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.

Jude the Obscure: Lost in Contrast

I don’t know what to make of Jude the Obscure. The last of Thomas Hardy’s novels, it was published in 1895 and received such rancorous attacks that the author renounced fiction and switched to poetry.


What is in this book that so scandalized its Victorian audience? There are a lot of things going on—too many, in my opinion, which deprive it of any sense of unity and cohesiveness. What is clear, however, is that the book lays a heavy critique on marriage, Christianity, and England’s class system.

The plot centres on Jude, an eleven-year old orphaned boy living with his aunt in the town of Marygreen, situated in Hardy’s fictional region of Wessex. After he finishes school, Jude gains employment as a stone mason though he dreams of life as a university scholar or, as a back-up plan, a minister. He teaches himself Latin and Greek to be able to read the classics, all the time setting his sights on the radiant city of Christminster, the epicentre of higher learning or the “heavenly Jerusalem”.

Jude is a man with a single-minded purpose, working towards a better life but being thwarted at every attempt. The first obstacle is a woman, Arabella Donn, an equally obscure daughter of a pig farmer who woos the naïve and easily love-struck Jude. She traps him into marriage by pretending she is pregnant. Here is a small example of Hardy’s critique against marriage:

There seemed to [Jude], vaguely and dimly, something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour. . .

It doesn’t take long for Jude and Arabella to both be unhappy in the marriage, so Arabella leaves Jude and marries another man. Jude moves to Christminster, getting work as a stone mason while writing letters to the universities to see if one will let him in based on the merits of his self-erudition. But he can’t compete with the likes of boys who spent their lives under trained teachers, and the only other option is to buy himself in. That really isn’t an option though since he’d have to save 15 years’ worth of his salary to do so. The second obstacle to his dream is his class position. Lonely and despairing, he heads to a tavern and there discovers his weakness for alcohol that will get him in trouble later.

The “bright light” in the midst of Jude’s early sufferings is his cousin Sue Bridehead who lives in Christminster and who Jude gets to know and, against his own better judgment, falls in love with. A free-spirited thinker very much a forerunner of feminism, Sue defies all norms of Victorian society with her inclination for pagan philosophy and her fierce critiques of the Church and marriage. And yet she marries Jude’s former schoolteacher, Richard Phillotson, out of social convention and pressure. Not surprisingly, she’s extremely unhappy and with the eventual permission of her husband, leaves him for Jude. However, she and Jude don’t get married because neither of them want to repeat their mistakes with their first spouses. They look at marriage as nothing more than a contract that robs a relationship of true feeling. So Jude and Sue live together happily, have two kids of their own, as well as look after Jude and Arabella’s young boy nicknamed “Father Time” for his older-than-his-years cynicism towards life.

Once Sue’s and Jude’s divorces go through and their scandal is known throughout the region, it’s hard for Jude to get or keep a job anywhere. They become nomads, thwarting Jude’s dreams even more, although he has largely given up on them anyway. Instead of  studying at Christminster, he and Sue start their own pastry business selling “Christminster cakes”, a poor imitation or mockery of Jude’s life-long aspirations. Sue’s independence also ruins Phillotson, who cannot get a job anywhere because no one has any respect for him.

You can probably see why this is called Hardy’s bleakest novel. But this isn’t even the worst of it. Aware that they are poor and cannot find lodgings anywhere with such a big family and another one on the way, Father Time hangs his two younger siblings and then himself, leaving Jude and Sue childless. Sue loses her third baby in childbirth.

It is after this horrifying tragedy that Jude and Sue switch places. Overcome by grief and convinced the murders are punishment for her illegitimate relationship with Jude, Sue becomes a self-sacrificing, dogma-quoting Christian convinced she needs to return to her first husband. Phillotson takes her back, not because he loves her still, but because it is the “social good” and would somewhat redeem their earlier disaster. On the flip side, Jude loses any last vestiges of his Christian faith and denounces it because of the submissive weakling it has made of Sue. He broadens his views, but the miry ground that leads him to is arguably just as alarming as Sue’s newfound rigidity. He explains his precarious inner compass to the townspeople in Christminster:

I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best.

In the meantime, Arabella has come back into the picture. Her second husband dies, leaving her free to pursue/trap Jude again. And she does by getting him drunk and making him promise to marry her. Shortly after marrying Arabella, Jude contracts a bad illness and dies alone and unmourned. Arabella is already in pursuit of her next husband.

The book has come full circle and as the reader, I felt a little sick, as if I’ve just come off a roller coaster where I’ve been spinning around and upside down for the past 300 pages. I was baffled by this ending. At one point, I thought that maybe Arabella and Phillotson would pair up, but never did I imagine for the first matches to repeat themselves.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jude the Obscure because Hardy presents two extremes through Jude and Sue, neither of which are attractive. It’s common to root for a character or the philosophy they represent in a novel, but Hardy only gives the reader two options, as per his intentions:

Of course the book is all contrasts—or was meant to be in its original conception. Alas, what a miserable accomplishment it is!—e.g., Sue and her heathen gods set against Jude’s reading the Greek testament; Christminster academical, Christminster in the slums; Jude the saint, Jude the sinner; Sue the Pagan, Sue the saint; marriage, no marriage; etc. etc.

The character foil is intentional in terms of highlighting Jude’s and Sue’s differences, but it leaves little room for exploring the nuances of being human in our world, even a world that is admittedly unfair. With refreshing honesty, we read above how Jude replaces his black and white opinions for grey ones, but we don’t see that same nuance in Hardy’s novel regarding marriage, Christianity, or society. To attack all three without showing anything redeeming in their portrayals shows an author disillusioned, contemptuous, or depressed.

There is very little hope in this story. Critic Barry Swartz calls it a lament instead of a tragedy because Jude doesn’t create his own defeat, only the mode of his defeat. Fate is against him from the start, the conclusion of which is captured in Father Time’s reflective question, “It would be better to be out o’ the world than in it, wouldn’t it?”

Jude the Obscure explores the existential questions coming into the philosophy of Hardy’s day, making it a bridge between Victorian and Modernist literature. It addresses the loneliness and futility of man, and perhaps the loneliness of Hardy, who, like his two principal characters, experiences a similar backlash from society for the views he presents. Near the end of his life, Jude laments:

As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago—when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless—the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessnes and ruin on me!

Two weeks later, I am still processing the obscurities in Jude the Obscure would like some company. How do you read this book? Is it a lament or an avoidable tragedy? Are his contrasts helpful? What makes the book obscure or illuminating for you?