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Four Quartets

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 (1935)

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:

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.

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:

[...] Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance
But human beings, still submerged in time and movement, are not able to perceive it, because
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness
and consciousness is required to catch the glimpses of eternity.

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,

Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is a repetitive idea in Eliot's later (post-Waste Land) poems that will appear several times in the Four Quartets; reflecting his devotion for the Church's teaching concerning poverty and detachment, together with the parallel doctrines of Nirvana in Buddhism. The imagery in the stanza ("a dim light", "time-ridden faces, [d]istracted from distraction by distraction") was said to be inspired by Eliot's trips on the London Underground.

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:- ...

Quick now, here, now, always- (this line is repeated again at the end of Little Gidding)
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

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 (1940)

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

In my beginning is my end.
which can be understood as a poetical expression of his desire that his ashes be kept there, is a derivation of Mary Queen of Scots' motto "En ma fin est mon commencement" ("In my end is my beginning").

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:

[...] there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots...
Which is remembered again at the end of the first stanza
The time of seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts.

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:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

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:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy [...]
[...] the quote goes on for some ten verses [...]
And where you are is where you are not.
This idea, especially the several paradoxes and their oriental imagery (typical of St. John of the Cross) made a deep impression in the poet (who read the Spanish poet's works several times and had quoted him already in the opening page of Sweeney Agonistes).

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.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart [...]

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.

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
[...]. In my end is my beginning

The Dry Salvages (1941)

Eliot himself describes the place in a note at the beginning of the poem: "The Dry Salvages – presumably les trois sauvages – is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, off the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts." (Rhymes with assuages.) The Dry Salvages represents water.

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

[...] strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree [...]
but which men have been able to deal with in some way, and have come to forget. His feelings towards it are nicely expressed
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

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)

The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
the shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men.

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:

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.
But there is some hope: Christs' coming to the world,
There is no end of it [...] (the suffering, wreckages...)
[...]. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.

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:

Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging
and at the end,
[...] Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

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

[...]; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press
what matters really is eternity and its link with men's history (which is the Incarnation of Jesus).
[...]. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint –
and other people (we, ordinary people) are unable to do it. At least, maybe our point is to understand its importance and its liberating power, which Eliot tries to explain in the final verses.

Little Gidding (1942)

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:

[...]. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. [...]

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

Ash on an old man's sleeve...

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 day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.

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

[...] all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
(the first two verses are from Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, and have appeared already at the beginning of the rhythmical stanza).

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:

We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

The ending part of this stanza recalls the beginning of East Coker.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

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.

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

Later, a key closing line from Burnt Norton is recalled in a new deeper context.

Quick now, here, now, always - (pre-penultimate line of Burnt Norton)
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

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,

[...] All shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

And towards the end of Section 5, it evokes the great spiritual idea of coming home, evocative of the Prodigal Son story:

[...] We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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.


Readings of Four Quartets have been recorded by several notable artists. The first was by T. S. Eliot himself, and was originally issued on HMV plum-label 78rpm records (C series), soon afterwards transferred to LP. Robert Speaight made probably the second, for Argo. There are distinctive versions by Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, and others. Paul Scofield's account is available on BBC CD.

References in music and literature

  • Part IV of Little Gidding was set to music by Igor Stravinsky in Anthem: The Dove Descending Breaks the Air (1962), and is also quoted in Brooks Williams's "Wanderer's Song". The Kennedys' song "The Fire & the Rose" takes its title and chorus from the last line of Little Gidding. The Russian composer Arthur Lourié wrote an eponymous piece for tenor and orchestra setting extracts from Little Gidding.
  • Sofia Gubaidulina wrote an Homage à T.S. Eliot (1985) which quotes from three of the poems. Composer George Tsontakis' Four Symphonic Quartets are an intuitive response to a variety of images conjured by the poems. Caitlín R. Kiernan's science fiction novella, The Dry Salvages (2004), was inspired by Eliot's The Dry Salvages.
  • Martin Gardner's "The Annotated Alice" notes that T.S. Eliot once revealed to the critic Louis L. Martz, that he was thinking of Alice's experience with the little key and tiny doors while "Down the Rabbit Hole," when he wrote the first fourteen lines of "Burnt Norton." Alice's experience was for Eliot a metaphor for events that might have been, had one opened certain doors. (see Gardner, 2000, p.16).
  • John Fahey named the three long guitar soli comprising the album "Fare Forward, Voyager" (1973) after a paraphrase of a passage in Four Quartets: "When the Fire and the Rose are One", "Thus Krishna on the Battlefield" and "Fare Forward Voyagers".
  • The PJ Harvey song "When Under Ether," which includes the lyrics, "When under ether, the mind comes alive/But conscious of nothing but the will to survive," references a line from "East Coker": "Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing."

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