By Roz Kaveney
These poems are about old age and regret, but also poetic structure and art. After them, there was nothing much left to say..
The greatness of the Four Quartets lies partly in their abstract considerations, but also in the way that they are so particular in their imagery. They are poems of long walks in the English countryside, and boating off the north-eastern US and of London in gloomy threatened peace and the dust and smoke of war; they are poems of middle age and a sense of fading powers. They are at once an attempt at making a final general statement about the spiritual life and an intense last flowering of the poetry of a very specific person.
Eliot almost entirely abandoned poetry after Little Gidding and turned, for good and ill, to the theatre; I don’t propose to consider his plays in this series. There is a paradox here – Eliot talks of faring forward, or not ceasing from exploration, but these four great poems are a total statement after which there was nothing much left for him to say.
This is partly because of their essentially musical structure – in which themes are constantly recapitulated in major and minor ways. The ghost children who never were get their major moment in Burnt Norton but are reprised in a few lines of Little Gidding; other poems of Eliot engage in metonymy of other texts, and so do these, but here echoes of other poems in the sequence are even more important. Not only is Eliot telling us that “all time is eternally present”, that “in my end is my beginning”, he is constantly showing us this as a matter of technique. Further, by implication, he is saying that the destiny of our souls is constantly constructed and reconstructed by meditations that are an echo chamber both of what is real and what might have been.
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.