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.
"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?
"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 itnot 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.
"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).
"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.
Written in 1941.
"The Dry Salvagespresumably les trois sauvagesis 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.
"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.
"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.
Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield: in the Mahabharata, the discourse known as the Bhagavad Gita. (Eliot's note).
"Figlia del tuo figlio": "Daughter of your own son" (i.e. the Virgin Mary); from Dante's Paradisio.
"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.
"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.