The Composition of Four Quartets
Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions
At the end of the year 1914, when T.S. Eliot was twenty-six and living in England, he wrote to a friend about the unpleasantness of meeting sexual opportunities in the street and feeling his own refinement rise up to obstruct them. Eliot thought he might be better off if he had lost his virginity some years earlier, and he contemplated disposing of it before marriage. At the same time, he thanked the friend for executing a commission. Writing from England, he had wanted roses delivered to Emily Hale, to celebrate her appearance in a play produced by the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Social Dramatic Club. In his next letter, Eliot wondered whether or not he should get married and sacrifice his independence for the sake of his children. We may conjecture that the poet was meditating marriage and had even begun considering a choice of spouse.
But an unpublished poem which he wrote about this time implies that virginity no longer troubled him. In the first stanza the poet describes himself as standing happily in the corner of a bedroom while a woman lies in bed. In a second and closing stanza, it is morning, the woman is asleep, and the poet leaves by the window. The scene may be fantasy, and the date is not certain; but the poet speaks historically in the first person; the joyous mood and the details of the situation imply a quite satisfactory sexual encounter. Since Eliot met Vivien Haigh, his first wife, early in 1915 and married her (with no advance notice to his family) in June, we may speculate that the encounter altered his marital plans. The marriage was of course the disaster of his life.
Dame Helen Gardner, in her new, immensely rewarding book on Four Quartets, suggests that when Eliot visited New Hampshire in the spring of 1933, Emily Hale was with him. Dame Helen also reports that when Eliot went to Burnt Norton (Gloucestershire, England) in 1935, his companion was Emily Hale. The language and imagery of the poems “New Hampshire” and Burnt Norton make the link: springtime, a bird, children’s voices in an orchard. “Twenty years and the spring is over,” the poet says in “New Hampshire”—taking us back from 1933 to the last academic year he spent as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We know that in February 1913, when Eliot acted in a variety show at the Cambridge home of his cousin Eleanor, one of the other performers was Emily Hale.
The theme of Burnt Norton is the difference between the possible and the actual. Speaking in his mind to a nameless listener, the poet says,
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
The images evoke courtship, a romance that was unfulfilled.
In Part Four of Burnt Norton the poet asks, “Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis / Stray down, bend to us?” Dame Helen reports that Emily Hale paid long visits to England in 1934, 1935, and 1937, staying with Dr. and Mrs. Perkins, an aunt and uncle who rented a house in Gloucestershire. Eliot enjoyed weekends with them and wrote a poem (unpublished) mentioning the skill with which Mrs. Perkins, a devoted gardener, “trimmed and trained and sprayed” her clematis. At the end of Little Gidding, in the final lines of Four Quartets, the “children in the apple-tree” reappear, tying the whole work to “New Hampshire” and perhaps joining the spring of 1941 to that of 1913.
Such recurrent motifs illustrate a general principle, that Eliot wished his poems to start from deeply meaningful recollection. When he felt unhappy with Part Two of Little Gidding, he said the defect of that whole poem was “the lack of some acute personal reminiscence”—which he then proceeded to supply with the amazing lines on the “gifts reserved for age” in Part Two. It was not that the poet expected a reader to fathom the private allusions; he simply wanted them to start the creative labor.
This need to have a deeply personal impulse nourish one’s writing seems linked to the theme of suffering and its significance which rises so often in the Quartets. As early as 1914, Eliot was wondering about the emotional sources of creative inspiration. He thought that it required a certain kind of tranquillity but that the tranquillity might derive sometimes from deep or tragic suffering, which takes one away from oneself. When Dostoevsky was writing his masterpieces (Eliot said), he must have known such tranquillity.
Five years later, praising Dostoevsky for connecting his greatest “flights” (such as the final scene of The Idiot) with observed reality, Eliot said that Dostoevsky continued “the quotidian experience of the brain into seldom explored extremities of torture.” Most people, he remarked, “are too unconscious of their own suffering to suffer much”! For Eliot, I believe, the sympathetic imagination worked best when it extended itself to pain rather than pleasure.
In turn, the theme of suffering leads us to the shape of Four Quartets, because it recalls Beethoven’s development. In 1931, writing to Stephen Spender about Beethoven’s quarters, Eliot said,
There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering: I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.
This principle became explicit in The Dry Salvages:
Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony…
…are likewise permanent
With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly ex- perienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Soon after he composed that searching passage, Eliot gave a lecture on the music of poetry. He spoke of recurrent themes, of developing a poetic motif as if by different groups of instruments, of transitions in a poem comparable to the movements of a symphony or a quartet, and of arranging subjects contrapuntally. Yet I suspect that these possibilities suggested themselves to him as means of handling dangerous emotions. The shape of Four Quartets might be described as musical, therefore, in the sense that it is Eliot’s effort to match what he saw as Dostoevsky’s or Beethoven’s accomplishment. Indeed, we may omit the notion of music from the definition, as well as the name of Beethoven, and say Eliot tried to discover a form suitable for expressing his own sense of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering.
The design of the Quartets follows the hovering of the mind when it must deal with painful but ineluctable themes. There is a circling around the subject, avoiding direct confrontation but moving from one related theme to another. Then there is the yielding to acute emotion, absorption in the grief. Finally, there are the life-giving moments of distance or insight, the intermittent power to watch the suffering as if it were external, or to encompass it in a totality that endows it with meaning.
The alternation of meditative and lyric passages, the movement from darkness to illumination, the arbitrary recapitulation of a group of motifs already produced separately—even the way one theme unexpectedly breaks in on another—all suggest a person approaching and withdrawing from the direct experience of grief, pain, guilt, and insight.
This is why, in the poem, so many patterns are both established and defied, why they interrupt each other, why spring appears in midwinter, love in fire, why Krishna (rather than Christ) emerges forty lines after the “one Annunciation” (Dry Salvages, ll. 84, 124). Eliot has no rational account of the matter. He merely offers to share the enigmatic experience that in the midst of bewilderment we may receive unaccountable instruction from springs we cannot identify, that inconsolable grief can translate itself into acceptable peace. At the same time, the macrocosm keeps hinting at intention and design, while the patterns of mortal life remain imperfect. “Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle-tree”: the gross and subtle desires of humanity obscure the divine semblance of order.
Readers who try to find a consistent, progressive scheme in Four Quartets will therefore meet awkward roadblocks. The alternation of the seasons creates much of the imagery, tempting one to assign each set of poems to a particular season. East Coker, the second quartet, belongs quite explicitly to summer. Yet the lyric of Part Four of this sequence celebrates Good Friday. Again, if East Coker ties in with summer, its predecessor Burnt Norton should evoke the spring. Yet the images there are of summer or autumn—except perhaps for the lyric of Part Four. The Dry Salvages in turn should bring autumn. Yet in Part One, this sequence has spring and winter as well, and the lyric of Part Two deals with the annunciation (March 25). Little Gidding begins in winter, but the meeting with the ghost (in Part Four) takes place in autumn, while the theme of Pentecost suggests spring. Thus the quartets as a group touch on the cycle of the year without neatly embodying it. They invite us to look for and to complete designs which draw us on and leave us waiting.
To the four elements, Eliot applies the same mode of welcome irregularity. In Part One of Burnt Norton we meet birds and “vibrant air”; Part Three is dominated by cold wind, faded air. The most celebrated image of the sequence is, however, water momentarily filling a pool. Earth is certainly the focus of East Coker, and water of The Dry Salvages. But Little Gidding has all four elements openly employed in Part Two; the land dominates Part Three; and Part Five is focused on fire (rather arbitrarily) only in the last three lines.
So also, as Dame Helen showed many years ago, the symbols of the poem are never consistent but keep altering their implications. The river in The Dry Salvages is sometimes the Mississippi, sometimes the river of time (as against the ocean of eternity), sometimes the river of human sin and suffering (as in Dante’s Inferno XIV. 114-120). The fire of the Quartets means both purgation and love. The yew tree is both death and immortality.
The most challenging and experimental technique is the arbitrary interruption of one theme by another, one mood by another, the meditative abstract thought by the concrete memory:
The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.
—The Dry Salvages, ll. 24-26
If the poem invites us to participate in these modulations, it also suggests a give and take between various aspects of the poet. Just as Beethoven divided himself up among the voices of his instruments, just as we hear his fears and hopes reply to one another, so also in Eliot’s quartets the older poet often speaks to the younger, the doubting to the faithful, and the restless poet to the rooted. A friend questioned Eliot’s listing of psychoanalysis among “usual” methods of fortune-telling (Dry Salvages, ll. 192-194), but the poet made no response. I think the reason is that a quarter-century earlier, psychoanalysis had attracted Eliot, and he recommended it as a promising advance in individual psychology. The object of the irony in that passage was himself in his late twenties.