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Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
T.S. Eliot. The Four Quartets
T S Eliot reads his Four Quartets
Summary:The Four Quartets
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets: “Burnt Norton”
SummaryThe first of the quartets, “Burnt Norton,” is named for a ruined country house in Gloucestershire. This quartet is the most explicitly concerned with time as an abstract principle. The first section combines a hypothesis on time—that the past and the future are always contained in the present—with a description of a rose garden where children hide, laughing. A bird serves as the poet’s guide, bringing him into the garden, showing him around, and saving him from despair at not being able to reach the laughing children. The second section begins with a sort of song, filled with abstract images of a vaguely pagan flavor. The poem shifts midway through the section, where it again assumes a more meditative tone in order to sort out the differences between consciousness and living in time: The speaker asserts, “To be conscious is not to be in time,” for consciousness implies a fixed perspective while time is characterized by a transient relativity (around the fixed point of the present). However, this statement does not intend to devalue memory and temporal existence, which, according to the poem, allow the moments of greatest beauty. The third section of “Burnt Norton” reads like the bridge section of a song, in which the key changes. In this section, Eliot describes a “place of disaffection”—perhaps the everyday world—which allows neither transcendence (“darkness”) nor the beauty of the moment (“daylight”). The fourth, very short section returns to a sort of melody (some of the lines rhyme) to describe the unattainable, fictional point of fixity around which time is organized. This point is described as surrounded by flowers and birds; perhaps it can be found in the rose garden of the first section. The final section of this quartet returns to reality: Despite the apparent vitality of words and music, these must die; the children’s laughter in the garden becomes a mocking laughter, scorning our enslavement to time.
FormEliot is much less experimental with rhyme and meter here than he is in his earlier works. Instead, he displays a mature language consciousness. Through the repetition of words and the use of structures like chiasmus and pastiche, he creates a rhythm not dependent on previous poetic forms. It is as if the mere meaning of the words is not enough to express the philosophical concepts Eliot wants to explore, as they “decay with imprecision”: He must exploit the physical properties of the words themselves. The repetition and circularity of language that are this poem’s hallmarks highlight the infinite circularity of time: Just as past, present, and future cannot be separated with any precision, neither can the words used to describe them. Rather than exploiting bizarre combinations of images or intricate formal devices, Eliot uses the gravity of terms like “past” and “present” to create a beautiful monument of ideas.
CommentaryThe Four Quartets were written over a period of eight years, from 1935 to 1942. These years span World War II; they also follow Eliot’s conversion to the Church of England and his naturalization as a British subject. These poems are the work of an older, more mature, spiritually attuned poet, facing a world torn by war and increasingly neglectful of the past. Each of the Four Quartets considers spiritual existence, consciousness, and the relationship of the present to the past. Whereas The Waste Land and others of Eliot’s early works take an interest in the effects of time on culture, the Quartets are concerned with the conflict between individual mortality and the endless span of human existence. Accordingly, each quartet focuses on a particular place with its own distinctive significance to human history and takes off from that place to propose a series of ideas about spirituality and meaningful experience. Each quartet separates into five sections; Eliot used these divisions and the transitions between them to try to create an effect he described as similar to the musical form of the sonata. The Quartets, thus, display none of the fragmentation or collage-like qualities of Eliot’s earlier poetry; instead, Eliot substitutes an elegant measuredness and a new awareness of language: Puns and other forms of wordplay occur with some frequency.
Four Quartets are four interlinked meditations with the common theme being man's relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. In describing his understanding of the divine within the poems, Eliot blends his Anglo-Catholicism with mystical, philosophical and poetic works from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions, with references to the Bhagavad-Gita and the Pre-Socratics as well as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.
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. 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.
According to C.K. Stead, the structure is based on:
- The movement of time, in which brief moments of eternity are caught.
- Worldly experience, leading to dissatisfaction.
- Purgation in the world, divesting the soul of the love of created things.
- A lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, intercession.
- The problem of attaining artistic wholeness, which becomes an analogue for and merges into the problem of achieving spiritual health.