s standards, to say his literary efforts in the twenty years between the two wars were "largely wasted" seems an extreme devaluation. Think: "The Waste Land" was published in 1921, "The Hollow Men" in 1925, "Ash Wednesday" in 1930, and "Burnt Norton" in 1936—not to mention innumerable essays and critical introductions of great merit, his editing work at Faber and Faber, the Ariel poems, Choruses from "The Rock", and three plays: Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion, and The Cocktail Party. In this self-estimation one wonders how much the gloom of WWII influenced Eliot’s self-judgment.

Where I do agree with in this apologia (172-189) is Eliot’s Classicism, from a passage already quoted, recalling Platonic anamnesis:

"And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again."


There are many ways to define Classicism, but one is to acknowledge that all truths have already been discovered, and so the poet’s occupation is to present these themes in a form that speaks to his own age. In a parallel passage, Eliot says in LG II: "For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice." (II: 118-19) What he does not say is, "Last year’s truths belong to last year’s language."

My own study of literature—not to be compared with Eliot’s—has led me to Classicism as well, though I define the concept somewhat narrowly. Even if I read a cheap detective novel I can’t help but be reminded of other, older literature—the Bible and Sophocles and Shakespeare, any number of stories, plots, character types, themes and lessons, all having been told and re-told from the time of Neolithic chants to today’s best novelists. When one has drunk sufficiently from literature, all literature begins to appear through a kaleidoscope of connections, often of a piece thematically while differing greatly in quality. One can’t help but see Homer in Virgil and Virgil in Dante and Milton and Dante in Eliot and so on. As was said in Ecclesiastes nearly three thousand years ago, "There is nothing new under the sun"—that is, unless the artist makes it new under today’s sun. Bertholt Brecht took this idea to extremes by writing stories in direct imitation of famous plots, as in his re-telling, in a modern setting, of Solomon’s decision about the disputed infant. But it needn’t be that way. I prefer Jung’s archetypal approach, which dovetails with Joseph Campbell’s—that certain themes and their consequent truths recur endlessly in world literature. Nancy Drew is Odysseus for a young girl, perhaps, though their is no comparison in literary quality. Just as Kant spoke of the common nature of human reason, which we now know to be neurophysiologically true, we also share a common imagination. We do not have to strive to imitate past legends, since our common myths, lodged ineluctably in the human mind, will spring up of their own accord in every period of literature.

Classicism, as I understand it, also instructs us that we ignore tradition at our peril. All literature appears in a context, not de novo. Even a shockingly new voice like Whitman’s is preceded by Emerson and Thoreau. Further, his poetic transcendentalism transmits a philosophy as old as the Upanishads. For writers it is not what they say that counts so much as how, and especially, when. Cultural timing can never be underestimated, one reason why "The Waste Land" was such a success, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But I digress.

After the lines quoted above comes the conclusion to the first part of EC V:

"There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."


The elegaic, almost defeated tone of this, the acceptance of the world that "moves / In appetency, on its metalled ways," is the dark hallmark of EC, presumably written "under conditions / That seem unpropitious"—the approaching war and its onset.

The second passage of EC V, 190-209, holds together until verse 201, where I think it should end. The last eight verses seem tacked on, like the end of BN, and were perhaps written after Eliot had already begun DS. "Fare forward, traveler" from DS becomes "Old men ought to be explorers" at the conclusion of EC V, and a forced reference to the sea ends the poem—when only two previous lines in EC even refer to the sea (EC I: 51, EC II:99).

It seems to me that EC was meant to end at 200-201: "Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter." Compare these to the last two lines of the poem: "The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters / Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning" (208-209). I think this ending an artificial attempt by Eliot to bridge the gulf between EC and DS, and fails for that very reason. It undermines the organic unity of EC. But never mind. Verses 190-201 say what need to be said. Best to quote them entire:

"Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

There is a time for the evening under starlight,

A time for the evening under lamplight

(The evening with the photograph album).

Love is most nearly itself

When here and now cease to matter."

(EC V: 190-201)

The elegaic tone in EC V, especially its first part, makes me doubt that the speaker truly believes in "a lifetime burning in every moment." More emotionally convincing was the rose garden of BN I. The second passage of EC V thus strikes me as less than genuine, as if Eliot is making a heroic attempt to redeem the poem from the very darkness it inhabits, the darkness of abnegation and the shadow of a devastating war.

Although "a lifetime burning in every moment" may be the answer to the folly of the wisdom of old age, why am I not convinced? In EC V it feels to me as if Eliot settles for a rationalization. It tempts me to say, "Here is the way East Coker ends, here is the way East Coker ends, here is the way East Coker ends, not with a bang but a whimper." This whimper, absent the tacked-on ending, is perhaps the best one can do, given the mood of the poem, and forgivable for that reason. Every good preacher, after railing about sin, tries to include a few words of encouragement near the end, though it is usually not enough to offset the scolding—just as Eliot cannot turn the dominant substance of EC into something hopeful at the last minute. He tries too hard, I think, although, always anticipating our objections, he already stated: "For us, there is only the trying" (EC V: 189).


The Dry Salvages

I think DS the most approachable poem in 4Q and certainly the easiest to understand. One reason for this is that DS is set mainly in time present. It also lacks the heights of BN and LG and the depths of EC; it is a more level poem, less crisis-oriented. It allows us to take a long, though not entirely leisurely, breath before the fiery climax of LG. Fittingly, this easiest of the quartets promotes the Incarnation as the resolution of all paradoxes, while settling for some very practical advice at the end: "[We] Who are only undefeated / Because we have gone on trying" (228-29), which repeats the line from EC quoted above. Compared to BN and LG, I consider EC more "horizontal," in Eliot’s terms, but DS is even more so. Given the level of abstraction in much of 4Q, DS is distinguished by its abundance of concrete detail, more so than EC, with objects to see and touch—from "shattered lobsterpots" to "barbituric acids." These tangible images, like buoys and lighthouses, make its navigation easier.

Eliot’s abiding affection for the sea is obvious in DS, as he was an accomplished sailor in his youth in Massachusetts, not to mention his intimate acquaintance with the Mississippi and the Thames. Some of Eliot’s best poetry concerns the sea, including a long passage that was cut from TWL. Even so, "Death by Water" (TWL IV) recalls the magic of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, while the conclusion of TWL ends on a seashore where the Fisher King is presumably restored. Remember also the aquatically seductive conclusion of "Prufrock": "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea." (A thorough discussion of Eliot’s aquatic imagery would at the very least merit a good undergraduate paper.)

Now, I have always been a sucker for poetry about rivers and oceans, having been raised near the Pacific and having hiked and fished the rivers of California from the Whitewater to the Klamath, so if my enthusiasm for DS exceeds its merits, let the reader be forewarned.


I The Ancient Waters

Although DS I begins with a meditation on the river as a "strong brown god," this short passage gives way to the sea in verse 15 to the end of the movement. The river is a primordial symbol of nature’s power over man, remaining "Unhonoured, unpropitiated / By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting" (9-10). Its rhythm was with us from birth, "present in the nursery bedroom" (11). Our connection to the river is thus deep and undeniable, water being the first requirement of life after air, and the image of the river invokes the mythical and archetypal river, from the river of Eden in Genesis to the "river of the water of life" in Revelation, from the Ganges to the Nile, from the Styx to the Volga.

The second passage, lines 15-48, is equally clear, and a lovely bit of poetry besides. First the poet lists souvenirs of the sea, emphasizing its universality in man’s consciousness, just as the Hindu god Shiva is both the giver of life and the destroyer, author of both the "starfish" and the "broken oar." Line 24 begins a disquisition on the sea’s voices: "The sea has many voices, / Many gods and many voices." This theme continues through verse 38, and the poetry is a great example of Eliot’s mastery of sound—the euphony of restrained onomatopoeia. The ocean’s final sound is the bell, bringing to mind the bells that govern ships as well as those that warn of bad weather. Eliot ultimately gives us the bell of the very ocean, that of "the unhurried / Ground swell" (36-37), which represents "a time / Older than the time of chronometers" (38). I hear the sound of the waves in my head as I read this, just as I remember bodysurfing the swells off Huntington Beach in my youth. Eliot’s account is for me more than nostalgia: it is a comfort. Nothing so comforts me as the sound of waves breaking on shore as I fade to sleep.

In verses 38-45 Eliot inserts a moral, as if his poetry has run amok (to our great delight) and he must somehow recover and say something en pointe for his greater theme. Thus the bell of the ground swell is


Than time counted by anxious worried women

Lying awake, calculating the future,

Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel

And piece together the past and the future,

Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,

The future futureless."


The women recall the constant fear of sailor’s families, the Fates spinning, and the conclusion of "Preludes": "The worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots." Still they and their time-dependent worries are ultimately subsumed by "the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning, / Clangs / The bell." (46-48)


II The Passing of the Present and the Agony of the Past

DS II is the darkest movement in the poem, as its first passage, beautifully wrought in a recurring pattern of rhyme, reminds us of the evanescence of the present as it forever vanishes into the past. The second passage tells us that the agony of the past also persists, though not strictly equivalent to the timeless moment: "Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony / are likewise permanent / With such permanence as time has." (EC II: 104, 106-7)

As we know, the first passage of each second movement in 4Q is a lyric. Thus the first part of DS II is made up of five stanzas of five lines of iambic pentameter, with the same rhymes repeated throughout in an ABABCD pattern. I confess when I first read this lyric I found the form so subtle and the substance so consuming that I did not recognize the rhyme pattern, underscoring Eliot’s brilliantly understated artistry. In the best rhymed poetry I often don’t recognize the rhyme at first. Though I know no label for Eliot’s particular form in this passage, I think it would be difficult for any poet to imitate. Yet Donald Davie attacks its rhymes as too facile: "Should we not be justified in seeing here a case of sheer incompetence?" ("T. S. Eliot: The End of an Era," cited above.) Other critics have mislabeled this passage "a sestina," which it is not. Chaques a son gout.

The chief question of these accomplished verses is, "Where is the end to the passing of time?" Three rather straightforward answers are given. First, "There is no end, but addition." (DS II: 55) Next, "We have to think of them [the fisherman] as forever bailing." (73) And finally, "There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing, / No end to the withering of withered flowers. / Only the hardly, barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation." (79-80, 83-84)

Earlier we learned that "only through time is time conquered." Here we learn that only through Incarnation, or "the one Annunciation" of spirit becoming flesh, can the passing of time be understood in a spiritual context that supercedes time, just as Christ is "eternally begotten of the Father," or, as Paul writes in Colossians I: 17: "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

Before leaving this lovely lyric, I should mention a frequent theme of 4Q that is addressed in stanza three, previously encountered in EC III ("Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men"). The same theme recurs in LG II.

"There is the final addition, the failing

Pride or resentment at failing powers,

The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless,

In a drifting boat with a slow leakage,

The silent listening to the undeniable

Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation."

(DS II: 61-66)

What is ironic about Eliot’s fear of old age and failing powers in 4Q is that he complains about it at the height of his powers. The work may be his "farewell to poetry," but it exhibits no signs of diminishing talent, quite the opposite. Eliot earlier accuses himself of having "only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say" (EC II 176-77), yet in his anticipation of old age he does the opposite: he is able to describe, in poetry, the aging he anticipates—putting the lie to his own criticism. One does get the feeling in passages like these that Eliot is perhaps feeling a little sorry for himself, but there is also an attendant sadness in that I think he truly realizes that 4Q will be his last significant work of poetry—certainly cause for mourning. Thus in future past Eliot is able to mourn his diminishing abilities at their very peak (DS III, "the future is a faded song"). Like only a few luminaries in other endeavors (Joe DiMaggio comes to mind), Eliot had the sense to go out on top.

The "Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation" (66) I take to mean, in orthodox terms, the poet’s own eventual death and hoped-for resurrection, when, as the Apostle Paul writes: "The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality." (I Cor. 15:53) The resurrection for which Eliot hopes is thus a reverse incarnation, because Paul also writes, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (I Cor. 15:50), and, "it [the body] is sown a natural body, [but] is raised a spiritual body" (I Cor. 15:44). In Christ, and for many, in Mary, spirit became flesh; in the resurrection flesh must become spirit.

As in the other quartets, the second passage of DS II is more discursive and conversational. It strives to balance the "sudden illumination" with "the moments of agony" that are "likewise permanent." It is prosaic and a bit turgid, especially its opening:

"It seems, as one becomes older,

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—

The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,

But the sudden illuminations—

We had the experience but we missed the meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness."

DS II: (85-86, 90, 92-96)

I have shortened the passage by omitting incidental material that does little to help its vagueness. The main difficulty here is that Eliot never defines what approach to the meaning means, the approach which "restores the experience." Even if the pattern of the past changes as we grow older, how does that necessarily change the meaning of "the moments of happiness...beyond any meaning we can assign to happiness"? Does he mean a new recollection of them, a more mature perspective toward the "sudden illuminations"? Does he mean when we had them we failed to connect the experience with the still point and the dance and only realize it in retrospect? Does he mean we should now approach the meaning by religious observance, prayer and discipline? In short, if we had the experience but missed the meaning, what approach does he prescribe to restore it? None that I can see.

Usually when Eliot becomes this oblique he redeems his argument with concrete imagery or an analogy to help the reader (as in EC III, where he compares the darkness of abnegation to being under anesthesia). But this passage does not adequately explain itself, nor does the rest of the poem help interpret it much, thus I think these lines below the general quality of 4Q. Part of the problem is the syntax: no less than three dashes inhabit these eleven lines. But the main difficulty is lack of definition: we know about experience and we know about meaning, and other passages in DS and 4Q offer any number of possibilities to flesh out these abstractions. What we don’t know is what is meant by the "approach," and why age is an advantage because we can see the pattern and not just the sequence. Eliot may be looking forward to LG I, whose second and third passages are all about "approach," but it is unfair to expect the initial reader to use the opening of the next quartet as a gloss on the middle of the previous one.

Furthermore, the most intense memories of most people are from childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The birth of a grandchild cannot compare to the birth of one’s own child, for example, just as the 200th home run of a Major League player cannot compare to his first home run in Little League. The brain is more plastic when younger, with more neuronal connections available to store vivid memories. Even if one accepts Eliot’s premise that maturity brings more meaning to the sudden illuminations, such re-interpretation lacks the power of the original experience, and thus any meaning assigned to a past experience is a late abstraction. Could he mean that wisdom, divorced from the immediate experience of past epiphanies, already praised as nearly supernatural, is actually superior to such experiences?

I suppose what Eliot is trying to say here, though badly, is, e.g., that the birth of a grandchild is an addition to the meaning assigned to the birth of our own child. Yet in teasing out this sense I feel more scholastic than literary, and the reader may well ask if it’s worth it. Frankly, I think DS II would be better if this passage were simply junked and we began with the second half of line 96: "I have said before."

To move on, lines 96-103 reiterate EC V: 190-201, "That the past experience revived in the meaning / Is not the experience of one life only / But of many generations." This experience includes the unconscious, atavistic fears of our earliest ancestors: "the backward half-look / Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror." (102-03) The passage remains a little turgid but becomes clearer, beginning with line 104, lines 104-123 being fairly straightforward. I think it unfortunate that Eliot does not set them off with a space or an indentation denoting a new paragraph, making the passage continuous and for that reason more confusing.

Verses 104-115 continue in a philosophical vein, and it is not until lines 116-123 that we return to poetry qua poetry. Altogether I think the protracted discussion of DS II: 85-115 too much philosophy to swallow between spurts of poetry. Eliot’s pacing is usually better. Here his philosopher persona holds us underwater too long until we starve for air.

I’m also not sure I agree with Eliot’s argument in lines 104-115, which is more a criticism of his philosophy than his poetry, though we know that the two are often hard to separate in 4Q:

"Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony

...are likewise permanent

With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better

In the agony of others, nearly experienced,

Involving ourselves, than in our own.

For our own past is covered by the currents of action

But the torment of others remains an experience

Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition."

(104, 107-113)

In my experience this is simply, on its surface, not true. Patients in therapy must retell their own story over and over until they reach acceptance, and their story inevitably centers around their pain—not the pain of others. Perhaps Eliot was more empathetic than most men, but I doubt he was saintly enough to appreciate the suffering of others better than his own. Despite his inner sensitivity, in human relationships everything we know about him through his poetry suggests that he was more isolated and emotionally distant than most men.

Now, I cede the point that we can be more objective about the suffering of others, that we are better able to imagine a positive result from their torment—while also helpless to change it, and that helplessness may allow us to appreciate others’ agony in a purer sense. When my first daughter was in a coma from meningitis, I was obviously more exercised about her suffering than she—then she was unconscious. Still, my fear of losing her was more about my suffering than hers.

Eliot further argues that "our own past is covered by the currents of action." In other words, in our own suffering we may be allowed some choice. But this is not strictly true. A child born with cerebral palsy has no choice in its disability and must suffer it for a lifetime. Thus the afflicted child’s actions cannot alter the basis of its suffering, only the response thereto.

I fear I am tiring the reader with more scholasticism. Let me put it simply. Given human narcissism, we are all much more involved in our own agony than the agony of others. Though we may show concern for others who experience pain, we hope their crisis will soon pass so we may tell ourselves that they are "all right now"—permitting us to return to our usual self-involvement. It is easier to forget the troubles of others than our own. Eliot is reaching here, I think. Perhaps he is betrayed by his own idealism, or perhaps in a late misstep he is still deceived by his long habit of emotional repression.

Lines 115-123 return us to the river: "Time the destroyer is time the preserver / Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops." (115-16) Line 115 naturally refers to the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, while line 116 recalls Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And here, at the end of DS II, finally, mercifully, Eliot provides us with an actual metaphor for the role of agony remembered: a "ragged rock in the restless waters" (118), which may be concealed by fog or hidden by waves ("past currents of action"?) but in navigable weather "is always a seamark to lay a course by." How much simpler is this concrete metaphor than the mental gyrations endured above!

Could the first 30 lines of the second passage of DS II be no more than philosophical periphrasis for a simple thought? Not in Eliot’s mind, certainly, though I think he could have done better. In addition, what is not included in this passage, a point alluded to elsewhere in 4Q, is that each stage of life involves new agonies for which we can never adequately prepare ourselves. In struggling to write about the second part of DS II, it occurs to me that the worst poetry requires the most comment. It may not be fair to attack the logic of Eliot’s substance in the context of his poem; still, I think his broad philosophical pronouncements render it fair game.


III Fare Forward through Constant Change

DS III consists of a single passage introduced by a reference to Krishna from the Bhagavad-Gita (124-29), and its conclusion is actually put in the mouth of Krishna (149-167)—though the voice of the god does not differ significantly from the voice that precedes it, except, perhaps, in intensity. This dramatic device does not seem entirely necessary, but it is not disconnecting. Except for the quotation marks at lines 149 and 165 we might not even notice.

For those not familiar with the Bhagavad-Gita, it is that part of the Hindu scriptures most popularized in the West. One used to be able to buy it for a "donation" at any airport from the good folks in the robes. It’s well worth reading and there is no way to do it justice here. In it the god Krishna speaks to the great archer Arjuna just before a battle. Arjuna is anxious to begin but cannot turn away from Krishna’s words. Krishna’s message treats the cycles of time and man’s inescapable role in the cosmos, and, ultimately, the pointlessness of war, whereupon Arjuna goes into battle enlightened, neither afraid of death nor lusting for glory but accepting of his fate with the proper detachment.

DS III begins with a familiar theme: the mourning of time future past:

"I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—

That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray

Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,

And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back."

(DS III: 124, 126-7, 129)

The cyclical view of history endorsed by Hinduism supports Eliot’s notion of mourning the future past, as the wheel of karma proceeds while nothing really changes (unless one achieves enlightenment and frees oneself from the cycle of life and death). There is no idea of "progress" in Hinduism for the general population, no hope of a future paradise, and spirituality, especially as practiced by the yogis, has much more to do with freeing oneself from the shackles of this world than loving one’s neighbor. In such a context it is therefore easy to understand the mourning of future past, which, like the present, is only a painful repetition of human history.

The core of DS III, 130-165, is much clearer than the second passage of DS II belabored above. In it Eliot employs the second person point of view, preaching, as it were, directly to his readers, though eventually donning the mask of Krishna. It is also a passage of encouragement, so much so that Eliot even uses an exclamation mark, a rarity for him: "Fare forward, travellers!" (137) Not even the bird’s urging in BN I ("Go, go, go, said the bird") uses one. As to form, the movement meanders in blank verse with anywhere from four to eight stresses per line, a variation that is no bar to Eliot’s pleasing organic rhythms.

The substance of the passage is an almost evangelical attempt to free the reader from the shackles of time, in the same way Krishna tried to free Arjuna. Eliot first inserts another qualification: "You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure, / That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here" (130-31). From this opening he soon moves on to an address in the second person plural: "You are not the same people who left that station / Or who will arrive at any terminus" (139-40) Thus in moving, in living, we constantly undergo change because time moves on and all experiences alter us. In other words, I am not the same man who wrote the previous sentence. Heraclitus, whose epigram appears at the beginning of BN, made the same point: you can’t dip your hand into the same stream twice. A small but useful distinction, I think, and supported by science, as we are always suffering microscopic changes in mass, not to mention the constant neuronal activity that affects our thoughts and mood. Using the analogies of travel both by ship and train, Eliot tells us: "You shall not think ‘the past is finished’ / Or the ‘future is before us.’" (144-45) Thus he tries to persuade us to dwell in the ever-changing present. This is the first argument of DS III.

The second argument becomes more intense, which comes from "a voice descanting (though not to the ear, / The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)" from the rigging and aerial of a ship. (147-48) This voice, which we later learn is Krishna’s, takes the argument to another level—with some of the clearest advice in the poem, though hardly original:

"While time is withdrawn, consider the future

And the past with an equal mind.

At the moment which is not of action or inaction

You can receive this: "on whatever sphere of being

The mind of a man may be intent

At the time of death"—that is the one action

(And the time of death is every moment)

Which shall fructify in the lives of others:

And do not think of the fruit of action.

Fare forward."


The phrase, "on whatever sphere of being / The mind of a man may be intent / At the time of death, [thither will he go]," is taken directly from the sixth verse of the eighth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, spoken by Krishna. It is explained by the next verse: "Therefore meditate always on Me, and fight; if thy mind and thy reason be fixed on Me, to Me shalt thou surely come."

Sphere of being" also implies the great medieval chain of being and recalls the nine spheres of heaven in Dante’s Paradisio. The phrase is a large order, but in practical terms I think it safe to say that a man who thinks lovingly of his family at the moment of death should be considered more enlightened than a man who thinks of losing his riches or wants revenge on his enemies. As Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," and so death reveals the ultimate values in a man’s life. (As a doctor, having attended the dying, the most common regret I’ve encountered is any lingering estrangement between parents and children or other close family members.)

Eliot tells us that our attitude at the moment of death is the one action that "shall fructify in the lives of others," because "the time of death is every moment." Think: when faced with death, as in that moment of turbulence in the jet when your stomach drops out and you’re sure all is lost, what first occurs to your mind? Happy is the man who is content and free of regret at that moment.

DS III concludes with: "Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers." At the risk of an unnecessary summary, I offer this abstract: "Although time constantly changes and we change with it, be aware of the present as if every moment were your last. Nevertheless proceed with courage because the future inevitably changes into the past even as we speak, thus all we really have is the present."

I am likely guilty of over-explaining this passage, but perhaps the reader will forgive me as it was a relief to write about DS III after the difficulties of DS II. Here is spiritual encouragement, indeed: "Fare forward, voyagers."


IV Prayer to the Virgin for Sea Folk

We can take a deep breath now, as we have arrived at the short lyric that characterizes every fourth movement of 4Q, in this instance a prayer to Mary for the business of ships, for women who have lost their men to the sea, and for the men themselves who died at sea. This lyric differs in form from the other fourth movements of 4Q in that it is unrhymed, comprised of three stanzas of five lines each, mainly pentameter except for the last line of each stanza. The only interpretive difficulty for the reader may be the Latin phrase, Figlia del tuo figlio, or "Daughter of your son," acknowledging the paradox of Mary’s relationship to Jesus, taken from Dante’s Paradisio.


V Superstition vs. Incarnation

The fifth movement of DS is mercifully clear. Lines 184-200 describe the paraspiritual pursuits of the mob—what tabloids today still feature, from horoscopes to palm reading, with a nice put-down of psychoanalysis (which was never as popular in England as in the United States). Lines 200-215 promote the opposite—what Eliot views as true spirituality, "to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / with time" (200-201), though for most of us there are only "hints and guesses" (212), or "The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight" (208). Finally, lines 216-233, shortened to trimeter from the previous loose blank verse, form a climax that connects DS with itself and the previous poems: "Here the past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled." (218-19)

We have not seen such direct mention of "the timeless moment" since BN I and its elaboration in BN II. I should add that only in LG V: 235 does Eliot actually say "timeless moment[s]", just as he avoids the word "God" throughout the poem except for EC II: 96, preferring intermediaries such as Mary and Krishna. "The timeless moment" I use as shorthand to denote what he calls in DS V "the intersection of the timeless with time," "the sudden illuminations" of DS II, and what we experience so magically in the garden of BN I, among other examples.

It is obvious that Eliot is having fun in the opening of DS V, mocking spiritualism and superstition, just as he did with "Madame Sosostris" in TWL I. In Eliot’s lifelong pursuit of holism, even monism, I doubt he ever considered superficial spiritual detours; he wanted the real thing, all or none. We must acknowledge that he believed to have found this in his Anglo-Catholic faith, which was not only a break with the culture of his age, but a break with the Unitarianism of his ancestors. The passage below is the funniest in all of 4Q, as Eliot recites a list of "pop spirituality" with obvious relish:

"To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,

To report the behaviour of the sea monster,

Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,

Observe disease in signatures, evoke

Biography from the wrinkles of the palm...

...fiddle with pentagrams

Or barbituric acids, or dissect

The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual

Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press."

(DS V: 184-88, 192-95)

I have before argued that Eliot owed a great debt to Freud in his breakthrough poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (and to Einstein and Bradley in 4Q), yet this is the first direct mention of the cult of psychoanalysis in his poetry—and instead of acknowledging a debt he dismisses Freud’s legacy as simply self-indulgent. Whether he studied Freud or Jung in any depth, I don’t know, though I doubt it; yet he had enough knowledge of psychoanalysis to nail it as a fad long before the world realized that’s what it ought to have been. In America, psychoanalysis was much more than a fad for a very long time; it was near gospel in psychiatric training prior to the late ’70s. I was even required to study it in my psychiatry residency in the early ’80s. Although Freud was right about a few things, particularly his analysis of ego defenses (better expressed by his daughter, Anna Freud, in The Ego and Its Defenses), he was wrong about much more. I hope the will excuse my delight in Eliot foreseeing this fact long before the advent of biological psychiatry.

That Eliot includes "barbituric acids" is also prescient, since sodium amytal, a barbiturate, has long been labeled "truth serum"— when in fact it only provides a loosening of inhibitions and associations while "the truth" can still be withheld by a disciplined mind. Another thing to enjoy from this passage: even to speak of these things, Eliot must have glanced at tabloids himself, hardly what one would expect of an exalted literary figure, but why not? Who doesn’t glance at The Enquirer while waiting in a grocery line? Besides, the English press has a much longer tradition of tabloid journalism than the American press; we are latecomers to the profits to be had from sensationalist fodder, despite the pioneering examples of William Randolph Hearst and P. T. Barnum.

Although DS V is all of a piece, it falls naturally into three sections. The second, 200-215, I’ve already quoted in parts throughout this essay, because it makes Eliot’s spiritual point more clearly than perhaps any other passage in 4Q. I will quote it entire:

"But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint—

No occupation either, but something given

And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,

Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

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

While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation."

(DS V: 200-215)

Unlike "Ash Wednesday," where incarnation is arrived at only at the end of a long, penitent journey, in DS V we have been prepared for this conclusion by previous references: "the hardly, barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation" (DS II); the last stanza of EC IV: "In spite of what we like to think / That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood— / In spite of that we call this Friday good"; and from BN V: "Love is itself unmoving... / Except in the aspect of time / Caught in the form of limitation." All these point to incarnation as the final resolution for beings who can glimpse eternity but are doomed to mortality, the reason C. S. Lewis called us spiritual "amphibians," with one flipper in the mud and one pawing at eternity.

The last division of DS V, 216-233, is a further elaboration of the more plebian devotion accessible to us in this world: "prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action," which means in practical terms that the experience of the timeless moment is not enough to sustain faith. Here are the concluding lines of DS:

"[We] Who are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying;

We content at the last

If our temporal reversion nourish

(Not too far from the yew-tree)

The life of significant soil.


Here is a realistic appraisal of spirituality in this world. If our temporal lives, through a very imperfect connection to eternity, can nourish "The life of significant soil," we do well to continue the arduous attempt to practice faith, never forgetting our own weakness and mortality, as the yew-tree reminds us.

When I read these last lines of DS, I feel as if the first three poems make a fine set and any further elaboration is unnecessary. I wonder if Eliot once thought the same. Perhaps he did until he was inspired to write "Little Gidding," arguably the best poem of the four, which offers a greater integration of 4Q’s themes while adding its own complexities. Still, if we only had only the first three poems they would qualify as a masterpiece.


Little Gidding

"We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire."

(LG IV: 212-13)

The most anthologized poem of 4Q is certainly deserving of the honor. It exceeds the previous poems in both breadth and depth. It brings to a climax the diverse poetic elements preceding it, and culminates in a powerful, lyrical, synthetic conclusion.

LG starts with fire and ends with fire. No other quartet emphasizes its signature element more—a fitting, incendiary climax to 4Q. And as there is a sense that 4Q could be complete with DS, there is also a sense that we might go straight from BN to LG, from light to light and depth to depth rather than endure the darkness, agonies and detours of EC and DS. This may be hard to imagine with the other poems at hand, but without them, the experience of the work, though shortened, might be more powerful—if less philosophically complete.

Seen as an epic, 4Q requires a middle section with the requisite journey to the underworld, for which EC may suffice, except that throughout 4Q, glimpses of eternity and the underworld appear repeatedly with little regard to sequence. To superimpose the epic form on 4Q can only be the projection of a critic, because by no means can 4Q be seen as a linear journey, nor does it fulfill Eliot’s ambition to write a modern epic. The sum total of his major poems may amount to one, although it would, like Joyce’s Ulysses, be a personal and psychological epic. Though no narrative of a hero, 4Q is certainly epic in scope: an epic of time, our relation to time, and the spiritual consequences of epiphanies beyond time. Naturally a poem so deeply concerned with time present, past and future cannot be confined to conventional narrative. Its very form is meant to fracture time. It weaves us in and out of time to jar us from our temporal sleep.


I Midwinter Spring at Little Gidding

LG I divides naturally into three sections, denoted by paragraphs, though the last two are thematically similar. The opening section, lines 1-20, contains some of the best poetry in 4Q. Is theme is "midwinter spring," a season beyond time that precedes the actual approach to the real, historical Little Gidding. Here are the famous opening lines:

"Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

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."

(LG I:1-8)

The passage recalls an earlier description of a season within a season:

"What is the late November doing

With the disturbance of the spring

And creatures of the summer heat,

And snowdrops writhing under feet?"

(EC II: 1-4)

What is most striking about the LG’s opening is the intensity of the light. Its brilliance supercedes anything gone before. The reflection of the sun on frozen surfaces seems unnaturally bright, as if concentrated by a lens. It differs from the softer light of BN I’s garden, where,

"The pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly

The surface glittered out of heart of light,

And there they were behind us, reflected in the pool."

(BN I: 35-38)

LG I describes a blinding light "in the dark time of the year" without the comforting laughter of hidden children. Obviously, Eliot’s description of an evanescent season within a season symbolizes the intersection of the timeless with time, but for the most part his description stays within the bounds of the natural and concrete. Snow blooms on the hedgerow instead of flowers, "a bloom more sudden / Than that of summer." Yet the closing lines of the first stanza raise the inquiry above nature to an unimaginable ideal: "Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?" (19-20)

After the blinding by this fierce light, one wonders whether, like Paul on the Damascus road, we must be blinded in order to see. The next paragraph draws us on in a voice we haven’t heard before:

"If you came this way,

Taking the route you would be likely to take

From the place you would be likely to come from,

If you came this way."

(LG I: 20-23)

The intimately conversational tone disguises the fact that language here skirts nonsense in an anaphora of near tautology. Here’s a parody: "If you sat here, sitting where you would be likely to sit, in a place where you would be likely to be sitting." Yet the invitation works, granting us a breath after the intense description of "midwinter spring." It’s a casual, rambling voice, as if the groundskeeper of Little Gidding were leaning on his rake and musing with us. And like the great "perhaps" of BN I, here "if" is employed in the same way, seducing us into an imagined experience of time future, until we enter the present by confronting the actual Little Gidding. As we do, we are reminded that we all stand equal before history, whether we come as "a broken king" or merely tourists with cameras.

The intensifying rhetoric quickly transports us into time future past, "where what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all." (LG I: 30-33) In our approach to the church our purpose is inexorably altered, just as we are not the same people who left the train station in DS III.

It is quite a triumph of technique for Eliot to begin this passage so lazily ("If you came this way") and proceed to a lecturing tone: "Either you had no purpose / Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured." Because we buy into the invitation, we come along for the lecture. The third paragraph becomes more insistently authoritative. Having arrived at Little Gidding, he tells us:

"You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid."

(LG I: 43-46)

To whom is Eliot speaking? To the reader? To himself? To an imaginary pilgrim? To a spiritually inquisitive audience? All of the above, I think. The tone of the passage is almost angry, at the very least chiding, i.e. "You are not here to verify." This is not the easy dismissal of superstition we find in DS V ("usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press"). No, this is an earnest plea for true religion. Curiously, we are not even invited to pray, only to "kneel where prayer has been valid"—after which Eliot launches into a little catechism on prayer for our instruction:

"And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

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

(LG I: 46-48)

God forbid that we should pray before understanding that prayer is more than thoughts, words or sounds! Dressed up in formal language, Eliot’s admonition sounds wise, when in actuality the notion is a given for any believer. Give that his expected audience is literary rather than Christian, perhaps the explanation is justified.

There is an even higher notion of prayer, or spiritual conversation, that we cannot achieve. Our prayers cannot compete with the eloquence of the dead:

"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."

(LG I: 49-51)

In the Anglican church there is always a place in the liturgy to pray for the dead. But the idea of the dead communicating with us turns this notion slightly on its head. Notice also that Pentecost is reversed here; it is not the living apostles from the opening of Acts whose communication is "tongued with fire," rather the blessed dead.

Eliot’s preoccupation with the dead may seem a bit macabre at times, and was no doubt influenced by his admiration for Dante. No less an authority than the Apostle Paul put it differently, calling those that had died in Christ "asleep," waiting for a future resurrection. Yet in a work where eternity can peek through the constant flux of time seemingly at will, it makes sense to include the dead as eternally present. Paul’s explanation was time-dependent, Eliot’s is not. Thus there is no contradiction between their view of the dead, though from an Anglo-Protestant viewpoint Eliot seems a little too fond of digging them up.


II Death of the Elements; Encounter with a Dead


In the opening lyric of LG II Eliot does us a great favor and sums up the essence of all the elements employed in the quartets. The first stanza concludes with, "The death of hope and despair, / This is the death of air." This may refer to the generally hopeful tenor of BN as well as the despair of its third movement, but it can also be arbitrary, as the same stanza includes "Dust inbreathed was a house-- / The wall, the wainscot and the mouse," which more properly belongs to the first movement of EC. In any event, both hope and despair are time-dependent: hope because it expects something better; despair because it expects nothing better. If we are to pass through fire out of time we must let go of such attachments.

The second stanza describes the death of earth, composed of "dead water and dead sand" and "parched eviscerate soil." Clearly this is earth without life, recalling TWL V’s rock without water. No hint of fecundity here; this death of earth is the death of generation, of flesh, fur and faeces, of the very cycle of nature we have come to rely upon in our earthly rhythms. The ground is cursed.

In the third stanza water and fire are oxymoronically united as the means by which our community, our lives and the church are destroyed:

"Water and fire succeed

The town, the pasture and the weed.

Water and fire deride

The sacrifice that we denied.

Water and fire shall rot

The marred foundations we forgot,

Of sanctuary and choir.

This is the death of water and fire."

(LG II: 70-77)

Note that the combination of water and fire in the destruction of things most human recalls the mixture of fire and water in LG’s blinding opening.

The elemental symbols of all four poems are nicely wrapped up in these short stanzas, though to trust them as a summary would be presumptuous. This lyric stanzas form a marker, a signpost acknowledging all the poetry that has gone before. (Eliot will again try to integrate all four poems in the closing of LG.) And what is its message? Not simply that "all things must pass," but that all things must be destroyed: the chains of time, the fertility of the earth, the church as we know it. This is no transformation but an end, a death, meshing nicely with the Biblical prophecy that although the world was once destroyed by flood it will next be destroyed by fire: "By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment." (II Peter: 3:7) The Bible does not speak of an "improved" heavens and earth, but of a new heavens and a new earth. In other words, this life, this world, cannot be saved. As humans in a fallen world we can experience the hints and guesses of eternity of which Eliot speaks, those brief intersections of time with the timeless. But ultimately, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor can this tired earth be transformed into a paradise: it must be destroyed. Not a very utopian view, is it? (Hardly sympathetic to communism, America’s recent evangelistic export of democracy to the Middle East, or the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.) Some accuse Eliot of excessive idealism in 4Q, others accuse him of pessimism; here is a dose of "Biblical realism" (if one acknowledges traditional eschatology).

The encounter with the dead master in LG II, beginning with verse 78, has been much discussed, praised, and interpreted. Its literary echoes are legion. The identity of the "familiar compound ghost" whom Eliot encounters (while patrolling as a fire warden during London’s bombing) has been a pet occupation of critics since the publication of LG. Suspects include Virgil, Dante, Dryden, Johnson, Tennyson and Yeats, to name a few. Yet it is obvious that the literary persona Eliot invents is a compound ghost, "both intimate and unidentifiable." So let us be done with guessing who this master is. Given Eliot’s lifelong proclivities, "the familiar compound ghost" must be most strongly identified with Dante, a theory supported by Dante’s rather bitter outlook in his forced isolation from Florentine society, reflected in the ghost’s equally bitter admonitions.

As an aside I should note that ever since Hugh Kenner opined in 1959 (T. S. Eliot: The Invisible Poet) that the ghost was likely Yeats, one sees this error repeated over and over by critics who follow in mindless conformity. But Kenner’s argument is weak, as all he does is point out a similarity of substance between the dead master’s thoughts and three of Yeats’ poems: "Sailing to Byzantium," "Among School Children," and "A Dialogue of Self and Soul."

I re-read these poems and to the best of my understanding found no direct correlation between them and the second passage of LG II. In fact, I happened upon other lines by Yeats I found more congruent, as in "Byzantium": "Before me floats an image, man or shade, / Shade more than man, more image than a shade." This can be easily connected to "Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled, / Both one and many.... / And he a face still forming." (LG II: 93-94, 101) But neither my quote nor Kenner’s speculation bears scrutiny in directly influencing this passage. Perhaps one thing I can do to clarify the canon of criticism surrounding 4Q is to discard Kenner’s associations as personal, never consciously intended by Eliot. If the compound ghost were a particular figure, he is Dante to Eliot as Virgil was to Dante, a guide. Yet it is wiser to accept what Eliot himself says, that the dead master is a composite figure, for "We stand on the shoulders of giants"—a nice quote for Eliot’s classical view of literary tradition.

In summoning this specter with which to have a conversation about language, literature and old age, think of how Eliot’s acquaintance with dead authors formed an amalgam in his mind. Thus he personalizes this phenomenon into a single face to address. And this literary ghost is no more dead than all the dead in 4Q, because for Eliot no authors are dead, except perhaps for ineptitude and lack of talent; they live in the hard drive of his mind.

This being said, putting baseless speculation aside, what work of literature does the colloquy between the poet and the dead guide most resemble? Obviously Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno. Eliot has no need to create an inferno in this case; the German bombs suffice: "After the dark dove with the flickering tongue / Had passed below the horizon of his homing." Dante imagined many varieties of suffering, but never the impersonal destruction of a German Blitzkrieg.

In any event, the second passage of LG II, written in non-rhyming iambic pentameter terza rima, turns away from the general lyric about the death of transitory elements into a personal narrative. Near dawn Eliot is making his rounds as a fire warden in London. Walking his usual route he encounters a stranger with the "sudden look of some dead master," though qualified as a projection of Eliot’s own mind, which he freely explains: "I was still the same, knowing myself yet being someone other—And he a face still forming." (LG II: 99-101)

This is a great literary device and suggests, if only indirectly, that all characters created by an author are projections, limited only by the author’s innate imaginative empathy for human character. To admit this means Shakespeare, to create Falstaff, had to become Falstaff while creating his voice. Eliot, in this passage, employs the creation of a character as a dramatic device, while elsewhere in 4Q he speaks more directly as himself. Recall these lines from EC V: 72-74: "So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years— / Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres / Trying to learn to use words." This is the actual voice of Thomas Stearns Eliot without apology, smoke or mirrors. In contrast, his literary device of the dead master, at this late stage of 4Q, elevates the poem to theater.

Is it strange to imagine conversations with dead authors? If so, I am guilty of the same transgression, as I imagine conversations with Eliot, among others, in my wool-gathering moments. And Eliot likely related better to dead authors than living ones, because he felt history made their reputations less liable to gross errors of appreciation. Certainly in his lifetime, Eliot was not chummy with other poets with the exception of Pound. He was more a liberal arts polymath and drawing room wit, socially polished and socially climbing, but not the star of literary salons.

The whole account of this meeting between Eliot and the dead master is a wonderful passage, something all critics seem to agree upon. To review it in any detail would only detract from the magic of the encounter. Still, I would like to summarize the major points the dead master makes. First he tells the poet that he has no desire to rehearse his own thoughts and theory, which the poet has forgotten, and advises him to "let them be," while also admonishing Eliot to pray for forgiveness for his own imperfect works. Then he dismisses Eliot’s contribution with the cudgel of time: "For last years words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice." (118-119) Eliot thus acknowledges his own place in literary history being necessarily displaced by new voices to come. The master agrees that he and the poet shared an interest to "purify the dialect of the tribe" (127), but seems more interested in telling Eliot about the disappointments of old age: first, the body’s failure, "the cold friction of expiring sense." (131). Next, "the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly, and the laceration / Of laughter at what ceases to amuse" (135-137). Finally, the late knowledge of one’s moral failures, even those ascribed to the benevolent motives of youthful ignorance:

"And last, the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been; the shame

Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others’ harm."

(LG II: 138-141)

This guide whom Eliot summons to walk the streets of burned-out London would certainly starve as a psychotherapist or minister. He is a depressing companion, like the war, and in his pronouncements we feel Eliot’s burden in negotiating a second world war. The only hope his guide offers, at the end of his discourse, is the hope of purification by fire:

"From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit

Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire

Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."

"Dancer" recalls the hope of BN II, but now a price has been assigned to that experience. Nothing is free—even the childlike joy of the rose garden. In this final quartet we face the accounting of the one love that grants redemption to a world gone mad. In surviving two wars in which he did not fight, Eliot must have felt some survivor’s guilt—no mere psychological theory, rather proof of human empathy and responsibility in a good man. Eliot’s self-castigation in this passage, through the device of the dead master, reminds us of AW increased to a higher pitch.


III Attachment and History

In the third movement of LG Eliot returns to the discursive voice of a lecturing philosopher, as any approach to intimacy in his poetry always requires some stepping back. Eliot’s method, which I earlier compared to Beethoven’s late quartets seeking a melody without ever achieving it, is to alternate between emotional advance and intellectual retreat, the tension eventually driving him to visions of eternity or worldly despair, though both lead to the same conclusion, which is "always present." The beginning of LG III thus seeks haven in near pedantry, however mild the instructing voice—which seeks to inform us about the contrasting qualities of attachment, detachment, and indifference. This distinction blossoms by degrees into a meditation on history, until we are encouraged to look beyond the past, because "We cannot restore old policies / Or follow an antique drum" (186-87).

There are problematic transitions in the first passage of LG III (150-165), beginning with verse 156, where in referring to indifference (now transformed into metaphors of flora), Eliot suddenly declaims:

"This is the use of memory:

For liberation—not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

From the future as well as the past."

(LG III: 156-159)

It is initially unclear whether the reference to memory’s use is that of indifference, detachment or attachment. What follows begins to clarify what these lines suggest. Eliot tries to put love in the context of history, speaking of love of a country and attachment to "our own field of action" (a nice euphemism for a war), implying that as our view expands beyond the current action we may find it to be of little importance, "though never indifferent."

Apparently the use of memory is to expand attachment beyond provincialism into a more universal appreciation of history. Yet this clarification is clouded by another leap: "History may be servitude, / History may be freedom." "Servitude" if we remain attached to what was ultimately insignificant, freedom if through history we learn to detach ourselves from what was only provincial.

Switching gears yet again in this needlessly difficult passage, Eliot turns specific: "See, now they vanish, / The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them." (163-64) Not only attachment but the source of attachment, the self, must vanish into history. (The devil in me wants to say, "If this is so, why should I care about what this man is writing? His self will vanish and his words were only attachments"—but I’ll resist.)

As my tedious explanation reveals, this first section of LG III lacks clarity of thought, much like the second passage of DS II. Eliot is either philosophically stuttering on purpose, or else sniffing around for something he can’t quite express, so he grasps at links until he finds his balance. These are not the lines of a philosopher but a poet finding his way, a poet who interrupts himself only to complicate his thoughts. Is it sloppy thinking or Socratic ignorance? The reader must decide.

Conveniently rescuing himself from this painted corner, Eliot inserts his first quote from Dame Julian of Norwich—which ought to have been set off separately since it marks a gap dividing his first paragraph from the second—just as the second paragraph deserves, at the very least, an indentation to signal a change; even the best poets can fail at stanzafication.

Dame Julian’s quote strikes a note of optimism as Eliot prepares for the summation of 4Q in LG’s fifth movement:

"Sin is Behovely, but

All shall be well, and

All manner of things shall be well."

(LG III: 166-68)

This voice comes from outside the poet, or, granting him poetic license, from inside the mind of the current voice. The lines interrupt conscious thought with an irrational, otherworldly optimism which his argument, couched in a different voice, could not explain.

What should be demarcated as Eliot’s second paragraph in LG III returns us to the site of Little Gidding, providing a specific place from which to continue:

"If I think, again, of this place...

If I think of a king at nightfall...

And of one who died blind and quiet....

Why should we celebrate

These dead men more than the dying?"

(LG III: 169,175, 179-181)

Here Eliot claws toward the present by dismissing important personages of the past, which he summons as examples: King Charles, Christ and the miscreants ("three men, and more, on the scaffold"), and Homer or Milton or some dead saint, perhaps even Tiresias ("one who died blind and quiet"). It’s nice to see Eliot distance himself from the dead a bit and ask why we should honor historical celebrities more than the "dying" (which of course, in Eliot’s paradoxical universe, means the living, as one has to be alive to be dying). This signals a slight retreat from his honorific to the dead at the conclusion of LG I, whose "communication is tongued with fire," allowing for some progress in time present for readers:

"These men, and those who opposed them

And those whom they opposed

Accept the constitution of silence

And are folded in a single party."

(LG III: 188-191)

Eliot is not yet done with the dead, as they reappear in LG V; nevertheless he does progress from attachment to the past in questioning our admiration of heroic figures, wisely observing that such admiration may be misplaced, since "Whatever we inherit from the fortunate / We have taken from the defeated" (192-93). Pharaohs rose on the backs of slaves and Admiral Nelson was elevated by the conscription of the lower classes. (Hurray for the working man!) The movement concludes with another happy assurance from Dame Julian, although this time the quote includes a prayerful qualification, so as not make us too sanguine:

"And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching."

(LG III: 196-199)

Obviously the second part of LG III is more successful than the first, and Eliot’s assessment of history at the conclusion of this movement is more optimistic than in EC III, where "They all go into the dark." The prominent dead are here folded into a single party, as any opposition born of worldly attachments cannot continue in death, in Eliot’s view. (Or can the spirits of our great-great-grandparents go on fighting?)


IV Fire vs. Fire

Following form, the fourth movement of LG is a short but memorable lyric. Along with DS V, it may contain the most succinct distillation of 4Q. Recall the second Greek epigram above BN: "The way up is the way down." Throughout 4Q Eliot exploits two paths to salvation which ultimately intersect: first, the darkness of despair, self-abnegation, or the fire of mortality, poignantly expressed in his passages on old age; second, by illumination of the timeless moment that leads by practical devotion to the fire of eternity, a world we cannot enter without being purified of the flesh.

"The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire."

(LG IV: 204-06)

The second stanza of LG IV justifies human suffering with standard Christian dogma: however bad it is, Love is behind it, as Love suffered this world for our sake:

"Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame."

(IV: 207-210)

(The reference to Hercules’ poison shirt strengthens the passage with classical allusion.)

After all this splendid poetry and sometimes not so splendid ratiocination, Eliot puts it rather plainly: salvation and damnation are inescapable. The pain of hope and despair are equal. There is no escape from mortality, eternity, or God himself, for "Our God is an all-consuming fire." Jehovah and Our Father in Heaven are the same; mercy and judgment fuse. Suffering makes us aware of our hopeless position; suffering also causes us to seek hope. We can only be redeemed from mortality by the fire of eternity; we can only glimpse eternity by suffering the fire of mortality.

It is not my place to defend standard Christian dogma here, put so eloquently, and, for once, simply, by Eliot. One tires of the unbeliever’s question, "How could a good God allow...?" The essence of Christian faith is to believe God despite "the evidence of our lying eyes," for "we walk by faith, not by sight." If God is not good, if the suffering of this world is not justified in some way beyond our ken, then Christianity falls like a house of cards. I think Dostoyevsky put it best in "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. There Ivan argues to his brother Aloysha that if even one child suffers needlessly, God cannot be good, as it is not worth the price of an innocent’s torture. His brother, a novitiate, can only answer him with faith, not reason. (I have never met anyone who has been reasoned into faith.)


V The Fire and the Rose Are One

"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time."

(LG V: 239-242)

In the final movement of 4Q we find ourselves still exploring, and the best that can be said is that after all our exploring we may recognize our beginning for the first time. But since every beginning is an end, how much progress is made? Eliot tries mightily in this last movement to resolve "the enigma of [our] fever chart," but does he succeed? Or, after 19 movements, can he succeed? He has set quite a task for himself.

The fifth movement of LG, though only separated into two paragraphs, divides naturally into three sections. Lines 214-25 discuss the best use of language, a sort of desideratum for poetry. Lines 225-38 seek to resolve the paradox of death, life, and the pattern of history, while lines 239-259 form an amalgam of all four quartets, seeking a resolution of their tensions in epigrammatic form. I’ll take the three sections in order.

After three verses of the introductory motto, repeated from EC, that "every beginning is an end" and vice-versa, Eliot tries to apply the same principle to language. Yet as a critic and poet he simply cannot resist the enumeration of more specific criteria. The advice he gives is sound, and I have referred poets to it more than once, yet the passage is rather prosaic—as any definition of good writing must be. When I first read this passage I found it pedantic, though Eliot, per usual, anticipated my objection by saying, "The formal word precise but not pedantic." As a poet Eliot can’t say that he has followed his own best advice here. Still, as I’ve said many times before, given the poetry that follows such discursive interludes can be tolerated. Many identify this passage as Eliot’s "farewell to poetry," and it qualifies, but there are other farewells in 4Q as well, such as that of the compound familiar in LG II.

At the end of this first section Eliot makes a transition from blunt discussion of poetic craft to weightier matters, informing us that "Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph." The passage that follows is problematic, and its interpretations may be legion, but I’ll have a go at it.

"And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree

Are of equal duration. A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments."

(LG V: 225-33)

If we were to encounter this passage out of context by it would have to be relegated to some irrational mysticism beyond our ken, but since we have the rest of the poem as an interpretive guide, it does make sense, though not easily parsed. This is one criticism that can always be leveled at 4Q: does Eliot really need to say things in so difficult a manner that we must struggle to understand them? Or is this merely a symptom of trying to "go beyond language?" (Before studying Eliot in depth, I found Yeats dense, but no more.)

Here’s my prose gloss on the above passage:

Any action is not only a beginning but an end, because an end is always implied by any action, whether we burn at the stake or drown at sea. We die with the dying (or pass into death with the living) because we are ineluctably connected to them by history and experience. We are born with the dead because we inherit their choices, which constitute history, thus they return through us and bring us with them. The moment of life (the rose) and the moment of death (the yew-tree) are of equal duration, because as each present moment passes, it becomes the province of the past, thus part of us is lost, or dies. The moments of life relegated to the past are therefore of greater gravity than the present moment, why Eliot argues so eloquently for the importance of "the timeless moment," the "sudden illuminations," as a way of redeeming the time declared "unredeemable." We cannot underestimate the importance of the collective past, because history is a pattern of timeless moments—moments only rarely experienced by those who have already entered history through death. Nevertheless such moments are priceless as a gateway to eternity, even if we rarely attend to them—being preoccupied with the past, the present and the future. To be without history is to be without personality, which owes so much to cultural inheritance.

So much for the gloss. In his early criticism Eliot famously maintained that only those who know what personality know what it means go beyond it, the chief critical defense of TWL, which goes "beyond personality" by employing a cacophony of disembodied voices. The return of Eliot’s’ actual personality in 4Q frankly contradicts this earlier ambition, though a defense might be made that in his poetic maturity he chose not to maintain a poetry beyond personality. In the same way apologists may argue, invoking Bradley and citing DS III, that the real Thomas Eliot who address us in passages already quoted, especially those concerning the advent of old age and the fate of literature, is not the same poet who wrote the previous verses or the verses that follow. Practically this seems a specious argument to anyone who reads these passages without a critically imposed filter. Early critics of his work too much respected Eliot’s theoretical methodology, elaborated in his criticism, without acknowledging the wizard behind the curtain. I should also mention a straw man in this passage: where is a people without history? I can find them only in "The Hollow Men," a creation of Eliot’s own imagination.

The prosaic simplification above can by no means account

for the sheer poetry of the passage; it is a rudimentary translation for the sake of sense, because in these lines Eliot successfully fuses the emotional and the intellectual into seamless verse, the poetic accomplishment that 4Q aspires to: a reunification of sensibilities, something he admired in the metaphysical poets. Indeed, 4Q is best categorized as a metaphysical poem.

The end of the passage reminds us again of present reality:

"So, while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England

With the drawing of this love and the voice of this Calling."

(LG V: 235-238)

This transition serves as an otherworldly summons to the climax, Eliot’s attempted annunciation and incarnation of the entire work. And he does not disappoint us.

LG’s conclusion fulfills the challenge of poetry as an epitaph and is a model of economy by its connection of all three previous poems in a true poetic epiphany. I have taken the liberty, while quoting it entire, by denoting, in parentheses, which poem each few lines most recall:

"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time. (EC)

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover (BN)

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river (DS)

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness (BN)

Between two waves of the sea. (DS)

Quick now, here, now, always— (BN)

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing 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." (LG)

(LG V: 239-59)

I hesitate to mention one grievous misstep in Eliot’s climax, where his philosopher persona intrudes with a breach of diction: "A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)" (253-254). This explanation adds nothing to the finale, interrupting the poetic flow with a prosaic hiccup. I could point out other minor missteps in 4Q, but I consider this the worst example. In all the dog-eared copies of 4Q I have owned, I found myself striking these lines again and again with whatever pen was handy, not out of habit, but because every time my ear and mind encountered this parenthetical intrusion it irritated me to no end. Given the rest of the poem, however, it is but a small fly in the ointment.

In form the last passage alternates between unrhymed trimeter and tetrameter, giving it the terse rhythm of an epitaph. And its substance is not difficult to discern in the context of the previous poems.

Its references to an ideal time past (as in Eden) are obvious: at the source of the longest river we hear children in the proverbial apple tree, no longer bound by the rose garden but associated with the fall of man as well. That they are half-heard in the stillness includes both the stillness of the still point in BN II and the stillness of artistic form in BN V. As their voices are heard between two waves of the sea, they are transformed by the perpetual passing of time elaborated in DS II. Finally the voice of the magical bird returns like the Emperor’s nightingale: "Quick now, here, now, always—" (before the two lines I complained of above).

Ignoring that unfortunate aphorism, we then find that "all shall be well... When the tongues of flame are in-folded—" or, as I take it, when the fire of eternity’s purification no longer burns us, when reality is no longer too much for human kind to bear. These pointed flames are instead in-folded "into the crowned knot of fire," implying Christ’s crown of thorns and human suffering ultimately transformed. Finally, the fire and the rose are one: mortality is invaded by eternity just as eternity is clouded by mortality, two parallel universes that rarely intersect. Suffering and glory fused in an inextinguishable, fiery rose. This is simply beautiful poetry. If we had only this fragment of Eliot’s work it could stand alone. How much richer we are for the prelude!

As an afterword, I think it no coincidence that the greatest number of references at the end of LG are to BN, connecting Eden with eternity, which forms a perfect circle of redemption in and from time. "In my beginning is my end." No matter how many times I read 4Q, the ending makes me want to begin all over with BN. Of how many works of literature can we honestly say that?


Eliot’s Christianity

It is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate Eliot’s faith as represented in 4Q, nor would such an analysis be necessarily accurate, as 4Q is a work of art, not a creed. Nevertheless, to a Protestant like myself, there is one striking feature of the poems that accords with Eliot’s self-assessment as an Anglo-Catholic.

4Q is by no means a Protestant poem, in the Reformation sense, because the ongoing struggle between the worldly practice of religion and the idealistic expectations invoked by the poet is not resolved by an experience of grace, rather by a vision of the ultimate union of opposites, where "the fire and the rose are one."

About "Ash Wednesday" I said if one were to predict his conversion previous works, one might expect monasticism, some devotion to a spiritual order, rather than his simply becoming a card-carrying member of the Church of England. Yet the Anglican communion is a large umbrella for all types of religious expression, from evangelism to monasticism. Clearly Eliot embraced the more traditional Catholicism within Anglicanism than its Protestant alternatives, confirmed by the frequent veneration of Mary in his poems, following in the tradition of Dante.

What Eliot never expressed in his Christian poetry, though he may have come to it later, is the conception of grace: God’s unmerited love for sinners, who are justified by faith, not by works or penitence, or by wrestling with philosophical idealism in the name of God.

The basis of Luther’s Reformation, apart from political considerations, was a clear re-statement of Pauline doctrine: salvation is a gift that cannot be earned. From a Lutheran or Evangelical point of view, all of Eliot’s verbal self-flagellation in approaching the divine might be considered a bit self-centered, even a waste of time, unless it brought him to the knowledge of salvation by grace through faith. (Luther was the most zealous self-flagellator in his monastic order before he discovered the concept of grace.) In covenant, not Calvinist theology, Eliot the believer is considered forever righteous in God’s sight from the first time he confessed his faith and was baptized. Yet I see no epiphany of grace in any of his poetry, only passing acquaintance with how such assurance must feel.

Where does Eliot come closest to grace in 4Q? BN I, II, and the climax of LG V all come to mind. Regarding LG V, just explored, Eliot’s vision of the ultimate reconciliation of mortality and immortality, temporality and eternity, may seem a comfort, but it acknowledges no present state of grace. He does not say "All is well," but "All shall be well.... / When." Lutherans (and many other Protestants) have the audacity to claim that "All is well—now." As Paul says in Ephesians: "It is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms" (2:5,6). From a standpoint of positional theology, Christians are already seated in heaven with Christ by the miracle of faith. It is therefore no longer a question of perfecting ourselves but accepting "this treasure in earthen vessels," that is, the Holy Spirit dwelling in our mortal bodies and acting through them. From the standpoint of grace, God may use our faults as easily as our virtues.

Certainly the garden of BN I transmits an impression of grace: "There they [the hidden children] were as our guests, accepted and accepting" (BN I:30) Yet the bird urges us away from this oasis of a feeling of grace, because "human kind cannot bear very much reality," and the timeless moment of acceptance constitutes but a passing experience, not a permanent injunction, as Paul describes it. To be fair I know of no Christian who can consciously and consistently live as if already resurrected and enthroned with Christ, as Paul imagines it. BN II also contains a sense of grace: "And there is only the dance. / I can only say, there we have been" (BN II: 67-68) This intimation of heaven opened, however, is soon delimited by qualifications: "The inner freedom from the practical desire, / The release from action and suffering, release from the inner / And the outer compulsion" (BN II: 70-72). Such prescriptions, however innocently meant, add a burden to the concept of grace, which means Christ plus nothing except faith.

Perhaps the best practical book I’ve read on the subject of grace as many Protestants conceive it was written by a Catholic monk: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. For this humble monk, faith was always a win-win proposition: if he failed at certain monastic duties or fell short of his own expectations, he reasoned that was only what he could expect of himself and his fallen nature. If he succeeded at his duties or exceeded his expectations and was of true service to others, he considered it a miracle for which God should receive all the credit. It is hard to imagine Mr. Eliot going so easy on himself.


A Colloquy with My Compound Familiar Ghost

As I wrestled to come up with some last words about Eliot’s achievement, my editor made a wise suggestion: Why not have a colloquy with him who has the "look of some dead master"? I considered imitating the unrhymed terza rima of LG II, but she thought it best I not compete with Eliot’s poetry, rather attempt a conversation in prose with a man I never met except through his writings, a man who died before I reached the age of ten. Given the many questions I have always longed to ask of him, I took the liberty he did in LG II, and assumed a "double part."


Mr. Eliot, kind of you to speak with me. I hope I’m not interrupting your meditation on the timeless moment?

Oh, that. A minor attempt to bring language into the world from the beyond, much too abstruse to aid many.

Are you serious? I have found Four Quartets a great spiritual comfort.

Ironic and surprising. Your name?

C. E. Chaffin, Dr. Chaffin.

Not a literary doctor?

No, the kind that says, "Turn your head and cough."

Oh. Actually I never thought those poems would comfort anyone; I hoped they might pierce the veil between the living and the dead, perhaps lend some urgency to human existence. But a comfort? That’s something new.

You have no idea how your words have helped me persist in faith, Mr. Eliot. When the Bible fails me, I still have Four Quartets.

Dr. Chaffin, please do not commit blasphemy.

Forgive me, St. Thomas.

Mockery doesn’t suit you; we are all saints in God’s eyes.

Quite so, though a more Protestant opinion than appears in 4Q.

I did the best I could with what I had. One can hardly do more.

Of course. May I ask a few questions about the poems?


First: Did you actually write for an audience, or for yourself?

For myself; the audience is secondary.

Given the difficulty of much of your work, did you overestimate the intelligence of your audience, unconscious of the limitations you did not share, or did you simply disrespect them?

In my poems I did not consider an audience. The audience is a by-product of a poem once published. What readers receive is theirs; what they don’t belongs to the poems.

Isn’t writing for yourself selfish?

All artists must be selfish to succeed.

This from a Christian presumably in heaven?

We have to speak the truth here, Dr. Chaffin. Dissimulation is not an option.

Then what about Four Quartets? In them did you finally step out from behind your persona, your mask, and speak (as Wordsworth said) as a man speaking to men?

Interesting question. Certainly there are passages which imitate my personality well; I may even have written them as myself, but once the personality is recorded in verse, it is no longer I. It is a voice.

Yet is it not possible to have the genuine voice of your personality speaking? Even Yeats often comes across as Yeats, not to mention others like Frost and Robinson Jeffers. Do you think anything written is instantly disqualified as personal because once put down on the page, it attains a separate life?

You understand my theories well. Yet my heart, here on the other side of death’s dream kingdom, wishes to admit the truth.


In Four Quartets I do speak as myself at times. They are the first poems in which I do.

But wasn’t J. Alfred Prufrock a good simulacrum of your personality at the age of 22, when you wrote it?

I would say, rather, that it was a personality I feared becoming.

But didn’t it fit your personality at that age?

Strictly speaking, no; socially, I suppose it resembled me.

And "The Waste Land?" You said it was your best poem and then called it a piece of "rhythmic grumbling." How do you resolve your conflicting opinions?

The first was the opinion of a poet too enamored of himself; the second was the opinion of a poet who saw that the technique he employed was based upon his own psychological disintegration, and unintentionally, in his callowness, permitted critics to judge it by his own serendipitous theories. Devilish, wasn’t it?

You can say that here?

(Chuckling). Here there is no censorship and no competition.

So the poem wasn’t planned?

Not in any way one could plan; it was an eructation, the lancing of a boil, psychic relief regurgitated through my pen. Back then I so believed in myself—and Pound and Vivien concurred—that I was convinced I had written something significant. In reality it’s the least significant of my poems, and the one I most regret.

It’s good to hear you admit that, Tom. May I call you Tom? It does help with the literary intimidation your person projects even now. As for "The Hollow Men," how did you ever conceive of such a soulless state?

Obviously, if one goes beyond personality, it takes a soulless person to conceive of a soulless state. Neither from nor towards. Suspended between pole and tropic. When then ile fit you.

Please don’t retreat into quotes, Mr. Eliot. You won’t find a more generous admirer than I, though I am no sycophant. Although it probably matters little to you in your present state, I find myself defending you after academia has demoted you to an Anti-Semitic Neoclassicist Dead-End..

Really? Groucho, did you hear that? (Laughter)

Your taste in friends is truly catholic.

Oh, he’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever met! If a stone had any wit, he could make it laugh.

Back to "The Hollow Men." It’s a chilling poem, it still gives me the willies. In it you portray a modern damnation that differs greatly from Milton, even from Poe, whose characters were punished with madness.

"The Hollow Men" was an attempt to cleanse myself of that very state. I was uncommitted, floating in a bad marriage, working at a dull job—which was nevertheless a relief from caring for Vivien. I was likewise fearful that there was no primary meaning in the universe, while also knowing that true knowledge required a commitment I could not make, that the "leap of faith" was not just a cliché but a requirement. But I didn’t know where to leap. In "The Hollow Men" I incarnate my ultimate indecisiveness, my inability to embrace anything wholeheartedly—whether Fascism, Communism, Transcendentalism, Idealism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Dadaism or anything else. I knew I had to find something "to construct my hope upon" but my world was filled with half-hearted whimpers and I could never get myself to the "bang," if you will.

Three years before its eventual publication you converted to Anglicanism. How did that come about?

There are things one can speak of and things that one can’t. I can’t tell you how it came about. C. S. Lewis, in Surprised by Joy,

tells a story of how he went to the zoo as a non-Christian and returned from the zoo as a Christian. But he doesn’t tell us how.

You were never good friends with him. Was it class or competition?

It was partly a difference in personalities; he was such a "Hail, well met!" kind of fellow, and I am by nature a "wait-and-see" sort of fellow.

And what else?

Clearly the sin of pride. I had more literary honors but he had more readers and did more spiritual good. In Dante’s Paradisio Lewis would clearly be in a higher sphere. I was High Church and he, Low Church, so to speak. But remember what I said in "The Hippopotamus."

How could I forget? A poem that prophesied your eventual conversion eight years before the fact. How did you write that?

As the phrase goes, it was a donné. I thought from outside the church, then found myself, like poor Prufock, identifying with the disenfranchised, as the church is for sinners, not saints.

Your conversion could not have been easy.

Nothing in my life was very easy, except my early childhood, until I married Valerie and began to have some fun.

What prevented you from having fun earlier?

Quite frankly, the sin of ambition. I had a Faustian ambition to encompass all of literature, and it was beyond my capacity, as you point out in your essays.

It was beyond anyone’s capacity.

Someone had to try.

Just as Einstein tried to disprove quantum mechanics?

Nice analogy, but physics is more manageable than literature.

But you did actually try, didn’t you?

Yes, but a young man doesn’t adequately respect his limitations. I discovered them through failure, though paradoxically my failures were hailed as successes. I still find that amusing. You mentioned Frost; did you know he couldn’t get a book of poetry published until he was 40, and that only with Pound’s help while visiting England? Here I was in 1916, at the age of 28, being hailed as a revolutionary genius. My timing was excellent. As you said in your essays, "History does play favorites." Strange, isn’t it? I think of all that brouhaha as a gift I didn’t necessarily deserve. But at that age, who would deny success? Who doubts their own press clippings? Such is human nature; I can’t regret it, because who I was then is not who I am now. I must accept my own history, however ignorant I was when I participated in its making.

Does your former ignorance still cause you pain?

There is no pain here.

I can’t imagine.

Exactly, what I tried to communicate in Four Quartets.

To be fair, on the whole, I think there is more pain and self-criticism and spiritual failure in 4Q than joy.

What do you expect from something written in the world?

Not to mention WW II.

Let’s not mention it.

Of course. To change subjects, what do you think about my opinion about the underestimation of your sense of humor?

I thought some of my early poems hilarious, "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," "Sweeney Erect," "Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service." Most didn’t get the joke, unfortunately, and I was too insular to inform them.

I have also insisted on your essential humility.

Do you believe the man who wrote "Ash Wednesday" could be truly condescending?

I doubt it. A proud man could never have written that poem. In my essays, you know, I try to humanize you for Post-Modern readers.

I cannot comment on your essays.

Of course, they ultimately belong to time future, which I cannot know except through time present, as you have taught me.

Don’t be so pedantic.

It’s your fault!

"Fathers will not be put to death for the sins of their sons."

Touché! Can we go back to Four Quartets?

If you wish.

It easily makes up half my commentary on all your major poems. Can you tell me any key to its understanding I may have missed?

You missed much, but that is the nature of interpretation. It tries to expand the field but ultimately cannot avoid narrowing it. Even I cannot say anymore what the poems mean in any language given to men. I tried to go beyond language when I was still trapped within it.

And now you’re not?

You have no idea. "Will, can you repeat that last passage for me?"

You’re talking to the Bard?

I won’t say. But however popular a person was in history, here it makes no difference, because time allows as much time as one likes, being out of time and all.

Happy for you. Back to 4Q. Could you tell me a little bit about the journey from the Edenic garden of "Burnt Norton" to the fusion of the fire and the rose in "Little Gidding?"

Now you truly amuse me. If the poem cannot account for itself, I certainly can’t. You are on your own, Doctor.

Oh, I get it. "If it was there, I meant it." Your practiced inscrutability makes some suspect you were a bit of a fraud.

And so I was. But humility also enters in; if I perorate about my own poems I diminish the enjoyment of others, don’t you see? It’s the pursuit of critics like yourself to dig up the garlic and sapphires in the mud. "And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail. For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice." You see, I never pretended to know the value of my own verse, why I never felt qualified to say anything substantive about it.

Humility again?

Or a simple lack of self-confidence.

Few divine that side of you through your public persona.

Few knew me.

You once remarked, "Poetry was always for the elite." Is your poetry solely for the elite?

Who else reads poetry nowadays?

You must know such a statement infuriates the post-modern democratization of poetry, beginning with Ginsberg and the Beat Poets. Any opinion about them?

I was alive when "Howl" was published. I did not feel qualified to comment on it.

What about the supposed revolution on the Internet?

Come, come. More venues make for a dilution of talent.

I happen to agree, but many editors don’t.

Editors not versed in the quality of the tradition.

I wish I had the courage to tell them that. Does that force me to take my place among the elite?

You said it.

"Ecce homo."


Do you think my attempt to make your work more accessible to those who may not be among "the elite" of any value?

I cannot pass judgment on what you undertake. It would be presumptuous. Let the reader decide.

Good advice.

The only advice.


Anything else?

I could talk with you forever.

You will have your chance if you hold to the light.

I will do my best, Sir.

May the saints protect you.

Thank you, Mr. Eliot.



To those who have taken this journey with me I want to express my thanks. Eliot is not an easy poet but I think him eminently worth the time. In discussing his poems I was forced to navigate between the Scylla of obscurity and the Charbrydis of over-explanation. How well I succeeded the reader must judge.

Looking back, I found my work on "The Early Poems" and "Ash Wednesday" more enjoyable than "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men," which may be more a reflection of the subject matter than my own defects. Eliot’s early poems are more easily enjoyed, as yet not beset by the allusive density of TWL.

TWL has been written about so much that to say anything new is difficult; yet in helping others appreciate Eliot’s most controversial poem I hope I made it more accessible. Because of the late discovery of the original manuscript I had an advantage over Eliot’s contemporary critics, though as I concluded, seeing the original manuscript doesn’t help a great deal with the poem itself. Overall, TWL is dark, and its literary corpse has been picked over for 84 years, one reason my effort seems slightly tedious in retrospect.

THM, though a nearly perfect poem, is darker than TWL, though much more accessible, why I spent less time explicating it and more time quoting other critics and trying to put it in the proper context of Eliot’s continuing development. Such a despairing poem can hardly be assayed in an engaging manner without committing satire, which would be inappropriate for its tone (though I have allowed myself the luxury of satire in commenting on other poems, as in "Bully for Tiresias!" regarding TWL). What makes THM’s darkness so dark is that its despair is not the result of pain, loss, betrayal or defeat—rather a condition of paralysis and inaction, peopled with voices that have lost their human nature, floating in an endless void.

"Ash Wednesday" was a joy to write about, not just because I love the poem, but because few critics have taken much time with it. It was a pleasure to explore the poem as a proper continuation of TWL’s pilgrimage. Seen in this context we might think of THM as the real "Chapel Perilous" of the Grail myth of TWL, where we must stand vigil to reach AW.

As for 4Q, it was always my chief aim to write about it, but I felt I could not do it justice unless I took on the earlier poems first. To my great surprise, I found 4Q much less straightforward than I had thought.

As I said at the outset, I am a fan of Eliot. It was my love of his poetry that led me to write about him, with the hope I might help others more appreciate his genius. My method has been to first meditate upon a poem, then write about it according to my own lights, and only afterwards sample the opinions of others. The advantage of this method is a personal and unprejudiced insight into the poems. The disadvantage is the danger of unknowingly repeating what others have said.

Since I wrote these essays in relative isolation, without access to a university library, I had to rely mainly on the Internet for research (although I was lucky enough to come upon a book of Eliot’s own criticism, a copy of the original ms. of TWL, and one volume of critical essays on Eliot edited by Hugh Kenner). I must admit that I find the Internet not yet a sufficient tool for research into literary criticism.

I hope this now book-length series of essays might serve as a useful introduction to Eliot’s poetry, especially at an undergraduate level. I believe we need such a book, because academia has neglected Eliot in recent decades until students tend to dismiss him as an irrelevant chore equal to Milton. This is a great loss, as Eliot is a poet for all time, a great lyricist with a first-rate mind and also the most influential innovator since the Romantics. I think Eliot belongs in the very top tier of poets in the history of English literature. To be fair, he is an elitist and expects too much of his readers. To bridge that gap has been the main ambition of my work.

C. E. Chaffin 1/30/06