T S Eliot, The Four Quartets, literary criticism

Eliot’s Four Quartets

Eliot’s Four Quartets

Many see the Four Quartets (1) as Eliot’s best poem, and the greatest philosophic poem of the twentieth century. (2) My purpose here is not to quarrel with that assessment, but only to note how the difficulties mentioned in my previous posts with The Waste Land are carried through into this later work.

In case a personal note helps, the poem was one I read endlessly in my youth, happily but somewhat indulgently, without understanding how fundamental were my difficulties with it.

The critical literature on Eliot and the Four Quartets is too large for me to even start doing it justice. Wikipedia has a modest introduction, (3) and more can be found on the Internet. Here I’ll simply concentrate on pointing out some examples of critical hagiography, of having to read meanings and excellences into the poem that are really not there.

To start with craft matters: the verse is more accomplished and integrated than is The Waste Land’s. It’s no longer so obviously a collage, though ideas, impressions and description are still pasted in, for purposes that make the standard interpretations of the poem, i.e. it is still the same approach though much more astutely carried out. The verse is in both strict and free verse, or commonly something in between, a generally very pleasing mixture if we don’t expect too much from its intuitive patterning. The opening lines of Burnt Norton Section One show this fusion well:

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.

But the lines opening Section Two are strict verse, though not particularly distinguished verse, I’d suggest:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.

But very different is what these simple lines mean. Anyone with a little training in philosophy, or even contemporary science, will have a great deal of difficulty with this opening mediation on time. The Buddhist view of reincarnation is usually suggested, but Eliot of course was a devout Christian, and ‘If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable’ is an odd way of putting matters. By definition, no time is only the present. ‘Eternally’ is an oxymoron. And ‘unredeemable’ – the key word in this passage, perhaps the poem as a whole – is not properly addressed: we have collages of instances and truncated thoughts but no sustained treatment. Salvation means very different things in Christian and Buddhist religions, and neither, I suspect, believe that ‘we live in a universe that is perfect and that every moment is preordained and predetermined.’ (5)

The following lines:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Are prose, rather wooden, and originally written for Murder in the Cathedral.

Next comes:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Which is often glossed as referring to free will, though the reading contradicts the predetermined interpretation earlier:

We have free will, which is futile. We can make any choices we want, but they all lead to one inevitable end. (5)

And so on. Let’s turn to Section Two:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.

Which the helpful rapgenius site admits is obscure but glosses as: (5)

In one reading, garlic represents the lower, sensual forms of love and sapphires represent the higher, more platonic forms of love, both of which lie at the feet of the “bedded axle-tree” or the cross.

But again, why make matters so difficult? And in what way can wars be appeased, particularly if already forgotten? Is it man’s propensity for sin or violence that we should brood on? Many important issues are touched on, but not properly addressed, indeed evaded.

I don’t want this to develop into an attack on Eliot, whom I still read with a mixture of pleasure and exasperation. but more a general enquiry into literary tactics: why critics will not ask the obvious questions. So extended and serious a poem surely deserves a comparable assessment, not simple ‘commentary’ or ‘interpretation’.

To go a little further into the poem, Eliot may very well have been searching for the spiritual dimension in writing such things as:

And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at. (4)

But such literature requires ‘the eye of faith’ and a long apprenticeship. Authorities agree that the further dimensions of the world cannot be learned from books but only through extended exercises under a spiritual master. As it stands, the fourth line comes close to being tautological, of saying nothing at all. We have to take on trust such interpretations as: (4)

The poet like the Creator creates a world that appears real but is always qualified. Only the bird can hear the unheard music because it exists in the same unreal world.

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight

In short, matters so important to the poem’s theme – indeed to humanity at large – need more than this teasingly solemn air of about to say something important but then not quite getting round to doing so. Perhaps we do here stand on the edge of silence, but Eliot was a Noble prize winner, and is still thought by many to have been the greatest poet of the twentieth century. Writers have more important aims than promoting themselves, one of them being obligations to their readers, the more so when their work gains wide currency.

No doubt the battles over Eliot have been fought long ago, and if the Four Quartets are still on the syllabus of innumerable schools and colleges, few contemporary poets, I think, are taking the poem as their own departure point. But perhaps the matter is closer to the financial shenanigans of 2008, which came close to wrecking the world’s banking systems, and may do so again. Until that point, and the trillions of dollars in bailout money that might have been better spent on America’s infrastructure and services, or in helping the millions who’d lost homes and jobs through no fault of their own, most citizens were content to leave banking to its own esoteric practices and suppose the financial community was no less honest and useful than any other branch of business.

A flood of newspaper articles, papers and books, many of them directed at the general reader, have changed that perception, and reform is more widely urged as banking scandals grow more egregious. Deep-rooted troubles seem also present in serious poetry, I’m suggesting, which is treated respectfully by academia and the mainstream press but seems to rest on very dubious notions. It requires an extensive buttressing of theory which is often a good deal more entertaining and thought-provoking than the poetry itself, a sort of intellectual packaging that is also, unfortunately, somewhat ramshackle when looked at closely, as I’ve tried to do in this website. Theorizing may help critics and poets in their academic careers, but seems not socially productive or even accepted by its originating disciplines. So this backward glance, to see where poetry may have gone off on its current side-track.


1. Four Quartets: T.S. Eliot. An accurate online text. http://www.davidgorman.com/4Quartets/index.htm
2. Fairchild, T.L. Time, Eternity, and Immortality in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. http://www.mum.edu/default.aspx?RelId=638707
3. Four Quartets. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Quartets
4. Burnt Norton. http://www.mum.edu/RelId/670188/ISvars/default/Burnt_Norton.htm
5. T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets. http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-lyrics#lyric


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