Time and Permanence in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

In my beginning is my end….
… to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets


T.S. Eliot begins Burnt Norton with a reflection of time as cyclical. Because time-past and present are enveloped by time-future, Eliot suggests that “all time is unredeemable.” This means that time cannot be treated in abstraction but as the vital ground of human reality. Lived time, as this is embodied by individual human beings, is Eliot’s main focus in Four Quartets.
Eliot informs us that “what might have been” is an abstract notion that can only be entertained as speculation. Instead, we only know what has actually come to pass, not what could or might have been. Eliot’s contention serves thoughtful people as a forewarning of the nihilistic demons to be unleashed by postmodernity in the coming decades. Human reality is often stringent, more hit-or-miss than postmodernists care to realize. The poet engages Parmenides’ argument that only being exists. Being denotes permanence. Nothingness, Eliot points out, cannot inform human reality because it never forms part of the present. For this reason, possibility—what might have been—is hemmed in by what has actually taken place:

time-and-permanenceFootfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.…
Read the complete article
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.


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