T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot; drawing by David Levine

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But an unpublished poem which he wrote about this time implies that virginity no longer troubled him.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.

Finally, the transmutations and interruptions of the poetic technique suggest the intersections that Eliot keeps before us, of eternity and time, of spirit and place. The arbitrariness of the Incarnation is like the arbitrariness of the movement of the poem. Why now and not sooner, why here and not elsewhere, why this world and not another? Any cosmology must face these questions, and a man may ask them of himself at any moment.

The limits of space and time present the furious imagination with a constant challenge. Our conceptions of the possibilities of life soar tragically beyond the conditions of mere existence. When Eliot (in 1919) spoke of great novelists as driven into art by “the inevitable inadequacy of actual living to the passionate capacity,” he revealed his own character. When he spoke of “the awful separation between potential passion and any actualization possible in life,” he pointed to the ultimate source of power of Four Quartets.

To anybody not fond of historical scholarship, or uncomfortable with the apparatus of textual studies, the fascination of Helen Gardner’s splendid book may be less than obvious. It is an account of how Eliot came to write Four Quartets. Dame Helen examines the sources of the Quartets in his experience and memories, in the poems or prose of earlier authors, and in the comments of friends to whom he showed the work in progress. Her material includes transcriptions of the manuscripts and typescripts of the poems at various stages of their development—those drafts which have been preserved; and she records, in meticulous footnotes, the differences between the final text and the earlier stages.

On many of these variant readings, Dame Helen offers illuminating remarks, often showing how they clarify the meaning or form of the poems. In the course of her discussions, she also gives extracts of unpublished letters, of the greatest interest, from Eliot, John Hayward, and others. Because Hayward acted the parts of midwife and nurse to the emerging creations, Dame Helen pays special attention to his contribution and provides some details of his remarkable character and life.

From the book, therefore, one learns about Eliot’s personality and his psychology of composition, as well as about the poems. The reason is, as Dame Helen says, that so much of the material came out of his life. We had known of Eliot’s visits to Burnt Norton, East Coker, and Little Gidding. We had learned that the Dry Salvages were visible from his family’s summer home, and that he used to sail around them. We had found out that the “place of disaffection” in Burnt Norton was the London system of underground trains, and especially the Gloucester Road station, also that the “ash on an old man’s sleeve” in Part Two of Little Gidding was the dust settling after an air raid.

Now we gain other controls over our speculations. Dame Helen informs us that Eliot did not know the early history of Burnt Norton, or how its name originated in a hideous act of arson. She warns us that the kingfisher which might seem to appear on the grounds of the estate was in fact seen elsewhere. She shows how much of Yeats belonged to the conception of the ghost in Little Gidding, Part Two.

A common habit of interpreters has been to trace Eliot’s literary allusions back to their original setting and to explain the meaning of obscure lines by referring to those contexts. Even for The Waste Land, which invited such treatment, the method has proved as much a curse as a blessing. For the Quartets, as Dame Helen argued long ago, the method is generally unwanted. Now she carefully distinguishes the few deliberate allusions, which invite the reader to ponder the context of the source, from the many echoes and imitations that Eliot used unconsciously or because the phrase satisfied his ear—or else because an image seemed evocative without regard to its original function.

She offers abundant instances of echoes and allusions which the poems do not ask us to recognize. At, one extreme is a phrase that reverberates for the poet but not for his readers: the injunction, “Not fare well, / But fare forward,” in The Dry Salvages (ll. 167-168). Eliot thought he remembered this from the words of a sybil to Alaric the Visigoth (on his way to Rome); but no scholar has been able to trace it to a literary text.

At the other extreme are words which an ardent reader can overinterpret. One instance is “laceration” in Little Gidding (l. 136), which echoes Swift’s epitaph. Since the speaker at this point is a composite of Eliot himself and of poets he admired, one might easily infer that the word discloses an extraordinary interest of Eliot in Swift. But on the one hand, “laceration” was John Hayward’s suggestion, accepted by Eliot; and on the other hand, Eliot said the word made him think not of Swift but of Yeats’s famous translation of the epitaph.

Unfortunately, Dame Helen herself tries to interpret a crucial passage on the basis of allusions and their context. This is the lyric in Part Four of East Coker, “The wounded surgeon plies the steel.” In the third stanza, Eliot describes the earth as a hospital endowed by a “ruined millionaire.” Raymond Preston identified the millionaire as Adam, having got the fact from Eliot himself; and John Hayward made the same identification. But in her book The Art of T.S. Eliot, Dame Helen argued that all the figures in the lyric (the surgeon, the nurse, and the millionaire) were types of Christ.

Now she points out that in his notes for the poem, Eliot started with the expression “bankrupt banker” and then changed the word to “millionaire.” She declares that the collocation of “banker” and “millionaire” recalls Gide’s fable Le Prométhée mal enchainé, which we know Eliot read; and from that position she argues that the millionaire, like the banker “Zeus” in the fable, would represent a divine being rather than a mortal creature.

The reasoning does not seem persuasive. The association of a millionaire with banking and philanthropy is natural enough. In Eliot’s review of The Education of Henry Adams, one finds bankers, millionaires, and philanthropy within the breadth of four paragraphs. The notes for Eliot’s lyric do not necessarily recall Gide’s story; and if they did so for the poet, he surely discouraged the reader from making the connection. In the lyric itself the changes in point of view from stanza to stanza hardly invite us to treat the three persons as one; and although Dame Helen observes that “ruined” can mean impoverished by generosity, the epithet suits Adam better than his savior.

Among the few oversights in the book is a lack of reference to the first New York edition of the Quartets. Since this antedates the London edition by almost a year and a half, it represents a distinct stage in the history of the text. I shall give three examples of what I mean.

A flaw in the text of the poems has been the position of the Greek epigraphs to Burnt Norton. The first London edition had them set on the reverse of the table of contents, as if they belonged to all four poems. Dame Helen does not observe that in the New York edition they were correctly placed under the half-title of Burnt Norton.

In Burnt Norton, line 51, the poet changed his mind between “appeasing” and “reconciles.” Dame Helen reviews the changes back and forth, with possible reasons for the final choice of “appeasing” in the London edition. Readers following the analysis might like to know that Eliot preserved “reconciles” so late as the New York text.

In East Coker, Dame Helen points out that a meaningful space existed between lines 128 and 129 in all the extant drafts and in the first periodical publication. But the space disappeared in the pamphlet publication and in the first London edition of the Quartets, because line 128 then came at the foot of a page. Dame Helen wonders whether or not Eliot accepted the accident of the printing as an improvement. Surely, then, it is worth recording that in the New York edition, the space is kept.

All in all, there are at least nine certain or highly probable errors of spacing, punctuation, spelling, or language in the separate edition of Four Quartets now published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. By far the most striking is a whole line which the printers apparently dropped from Little Gidding, and which Dame Helen has miraculously rescued. It should follow line 19, and it reads, “Summer beyond sense, the inapprehensible.”

Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with tran- sitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither bud- ding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimagi- nable
Summer beyond sense, the inappre- hensible
Zero summer?

If biography is peripheral to the critical scholarship of Helen Gardner, it is central to Donald Hall’s Remembering Poets. His book is mainly a gathering of well-told anecdotes about the author’s relations with Frost, Pound, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. Hall deserves praise for the care he has taken to verify his information, to be accurate, to complete stories of which he knew only a part at first hand. The care is visible everywhere but most attractively in the author’s frankness about himself. The refusal to cover up his blunders deepens the appeal and the humor of the narrative. His good nature and appreciativeness give it coherence. Readers in general, and young readers in particular, who hesitate to dip into poetry of any sort will find themselves reaching for the works of Hall’s subjects as they yield to the charm of his voice.

That they will discover much about the poetry itself is less certain. Hall is aware of the limitations of his approach, and insists that one must not confuse the personality of a genius with his work. Yet for all his experience as a poet, Hall rarely shows much penetration or independent judgment when he acts as a critic. Biography is an efficient method of getting into the meaning and shape of works of art so long as the biographer is obsessed with the creative imagination of his subject.

Naturally, the characters of his four poets fascinate Hall and infuse drama into his accounts of them. We hear Dylan Thomas talk about Yeats; we observe the competitiveness of Frost; we see Eliot reluctantly shaking hands with Oscar Williams; and we learn about the obstacles Hall met when he tried to get lecture engagements for Pound in America. Some of the anecdotes move one deeply, like the report of Thomas planning to give up poetry for prose because he could make more money from prose. One also learns much from Hall about the career of a poet in our time—the mechanical, financial, and emotional problems of winning the attention of deafened ears.

But the paragraphs of comment on individual poems, of judgments about the oeuvre of a poet, or of generalization about the art of poetry are not incisive enough. The psychological and moral observations are more often honest than profound. Hall’s notions about the relation of culture to society seldom enlighten one—for example, his speculation that if Thomas had lived in a society which “valued life over death,” he might not have drunk himself into disaster.

For readers concerned with poetry itself, the most absorbing parts of the book will be the interviews with Eliot and Pound, which have been published before. But scrupulous as they are, these it turn remain less than they might appear to be. They bring us (as the whole book does) the speech of men at the end of their careers. Even the sympathy and intelligence of Mr. Hall cannot transform them into the young, creative innovators whom we yearn to know.

Besides, these men had already put their self-portraits on public display, and consciously or not were preserving them while answering Hall’s questions (as he perfectly realized). Finally, they had fallible memories. Eliot told Hall that he had sold the manuscripts of The Waste Land to John Quinn. In fact, we know from the correspondence published by Valerie Eliot in her edition that Eliot refused to sell those manuscripts to his benefactor and insisted on making him a present of them. It was other manuscripts that Quinn succeeded in buying from Eliot.

This Issue

December 7, 1978