Eliot's Four Quartets grew out of a what was initially a single poem, "Burnt Norton," which ended up being the first of four poems. "Burnt Norton" was made up of discarded passages from his dramatic work from the 1930s, specifically, Murder in the Cathedral. After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, interest in the theater declined, and Eliot turned back to poetry, writing a second poem which takes the same five-part structure of "Burnt Norton" called "East Coker." During the writing of this second poem, Eliot decided on the overall sequence of the Four Quartets. The third poem, "The Dry Salvages," was completed in 1940, and the last poem, "Little Gidding," was completed in 1942. Their first publication as a set was in 1943 in New York, and 1944 in London.
I. The poet expresses abstractions of time which privileges the notion that "time is eternally present" in reflective yet simple lines. A bird calls "us" into a rose-garden, "our first world" (alluding to Eden), where an unnamed "they" are, "dignified, invisible / Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves..." We look into an empty pool which fills "with water out of sunlight" and "they" stand behind us, reflected. The moment "they" are identified as children (our own past?) the bird tells us to leave.
II. The beginning of this second section is metrically nursery-rhyme like: "Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle tree." The lines expand with the introduction of a recurring image in this poem, "the still point of the turning world," which the poet insists, is stillness and not "fixity." This still point is this eternal present, a Buddhist-like state free from "practical desire" "release[d] from action and suffering."
III. The poet indicates "a place of disaffection," which is being stuck in "Time before and time after." To escape this temporality, one could descend, "Into a world of perpetual solitude / World not world, but that which is not world, / Internal darkness, depirvation / And destitution of all property / Dessication of the world of sense, / Evacuation of the world of fancy, / Inoperancy of the world of spirit." This begins to sound like Hell rather than Heaven, though both are empty of desire and notions of "time past and time future."
IV. This is a short stanza; it plays with the images of a bell, nature, and again, the still point of the turning world.
V. This final section admits and explores the limitations of words and music. Even though words and music don't die like people do, they aren't "still" and are subject to the burden of movement. "Form" and "pattern" perpetuate stillness, though, and might help words and music to get closer to the divine stillness of an eternal present which the poem has been holding up throughout.
I. The poem begins, "In my beginning is my end." Images of destruction, decay, restoration, and renewal, collapses beginnings and endings. In an "open field," archaic, rustic rituals celebrating "matrimonie" and coupling go on, alongside the time of seasons, milking, harvest. "Eating and drinking" are juxtaposed with "Dung and death."
II. Again, the first part of this section begins with clipped, nursery-rhyme like lines which mix together imagines from different seasons, again collapsing linear time. The words which he has just used to try to collapse linear time, the poet says in the next section, are inadequate to the task. The section ends bleakly with the adage that "[t]he only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."
III. "O dark dark dark" reminds us of Milton's blindness, but also his faith: the dark is not a place of despair, but it "shall be the darkness of God." Didactic negations turn out to be the way of reaching (the inexpressible state of spiritual fulfillment--but it can't really be "fulfillment" since that signals progression). This is how Eliot expresses it: "To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not, / You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy. / In order to arrive at what you do not know / You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance...And what you do not know is the only thing you know / And what you own is what you do not own / And where you are is where you are not."
IV. Sin is figured as a disease and sickness, and earth is "our hospital." In battling fevers here on earth, the poet says he "must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires."
V. This section contains a direct reference to the World Wars, and the poets own "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..." Again, words aren't up to the task of expressing the still point of the world, the time eternal, the spiritual state which we need to realize. Yet, the fight to get there, to "recover what has been lost" is what we do. In fact, "for us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business," in other words, that's the business of Christ.
The Dry Salvages
I. The first section figures (the Mississippi?) river as a "strong brown god," who is forgotten in the building up of cities and the living in them. Yet, the divine presence of the sea remains everywhere though it may be "unhonoured, unpropitiated, / By worshippers of the machine."
II. This section revises the notion of an "end" and suggests that in time, there is only "addition" or accumulation. As one gets older, the poet says, time seems less and less like development or sequence (linear), but more like a pattern, which is another way of thinking of it as accumulation. The only true happiness is not in the things that we usually think of as "well-being," like "fruition, fulfilment, security or affection, / Or even a very good dinner" but a "sudden illumination" which can't be expressed as any kind of "meaning." This happiness is only available through Christ.
III. "I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant" links Eliot's poem to Eastern concepts of transmigration of the soul. The poet enjoins life travellers to "fare forward" and not to fare well; there is a sense of inevitability in change and to "fare forward" is to let these changes happen and to face them bravely.
IV. The poet prays to the Virgin on behalf of people living by the seaside, those who have embarked voyages, and the women who have been left behind.
V. This section condemns all sorts of life occupations to tell the future ("To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, / To report the behaviour of the sea monster, / Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry, / Observe disease in signatures, evoke / Biography from the wrinkles of the palm...") as unreal--they are merely "pastimes and drugs." Instead, one ought to try to "apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / with time." This is the "occupation for the saint," although Eliot stops here and admits it isn't an "occupation." Ultimately, the closest we may get here on earth are to gain "only hints and guesses," "the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action."
I. The poem begins with "midwinter spring" is a divine, eternal sort of season which feels "suspended in time, between pole and tropic." The second part of this section breaks into second-person address conditionals which essentially say that regardless what route you take, the notion of "purpose" will break apart. "You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid."
II. After images of water and fire destroying the earth, a dead master speaks with the poet in terza rima, preaching purification and refinement of the soul by fire. Specifically, the master refers to the disciplined movement of "dancing" in the fire, again suggesting the importance of pattern (as in poems, music) in aiding a soul towards realizing the divine state of stillness.
III. This section explores problems of attachment (such as to country, "faces and places") and levels these kinds of loyalties in death: "We cannot revive old factions / We cannot restore old policies / Or follow an antique drum. / These men, and those who opposed them / And those whom they opposed / Accept the constitution of silence / And are folded in a single party."
IV. This is a short section on redemption by fire.
V. The poet asserts that "What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning," destroying once again the linear conception of time. A similar sentiment is expressed in "history is a pattern / Of timeless moments." He suggests a continuing exploration throughout ones life, however, but that the "end" of such exploration will be to get back to where we started "And know the place for the first time," strongly signaling a return to a state before original sin.
The five-part structures of the poems in Four Quartets are reminiscent of The Waste Land, but late Eliot is significantly different from earlier Eliot. For one, Eliot's subject is more obviously Christian; Four Quartets primarily and explicitly works out the subject of time and mankind in relation to the divine. Stylistically, the poems feel like they are spoken by a "single consciousness" (according to critic Margaret Thormahlen, SOURCE: LitEncyc) rather than the fragmented consciousness of The Waste Land. Relatedly, Four Quartets feels much more personal in nature--indeed, autobiographical snippets further this overall sense (each poem is named after a place which was personally significant to Eliot). The invocation of a musical form of "quartets" alongside Leavis's reading of The Waste Land, however, forges an important connection between these works: both reject narrative as an archaic organizational principle and favor the abstraction of musical relationships as a substitute in modern times. In The Waste Land this new form is less explicitly aligned with a new conception of Christianity for the modern world, and the art itself seems to hold its own kind of power, but in Four Quartets, this new conception of Christianity is the whole point which art strives towards (but inevitably fails to completely reach).