Eliot believed that even if a poem can mean different things to each reader, the "absolute" meaning of the poem needs to be discovered. The central meaning of the Four Quartets is to connect to European literary tradition in addition to its Christian themes. It also seeks to unite with European literature to form a unity, especially in Eliot's creation of a "familiar compound ghost" who is supposed to connect to those like Stéphane Mallarmé, Edgar Allan Poe, Jonathan Swift, and William Butler Yeats.
Time is viewed as unredeemable and problematic, whereas eternity is beautiful and true. Living under time's influence is a problem. Within Burnt Norton section 3, people trapped in time are similar to those stuck in between life and death in Inferno Canto Three. When Eliot deals with the past in The Dry Salvages, he emphasises its importance to combat the influence of evolution as encouraging people to forget the past and care only about the present and the future. The present is capable of always reminding one of the past. These moments also rely on the idea of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita that death can come at any moment, and that the divine will is more important than considering the future.
The Jesuit critic William F. Lynch, who believed that salvation happens within time and not outside of it, explained what Eliot was attempting to do in the Four Quartets when he wrote: "it is hard to say no to the impression, if I may use a mixture of my own symbols and his, that the Christian imagination is finally limited to the element of fire, to the day of Pentecost, to the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples. The revelation of eternity and time is of an intersection ... It seems not unseemly to suppose that Eliot's imagination (and is this not a theology?) is alive with points of intersection and of descent." He continued with a focus on how time operated within the poem: "He seems to place our faith, our hope, and our love, not in the flux of time but in the points of time. I am sure his mind is interested in the line and time of Christ, whose Spirit is his total flux. But I am not so sure about his imagination. Is it or is it not an imagination which is saved from time's nausea or terror by points of intersection? ... There seems little doubt that Eliot is attracted above all by the image and the goal of immobility, and that in everything he seeks for approximations to this goal in the human order." Lynch went on to point out that this understanding of time includes Asian influences.
Throughout the poems, the end becomes the beginning and things constantly repeat. This use of circular time is similar to the way Dante uses time in his Divine Comedy – Little Gidding ends with a rose garden image that is the same as the garden beginning Burnt Norton. The repetition of time affects memory and how one can travel through their own past to find permanency and the divine. Memory within the poem is similar to how St. Augustine discussed it, in that memory allows one to understand words and life. The only way to discover eternity is through memory, understanding the past, and transcending beyond time. Likewise, in the Augustinian view that Eliot shares, timeless words are connected to Christ as the Logos and how Christ calls upon mankind to join him in salvation.
The title Four Quartets connects to music, which appears also in Eliot's poems "Preludes", "Rhapsody on a Windy Night", and "A Song for Simeon" along with a 1942 lecture called "The Music of Poetry". Some critics have suggested that there were various classical works that Eliot focused on while writing the pieces. In particular, within literary criticism there is an emphasis on Beethoven serving as a model, although these claims rarely have much substance. The purpose of the quartet was to have multiple themes that intertwined with each other. Each section, as in the musical image, would be distinct even though they share the same performance. East Coker and The Dry Salvages are written in such a way as to make the poems continuous and create a "double-quartet".
Eliot focused on sounds or "auditory imagination", as he called it. He doesn't always keep to this device, especially when he is more concerned with thematic development. He did fix many of these passages in revision.
Dante and Christianity
Critics have compared Eliot to Yeats. Yeats believed that we live in a cyclical type of world, saying, "If it be true that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, the saint goes to the centre, the poet and the artist to the ring where everything comes round again." Eliot believed that such a system is stuck within time. Eliot was influenced by Yeats's reading of Dante. This appears in Eliot's Ash-Wednesday by changing Yeats's "desire for absolution" away from a humanistic approach. When Eliot wrote about personal topics, he tended to use Dante as a reference point. He also relied on Dante's imagery: the idea of the "refining fire" in the Four Quartets and in The Waste Land comes from Purgatorio and the celestial rose and fire imagery of Paradiso makes its way into the series.
If The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Gerontion, The Waste Land, and The Hollow Men are Eliot's Inferno, Ash-Wednesday seems to be Purgatorio, and the Four Quartets seems to be Paradiso. The Four Quartets abandons time, as per Dante's conception of the Empyrean, and allows for opposites to co-exist together. As such, people are able to experience God directly as long as they know that they cannot fully understand or comprehend him. Eliot tries to create a new system, according to Denis Donoghue, in which he is able to describe a Christianity that is not restricted by previous views that have fallen out of favour in modern society or contradicted by science. Eliot reasoned that he is not supposed to preach a theological system as a poet, but expose the reader to the ideas of religion. As Eliot stated in 1947: "if we learn to read poetry properly, the poet never persuades us to believe anything" and "What we learn from Dante, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or any other religious poetry is what it feels like to believe that religion."
According to Russell Kirk, "Nor is it possible to appreciate Eliot—whether or not one agrees with him—if one comes to Four Quartets with ideological blinders. Ideology, it must be remembered, is the attempt to supplant religious dogmas by political and scientistic dogmas. If one's first premise is that religion must be a snare and a delusion, for instance, then it follows that Eliot becomes an enemy to be assaulted, rather than a pilgrim whose journal one may admire-even if one does not believe in the goal of that quest."
Eliot's poetry is filled with religious images beyond those common to Christianity: the Four Quartets brings in Hindu stories with a particular emphasis on the Bhagavad-Gita of the Mahabharata. Eliot went so far as to mark where he alludes to Hindu stories in his editions of the Mahabharata by including a page added which compared battle scenes with The Dry Salvages.