T.S. Eliot

For Eliot's life and career, see this page.

Four Quartets



A cycle 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 quartet is titled with a place name— "Burnt Norton" (1936), "East Coker" (1940), "The Dry Salvages" (1941), and "Little Gidding" (1942), and each has five movements. Eliot develops his insights through a deft and subte interweaving of themes and literary and spiritual or religious allusions throughout the four poems.

The first of Eliot's works to reach a large public, the Four Quartets addresses issues of historical identity for wartime Britain and, beyond that, the meaning of history, the survival of culture and religion, and the nature of spirituality "under conditions / that seem unpropitious". It is considered the poet's clearest exposition of his Christian beliefs.

Stephen Spender (T.S. Eliot: Viking Press, 1975, p. 7) wrote of Eliot that

He had a vision of the relationship of the living with the dead through the patterns of rituals that extend into the modern world the pieties that remain unaltered from the past. He thought that when these rituals were disrupted— and when, in deed, the observance of them was not the foremost aim of the living— there would be no connection of the living with the dead, of the present with the past.

But, as J. Hillis Miller writes, "[R]omanticism in poetry and idealism in philosophy have brought us [to the point at which] [e]ach man seems destined to remain enclosed in his separate sphere, unable to break out to external things, to other people, to an objective time and space, or to God. All these exist, but as qualifications of the inner world which is peculiar and private to the self." (Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers: The Belknap Press, Harvard, 1965).

Largely as a result of this work's power, intense lyricism, and precision of language, Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

William Petropoulos, reviewing Eric Voegelin's unpublished "Notes on T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets" (Typescript, Eric Voegelin Papers, microfilm reel 64), has this to say:

The titles of the four sections which make up the Quartets are place names, each corresponding to a phase of spiritual development. Burnt Norton is the place in empirical space and time where the meditation begins. The village of East Coker introduces the historical dimension. It is where Sir Thomas Elyot [Eliot's ancestor] lived, the sixteenth century humanist whose concern, like T.S. Eliot's, was to keep the language of the spirit alive. For, as Voegelin writes: "History is constituted in the continuity of generations and civilizational meaning" (p.6). In the third poem, The Dry Salvages, the scene shifts to America. This is not just an emigration from place to place. It also evokes the deeper stratum of the soul where action is not experienced pragmatically in its relation to historical community, but in its immediacy to death. Such action is beyond the texture of history, but it is not beyond effectiveness in building community. The attainment of this depth is the one act that "'shall fructify in the lives of others'". (In other words, the conversion opens the soul for participation in divine love which is the creative source of both action and contemplation). The last poem "Little Gidding" evokes an English place name and a monastic founding. Here is the intersection of "'timelessness and time'". From Burnt Norton to Little Gidding, and corresponding to the stages of the meditation, we see the place names steadily yield their material and empirical meaning. At the end of the poem reflection turns back to the beginning. Eliot writes: the end of all exploring is "to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time." (IV, 5, 28-29). For it is the converted soul which regards its beginnings in their true light; not as a geographical places, but as a states of the soul.



Eliot provides these two extracts from the fragments of Herakleitos (Heraclitus) in Greek, but we have translated them here into English, due to the difficulty of reproducing the Greek in current html code.

"logos": Herakleitos means something like reason, but his word of course is the same which St John used in the opening of his Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."


Written in 1935.

Burnt Norton is a country house in the Cotswolds (hills) of Gloucestershire that Eliot visited in the summer of 1934. The house's rose garden is the main spatial scenery of the poem.

Hugh Kenner notes the following, in The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot. W.H. Allen & Co., 1959:

'Burnt Norton', surprisingly enough, [is] the exact structuralcounterpart of The Waste Land. That form, originally an accident produced by Pound's cutting, Eliot would seem by tenacious determination to have analyzed, mastered, and made into an organic thing. 'Burnt Norton', terminating the 1935 Collected Poems, appears meant to bear the same relation to The Waste Land as Simeon to Gerontion. Its rose-garden, for instance, with the passing cloud and the empty pool, corresponds to the Hyacinth garden and the despondent 'Oed' und leer das Meer', while 'the heart of light, the silence' that was glimpsed in the presence of the hyacinth girl is the tainted simulacrum of that light which 'is still at the still point of the turning world'.

Each Quartet carries on this structural parallel. The first movement, like 'The Burial of the Dead', introduces a diversity of themes; the second, like 'A Game of Chess', presents first ‘poetically' and then with less traditional circumscription the same area of experience; the third, like 'The Fire Sermon', gathers up the central vision of the poem while meditating dispersedly on themes of death: the fourth is a brief lyric; the fifth, a didactic and lyric culmination, concerning itself partly with language, in emulation of the Indo-European roots exploited in 'What the Thunder said'.


Part I


Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. / If all time is eternally present...: The first German scholar invited to lecture at University of London after WWI was Edmund Husserl (1922), and apparently Eliot had already been studying Husserl at Oxford during World War I, while writing his dissertation on the philosophy of FH Bradley. Thus, for instance, Husserl's interest in time and consciousness is relevant here.

See Levenson, Michael H. A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine, 1908-1922. Cambridge, 1984. Divided into three parts: "Progenitors" deals with Arnold, Huxley, Pater, Babbitt, and Conrad; "Provocation" with Hulme, Ford, Pound, Hulme, Husserl, Frege, and Moore; and "Consolidation" with Pound and Eliot. Also, Johnson, L. Eric. "T. S. Eliot's 'Objective Correlative' and Emotion in Art." American Poetry and Poetics 1.1 (1974): 20-33; Kim, Byung-Ok. "Eliot and Husserl: The Concept of the 'Objective Correlative'." Journal of the T.S. Eliot Society of Korea (1996): 19-44.

Time and the ability to communicate significant experience (a faculty which depends on tradition for language) are themes that Eliot returns to elsewhere in his poetry; this poem can be read as a resolution of problems presented in Prufrock. As J Hillis Miller writes of Prufrock, 'Prufrock's paralysis follows naturally from this subjectivizing of everything. If each consciousness is an opaque sphere, then Prufrock has no hope of being understood by others. "No experience," says Bradley in a phrase Eliot quotes, "can lie open to inspection from outside" (KE, 203). Prufrock's vision is incommunicable, and whatever he says to the lady will be answered by, "That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all" (CP, 6).... [T]ime, like space, has only a subjective existence for Prufrock. As a result, past, present, and future are equally immediate, and Prufrock is paralyzed. Like one of Bradley's finite centers, he "is not in time," and "contains [his] own past and future" (KE, 205). Memories, ironic echoes of earlier poetry, present sensations, anticipations of what he might do in the future ("I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" [CP, 71)— these are equally present. There is a systematic confusion of tenses and times in the poem, so that it is difficult to tell if certain images exist in past, present, future. Prufrock begins by talking of his visit to the lady as something yet to be done, and later talks of his failure to make the visit as something long past ("And would it have been worth it, after all,/Would it have been worth while" (CP, 61). Like the women talking of Michelangelo, he exists in an eternal present, a frozen time in which everything that might possibly happen to him is as if it had already happened: "For I have known them all already, known them all" (CP, 4). In this time of endless repetition Prufrock cannot disturb the universe even if he should presume to try to do so. Everything that might happen is foreknown, and in a world where only one mind exists the foreknown has in effect already happened and no action is possible. Prufrock's infirmity of will is not so much a moral deficiency as a consequence of his subjectivism.' (From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard, 1965.)


"If all time is eternally present": Augustine wrote: 'Who shall lay hold upon the mind of man, that it may stand and see that time with its past and future must be determined by eternity, which stands and does not pass, which has in itself no past or future.'


"unredeemable": Cf. Ephesians 5.15-16, "See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil." Eliot will be concerned later in the poem with the human inability to resolve the failures of one's lifetime and the horrors of history.


"rose-garden: "The subject of Burnt Norton can be defined in various ways. If we adopt the method of commentators on The Divine Comedy, we may distinguish a literal, a moral and a mystical meaning. The literal meaning is simply that the poet has felt a moment of inexplicable joy, a moment of release, like the moment Agatha speaks of [in Eliot's Family Reunion] when she looked 'through the little door, when the sun was shining on the rose-garden'. It is a moment of escape from the endless walking 'down a concrete corridor'; or 'through the stone passages of an immense and empty hospital'. This moment of release from the deadening feeling of meaningless sequence, 'in and out, in an endless drift', 'to and fro, dragging my feet', into the present, the moment when, in Agatha's phrase, 'the chain breaks', is connected here with the memory of 'what might have been'. The poem springs from this experience, and it sets by it another experience, which is sought deliberately, but which is the same, for 'the way up is the way down'." Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot. Copyright 1949 by The Cresset Press.

In other words, exaltation is won by humility. Or, as Carl Jung put it, "Enlightenment comes not by imagining figures of light, but by confronting the darkness."

Morris Weitz: "...the rose-garden symbolizes those moments that show, more than any others, the meeting of the Eternal and the temporal." See "T.S. Eliot: Time as a Mode of Salvation." Sewanee Review (1952).

The rose is a traditional symbol of English royalty, and therefore represents England, and Western civilization beyond it— but it also stands for divine love and mercy, and in this poem for the garden (sc. Eden) where the children (Adam and Eve) hide (they reappear at the end of the poem).


"our first world": Cf. the Garden of Eden, an image among other things of an idyllic (and idealized) past. Yet the garden we are about to enter is also a part of the ruined estate from which this quartet takes its name; it bears the marks of human presence and abandonment: empty pools and formal hedges gone wild. The wreck of the garden brings to mind the ruins so prominent in Eliot's earlier poetry, except that, here, ruins are a symbol of the futility of human aspirations and the wreckage of European civilization on the eve of the 2nd World War.


"thrush": See Thomas Hardy's "Darkling Thrush" (1900):

I leant upon a coppice gate
     When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
     The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
     Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
     Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
     The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
     The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
     Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
     Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
     The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
     Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
     In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
     Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
     Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
     Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
     His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Hardy began writing his magnificent Wessex novels in 1860, each more tragic than the previous. In 1891 he finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles, effectively unmasking Victorian hypocrisy. And in 1895 he really thrust his knife into the pretensions of society with Jude the Obscure. The cold welcome this novel received made him quit writing novels altogether. (Some believe that, had he continued to write, he might have surpassed Dickens as the greatest novelist in the English language.) But he turned instead to verse.

The date of "Darkling Thrush" is December 31, 1900. So this poem is Hardy’s reflection on the state of the world at the very end of the nineteenth century. He surveys a totally bleak and dark and broken world, but hears a thrush heralding new hope. Yet the song and the joy and life he hears baffle him as an otherworldly language that he cannot understand.

Hardy did not have to wait long to see his bleak vision realized. After World War I he would write,

"Peace upon earth!" was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.


"unheard music": Cf. St John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, XIV-XV:

My Beloved is the mountains,
The solitary wooded valleys,
The strange islands,
The roaring torrents,
The whisper of the amorous gales;

The tranquil night
At the approaches of the dawn,
The silent music,
The murmuring solitude,
The supper which revives, and enkindles love.

Eliot will quote or paraphrase St John of the Cross at some length elsewhere in this poem, especially in East Coker, and mentions the Eucharistic supper at the end of East Coker, IV.


"lotos": The lotus is a common image in the Upanishads for purity unsullied by the pollution of the mud out of which it grows. Eliot was a twenty-three year old student at Harvard when he first came across eastern philosophy and religion. What sparked his interest in Vedic thought is not recorded, but soon he was occupied with Sanskrit, Pali and the metaphysics of Patanjali, reading the Bhagavad Gita (to which he refers in this poem), the Upanishads, and other writings.

Cf. also Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Lotos-Eaters" (1832). Tennyson's poem is about opium use, which brings one to a kind of 'eternal present' ("... they came unto a land / In which it seemed always afternoon /... A land where all things always seem'd the same!"), where, after eating the lotus, "if his fellow spake, / His voice was thin, as voices from the grave...". Later in this poem, Eliot writes of the voices of the dead (Little Gidding, I).:

"Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
"This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,
Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;
And some thro' wavering lights and shadows broke,
Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below.
They saw the gleaming river seaward flow
From the inner land: far off, three mountain-tops,
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
Stood sunset-flush'd: and, dew'd with showery drops,
Up-clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.

The charmed sunset linger'd low adown
In the red West: thro' mountain clefts the dale
Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
Border'd with palm, and many a winding vale
And meadow, set with slender galingale;
A land where all things always seem'd the same!
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then some one said, "We will return no more";
And all at once they sang, "Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam."


"The surface glittered out of heart of light, / And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. / Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty":

In 1910-11, Eliot attended Bergson's lectures at the College de France in Paris, and was temporarily converted to the latter's philosophical interest in the progressive evolution of consciousness. Thus, as F. O. Matthiessen writes inThe Achievement of T.S. Eliot (Oxford, 1958):

"Some of the passages on duration remind us that Eliot listened to Bergson's lectures at the Sorbonne in the winter of 1911 and wrote an essay then criticizing his durée réelle as ‘simply not final'. Other lines on the recapture of time through consciousness suggest the aspect of Bergson that most stimulated Proust. But the chief contrast around which Eliot constructs this poem is that between the view of time as a mere continuum, and the difficult paradoxical Christian view of how man lives both 'in and out of time', how he is immersed in the flux and yet can penetrate to the eternal by apprehending timeless existence within time and above it."

Donald J. Childs, "Risking Enchantment: The Middle Way between Mysticism and Pragmatism in Four Quartets." In Words in Time: New Essays on Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ed. Edward Lobb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993:

So "there is the argument by Bergsonian, Christian and Indian mystics alike that the moment of illumination reveals (as in Plato's metaphor of the cave) the distinction between reality and its mere shadow. The sunlight fills the empty pool; presence is overcome by absence; meaning seems to be revealed. Then there is Eliot's reservation about the Platonic language of light and shadow, for, given the values of light and shadow defined in the early essay, one finds a significant ambiguity in this mystical moment of illumination in 'Burnt Norton'. It is not clear what has been revealed, what truth it is that humankind cannot bear. Is the light (presumably the light of the Gospel of John that becomes the Word by the end of this poem) real, marking all else as merely shadow? Or is shadow real (the darkness that comes with the cloud), marking the momentary light as merely an illusion? It is not clear which of these phenomena the bird is calling 'reality'. The ambiguity is no accident; it comes from Eliot's disenchantment with the 'meretricious captivation' of this sort of 'promise of immortality' that he had encountered in Bergsonism. His fear was that the inner light was no more trustworthy than the inner voice, I which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust.' As always, the test is pragmatic; these moments 'can be judged only by their fruits.'

And yet pragmatism is no simple alternative to this mystical moment, Bergsonian or otherwise. One therefore also finds in 'Burnt Norton' the twenty-year fear of pragmatism's replacement of the spiritual part of our diet by fiction. The mysterious, lyrical fourth section of the poem focuses upon this fruitless option. The puzzling rhetorical questions serve to mock the pragmatic proposition that reality is a function of human need. The passing away of the sun (as in the first section of the poem, symbolically the reality outside the human being) exposes the ludicrousness of the suggestion that we could replace the sun: 'Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis / Stray down, bend to us: tendril and spray / Clutch and cling?' How can the world's being depend on human being? This section of the poem ironically reverses the bird's claim that humankind cannot bear very much reality: it is no longer to bear reality in the sense of 'to endure' reality; it is to bear reality in the sense of 'to sustain, support, create' reality.


"children": In view of the rest of the poem, possibly a reference to Matthew 11:25,
"At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." Also, Matthew 18:3, "And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."


Part II


"garlic and sapphires in the mud": A series of random things highlights Eliot's sense of the fragmentary nature of modern culture, but without the atmosphere of disjunction and melancholy characteristic of The Waste Land. Rather, the collage-like arrangements of this section form a nearly coherent whole, a meaningless song that sounds traditional but isn't. Fragments and ruins stand in defiance of human aspirations, but this poem does not lament over things that once made sense and have now ceased to do so; rather, it declares that a higher pattern exists "above the trees".


"are figured in the drift of stars": With this reference to astrology, this passage bespeaks a sense of higher, cosmic purpose beyond and within mundane existence.


"still point": Cf. Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, pp. 59, 61:

Tao is obscured when men understand only one pair of opposites,
or concentrate only on a partial aspect of being.
Then clear expression also becomes muddled by mere wordplay,
affirming this one aspect and denying all the rest.

The pivot of Tao passes through the center
where all affirmations and denials converge.
He who grasps the pivot is at the still-point
from which all movements and oppositions
can be seen in their right relationship...
Abandoning all thought of imposing a limit or taking sides,
he rests in direct intuition.


"dance": In eastern philosophy, an metaphor for creation.


"neither ascent nor decline": Cf. the second quotation in the epigraph, above.


"I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.: 'Here as elsewhere, the "I" exists as a method of breaking out of the poem's narrative progression, a way of arresting the poem's flow long enough to inject doubt about what can be said. The "I" calls into question the capacity of language, the ability of the poem to contain its meaning.' (Roger Bellin, "The Seduction of Argument and the Danger of Parody in the Four Quartets").


"Erhebung": Elevation/exaltation (German). (Eliot's note.)

Erhebung is an important term in German philosophy. Kant (Critique of Judgment, 228-9), for instance, speaks of the beautiful as the “symbol of the morally good”, and discusses how the harmonizing of voices which takes place in aesthetic perception, as opposed to the dissonance of contradiction, brings about an ennobling elevation (Erhebung) beyond the senses in the direction of the intelligible. This ennobling elevation places the aesthetic in a mediating role, defining it as that which points beyond itself toward the supersensible domain of the ethical. Kant wishes to grant to the aesthetic both a final and a mediating function, where horizontal and vertical planes join each other.


"concentration / without elimination": sometimes discussed as a desirable state in eastern meditation.


"Only a flicker / Over the strained time-ridden faces... Descend lower...": "In this Underground scene curiously enough, the instructed reader may catch a glimpseof the author, sauntering through the crowd as Alfred Hitchcock does in each of his films.For its locale, Eliot noted, sharing a private joke with his brother in Massachusetts, isspecifically the Gloucester Road Station, near the poet's South Kensington headquarters,the point of intersection of the Circle Line with the Piccadilly tube to Russell Square.Whoever would leave the endless circle and entrain for the offices of Faber & Faber must 'descend lower', and by spiral stairs if he chooses to walk. 'This is the one way, and the other is the same'; the other, adjacent to the stairs, is a lift, which he negotiates 'not in movement, but abstention from movement'. As Julia Shuttlethwaite observes in The Cocktail Party, 'In a lift I can meditate'." (Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot. W.H. Allen & Co., 1959.)


"not here the darkness, in this twittering world": An interesting statement, in view of Eliot's earlier work, which discussed the present state of society and civilization as a "wasteland". There are affinities here with St John of the Cross's movement from the "dark night of the senses" to the "dark night of the soul". Not surprisingly, references in the following stanza owe much precisely to these themes in St John.


Part IV


"time and the bell": Cf. John Donne, "Meditation XVII" ("For Whom the Bell Tolls"):

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. ...when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. ... The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. ...Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. ...

Eliot is credited with the 20th century's rediscovery of John Donne).


Cf. these lines from The Wasteland, "The Burial of the Dead", II. 19-24:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Cf. also Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard":

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day;
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea;
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that, from yonder ivy-mantled tower,
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care;
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield;
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton, here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

Th' applause of listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind;

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of luxury and pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev'n these bones, from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered Muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply;
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who, mindful of the unhonoured dead,
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say:
"Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;

"There, at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

"Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
Now drooping, woeful-wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.

"One morn I missed him on the accustomed hill,
Along the heath, and near his favourite tree.
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood, was he.

"The next with dirges due, in sad array,
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne,
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn."


Here rests his head upon the lap of earth,
A youth to fortune and to fame unknown;
Fair science frowned not on his humble birth,
And melancholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to misery (all he had) a tear,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a friend.

No further seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose,)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

It's worth reading the whole poem; Eliot uses a number of themes from it.


Part V


"the Word in the desert": Cf. Matthew 4.1-11: "Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness (or: desert) to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him."


"Chinese jar": Cf. John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

THOU still unravish'd bride of quietness,
  Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
  A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape

  Of deities or mortals, or of both,
    In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
  What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
    What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
  Are sweeter
; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

  Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
    Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
    She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
  For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
  Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
  For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!

  For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
    For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
  That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
    A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
  To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
  And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,

  Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
    Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
  Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
    Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
  Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
  Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

  When old age shall this generation waste,
    Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
  Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'


"As in the figure of the ten stairs": In The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross states that "there are ten steps on the mystical ladder of divine love." Other references to St. John of the Cross are scattered throughout the poem. Concerning this figure, one should also recall Herakleitos' dictum that "The way upward and the way downward are one and the same", quoted in the epigraph.


"Love is itself unmoving, / Only the cause and end of movement": Aristotle describes God as the "unmoved mover": "But the unmoved mover, as has been said, since it remains permanently simple and unvarying and in the same state, will cause motion that is one and simple" (Physics 8.6; 260a). The concept of the unmoved mover becomes an extremely important theme in mediaeval Scholastic philosophy and theology. Cf. Aquinas's "cosmological argument" for the existence of God: "[W]hatever is moved must be moved by another. If that by which it is moved must itself be moved, then this also needs to be moved by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and consequently, no other mover, seeing as subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is moved by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at the first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God." (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, God, 86.) St John (and Aquinas after him) says, "God is love" (1 John 3.16).


"children in the foliage": Cf. Genesis 3.8-10:

Then the man [Adam] and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?" He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.

The fact that the children in this case are laughing (perhaps at the "waste, sad time", which is "ridiculous") suggests that there has been some kind of resolution to Adam's predicament, insofar as it relates to the experience of time.



Written in 1940.

East Coker is a village near Yeovil, Somerset, Eliot's ancestral home, from which Eliot's ancestor Andrew Eliot left for the New World in about 1669. This poem considers the nature of history. It would be a mistake to read it as "the most bitter of the four poems, [concluding] in resignation", as some (e.g., the Encyclopedia Britannica) do; to do so would be to miss the point of the poem's profound and subtle play with imagery and religious allusion.


Part I

"In my beginning is my end": Cf: "In my end is my beginning" in Part V. The latter is the motto of Mary Queen of Scots ("En ma fin est mon commencement"). (Eliot's note.) T.S. Eliot visited East Coker in 1936-7, and his ashes are buried in the churchyard. These lines can be understood as a poetical expression of his desire that his ashes be kept there. A memorial tablet was erected in 1965.


"the tattered arras woven with a silent motto": Cf. the motto Dante places over the gates of Hell— "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." In a few lines, Eliot will urge us to "wait without hope".


"absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone": The opposite of the experience in the rose garden, described in Burnt Norton, I: " Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged, / the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light, / And they were behind us, reflected in the pool."


"in the empty silence. / Wait for the early owl": See, again, Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", above.


"summer midnight": Cf. Shakespeare, Midsummer Night's Dream.


"The association of man and woman / In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie...": This passage is taken from The Boke Named the Governour (1530) by Sir Thomas Elyot, an ancestor of T.S. Eliot. (Note supplied in original.)

"The time of the seasons and the constellations / The time of milking and the time of harvest / The time of the coupling of man and woman / And that of beasts": Cf. Ecclesiastes 3:

   1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
   2A time to be born, and a time to die;
      a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
   3A time to kill, and a time to heal;
      a time to break down, and a time to build up;
   4A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
      a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
   5A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
      a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
   6A time to get, and a time to lose;
      a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
   7A time to rend, and a time to sew;
      a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
   8A time to love, and a time to hate;
      a time of war, and a time of peace.

   9What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
   10I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.
   11He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
   12I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.
   13And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.
   14I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
   15That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
   16And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.
   17I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.
   18I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
   19For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
   20All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
   21Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
   22Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?


Part II


"leonids": A meteor shower which occurs in mid-November, which has occasionally been spectacular. Meteors are traditionally seen as boding ill.


"Whirled in a vortex that shall bring / The world to that destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns": "[The Stoics say that] at certain fated times the entire world is subject to conflagration, and then is reconstituted afresh. But the primary fire is as it were a seed which possesses the principles (logoi) of all things and the causes of past, present, and future events. The nexus and succession of these is Fate, Knowledge, Truth, and an inevitable and inescapable Law of what exists. In this way, everything in the world is excellently organized as in a perfectly ordered society." Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 15.14.2 quoting Aristocles.


"That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory": 'From beginning to end, the Four Quartets turn poetry against itself, in an endlessly frustrated attempt to gesture beyond it to the wordless spiritual truth that is the poem's desire (or perhaps rather its "love beyond desire"). ...this "very difficult" need for a non-ideological objectivity, for thought beyond the "confusion" of language, is set out negatively: "not to conceive the patterns of one's past and future existence as in accordance with...fictional narratives and not the world."' (Bellin, quoting Paul de Man)


Dawn points.... Out at sea the dawn wind...: Lines reminiscent of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.


"In the middle, not only in the middle of the way / But all the way, in a dark wood": Cf. Dante, Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto I:

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet, to discourse of what there good befel,
All else will I relate discover’d there.


Part III


"dark": Apart from the general themes of death, the dark night of the soul (and of culture), etc, Edward Said's review of J. Hillis Miller's Poets of Reality is of interest here: Miller's

formidable subject [is] "the recovery of immanence," whose loss, in his The Disappearance of God (1963) he has so brilliantly and persuasively recorded. Together the two books form an inner history of the transition from romantic to modern literature. ....

Immanence is intelligible meaning that inheres in what we perceive, meaning that is available here and now rather than there and away in some distant realm.

Miller argues that the romantic heritage of the nineteenth century leads directly to the unendurable impasse, exemplified in the final tragedies of Arnold and Hopkins [and in Eliot's work as well], of a solitary ego confronting a disintegrating world from which immanence and God have receded.

It is against this stark background that Miller sees the twentieth-century poets of reality doing their work, thanks in great measure to Conrad, whose sheer courage earns him a chapter and a poetic vocation. Conrad portrays the absurdities of the romantic ethos,... he is a nihilist who shows that romantic dualism is untenable because God, its original sustainer, has not only disappeared but for all practical purposes has also died. Miller argues that for Conrad the uninterrupted "stuff" of reality is darkness; what passes for the world's ethics, civilization and truth is merely "the extermination of the [world's] source"— darkness. Conrad achieves the seemingly impossible in being able to see the world as it is, as pure quality and without interpretation, but the expense of such a vision is the unpleasant realization that conventional ideas of space and time, matter and spirit, must be rendered as incompatible dimensions. Man, who lives in both dimensions, is the victim of an irreconcilable, even impossible, dualism. Miller's choice for the personification of this insight is the Professor, that terrifyingly clear-headed ascetic, who in Thc Secret Agent can "neither make a secure place where men can create their own culture, nor can he bring the darkness of madness and despair into the world as the foundation of a viable city of man."

The Professor's is a mind that "caresses the images of ruin and destruction," a mind that has plumbed nihilism so thoroughly as to make some new departure imperative for others. In the movement of modern literature built upon the example of Conrad's bravery, as well as on his sense of the darkness in which objectivity and subjectivity are dissolved, Miller begins to discern what, in R.P. Blackmur's incomparable phrase for Anna Karenina, is a dialectic of incarnation. Each of the authors Miller discusses... begin[s] at a "starting point" that is both a special awareness of actuality and a moment of radical self-consciousness. He then works his way through a series of relative solutions to the problem of reconciling the mind to the world, and finally ends where he began, with his sense of actuality enriched by his partnership in it, his poetry thus incarnates reality because reality is now seen as a dimension of "co-presence" where mind, the world, and an underlying being shine forth.'

—Edward W. Said, "A Configuration of Themes": review of J. Hillis Miller, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (Harvard University Press, 2003); The Nation, October 30, 2003.


"Almanach de Gotha": This book charted the ruling royal and princely houses of Europe; only coming to an end with the Soviet occupation of the former Saxon Duchies of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1945. It has been described as 'the nearest thing there will ever be to a royal trades union when it comes to questions of dynastic disputes, successions or who is who in the extended royal and ruling families of Europe.' Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, it has been revived: see almanachdegotha.com.


"I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God": For this and several other themes to come, compare St John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt Carmel, Bk 1, Ch 13, Nos. 10-13, in which he applies the following verses to both the exterior and more interior kinds of spiritual purification:

To reach satisfaction in all
desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.

To come to enjoy what you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.

[...] 13. In this nakedness the spirit finds its quietude and rest. For in coveting nothing, nothing tires it by pulling it up and nothing oppresses it by pushing it down, because it is in the center of its humility. When it covets something, by this very fact it tires itself.

Eliot first discovered John's works while at Harvard, and most likely continued reading John in depth and with understanding, since he cited them as a "devotional monument" in "Lancelot Andrewes" (1926), quoted them ironically in an epigraph to Sweeney Agonistes (1926-7), and reviewed an abridged version of St John's works in 1934. When Eliot was writing "East Coker", he used E. Allison Peers's translation of St John's works. Eliot uses John of the Cross, not as a mystic or theologian per se, but as an eclectic poet familiar with mysticism, borrowing the scheme, concepts, images, and symbols derived from John.

See Corona Sharp, "'The Unheard Music': T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets and John of the Cross, University of Toronto Quarterly 51 (Spring, 1982).


Part IV


"wounded surgeon": Jesus Christ, by whose wounds we are healed.


"Resolving the enigma of the fever chart": A fever chart measures the course of the patient's temparature, up and down— and "the way up and the way down are one and the same" (cf. epigraph). Ascending and descending have been Eliot's metaphor for the spiritual search for meaning in time, so he is saying here that the "wounded surgeon"'s atonement ("at-one-ment") is "the completion of [history's] partial ecstasy, / The resolution of its partial horror."


"our, and Adam's curse": Original sin.


"ruined millionaire": In classical Christian theology, Christ himself is the means by which God the Father created all things— and thus he himself is sometimes seen as the Creator. He is "ruined" because

   5Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus,
   6who, being in the form of God, [he] thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
   7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
   8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
   9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
   10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 
   11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. —(Philippians 2.6-11).


"prevents us": This phrase originally (and in the King James Bible) meant "goes before us"; that meaning has been extended in modern parlance to connote "stops us". Eliot no doubt intends both meanings here.


"roses... briars": divine mercy and judgment.


"The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food...": These lines refer to the rite of Holy Communion (the Eucharist), which is the central act of the Christian Church. As an Anglo-Catholic, Eliot believed that the Eucharistic bread and wine actually were the body and blood of Christ, and the means by which the faithful receive Christ's life in themselves— and by which they participate in his suffering and death, and therefore in his resurrection. The meaning of suffering and death— and our meaning as mortals— is to be found in this participation. Hence Christ's self-emptying and resurrection (see note above, "ruined millionaire") are the pattern of meaning in time— but only because death and life are connected through his incarnation with a real intersection of eternity and time.


"we call this Friday good": Good Friday is the day on which Christians commemorate the death of Christ.


Part V





Written in 1941.

"The Dry Salvages—presumably les trois sauvages—is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, off the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts." (Eliot's note.) Eliot's family spent time in this area during his childhood. What Eliot does not mention in his note is that the rocks are dangerously hidden.

This poem further meditates the nature of human experience in time. Water images pervade, as does the theme of renunciation.

By his own reckoning (in a speech given upon receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959, at which he read this poem), the poem begins where Eliot began (St. Louis, the Mississippi River) and ends where he expected to end (a parish church of a village in Somerset). (from a WWW page of notes to the Quartets)

Before placing himself at the Dry Salvages, Eliot starts describing his feelings towards the river as opposed to the sea. Being born in St. Louis, he had a profound child experience concerning rivers (the Mississippi). The familiarity and even comeliness of the river is in deep contrast to the sea's strangeness and ruthlessness.


Part I

"I do not know": Cf. Roger Bellin, "The Seduction of Argument and the Danger of Parody in the Four Quartets":

The narration of "The Dry Salvages," as Kenner perceives (267), is framed from the outset as personal opinion: "I do not know much about gods" (li. 1); "I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant" (li. 124). The repetitive uncertainty of this narrator comes to infect the motif of intergenerational memory that was first offered in "Burnt Norton" without a trace of a speaking voice: "I have said before" (li. 96), "not forgetting / Something that is probably quite ineffable" (li. 99-100); here the "I" is just one of the equivocating "lecture-stigmata" which Eliot's editor Faber criticized (Gardner 133), adulterating passages that would otherwise have a more visceral power; but clearly this was not the only desired effect, as the poem's equivocation and self-criticism does not cease. The encounter with the "familiar compound ghost" of "Little Gidding" is recounted in the first person, though this "I" is introduced gently, after eight impersonal lines that serve to introduce the bleak setting and Dantesque line separately from the complication of the narrator (li. 86). And this narrator is also the ghost with whom he speaks (assuming "a double part"); nevertheless, this passage is unlike any other section of the Quartets for its reliance on character and dialogue rather than an austere poetic voice with an effaced speaker. The Quartets do, then, rely increasingly on the first person singular as they progress; but their "I" serves so often as a marker of equivocation, a discomfort of the poem with itself, that there can be no question of reading it as the single voice of the poem. This performance of self-doubt casts doubt on the poem's supposedly "simpler way" of diction elsewhere, as well; the "I" of the poem's obsessive self-interpretation infects the whole text with the self-reflexive uncertainty of reading.



Part II


"familiar compound ghost": The centerpiece of Dry Salvages is a sustained homage to Dante written in a form of terza rima, dramatizing Eliot's meeting with a "familiar compound ghost" he associates with Yeats and Swift.


Part III


Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield: in the Mahabharata, the discourse known as the Bhagavad Gita. (Eliot's note).


Part IV


"Figlia del tuo figlio": "Daughter of your own son" (i.e. the Virgin Mary); from Dante's Paradisio.


Part V


"To... haruspicate or scry...": A catalogue of human efforts to understand history and divine the future (personal and human), by its highly detailed and technical language drawing attention to the whole apparatus of "scientific" techniques (including psychoanalysis!) that have been evolved for this purpose. Eliot dismisses them all as mere "Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press". This contrasts with his earlier use of astrological reference (see Burnt Norton, II), where the rotation of the heavens serves as a figure for the eternal meaning of time. Divination is futile, and a distraction. What really matters is eternity and its link with history, which link is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. And even if "to aprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time, is an occupation for the saint"— one which ordinary people cannot hope to accomplish— still, it falls to us to understand the importance and liberating power of Christ's coming.


"Here the impossible union / of spheres of existence is actual, / Here the past and future /Are conquered, and reconciled": Cf. Roger Bellin, "The Seduction of Argument and the Danger of Parody in the Four Quartets":

The "time" of the Four Quartets is always within language; it is the time of "fictional narratives and not the world" (though the "world" of the poem is also aligned with the fallen realm of words) in which "Time past and time future / Allow but a little consciousness" (BN li. 83-84). This "consciousness" outside of time, or of the timeless from within time, is the goal of the Quartets, though it may stand outside language:

This is consciousness, not the consciousness which philosophers think about, but a consciousness as enveloping and undiscussable as the Bradleyan "immediate experience"; and, "To be conscious is not to be in time." (Kenner 255)

To discuss the "undiscussable," to approach it by the indirection of poetic form, is the Quartets' sole purpose, as the conclusion to "The Dry Salvages" makes clear:

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled (li. 216-219)

Here, the twice-repeated "Here" must be taken as a literal self-reference – "here, in these lines, the impossible is actual, the past and future reconciled" – though it is also a reference to the preceding "Incarnation" (which may itself refer to the poem's textual incarnation of its elusive meaning). The poem is pulling its "undiscussable" goal closer, into its own discussion, reaching "into the silence" with its own words. It is attempting to induce, to enact, the state of consciousness of the timeless which it discusses; thus, perhaps, the frequent critical willingness to quote the crucial lines without any comment ("[This] paradox...is the new discovery of this part of the poem. 'To be conscious is not to be in time.' Yes, perhaps; but, on the other hand, 'Only through time time is conquered'" [Traversi 114]). But simply to quote "To be conscious is not to be in time" (BN li. 85) does not aid a reading of the poem's "consciousness," because it does not do justice to the words' indirection: even this apparently pivotal line can be understood at least three distinct ways. It can mean that a truly mystical consciousness, once attained, allows the mystic an extra temporal vantage point (this may be the most obvious reading in the context of the whole body of the Quartets). But it can just as well be taken to say that every person's consciousness already contains an element of awareness of the timeless, though it lives inside of the temporality of our lives (this reading is more salient in the context of the preceding lines, "Time past and time future / Allow but a little consciousness" – this "little" may be all we can aspire to). Or it can mean that human thought is only possible within time, and so to be conscious is always to die ("not to be, in time"), presaged by the earlier reference to "heaven and damnation / Which flesh cannot endure". All of these meanings must be held at once: the poem is manifestly about the saint's mystical experience, but also about the "temporary translation of that beatitude into...a mode of experience available to human kind" (Kenner 270); and there is no need for psychoanalysis to read the preoccupation with death into this poem which asserts "Every poem an epitaph" (LG 225).




Written in 1942.

Little Gidding is a village in Cambridgeshire visited by Eliot in 1936. It was the home of a religious community established in 1626. In 1633 Charles I visited the community; in 1646 he returned, fleeing Parliamentary troops who broke up the community. The destruction of Europe's political, cultural, and religious traditions is Eliot's concern throughout the poem.

In this quartet, Eliot resolves the themes of the first three, and speaks of spiritual renewal. Love alone, he concludes, can release us from our earthly desires. The love to which he refers, however, is not just a human movement or emotion, however, but a gift of Pentecost. The poem is about the intersection of time and eternity in this Love.


Part III


"Sin is Behovely, but / All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.": This is a quotation from St Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, xiii; a modern translation of which might read "Sin must happen, but...". See this page for more on St Julian and for relevant excerpts of her work.

"By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching": St Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, xiv.

"the fire and the rose": The rose is a traditional symbol of English royalty, and therefore represents England, and Western civilization beyond it— and it also stands in mediaeval literature for divine love and mercy, and in this poem for the garden (sc. Eden) where the children (Adam and Eve) hide (and they reappear here). Fire is the flame both of God's judgment and wrath, and of the Spirit who purifies, warms, and enlightens.