Christine's Reviews > Four Quartets

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
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Jul 02, 10

bookshelves: old-flames, poetry
Read in January, 1987

Admitting that I read T.S. Eliot is like introducing you to my crazy great-uncle. I know he's going to embarrass me. He’s often a pompous ass when you take him out in public; he's never met a literary allusion he didn't like, and he positively pants after philosophical conceits. He filters everything through a religious perspective, which he tends to assume you share. Worst of all, he's a bigot--sometimes a subtle one, sometimes a shockingly unsubtle one.

And yet I love him, and still in much the same way I did when my adolescent obsession with the musical Cats led me to "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." No one writes with more elegance or vigor than T.S. Eliot. His pretentiousness is shot through with real emotion and intellectual curiosity, and frequently undercut with a lovely dry self-deprecating wit.

The Four Quartets, in which he takes on huge themes of morality, imperfection, and memory, are the best of his poems. You’ll meet both the prig and the poet in them, but ultimately the poet wins. Take, for example, this passage from "East Coker":

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years--
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres--
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. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.


It doesn't really matter if you caught the Dante reference or understood that "l'entre deux guerres" is a French phrase for the period between World War I and World War II. What's important is what Eliot has to say, and the precision and beauty with which he says it.
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