Discovering the Four Quartets

A friend and I lamented the other night how we were only taught T.S. Eliot‘s early poems in undergrad: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922). She came over so we could discuss the suite of four poems Eliot wrote after his conversion to Christianity and what I would claim as his magnum opus: the Four Quartets (1935-1942).

I fell in love with Prufrock as much as the next budding English student swept away by the angst of modernism. This poem and The Waste Land were taught as Eliot’s crowning achievements, as if that was all there was to the man. It wasn’t until this year that I read his entire collected poems and realized if you just stop at his early works, you rob yourself of the bigger, more complete picture of who this famous poet was.

There’s no doubt T.S. Eliot is intimidating to read. He can throw down references to the Baghavad Gita as easily as the Bible, and there is a level of erudition from the reader his poems require. Every word and image matters, and there are so many layers to his work you could be peeling the onion forever.

One of the biggest differences that struck me in comparing his earlier poems to his later poems is the emergence of hope in the latter. Prufrock and The Waste Land are notable for their lack of hope—the despairing landscape they paint after World War I. A recurring theme in Eliot’s work is the failure of words to adequately describe human experience.

We see this in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

We find a similar sentiment in East Coker, the third poem in the Four Quartets, and yet there’s a twist. I’m including this whole passage because it’s my favourite in the Four Quartets:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

My friend posited that the early T.S. Eliot would have stopped after “by men whom one cannot hope to emulate”, and I tend to agree. But this T.S. Eliot didn’t. Hope is the difference. You wouldn’t keep trying if you didn’t think it was worth it, after all. There is a significant change in his worldview.

I love this passage not only because it speaks to me as a writer, but also because I sense this is actually Eliot talking, not the speaker. It’s rare to get these vulnerable glimpses of the man behind the poet, and it draws me closer to him, hearing him wonder on the page if he wasted twenty years, if his work matters, if he matters.

T.S. Eliot may be intimidating, but the irony is that he’s so human in his questions and observations. There are passages in the Four Quartets that completely stump me, and others that make me laugh out loud with how in touch he is with human behaviour:

The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future….

Perhaps the biggest joy I had in reading the Four Quartets was discovering he was the author of a phrase I had heard before and cherished, and never knew it was him who had penned it (it’s not the Julian of Norwich reference, but the first four lines). This is the stanza that ends the Four Quartets and which I never would have guessed came from the T.S. Eliot I studied in school. People change, and all his searching, questioning, and exploring led him to a beautiful place.

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.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

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