Does the center
hold in Eliot's Four Quartets?
The Quartets are structured like music:
"There are possibilities for verse which bear some
analogy to the development of a theme by different groups of instruments; there are
possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the different movements of a symphony
or a quartet; there are possibilities of contrapuntal arrangement of subject-matter."
-- T.S. Eliot, "The Music of Poetry"
"The music of a word is, so to speak, at a point of
intersection: it arises from its relation first to the words immediately preceding and
following it, and indefinitely to the rest of its context; and from another relation, that
of its immediate meaning in that context to all the other meanings which it has had in
other contexts, to its greater or less wealth of association."
-- "On Poetry and Poets"
A quartet has a number of movements; each has its own keys, meters,
rhythms, tempos, themes, and colors. Quartets build their effect on repetition,
variation, point, and counterpoint. Its instruments imitate and answer each other;
they develop previous themes in new directions, add new or different harmonies, change
tones, as well as reverse melody lines and chord changes.
E.g. Burnt Norton 1 (lines 1-15), 2 (lines 61-73a), East
Coker 3 (compare lines 102-129 with 135-148)
The Quartets are structured through the repetition
and development of motifs:
Roses (BN 1
-- the rose-garden, BN 2 -- "the moment in the rose-garden," EC
2 -- "Late roses filled with early snow," EC 4 -- "the flame is
roses," LG 2 -- "Is all the ash the burnt roses leave," LG 3
-- the folding Rose, LG 5 -- "the fire and the rose are one."
[Likewise, one could note the use of flowers in general -- the clematis (BN 3),
the ailanthus and lavender (DS 1 and 3), the snow blossoms on the hedgerow
Light and Dark (BN
1 -- the light on the roses and filling the pool, BN 2 -- "a white
light still and moving," BN 3 -- the darkness of the subway, BN 4
-- The unturning light of God, BN 5 -- "Sudden in a shaft of sunlight,"
EC 3 -- the darkness of the funeral age, DS 5 -- "lost in a shaft
of sunlight," LG 1 -- the sempiternal light, LG 2 -- the night of
Movement [Subways, Dances,
Voyages, etc.] (BN 3 -- the subway as "a place of disaffection,"
which moves "on its mettaled ways," EC 3 -- the conversation in the
subway; BN 2 -- "The dance along the artery," BN 5 --
"The crying shadow in the funeral dance," EC 1 -- the country marriage
dance, LG 2 -- "Where you must move in measure, like a dancer," LG
5 -- "The complete consort dancing together". DS 2 -- the movement of
the dock workers, the continual movement of the river and the sea; DS 3 --
"Not fare well,/ But fare forward, voyagers." LG 5 -- "We shall
not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we
Stillness [The Wheel, Love,
etc.] (BN 2 -- "At the still point of the turning world" that is
the hub of the wheel and God. BN 3 -- "But abstention from movement," BN
5 -- "Love is itself unmoving," EC 3 -- "wait without hope [. . .]
without love [. . .] without thought," DS 4 -- "Lady, whose shrine
stands on the promontory".
Time, The Past/ The Present, History -- (BN 1 -- opening lines, BN 2 --
"Only through time time is conquered." EC 1-2 -- associated with Thomas
Elyot and past ways of expressing poetic ideals; EC 5 -- "There is a time
for the evening under starlight/ A time for the evening under lamplight." DS
2-3 -- "We cannot think of a time that is oceanless," "Time the destroyer
is time the preserver," Time is no healer," DS 5 -- In the Incarnation
"the past and future/ Are conquered, and reconciled," LG -- the whole
poem is based on the way past symbols and conflicts are resolved in the present: "A
people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless
The Way of Negation (BN 3 -- "Desiccation of the world of sense,/
Evacuation of the world of fancy,/ Inoperancy of the world of spirit," EC 3
-- "You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy [. . .] You must go by a way
which is the way of ignorance [. . .] You must go through the way in which you are
not." DS 5 -- "And taken, in a lifetime's death in love/ Ardour and
selflessness and self-surrender." LG 1 -- "And what you thought you
came for/ Is only a shell, a husk of meaning" LG 3 -- "For liberation
-- not less of love but expanding/ Of love beyond desire".
Wordless Prayer (BN 5 -- "Words, after speech, reach/ Into
silence," EC 3 -- "I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope/
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing," DS 2 -- "The prayer of the
bone on the beach, the unprayable/ Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?" DS
4 -- The Angelus, DS 5 -- "the rest/ Is prayer, observance, discipline,
thought and action." LG 1 -- "And prayer is more/ Than an order of
words, the conscious occupation/ Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice
The Quartets are structured through the four
elements and the seasons:
Burnt Norton -- Air (the
references aren't direct, but Little Gidding seems to make this association --
cf. section 2. In many ways I think BN is more about light than air.)
Autumn -- "In the autumn heat,
through the vibrant air"
East Coker -- Earth (lines
1-8) Summer -- "On a Summer
midnight, you can hear the music"
The Dry Salvages -- Water (both
the river and the sea) No single season, the river and ocean are
associated with all seasons -- "the April dooryard [. .
.] the autumn table [. . .] the winter gaslight" "but in the sombre
season/ Or the sudden fury, is what it always was."
Little Gidding -- Fire (cf.
pentecostal fire, the bomb, Purgatory, the flaming hairshirt, the roses) Winter solstice -- "When the shortest
day is brightest"
There are also references to the elements throughout all four poems.
The Quartets are structured through similar
Section four of each poem is lyrical and has some
association with the Trinity or Mary:
BN -- "the light is still/ At the still point of the
turning world" -- God the Creator
EC -- "The wounded surgeon" who is Christ
DS -- The Angelus to Mary
LG -- The Holy Spirit who is "[t]he dove
Section five of each touches on the problems of
language and speech:
BN -- "Words move, music moves/ Only in time;"
This explores in some detail the limits, even the brokenness of words, as well as
the temptations they are subject to.
EC -- "Trying to learn to use words" This
looks at the struggle we have with finding new words, which are always "raids on the
inarticulate" and which always "fight to recover what has been lost/ And found
and lost again and again."
DS -- "That it is not heard at all, or music heard so
deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music"
LG -- "The common word exact without vulgarity,/ The
formal word precise but not pedantic." This suggests that language can finally
serve its limited purpose, for it can find the humble, exact word.
The Quartets are structured through thesis and
antithesis (often in individual lines):
The Quartets are structured through/ to the
tradition of poetic references:
BN -- Ecclesiates, Genesis, Dante, Tennyson, Hegel, John of
EC -- Thomas Elyot, Ecclesiates, The Psalms, Shakespeare,
DS -- Homer, Twain (? cf. 120-122), The Bhagavad-Gita,
LG -- The Acts of the Apostles, Milton, Dante, Mallarme,
Shelley, Yeats, Julian of Norwich
The Quartets are structured through associations
with Eliot's personal and family past:
BN -- His (mystical) experience in the garden at Burnt
EC -- The Eliot family originated in East Coker
DS -- The Mississippi River; Gloucester, Mass. (Boyhood
LG -- London bombing; A visit to Little Gidding
The Quartets are structured by an overarching
Burnt Norton, which was written originally as a separate
poem before Eliot had thought of writing the others, acts as an introduction to the themes
of time, the past, the way of negation, mysticism and self-denial, the limits of language,
and the power of symbols.
East Coker poses the problem of the past more completely by
exploring Eliot's own family heritage, his concern with worn-out poetic language, the need
for spiritual discipline through Christ, the Church, and the sacraments, and the call to
wordless prayer and the selfless of love.
The Dry Salvages extends the problem of human suffering by
looking at the ravages of time as it is experienced in this life. It prays the
Angelus in hopes of the Annunciation and the Incarnation. The later is the answer to
the realm of time for it brings together time and the timeless, history and eternity.
Little Gidding completes the cycle by answering the
questions of the previous poems. It repeats the themes of negation, wordless prayer,
selfless love, and suffering. It suggests that this personal spirituality of love in
suffering has ramifications for a community's history and its symbols; these too can be