BY GLENN HUGHES
My first encounter with T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, the poem-cycle Four Quartets, took place when I was twenty years old. The conditions were unusually felicitous. I was visiting family friends in southeast England, and during a period when my host family was away for a few days, I noticed a BBC program announcement in the newspaper. That evening there was to be a broadcast of Alec Guinness reading Eliot’s Four Quartets in its entirety.
At the appointed time I turned off all but one lamp, lay down on a couch, and listened. This first encounter with the Quartets was therefore appropriately auditory and incantatory. It was also vision-inducing, strangely moving, and deeply perplexing. Eliot has said, famously, that great poetry communicates before it is understood; this experience remains my touchstone for the truth of that remark. (The remark also reminds us that art is concerned with elemental meaning: “communication” occurs before “understanding” because a great poem conveys, through the music and imagery of poetic language, the meaningfulness of certain “purely experiential patterns,” prior to any careful analysis of a poem’s meaning or structure.)1
Within days I had bought a cheap paperback edition of the Quartets and had begun the process of reading and rereading what I am inclined to think of as the greatest English-language poem of the twentieth century. In order to critically explicate some of the spiritual aspects of Eliot’s communicative aims in Four Quartets, no guidance is more useful than that provided by Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness and history.
Where Voegelin’s thought was helpful for understanding the viewpoint informing Dickinson’s poetry [alluding to an earlier essay in the book–ed], it is more so, indeed seems tailor-made for understanding the design of Eliot’s thinking and artistic intentions in this work. As we shall see, Eliot’s poetic vision of existence and history in Four Quartets and Voegelin’s philosophical analysis of existence and history are mutually compatible and illuminating to an extraordinary degree, not only in overall vision but in significant detail.
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Listen to Alec Guinness read Four Quartets
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.