An overview of Eliot’s classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Four Quartets was T. S. Eliot’s last great achievement as a poet. After its publication in the early 1940s, Eliot would write occasional minor verses, but much of his creative energy was directed into the theatre, where he wrote a series of attempts to bring about a renaissance in English verse drama (with mixed results). But Four Quartets was his swansong as a poet, and helped to ‘set a crown upon a lifetime’s effort’, as he puts it in ‘Little Gidding’. The present post is the first in a short series of posts that seek to analyse Four Quartets – this post provides a brief overview to the poem, and four subsequent posts will analyse the four individual poems that make up Four Quartets.
In an early draft of his essay ‘The Three Voices of Poetry’, T. S. Eliot wrote that the last three poems that make up Four Quartets (1943) are patriotic poems – but then he crossed out this statement. Yet the last poem, ‘Little Gidding’, in being about ‘now and England’ – ‘now’ being in the depths of the Second World War, and ‘England’ being a country torn apart by air raids and food shortages – does suggest that the whole of Four Quartets is, in one sense, about England. Others analyse T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as a great work of modern religious poetry (though this was the reason George Orwell disliked them). As with much of Eliot’s work, this is a testament to the poem’s greatness: it refuses to be just devotional poetry, or patriotic verse, or to conform to any other kind of narrow label we might invent for it. This does leave us with the question, though: how should we analyse Four Quartets?
Following his split with his wife in the early 1930s, T. S. Eliot had become friends with John Hayward, a hugely erudite and charming (but also prickly) man who was confined to a wheelchair (he suffered from muscular dystrophy, the effects of which had become apparent from an early age). Hayward would be, if you like, the Ezra Pound of Four Quartets: just as Pound had helped Eliot to edit The Waste Land, so Hayward would offer feedback on Four Quartets. (Eliot would later live with Hayward in a flat in London for eleven years between 1946 and 1957.)
Reading Four Quartets
If there is one theme that unites the four poems in Four Quartets, it is ‘time’. When the poems were later published together as one volume, Eliot had toyed with the idea of appending as epigraph to the whole sequence a quotation from Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers: ‘What a rum thing time is, ain’t it, Neddy?’. Each of the poems is a meditation on time, as is made apparent by the opening words of the first poem, ‘Burnt Norton’. The starting point of the first poem in Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’, had been lines Eliot had written for his play, Murder in the Cathedral – lines which he had removed from the final version of the play because, although he considered them fine poetry, they lacked the dramatic quality which was required for a play. These lines, on the nature of time, became the start of ‘Burnt Norton’.
The first section of ‘Burnt Norton’ – which is a real house in Gloucestershire – was inspired by Eliot’s visit to the house in the early 1930s with Emily Hale, an American friend of his for some years. So the starting-point of the poem was a very personal experience. But at the same time, although the poem takes this personal event as its starting point, it bears out Eliot’s theory of impersonality (which he espoused in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’), because he transmutes personal experience into something more universal.
It’s important to observe that Eliot did not write ‘Burnt Norton’ with the knowledge that it would become the first in a group of four poems: he only conceived of the idea of bringing together several poems into a longer sequence while he was at work writing the next poem, ‘East Coker’ (which would become the second poem in Four Quartets). This is of particular significance when we reflect that Eliot’s last long poem had been Ash-Wednesday in 1930, several years earlier. Eliot had finally had the idea he’d been waiting for, a long work of poetry that would take its place alongside The Waste Land and Ash-Wednesday as one of Eliot’s great long poems.
‘East Coker’ came about in 1939, as, essentially, a response to severe writer’s block. Eliot had written no poetry since ‘Burnt Norton’ four years earlier, except for a verse play, The Family Reunion, which was staged in 1939. But he found in this small Somerset village, the home of his ancestors (one of whom, the sixteenth-century writer Thomas Elyot, he quotes in the poem), the necessary inspiration for him to continue writing poetry. So, as with ‘Burnt Norton’, the poem takes as its starting point – and, arguably, its main focus – a place which Eliot had personally visited. The result was a runaway success: when it was published in pamphlet form in 1940, ‘East Coker’ sold almost 12,000 copies soon after its initial publication (Eliot’s characteristic response was to decide that the poem must be bad if so many people liked it).
Why did this poem strike such a chord with the British public at this time? It’s not difficult to suggest a reason. With the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, Britain became united against a common foe, but there was also, understandably, an uncertainty about the future, which only intensified with the start of aerial bombings over the country the following year. Would your house still be standing in the morning? More to the point, would you still be alive? Or would Britain be conquered by the enemy? These were genuine questions for British people in 1940, and Eliot’s poem responded to them, combining past and present to suggest a future that was based on knowledge of both. The poem offers hope not least because it suggests that the age-old rituals and traditions of the English rural village – the men and women dancing around the bonfire, ‘signifying matrimonie’ – would outlast the horrors of the war.
‘East Coker’ convinced Eliot that he could still write poetry, and despite his remark downplaying the poem’s merits owing to its popularity, he was clearly proud of it. He now had two poems he could slot into a sequence, what would become Four Quartets. And Four Quartets does fit together remarkably effectively as a sequence of poems. ‘Little Gidding’ was very clearly written as a poem that would bring together the themes and mood of the previous three poems. But also note the formal similarities between the four poems.
Each is linked thematically, in that each of them roughly corresponds to one of the four classical elements: air (‘Burnt Norton’); earth (‘East Coker’); water (‘The Dry Salvages’); and fire (‘Little Gidding’). They can also be analysed as roughly corresponding to the four seasons, starting with spring in ‘Burnt Norton’ and running through to winter in ‘Little Gidding’. It is fitting that the final poem in the sequence ends with fire as its thematic element: the fire serves as a Dantean symbol for purgation and renewal.
This relates not only to Eliot personally but also to Britain as a nation: when ‘Little Gidding’ was published in October 1942, there was a feeling that, following the Battle of El-Alamein, the worst part of the war may be over and a turning-point may have been reached.
Although there are four poems comprising Four Quartets, each of these four poems comprises five sections. Helen Gardner, who considered Four Quartets to be Eliot’s masterpiece, summarises the poems and elaborates on this idea of them being meditations on the theme of time, in her (highly recommended) book on Eliot, The Art of T.S. Eliot. Gardner also argues that Four Quartets is poetry that it is impossible to paraphrase. (We opt for summary and analysis in our four follow-up posts.) Chiefly, though, Gardner advises us to study and analyse the form of the poems, to listen for the rhythms and cadences – not to get bogged down with what Eliot ‘means’ at a certain point.
With this call to attend to the form of the poems in mind, let us consider the structure of each of the Four Quartets. Indeed, all four are remarkably similar, demonstrating that Eliot was working to a pattern, or framework. Gardner suggests we see each of the five sections of the poems as ‘movements’, continuing the musical theme. What follows is a general summary of the form of each of these five ‘movements’ (abridged from Gardner):
The first movement contains two contrasting but related ideas which establish the theme of the poem, e.g. the river vs. sea imagery in the third poem, ‘The Dry Salvages’. In effect, we have a ‘movement’ and a ‘counter-movement’.
The second movement, in a sense, takes the opposite approach: it explores one theme but from two contrasting ways, usually a highly lyrical piece immediately followed by a more colloquial exploration of the same thing. A good example of this can be seen in the second poem, ‘East Coker’, where the formal regularity of ‘What is the late November doing’ gives way to the informal ‘That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory’ passage.
The third movement explores – with a twist – the ideas presented in the first two movements.
This section prepares us for the fourth movement – a brief lyric.
After that brief fourth movement, we have the fifth and final movement which concludes the poem and resolves the contrasts or contradictions presented in that first movement.
Each of the four quartets does slightly different things with this basic pattern, but all four of them follow the pattern to some extent. But ‘Little Gidding’ took longer for Eliot to write because, in addition to writing another poem in the sequence, he had to make that final poem be a conclusion as well as a continuation.
Four Quartets is marked by a sense of circularity, of the cyclical, and haunted by notions of returns and returning. And certainly, things appear to have gone full circle in Eliot’s poetry, as they would in his life: he would be buried in the church at East Coker where his ancestral line had originated. ‘In my end is my beginning.’ ‘In my beginning is my end.’ (Note: these words adorn the memorial stone to Eliot in St. Michael’s Church in East Coker, where Eliot’s ashes are interred.)
We continue this analysis of Four Quartets with a brief summary and analysis of ‘Burnt Norton’ here.
About T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.
Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.
Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.
He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Burnt Norton House by Michael Dibb, 2010; via geograph.org.uk.