Four Quartets


Each poem has five sections. The later poems connect to the earlier sections with Little Gidding synthesising the themes of the earlier poems within its sections.[14] Within Eliot's own poetry, the five sections connect to The Waste Land. This allowed Eliot to structure his larger poems, which he had difficulty with.[15]

According to C.K. Stead, the structure is based on:[16]

  1. The movement of time, in which brief moments of eternity are caught.
  2. Worldly experience, leading on to dissatisfaction.
  3. Purgation in the world, divesting the soul of the love of created things.
  4. A lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, intercession.
  5. The problems of attaining artistic wholeness which becomes analogue for, and merge into, the problems of achieving spiritual health.

These points can be applied to the structure of The Waste Land, though there is not necessarily a fulfilment of these but merely a longing or discussion of them.[17]

Burnt Norton

The poem begins with two epigraphs taken from the fragments of Heraclitus:

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί
ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν
I. p. 77. Fr. 2.
ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή
I. p. 89 Fr. 60.

The first may be translated, "Though wisdom is common, the many live as if they have wisdom of their own"; the second, "the way upward and the way downward is one and the same."[18]

The concept and origin of Burnt Norton is connected to Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral.[19] The poem discusses the idea of time and the concept that only the present moment really matters because the past cannot be changed and the future is unknown.[20]

In Part I, this meditative poem begins with the narrator trying to focus on the present moment while walking through a garden, focusing on images and sounds like the bird, the roses, clouds, and an empty pool. In Part II, the narrator's meditation leads him/her to reach "the still point" in which he doesn't try to get anywhere or to experience place and/or time, instead experiencing "a grace of sense." In Part III, the meditation experience becomes darker as night come on, and by Part IV, it is night and "Time and the bell have buried the day." In Part V, the narrator reaches a contemplative end to his/her meditation, initially contemplating the arts ("Words" and "music") as they relate to time. The narrator focuses particularly on the poet's art of manipulating "Words [which] strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden [of time], under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision, [and] will not stay in place, /Will not stay still." By comparison, the narrator concludes that "Love is itself unmoving,/Only the cause and end of movement,/Timeless, and undesiring." For this reason, this spiritual experience of "Love" is the form of consciousness that most interests the narrator (presumably more than the creative act of writing poetry).

East Coker

Eliot started writing East Coker in 1939, and modelled the poem after Burnt Norton as a way to focus his thoughts. The poem served as a sort of opposite to the popular idea that The Waste Land served as an expression of disillusionment after World War I, though Eliot never accepted this interpretation.[3] The poem focuses on life, death, and continuity between the two. Humans are seen as disorderly and science is viewed as unable to save mankind from its flaws. Instead, science and reason lead mankind to warfare, and humanity needs to become humble in order to escape the cycle of destruction. To be saved, people must recognize Christ as their savior as well as their need for redemption.[21]

The Dry Salvages

Eliot began writing The Dry Salvages at the end of 1940 during air-raids on London, and managed to finish the poem quickly. The poem included many personal images connecting to Eliot's childhood, and emphasised the image of water and sailing as a metaphor for humanity.[6] According to the poem, there is a connection to all of mankind within each man. If we just accept drifting upon the sea, then we will end up broken upon rocks. We are restrained by time, but the Annunciation gave mankind hope that it will be able to escape. This hope is not part of the present. What we must do is understand the patterns found within the past in order to see that there is meaning to be found. This meaning allows one to experience eternity through moments of revelation.[22]

Little Gidding

Little Gidding was started after The Dry Salvages but was delayed because of Eliot's declining health and his dissatisfaction with early drafts of the poem. Eliot was unable to finish the poem until September 1942.[23] Like the three previous poems of the Four Quartets, the central theme is time and humanity's place within it. Each generation is seemingly united and the poem describes a unification within Western civilisation. When discussing World War II, the poem states that humanity is given a choice between the bombing of London or the Holy Spirit. God's love allows mankind to redeem themselves and escape the living hell through purgation by fire; he drew the affirmative coda "All shall be well" from medieval mystic Julian of Norwich. The end of the poem describes how Eliot has attempted to help the world as a poet, and he parallels his work in language with working on the soul or working on society.[24]

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