Four Quartets is the name given to four related poems by T. S. Eliot, collected and republished in book form in 1943. They had been published individually from 1935 to 1942. Their titles are Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding.
Eliot considered Four Quartets to be his masterpiece. It draws upon his study, over three decades, of mysticism and philosophy. Christian imagery and symbolism in the poems is abundant: he had converted to Anglicanism in 1927, and was a devout Christian. There are also numerous references to Hindu symbols and traditions, with which he had been familiar since his student days.
Each of the four poems, running to several hundred lines, is broken into five sections. Although they resist easy characterization, they have many things in common. Each begins with a rumination prompted by the geographical location in the title; each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect - theological, historical, physical, and on its relation to the human condition. Also, each is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire. A reflective reading suggests an inexact systematicity among them--as if they were verse essays; they approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, and do not necessarily exhaust their questions.
Burnt Norton is a country house near Chipping Campden in North Gloucestershire that Eliot visited in the summer of 1934. It belongs to the Viscount Sandon, son of the Earl of Harrowby. The house's rose garden is the main spatial scenery of the poem. Burnt Norton represents the element of air.
Like all the Quartets, Burnt Norton is a deep meditation on the meaning of time and its relationship with human beings and the Christian meaning of Redemption.
The first verses are the best summary of the poem:
With plastic images as "the passage which we did not take", "the door we never opened", a "rose garden" full of children who weren't there, the speaker sees himself before those things which "might have been" but never were and perceives himself as a powerless witness of unreal things.
Then he meditates on the meaning of eternity, using a figure of which Eliot is very fond, "the still point of the turning world" (the center of a turning wheel remains in the same place) is really the source of movement:
The third stanza is a first clear statement on what the speaker sees as the way to redeem time and to give a value to our actions in time: to free oneself from worldly attachments,
The philosophical tone of the closing stanza is brought sharply to a halt by the final lines, and their reference to children laughing, unseen, in the sunshine:- ...
A quotation from Burnt Norton appears around the water feature The River in Birmingham's Victoria Square - see Another quotation from Burnt Norton appears in Thomas Harris's "Hannibal".
East Coker is a village in Somerset, England from which Eliot's ancestors emigrated to Boston in 1660. T.S. Eliot visited the village in 1936-7 and his ashes are buried in the churchyard. Inside the church a plaque memorializing him was placed in 1965. It contains the words of his chosen epitaph, the opening and closing lines from East Coker: "in my beginning is my end"/"in my end is my beginning". East Coker represents earth.
The poem's starting line
The poem starts again with a reflection on the power of time to change things (reflected in the changes happened to the place), the inability of humans to prevent it and hence, the little use of getting anxious, with a clear parallel of Ecclesiastes 3:1-9:
The second and third stanzas are a melancholy evocation of those who were before as, which brings to mind our own weakness and nothingness; there is nothing left from them as there will be nothing left from us. There is only one escape, for the poet, and that is humility:
But then, what hope is there? That of hoping against all hope (from Romans 4:18) and hence going through the dark night of the soul; here Eliot quotes almost literally St. John of the Cross' Subida del Monte Carmelo:
After the night of the soul, or maybe because of the detachment the soul has achieved, there comes Christ (disguised as a surgeon who has to produce pain in order to cure) to heal us, in one of the few rhymed parts of the whole work.
Finally, returning to the present, the author expresses his awe at all he has seen before and his desire to do as little wrong as possible (this is a persistent idea in Eliot's works), and to find love in being as little active as possible. The poem ends with the aforementioned motto, as if the writer realised that, actually, his end (God, from the Christian perspective) is his beginning (he has been created by God and for God). Nevertheless, a Buddhist element is clear in his reference to the sublimination of the self, which acts as a complement to the apophatical mystical references to Saint John of the Cross.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, a city on the Mississippi River, Eliot had a profound childhood experience concerning rivers but in his youth Eliot also spent summers with his family in sight of the sea on Cape Ann. In the poem, before placing himself at the Dry Salvages, Eliot starts describing his feelings towards the river as opposed to the sea. He sees the river as a
This familiarity and even comeliness of the river is in deep contrast to the sea's strangeness and ruthlessness (now he is referring to the imagery in the title)
This behaviour makes the author reflect about the powers above us human beings, and how time, again, is something we cannot understand completely (the tolling bell of buoys and beacons [m]easures time not our time) and far from our control. Destiny is not in our hands.
The second part starts with six nested stanzas of six verses (which rhyme between stanzas, not in them) presenting life at the sea (seamen and their wives specially) as an image of ordinary life and its sufferings. Human beings cannot control time nor fully understand it, as fishermen cannot control the sea:
The second half of this part is a painful description of time and life as seen by a man with an earthly outlook. The meaning of Happiness is not clearer than that of Pain, and both are above our possibilities. And time makes no difference: Time the destroyer is time the preserver.
Then comes (third stanza) another reflection on the future, and a long meditation on human behaviour and attitude towards life, comparing it to a voyage. Here, Eliot makes use of his knowledge of Hindu mythology, specifically, Krishna's words from the Bhagavad Gita. There is in life, as in any voyage, no point of wishing well, but simply of going on:
The fourth stanza is a prayer (to Our Lady) for seapeople, but in view of the above, it may be seen as a prayer for humanity, also.
The poem ends (fifth stanza) with a description of men's efforts to understand history and divine the future (personal and human) by magic, horoscopes, etc... and stating that
Little Gidding is a village in Huntingdonshire visited by Eliot in 1936. It was the home of a religious community established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar. In 1633 Charles I visited the community; in 1646 he returned, fleeing Parliamentary troops who broke up the community. Little Gidding represents fire.
A long and intense description of Midwinter spring starts the last quartet, the scenery being Little Gidding. Then, the poet warns the visitor of the place that its meaning is beyond any comprehension, and that even if there was any hint of "purpose" in the visit, it has been overcome by a superior one. Whatever the reason, the meaning of the place (the religious community that was there, the return of Charles I...) is over it:
There are two parts in the second stanza. The first one is a set of three stanzas with a rhythm that is in contrast with their content (vanity of human efforts and power of death over everything). They start with the famous
Then a long passage, in nested hendecasyllable tercets, mirroring Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the works which most influenced Eliot's literary education (he usually carried a copy of it, and read it in the Tuscan original). These twenty-five tercets resemble Dante's accounts of his meetings with people in Hell, Purgatory and Paradise: description of the situation, meeting with the person in question (What! are 'you' here?), words of the writer to the other, answer of this one (usually somewhat cryptically) and parting of both.
The conversation deals with the usual topics of eternity and the little objective importance of human acts, and the gifts reserved for age: the expiring sense, the lack of true feelings, the rending pain of re-enactment // Of all that you have done, and been, the discovery of the real motives of one's actions... The parting goes as follows:
The third part is a calling to detachment, especially from self as the developing of one's being in time, to love beyond desire, and so liberation // From the future, as well as from the past.. Another rhythmical stanza recalls the people who used to live at Little Gidding and their differences, and asks not to judge anyone for his party, but to be above any division (citing explicitly the war of the two Roses), because
Fourth part is a patent homage to the Holy Spirit (The dove descending breaks the air), and an exaltation of his omnipotence and power to redeem. He is also the Love which is the opposite of the fire of passions (or even of Hell) and between which two lie our decisions:
The ending part of this stanza recalls the beginning of East Coker.
The fifth stanza begins in the chapel at Little Gidding, where Eliot fully realises the interconnection of past, present, and future--and hence the meaninglessness of time--alluded to in the first lines of Burnt Norton.
Later, a key closing line from Burnt Norton is recalled in a new deeper context.
The poet meditates on the meaning of our actions, the many instances when we realize that what we called an end was just the beginning of another move, and vice versa (Every poem an epitaph). Birth and dying are moments of equal importance, we are born with the dead... but in God's hands, though we be unconscious, He takes care of us. The "crowned knot of fire" is an image of the Trinity. In the end,
And towards the end of Section 5, it evokes the great spiritual idea of coming home, evocative of the Prodigal Son story:
The final lines of the poem evoke the joining of the fire of Dante's Inferno with the rose of Paradiso, an image of the ambiguous duality of heaven and hell, right and wrong, and the mystic's search for the complete conflation of all reason in this world, with the unity only mystical experience can hint at.