Four Quartets

Background

While working on his play Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot came up with the idea for a poem that was structured similarly to The Waste Land.[1] The resulting poem, Burnt Norton, named after a manor house, was published in Eliot's 1936 edition of Collected Poems 1909–1935.[2] Eliot decided to create another poem similar to Burnt Norton but with a different location in mind. This second poem, East Coker, was finished and published by Easter 1940.[3] (Eliot visited East Coker in 1937 and his ashes now repose there at St. Michael's Church.)[3]

As Eliot was finishing his second poem, World War II began to disrupt his life and he spent more time lecturing across Great Britain and helping out during the war when he could. It was during this time that Eliot began working on The Dry Salvages, the third poem, which was put together near the end of 1940.[4] This poem was published in February 1941 and Eliot immediately began to plot out his fourth poem, Little Gidding. Eliot's health declined and he stayed in Shamley Green to recuperate. His illness and the war disrupted his ability to write and he became dissatisfied with each draft. He believed that the problem with the poem was with himself and that he had started the poem too soon and written it too quickly. By September 1941, he stopped writing and focused on his lecturing. It was not until September 1942 that Eliot finished the last poem and it was finally published.[5]

While writing East Coker Eliot thought of creating a "quartet" of poems that would reflect the idea of the four elements and, loosely, the four seasons.[6] As the first four parts of The Waste Land has been associated with one of the four classical elements so has each of the constituent poems of Four Quartets: air (BN,) earth (EC,) water (DS,) and fire (LG.) However, there is little support for the poems matching with individual seasons.[7] Eliot described what he meant by "quartet" in a 3 September 1942 letter to John Hayward:

... these poems are all in a particular set form which I have elaborated, and the word "quartet" does seem to me to start people on the right track for understanding them ("sonata" in any case is too musical). It suggests to me the notion of making a poem by weaving in together three or four superficially unrelated themes: the "poem" being the degree of success in making a new whole out of them.[8]

The Four Quartets was first published as a series in New York in 1943 and London in 1944.[9] The original title was supposed to be the Kensington Quartets after his time in Kensington.[10] The poems were kept as a separate entity in the United States until they were collected in 1952 as Eliot's Complete Poems and Plays, and in the United Kingdom until 1963 as part of Eliot's Complete Poems 1909–62. The delay in collecting the Four Quartets with the rest of Eliot's poetry separated them from his other work, even though they were the result of a development from his earlier poems.[11]

World War II

The outbreak of World War II, in 1939, pushed Eliot further into the belief that there was something worth defending in society and that Germany had to be stopped. There is little mention of the war in Eliot's writing except in a few pieces, like "Defence of the Islands". The war became central to Little Gidding as Eliot adds in aspects of his own experience while serving as a watchman at the Faber building during the London blitz. The Four Quartets were favoured as giving hope during the war and also for a later religious revival movement.[12] By Little Gidding, WWII is not just the present time but connected also to the English Civil War.[13]


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