Puzzling over “The Four Quartets”

I have spent the first few days of this new year puzzling over T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets.

But when have I not puzzled over these endlessly mysterious and elusive works? And will there ever be a time when I won’t be puzzling over them? As Eliot put it himself, we shall not cease from exploration. He continued:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Looked at logically, this does not make sense. Having declared categorically that our explorations will not end, Eliot immediately goes on to speak of the condition that will characterise the end that he has already declared will never happen.

The four poems, the “quartets”, as Eliot calls them, are full of such contradictions:

                      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 a fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.

And a couple of lines later:

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance


Our only health is our disease


Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Similes and metaphors don’t help, as they seem as obscure and as self-contradictory as that which they are ostensibly there to explicate:

                   … as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Towards the end of The Dry Salvages, the third of the four quartets, we get another passage of self-contradictions, insisting that that which is impossible is also actual:

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here, the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled …

All those impossibilities stated elsewhere in the poem as paradoxes, as sequences of self-contradictions, nonetheless, Eliot insists, may become actual. Indeed, will become actual, here – wherever “here” is.

When I first encountered this poem, as a mere teenager, I remember thinking that whatever merits these poems had, my pitiful Euclidean mind (I was a science student) was incapable of apprehending them. The Waste Land had also struck me in the same way at first acquaintance, but that poem, while still eluding my conscious Euclidean understanding, has, over the years, become part of my mental furniture, as it were: I may not understand it, as such – not completely, at any rate – but I think I can feel it, and passages from it often come readily to mind. The Four Quartets, on the other hand, has proved a somewhat harder nut to crack. My understanding is as small as ever, but, over the last decade or so, I am beginning – only beginning, I think – to feel it.

Firstly, the title. Or titles, since it remains uncertain whether this is a single poem, or a collection of four poems. Each of these poems is titled after a place – Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding – and it isn’t too difficult to google these names, and find out where and what they are. But what significance these places have to the poetry to which they are titles is a matter open, I think, to interpretation.

These four poems were initially published separately, but Eliot was content to gather them together under one title, implying that they formed a unity of sorts. But that one title insists that they are really four. And that each one is a quartet. What did Eliot mean by this? One analysis I have read tells me that, as in a string quartet, the themes of these poems intermingle and develop with each other; but that is true of symphonies and sonatas also, and Eliot specifically says these are quartets. I’d guess that the solution to this mystery is that in each of these poems, there are four separate voices combining with each other. Different voices combine in The Waste Land also: reading that poem can seem like turning the tuning dial of a radio, and allowing the different disembodied voices from different radio stations drift in and out of hearing. But that juxtaposition of jumbled voices in The Waste Land has about it a certain vigour, almost, at times, a kind of brashness, that imparts to the poem a tremendously powerful sense of vividness and drama. The Four Quartets, in contrast, seems much more subdued in tone, much more contemplative. And what it contemplates is couched in images of seemingly impenetrable obscurity (“Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clog the bedded axle-tree”), or in paradoxes and self-contradictions, impossibilities that Eliot nonetheless insists may become actual.

But if these poems are indeed quartets, it follows that there are four voices. I have tried to identify these four voices, but have failed: I can tell, I think, when one voice is supplanted by, or modulates into, another, but I couldn’t identify and label four voices with any certainty: the number of different voices seemed to me much greater than four. Eventually, I think I managed to convince myself that it didn’t really matter. If the title The Four Quartets remains enigmatic, it is far from the only enigma in the work.

There doesn’t really seem much in all this for the Euclidean mind to latch on to, and yet I found, to my surprise, that, after many revisits over many years, certain passages did become lodged in my consciousness; and I found myself struck by wonder and by awe, as I marvelled at the beauty and the expressive power of Eliot’s verbal music – a beauty and an expressive power that had, I think, largely eluded me on earlier readings.

But what does all this amount to? What does it all mean? It’s not really a question to be asked: the poetry of T. S. Eliot, maybe even poetry in general, would largely be a closed book to the Euclidean mind that asks such a question, as the very essence of poetry seems to me to lie in the manipulation of language in order to communicate things that, were it not for the manipulation, language is not capable of communicating. This, of course, renders exegesis virtually impossible, for how can one explain something when the poet himself, who presumably has a greater command of language than the interpreter (well, this interpreter, certainly) has already communicated that which cannot be communicated any other way?

The difficulty in making words express what one means seems itself to become one of Eliot’s themes. On a number of occasions, he comments upon this difficulty in the poem itself. In one particular prosy and conversational section (as in The Waste Land, Eliot intersperses such prosy passages among passages of high poetic expressivity), Eliot comments, with delicious self-deprecation, on this disparity between what words say, and what they strive to say:

That was one way of putting it – not very satisfactory;
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with that intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.

Towards the end of Burnt Norton, we have this:

                               Words strain,
Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

This “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings” – with these things which crack and sometimes break, which will not stay still – is in itself one of Eliot’s themes. And yet, words are all we have. They are all that Eliot, as a poet, has. And, it seems to me, what he gives us in not so much an expression of something, but an attempt to explain, a pointing towards that which would be expressed, if only it could. It cannot be expressed as it is beyond human experience: the human mind cannot envisage the still point where the dance is, where there is neither movement from nor toward, neither ascent nor decline. Such things, such impossibilities that Eliot insists may nonetheless become actuality, can, at best, be but vaguely glimpsed, and the best that the poet can do is to point towards it, to stimulate our minds using all the linguistic resources at his command, so we may turn in that direction where we may glimpse it, and where we may hear that profound silence that can only be signified by breaking that silence.

If all this sounds very religious, mystical even, then yes, that is precisely what it is: we must leave our Euclidean minds behind us here if we want to feel this poem. Eliot was, of course, a convert to Anglicanism, but the religious vision he points towards here seems to have a variety of sources, which I am not really qualified to identify or to catalogue. For instance, the Hindu concept of detachment from earthly ties is certainly present (Krishna’s address to Arjuna, which forms the text of The Bhagavad Gita, is mentioned explicitly in The Dry Salvages). Detachment from earthly ties may seem turning one’s back on the human, but, Eliot insists, the liberation that comes from such detachment does not mean less of love:

              – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire

Not less, but expanding, transcending. For how can love without desire be possible? Is love possible at all without an object of love? And if there is an object of one’s love, how can one not desire? Even if our love is to be general and altruistic – if, say, we love all humanity – would we not desire the best for humanity? But Eliot is not speaking here of ceasing to desire, but of expanding our love beyond it, transcending it. And what this expanded, transcended love may be, we do not know, and neither can we express. Eliot himself can only point towards it, again with the use of paradox and self-contradiction:

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation

The ending of Little Gidding, the last of the quartets, strikes a note of quiet and unassertive optimism, with the lines “And all shall be well / All manner of thing shall be well” (which, I’m told, are taken from the writings of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich) ringing gently through the verse:

And all shall be well
All manner of things 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.

When asked my religion in official forms, I state (accurately, I think) “none”. But I cannot explain why I find these obviously religious lines so profoundly moving. I do not know what it is this poem, or these four poems, are pointing towards, and I cannot account for the effect they have on me.

I have, as I said, spent the last few days puzzling over these poems. Indeed, looking back, I think I have spent the greater part of my life puzzling over these poems. And I think I shall continue do so. We shall not cease from exploration. We can not!

11 responses to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on Chuck Redman and commented:
    This is a re-blog from THE ARGUMENTATIVE OLD GIT, my favorite literary blog. . .


  2. Posted by ombhurbhuva on January 5, 2020 at 6:05 am

    Henri Bergson’s reflections on time and duration are an important element in Four Quartets I have drawn together a few of them here which may be of interest:

    The poem challenges your ‘noneness’ as well it might. Coincidentia oppositorum stuns the rational mind, the Blakean ‘idiot questioner’. Here is a little reflection on that:


  3. I puzzle over Eliot as well, although I always love the sound of his words. And I do think you’re right about the point being that he’s trying to communicate feelings rather than solid things. That’s what I often taken from him, anyway! 😀


  4. Excellent, Red!

    Always admired his writings. I like this stanza of his a lot:

    “Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow”


  5. Posted by Chris Jennings on January 11, 2020 at 9:04 pm

    I’ve read perhaps a dozen books on the Four Quartets over the last forty years or so
    and, like you, feel in many ways none the wiser. There are so many elements to Eliot’s poetry that make him ‘difficult’: his fragmentary, kaleidoscopic style, his elusive, often opaque symbols, the abstruse literary echoes, his employment of the mystic’s logic of paradox. In the end it’s hard not to feel that this fascinating, baffling, haunting poetry actively resists normal, logical comprehension and is rather something to be experienced and lived with over a number of years. As the title suggests, the Quartets are words as music (or ‘cognitive music’, as Harold Bloom used to call it), and I agree that something so particular and elusive can’t ever be satisfactorily paraphrased with exact meaning, anymore than music itself can be.

    The clearest, most helpful assessment of the Quartets I’ve ever found was a short essay by Graham Hough in his Selected Essays, during which he claims Eliot’s symbols fail to carry the weight of the Christian philosophy assigned to them. Hough is one of my favourite critics, always sharp and intelligent, but of course it’s almost inevitable that in the end it will be his criticism which proves unable to carry the weight of Eliot’s poetry, and his work will fade as Eliot’s poetry won’t.

    btw even though I know many passages of these poems off by heart, I’m still discovering things in them. For example, I’ve only recently noticed that there is an obvious link between the last word of Little Gidding, ‘…fire’, and the first word of the title of the first poem ‘Burnt Norton’, – appropriate to a poem that speaks of ends as beginnings.


    • Posted by Chris Jennings on January 12, 2020 at 10:47 am

      The last word is ‘one’, isn’t it, not ‘fire’. So scrub that final thought!


      • The last word may not be fire, but fire is certainly the dominant image in the closing lines, so your insight still holds, I think. Such a cyclical scheme is present in Finnegans Wake too ( a work I need to address properly some day: I only know a few fragments of it), as the unfinished final sentence is finished by turning back to the opening, which had begun in mid-sentence.

        I do not know of Graham Hough at all, and will try to look his essays up. Since you have studied these poems far more than I have, is there any other critical writing on these works you could direct me to? I really would like to understand these poems a bit better. My post isn’t, obviously, an attempt at analysis – that would be well beyond me! – but, rather, an account of how these poems affect me personally.

        Thanks, Himadri

      • Posted by Chris Jennings on January 12, 2020 at 8:08 pm

        I’m sure I remember reading, I think in Ellman’s biography of Joyce, that Joyce had a fairly low opinion of Eliot’s work (not untypical for Joyce, of course), feeling it largely derived from his own, and so this connection of end and beginning would surely only unimpress him further!

        Some of the books on the Quartets I read so long ago now (Leavis’s essay in The Living Principle, a short book by Northrop Frye, another by Stephen Spender, Helen Gardiner’s The Composition of Four Quartets, and a book of post-modernist essays about which I remember literally nothing, not even the title) that I can’t confidently recommend them; but Denis Donoghue’s Words Alone, which covers all of Eliot’s work, is one I read more recently and I found it very informative. But after reading so many different books over the years, for some reason that Graham Hough essay seemed to be the first which gave me a real hold on the structure. You can access it online for free via the internet archive – you just join and borrow the pdf:


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