Abailart's Reviews > Four Quartets

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
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Jun 19, 11

bookshelves: always-reading, poetry, re-reading

This is something that I've been reading and returning to for more than 40 years. Few works are so intimately connected with my own life changes. Truly, all poems are read afresh with each reading: as oneself changes, the poems change. In the case of Four Quartets, I used to go o it for melancholy comfort, a vague spiritual longing too balmed with its reverberations of paradox and eastern thoughts while rooted in the soil of an East Anglian mysticism. I also found its original influence (along with Auden et al) on me towards Leavisite cultural pessimism now reflected back, refracted rather, through prisms of my own beginnings and ends. I have swerved away from both such indulgences, especially the second which I now feel as naive and elitist.

One thing that hasn't changed is that these are excellent poems by any standard. I heard not long ago a world-famous novelist decry Eliot's poetry on the ground that he was anti-semitic. He said that if Eliot's stuff was good poetry it doesn't say much for poetry. Leaving aside the intense debates about Eliot's views (debates without any agreed conclusion), less controversial would be his adherence to a strict and disciplined anglicanism, royalism and belief in tradition - none of which I personally have any time for. As it happens, I don't think Eliot was any more 'anti-semitic' than, say Winston Churchill, or any of the thousands of other establishment figure's in England's torrid history of discrimination against Jewry. The poems themselves gain their power not from statements, affirmations and exclusions, but from their formal qualities. Insofar as I have just re-read them it was to appreciate again Eliot's persistent difficulty in expressing the ineffable, in using words no matter how brilliantly, to go beyond themselves. For me, the best poets and writers have as their chief energy a longing which can at best be partially expressed only by dismantling the very means of expression:

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. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

(East Coker V)


Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

(Burnt Norton V)
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message 1: by Szplug (new)

Szplug Nice review, Abailart.

I love these four strange, puzzling, moody, and beautiful works of art.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.



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