Impressions of “Four Quartets,” by T.S. Elliot

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Burnt Norton I

Four Quartets is composed of four poems — “Burnt Norton” (1936), “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942). Each of the poems is broken into five parts.

I did not know much about T.S. Elliot before reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings last year. After that I was aware that T.S. Elliot vaguely traveled in similar circles to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and in some way considered himself a Christian. Like most I could recognize at best two famous lines, both without context, both from Little Gidding V.

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

and, even more cliche

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.

The best comparisons for Four Quartets are the literary prophets in the Bible. Like Ezekiel, Elliot alienates the reader to achieve an effect and like Isaiah, Elliot looks toward the Incarnation. Elliot is in dialogue with Jeremiah and John the Revelator over the beginning of the Incarnation, and like the author of Lamentations examines its end.

Like Ezekiel

The prophet Ezekiel and certain post-modern writers use alienation effect to jolt the reader into realizing he is reading. Elliot combines the prophetic and post-modern styles, drawing attention to the composition of the text to draw attention to its authorship.

Ezekiel alienates his reader in many ways, but the passing mention to his wife is a great example. No one who is paying attention can read the passage and not immediately realize the book he is reading has an author, and the author has chosen to share exactly this level of detail:

So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died; and the next morning I did as I was commanded.
Ezekiel 24:18

Until I read Four Quartets I did not comprehend the alienation effect apparent even earlier in the Bible. The great Biblical translator Robert Alter noted the parts of the Hebrew Bible, especially Genesis and Exodus, are “fraught with background.” They read as if other writing is being incorporated by reference, and the comprehensibility of text can suddenly decline. This is often used as evidence of the Documentary hypothesis, that the Hebrew Bible had multiple authors and with “redactors” whose actions betray a lack of artistic unity. Surely passages like this are evidence of an ancient and half-remembered source-text?

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘

And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and made it touch his feet, and said, “Surely you are a bridgeroom of blood to me!” So he let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!” — because of the circumcision.

And the LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him on the mountain of God, and kissed him. So Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which He had commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel.
Exodus 4:22-29

But Elliot’s text has the same fraughtness, but is unquestionably the artistic work of one man:

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see the dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie —
A dignified and commodius sacrement.
Two and two, neccesarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche botokeneth concorde
. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn, or in rustic laughter
East Coker I

Naive “higher critics” of the Bible may argue that Ezekiel is simply poorly written, and that Exodus combines multiple strands that were poorly literary together. But no one can accuse Elliot of sloppiness or of being the pen name for a school of intellectuals that span centuries.

Like Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah begins with what appears to be a historic narrative and transitions into poetry that transcends time and even reason. Isaiah promises a male-child — a created being — who is treated as an Egyptian God-King, enthroned with five superlatives, with the claim he is the Creator.

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called
Wonderful,
Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace
Isaiah 9:6

The reign of this Creator-creature will transcend time:

Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
Isaiah 9:7

Elliot combines these themes, just as explicitly and just as cryptically:

The hint half guessed, the gift half
understood, is Incarnation.
Here is the impossible union.
Of spheres of existence is actual
here the past and future
Are conquered, reconciled
The Dry Salvages V

The still point of history, around which everything revolves

At the still point of the turning world. Neither
flesh nor fleshless:
Neither from nor towards; at the still point,
there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither
movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to
place it in time.
Burnt Norton II

(Un)Like Jeremiah, like John

Elliot takes this one further. The logical consequence of a Creator-creature is that, just as every creature has a mother, so must the Creator. To the prophet Jeremiah, it seemed that this proved the Creator-creature was the point at which logical analysis must end:

Do you not see what they do in
the cities of Judah and
in the streets of Jerusalem?

The children gather wood,
the fathers kindle the fire, and
the women knead dough, to make cakes for
the Queen of Heaven; and
they pour out drink offerings
to other gods, that they may
provoke Me to anger.
Jeremiah 7:17-18

Elliot reads Jeremiah as if there must be sarcastic quotes around the Queen of Heaven noted in Jeremiah. Elliot’s Queen is a woman adored by God, as recorded by John:

Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
Revelation 12:1-6

Elliot prays:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish,
and those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio [daughter of your son],
Queen of Heaven
.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus.
The Dry Salvages IV

Like the Lamentations

Elliot’s focus is the Incarnation — the life, death, and resurrection of Christ — as the focus of history. Within this triptych it is blood, death, and Good Friday which is the center of the center

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
East Coker IV

And the total abandonment of the Passion:

but conscious of nothing — I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness of the dancing
East Corker III

As the Lord sacrificed Zion

How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
How like a widow is she,
Who was great among the nations!
The princess among the provinces
Has become a slave!

She weeps bitterly in the night,
Her tears are on her cheeks;
Among all her lovers
She has none to comfort her.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies.
Lamentations 1:1-2

He also sacrificed her daughter, her King:

It would be they same at the end of the journey.
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.
Little Gidding I

The eldritch horrors of Elliot:

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
It hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone;
The Dry Salvages I

match the blasted, earlier creations, of history:

The Lord has purposed to destroy
The wall of the daughter of Zion.
He has stretched out a line;
He has not withdrawn His hand from destroying;
Therefore He has caused the rampart and wall to lament;
They languished together.

Her gates have sunk into the ground;
He has destroyed and broken her bars.
Her king and her princes are among the nations;
The Law is no more,
And her prophets find no vision from the Lord.
Lamentations 2:8-9

Out of the whale came the prophet Jonah, who shared the good news with gentiles.

Out of Jerusalem, the corrupted city of the Temple, came the flowing blood of Christ.

End

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 things shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Little Gidding V

2 thoughts on “Impressions of “Four Quartets,” by T.S. Elliot”

  1. Wonderful commentary! In the ancient Near East, water and especially ocean were metaphors for chaos. This gives added meaning to: “The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
    The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses It hints of earlier and other creation: . . . Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea.” Add to this the Pentecost symbolism pointing to the eschaton when the fire (the Holy Spirit is often metaphorically called a fire) is fully welded to humanity and the fire (turning here to fire as judgment – the Spirit is referred to as fire because the last judgment is to have the Spirit fully poured out on this creation) and God’s mercy (the rose as symbol of Christ) are united . . . born of the Spirit because flesh and blood are not strong enough to enter the Kingdom of God.

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