Four Quartets has been considered as one of the major works of the naturalized British poet T.S. Eliot. It represents the later part of his life and creations, where his inspirations and themes reached mystical conclusions, contrasting with the overwhelming and suffocating atmosphere of the Second World War. After nearly three decades of career as an acclaimed poet, Eliot offers in Four Quartets a profound reflection not only on the nature of spirituality, but on memory and writing, two themes at the heart of his practice. The present textual analysis shall focus on a few passages in which Eliot addresses directly the question of writing and seems to look back at his past practice as a poet.
One recurring theme in Four Quartets is that of the poet unsatisfied with his work. More than an occasional and passing feeling, Eliot speculates, here, that this discontentment has to do with the very format of the poetic art. Thus, in “East Coker,” after a lyrical description of seasons, celestial bodies and elements, he unveils an almost ironic critical regard on his prose:
That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.
The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected. (Eliot, 10)
Between the feeling of poetic inspiration and the written description of that emotion, the style decays just like autumn leaves fall to the ground of dry winter branches.
Between the feeling of poetic inspiration and the written description of that emotion, the style decays just like autumn leaves fall to the ground of dry winter branches. It is a matter of time lapse, of the loss of a pure and original stylistic beauty, corrupt by unnecessary rational interferences. The poet faces his work and is puzzled: it is not what he had pictured. But should he betray his original intention in favour of what the feather decided?
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age?
Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit? (10)
The quest for the satisfactory poetical expression, that is, the correspondence of the poet’s initial intention and final vigour of the completed piece, appears as a dreamed utopia, as a promised “autumnal serenity” which may never come. Eliot compares this trust on the fruits of time to the deceiving heritage of elders: just like elders have reached the happy wisdom of old-age, poetry promises the poet that she will, with the help of time, ultimately be able to concoct her peaceful masterpiece. Eliot’s cynicism expresses the occasional doubt of the poet, the recurring feeling that this final achievement is not a goal, but a naïve optimism.
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes.
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience. (10)
But Eliot does not let this feeling entail his artistic creation. Certainly, he wonders whether “serenity” and “wisdom” are really qualities worth of praise. But this leads him to undertake a larger leap: if such levels of human and artistic understanding are but the hidden repetition of well-known things (“the knowledge of dead secrets”), then it is not in wisdom, that is, in old age, or in other words, in a sustained and advanced effort of craftsmanship that the poet can find his liberation, his satisfactory masterpiece. Worldly knowledge (“knowledge derived from experience”) does not suffice anymore. Instead, the artist must open to another realm of reality: the spiritual, the mystical. Only this will unlock his artistic aspirations.
The question of memory and artistic satisfaction is addressed in a different form later on in “East Coker”. Eliot explains that the departure of any poetic endeavour is necessarily a frustrating failure: the poet tries to express a feeling that he does not anymore experience in its original intensity. And all he can do, as a poet, is to perfect the quality of expression of that feeling… but it remains nonetheless a perished, a dead feeling.
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. (13)
The poet is “no longer disposed to say” what he is currently writing. The best he can do is to try to get as close as possible from this completed, closed moment. Writing rarely – possibly never – occurs at the exact time of the poet’s inspiration. It is the burden of the poet’s material: memory is his only source, and memory is always closed.
But what exactly is the nature of this puzzling memory? In the third quartet, “The Dry Salvages,” Eliot sheds more light on his understanding of memory’s construction and usage. And in turn, he connects it to the poet’s work:
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. (16)
The past does not deserve to be looked upon from the alleged altitude of an evolved present; the past actually contains the fruit after which all aspire: not just transient instances of pleasure, but the profound, luminous happiness. This is where the task of the poet is to be found: by searching, by reconstructing, or perhaps, simply constructing this forgotten meaning, the poet allows to “restore the experience.”
Here Eliot challenges an unripe understanding of time, and of the past, as a sequence or even a form of development, of evolution. The past does not deserve to be looked upon from the alleged altitude of an evolved present; the past actually contains the fruit after which all aspire: not just transient instances of pleasure, but the profound, luminous happiness. This is where the task of the poet is to be found: by searching, by reconstructing, or perhaps, simply constructing this forgotten meaning, the poet allows to “restore the experience.” The poet aims at inviting his readers to look back at their past to realize that occasionally, they had already reached the state of complete fulfilment they are desperately looking for.
I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror. (16-17)
Through his exploration of memory, the poet accesses not only his own past actions and events, but joins the larger project of the collection of memories, that is, arguably, of the memory of a people. Eliot may be referring to religious texts like the Bible, where each individual life story partakes in a larger heritage of recorded destinies reflecting on the challenges and graces of life. However, memory does not only conserve the occasional bliss of true happiness, but also the struggles of a people. Eliot probably connects this “primitive terror” to his current experience of fear and worry as the war is raging around him. Memory is thus both the container of the bliss and possible salvation of humanity, and the witness of its gravest detour on the way to the final happiness:
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple, and the bite in the apple. (17)
“Little Gidding,” the last quartet, was painfully finished by a weakened Eliot, in 1942. It comes as a conclusion, a completion of his reflection on memory and time. In a moment of mystical unity, Eliot has a conversation with a voice – is it God? – who refuses to force the work of memory’s recollection:
And he: ‘I am not eager to rehearse
My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
These things have served their purpose: let them be. (24)
This is particularly ironic, as Eliot could address the same lines to his readers. Four Quartets contains already a number of repetitions and summaries of his earlier findings; but here Eliot decides to move on, to leave the reader capable to look back at earlier parts of the poems, just like one would go back to the Bible to remember, to recollect with an ancient truth. The voice, or God, continues its long discourse:
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice. (24)
Eliot’s interlocutor follows the author’s previous reflection on the necessary belated nature of the poetic creation, where an event of the past cannot simply be addressed as if of the present (in “this year’s” language). But the interlocutor goes further by arguing that it is not just a matter of delay, but of the fact that poetry is by nature every time the creation of a new language: one does not express an event, a story, a memory in a given language of reference; each language becomes obsolete with time; each story calls for its own language. And that is the task undertaken by the poet.
Eliot completes his long reflection with a reference to a cyclical time, making of the poem a necessary link between two periods:
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. (27)
Every poem is an epitaph, the statement of memory of a deceased world; yet every poem also sets the time ahead, since it connects past, present and future. It permits this regeneration through the perpetual creations of a new language.
Image courtesy: Lydia Grace Turbeville