A Reading of Four Quartets for T.S. Eliot’s 123rd Birthday

Monday September 26, 7pm – Poetry

A Reading of Four Quartets for T.S. Eliot’s 123rd Birthday

“A kind friend introduced me to this book 25 years ago. It is so full of real life, as it is. In grasping for words to describe what cannot be described by words, T.S.Eliot has written a masterpiece that will endure for as long as there are people to read books. Each reading takes you inside, yet out of time a space. If I could pick the most meaningful book I have ever encountered, this would be it… the one you take to that desert island; the one you take with you through your life. Don’t analyze this book, let it reach out to you, allow it to become an old friend, and it will enrich your life.”

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in Missouri on September 26, 1888. He lived in St. Louis during the first eighteen years of his life and attended Harvard University. In 1910, he left the United States for the Sorbonne, having earned both undergraduate and masters degrees and having contributed several poems to the Harvard Advocate.

After a year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914. The following year, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood and began working in London, first as a teacher, and later for Lloyd’s Bank.

It was in London that Eliot came under the influence of his contemporary Ezra Pound, who recognized his poetic genius at once, and assisted in the publication of his work in a number of magazines, most notably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry in 1915. His first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in 1917, and immediately established him as a leading poet of the avant-garde. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, now considered by many to be the single most influential poetic work of the twentieth century, Eliot’s reputation began to grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world.

As a poet, he transmuted his affinity for the English metaphysical poets of the 17th century (most notably John Donne) and the 19th century French symbolist poets (including Baudelaire and Laforgue) into radical innovations in poetic technique and subject matter. His poems in many respects articulated the disillusionment of a younger post-World-War-I generation with the values and conventions—both literary and social—of the Victorian era. As a critic also, he had an enormous impact on contemporary literary taste, propounding views that, after his conversion to orthodox Christianity in the late thirties, were increasingly based in social and religious conservatism. His major later poems include Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943); his books of literary and social criticism include The Sacred Wood (1920), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), After Strange Gods (1934), and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1940). Eliot was also an important playwright, whose verse dramas include Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion, and The Cocktail Party.

He became a British citizen in 1927; long associated with the publishing house of Faber & Faber, he published many younger poets, and eventually became director of the firm. After a notoriously unhappy first marriage, Eliot separated from his first wife in 1933, and was remarried, to Valerie Fletcher, in 1956. T. S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and died in London in 1965.

“Published in the fiery days of World War II, Four Quartets stands as a testament to the power of poetry amid the chaos of the time. Let the words speak for themselves: “The dove descending breaks the air/With flame of incandescent terror/Of which the tongues declare/The only discharge from sin and error/The only hope, or the despair/Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–/To be redeemed from fire by fire./Who then devised this torment?/Love/Love is the unfamiliar Name/Behind the hands that wave/The intolerable shirt of flame/Which human power cannot remove./We only live, only suspire/Consumed by either fire or fire.”  (Amazon.com Review )

“Series of four poems by T.S. Eliot, published individually from 1936 to 1942, and in book form in 1943; the work is considered to be Eliot’s masterpiece. Each of the quartets has five “movements” and each is titled by a place name–BURNT NORTON (1936), EAST COKER (1940), THE DRY SALVAGES (1941), and LITTLE GIDDING (1942). Eliot’s insights into the cyclical nature of life are revealed through themes and images deftly woven throughout the four poems. The work addresses the connections of the personal and historical present and past, spiritual renewal, and the very nature of experience; it is considered the poet’s clearest exposition of his Christian beliefs”. (The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

“FOUR QUARTETS marks T.S. Eliot’s crowning acheivement as a poet. It is the last substantial poetry he wrote before turning to drama and consists of four poems each with a five-part structure. The work as a whole is concerned with the perception of time, linked with the importance of poetic art and the place of Christianity in deciphering the meaning of one’s lifetime.

After two quotations from Heraclitus, “Burnt Norton” opens the collection. Here Eliot muses on the idea that all possible outcomes of any event are secretly around us, unseen and unperceived. An empty pool is, in some other reality, filled with water and a blooming lotus. Eliot’s metaphysical insight here is reminiscent of quantum theory that was then beginning to become the rage in physics circles. These speculations are tricky and difficult to get one’s head around, and even more difficult to plainly put into words, but Eliot manages to succeed.

“East Coker”, named after the town in England from where Eliot’s Puritan ancestor emigrated to America, deals with the cyclical nature of time. Here the poet surveys the tendency for all earthly things to rise and ultimately fall. Christianity with its emphasis on eternal life, asserts Eliot, promises a way to change one’s end to one’s beginning and escape the fall into oblivion that dooms everything.

“The Dry Salvages”, in reference to a place on the New England shore which Eliot visited as a youth, is the weak point of the collection. A rumination with a nautical theme, the poem suffers from meandering phrasing and peculiar wording. Its Marian devotion is inconsistent with the Puritan/Anglican tradition of the rest of FOUR QUARTETS. Most would attack “The Dry Salvages” for its oft-maligned line “I sometimes wonder if this is what Krishna meant”, seen by some as overly haugty intellectualism. I think this is unfair, and in fact the section which that line begins is the one bit that redeems the poem. Eliot’s Harvard education, where he first became familiar with Eastern thought, was 30 years in the past, but the subject still preoccupied him in this poem.

“Little Gidding” superbly ends FOUR QUARTETS. It was written in the height of the Blitz, a time of fear and doubt in England, but it counters Hitler’s madness with a note of hope and spiritual triumph. Eliot calls back to an earlier conflict, England’s Civil War, and seeks any lesson it might teach his generation. “The communication of the dead,” he writes, “is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” As the poem ends, he has acheived inner peace in a time of pandemonium, through the realisation that the pain of the present is escapable by reaching to the past – what poets have done before – and the future – what is still left to be written.

FOUR QUARTETS is a complicated and vast work. While not as full of obvious quotations as his earlier, more popular work “The Waste Land”, it does work in inspiration and material from Christian thinkers such as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich, and contains many illusions to 17th century England. As a result, the work is incredibly deep and one can find something new with each reading. But FOUR QUARTETS is also an entertaining work for the casual reader. A combination of smooth and engaging sound with the great themes of all time is a remarkable combination. Eliot’s greatest work, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it.”


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