The Lost Generation Classics Circuit: T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

I am excited to be participating in my first Classics Circuit Tour, this one focusing on the Lost Generation of American Literature.  Go here to see the full schedule of posts and to get your fill of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Cummings, and Stein (among others). 

I had considered two works for this tour: Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot and True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway.  I decided on the Eliot, mostly in the interest of time, but I plan to get to the Hemingway soon as part of my ongoing TPR Challenge.  The Eliot is also part of that Challenge, so I will post a companion piece tomorrow to tie in the TPR bits.  But today, I will focus only on the gorgeous, mellifluous, discordant, confounding, and inspiring Four Quartets.

Eliot is, of course, most widely known for his long poem "The Waste Land," and on my list of Things I Must Do Soon is to reread it and try to wrap my head around it more than I did in college.  My faithful Norton Anthology (well, one of them) tells me that Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but his work is collected in the English Literature volume as well as the American.  He lived most of his life in England, and his writing was born of this life and place, but he is still an American, born of "New England stock" (a phrase found in my English Norton but not in the American). My Norton (the American this time) also informs me that the Greek epigraphs at the opening of the piece are from Heraclitus, possibly translated:
But although the Word is common to all, the majority of people live as though they had each an understanding peculiarly his own.
The way up and the way down are one and the same.
You may be aware that Four Quartets was composed after Eliot's conversion to Christianity, and these poems appear to be Eliot working with his new (or newly-considered) understanding of the intersection between the temporal world and the eternal.  In fact, the phrase "the intersection of the timeless moment" occurs in varying fashions in several spots throughout the series.  Death, life, past, future, time, eternity, memory, movement, degeneration, and renewal are thematic territory Eliot traverses here, and there are so many transcendent moments that I can't come close to recounting them all.  Here's one, the reason I first wanted to read this work, actually:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
only through time time is conquered. ("Burnt Norton" 82-89)

This bit comes at the close of the second section in the first poem, and it represents a constant occupation of the series, this idea of time and timelessness both negating and requiring each other.  I have to admit to liking "Burnt Norton" the best still, but all four (also "East Coker," The Dry Salvages," and "Little Gidding") are stunning examples of word play and image craft.  For example, the first line of "East Coker" is "In my beginning is my end."  The last words of that section?  "In my beginning."  Such wit somehow married beautifully with a weighty consideration of supernatural things.  Or the first lines of "The Dry Salvages": "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable."  I love the strong, declarative statement and the humanizing/deification of the river. 

Each of the poems follows a similar pattern, each contains five sections, and each moves through different elements of faith and searching and identity.  The five sections thing threw me off at first because I assumed the "Quartets" title meant there would be four sections in each of the four poems.  Instead, I found that the use of quartet refers to the bringing together of multiple voices or ideas (as in the four instruments of a string quartet) to create a unified whole.  The poetic sections would resemble, then, the movements of a musical composition and should not be considered the instrumentation.  Thus, we should presume that Eliot had a specific four elements in mind to be brought together in these poems.  My list above reflects a good many more than four, so obviously, the application of this idea is not overt.  It did occur to me that Eliot's use of or reflection upon the four seasons of the year might contribute to this designation, but I am merely speculating at this point.  I don't feel comfortable insisting upon a rigid interpretation of the four elements that make up the quartets.

What I do feel comfortable with, however, is continuing to appreciate these poems.  I am so glad the Classics Circuit Tour brought this great work to the forefront of my attention, and I will look forward to hearing these words resonate with me for a long time.  I leave you with a chunk from the last section of the last poem, "Little Gidding":

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.  And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. (lines 214-225)

Would that I could ever reach such a "complete consort" as that described and demonstrated in Four Quartets.


  1. "gorgeous, mellifluous, discordant, confounding, and inspiring" such a description gives me tingles!

    This sounds beautiful. I love the quotes you include here. Maybe I"ll add this in my April poetry month project...

  2. Do read it, Rebecca. It is well worth it!