T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is highly personal, uniquely-fashioned religious poetry. This wordless realm into which Eliot takes us is the region of dreams, the numinous, the collective unconscious. He wishes us to plunge into the experience instead of simply pondering the meaning.
I first read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as an undergraduate and was surprised when one of the English grad students expressed his bewilderment, annoyance, and frustration with Eliot and his masterpiece.
He found the poems puzzling, dense, and inexplicable, and he was not happy about it. Some time ago another friend asked if I understood Four Quartets and asked for a tutorial. I felt challenged. I was reminded of Blessed John Henry Newman’s response when someone asked why he had become a Catholic. “It is a matter,” He said. “It cannot be taken in a teacup.”
At a girls’ college during a lecture tour of America, Eliot was asked, “Sir, what did you mean by the line, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under the juniper tree?” He replied, “I meant, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under the juniper tree.” Similarly, there is the story of Beethoven playing one of his sonatas, and after the performance someone in the audience asked what it meant. Beethoven scowled at his inquisitor, then sat down at the piano and played the sonata again.
In other words, “If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it.”
With that condescending comment out of the way, I do think it is possible, if not to explain Four Quartets, to at least explain what Eliot was trying to do. If they cannot be explained, they can be illuminated. Therefore in this series of five essays, here at The Imaginative Conservative, I hope to do just that.
Why me? Why now? Curiously enough, one of my strangest of childhood memories was laying on my bunk bed paging through the big green and white World Book Encyclopedia yearbook for 1965. I was nine years old. In the obituary section was an article about the death of T.S. Eliot.
I was captivated. For some reason—call it destiny—I was intrigued by this American who went to live in England and became a poet. I visited England the first time during the summer after my senior year in high school, and during my college years came down with that terrible disease Anglophilia, and I caught the dreaded plague from none other than T.S. Eliot. If he could part his hair and wear a three-piece suit and spectacles and look sad, serious, and very English, why couldn’t I?
So off I went to England when I had the chance, and over the years I have read every biography and most of the words the great man wrote. I visited the church where he was warden, paid homage at his grave in East Coker, and made pilgrimage to pray at the austere church at Little Gidding.
During this time and still today, Four Quartets remains a fixed point of my spiritual reading and a wellspring to which I return at least once a week.
The quartets are highly personal, uniquely fashioned religious poetry. Therefore, there are three main keys to unlock Four Quartets: Eliot’s biography, his poetic technique, and his spirituality.
To take them in reverse order, Eliot was, at heart, a contemplative. Highly introverted and with a mystical bent, he was a hermit in a three-piece suit. In her definitive biographies of Eliot, Lyndall Gordon noted that even in his undergraduate years at Harvard he was reading the great spiritual authorities: the Bhagavad Gita, St. John of the Cross, the metaphysical poets, Julian of Norwich, and the desert fathers.
Once when he was living a reclusive life with John Hayward, someone asked the cleaning lady what the great man was like. She thought they meant Hayward, but when the inquirer specified Eliot she said, “Oh! You mean the holy one!”
Eliot’s contemplative spirituality is therefore the first key to understanding the poems. He works hard to put into words the dynamic and charge of the contemplative life—something which is all the more difficult because contemplation is, by definition, an experience beyond words. Once one understands that Eliot is wrestling with the challenge of expressing the experience of the wordless with words, one will begin to move toward the solution of the puzzle.
This wordless realm into which Eliot takes us is the region of dreams, the numinous, the collective unconscious; it is the experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, to use the famous phrase of Rudolph Otto. The contemplative moves beyond the physical world, consciousness, the words, and concepts used to order and make sense of that world. He moves into a realm that is not less sensate, logical, and conscious but more sensate, logical, and conscious.
This process has been outlined by the spiritual masters, but the greatest study was by the English theologian Evelyn Underhill in her great book, Mysticism. Her work was an important influence on Eliot as was The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James—a powerful voice during Eliot’s time at Harvard.
Once we understand that Eliot is taking us into the realm of the contemplative, his puzzling language can be forgiven. If we are not clear on the exact meaning of every word, that is the poet’s intention. We are on the threshold of a realm where images and symbols prevail, and images and symbols are, by their nature, imprecise, multi-layered, mobile, and ambiguous.
Eliot would like us to experience the emotional bewilderment we might have when waking and being puzzled and disoriented by a disturbing dream. He wishes us to plunge into the experience instead of simply pondering the meaning. He takes us to the “edge of grimpen where there is no foothold,” and if we cannot specifically define what a “grimpen” is, we know by the chill in our heart and the tremor of bewilderment and fear what he is talking about.
It is the edge of a grimpen where there is no foothold.
This leads us to a consideration of Eliot’s poetic technique. In his early years as a poet and during his short sojourn in France, he was influenced by the symbolist poetry of Jules Laforgue, Paul Valéry, and Arthur Rimbaud. The symbolists “favored dreams, visions, and the associative powers of the imagination in their poetry.” They rejected literalism and realism and tried to access greater and deeper truths and experiences through the “systematic derangement of the senses,” In other words, you’re supposed to be befuddled. Your confusion and bewilderment by the poetry and its imagery prepares your heart and imagination to step beyond the normal modes of communication and knowledge to the depths and heights that are beyond the literal and explicit.
Eliot had a term for the technique he used. The “objective correlative” was the image or object in the real world which was the key to the deeper and more mysterious experience, and the meaning was in the experience—not in an explicit explication of the definition of words or literal meanings. The best way to describe this is to give an example.
In The Journey of the Magi there is a line, “and three trees on the low sky, and an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.” Eliot would say, “Do not ask too many questions about the low trees or the old white horse.”
Instead, how did you feel when you conjured up that image? Perhaps the three trees on the low sky evoked the memory of Mount Calvary on a stormy Friday afternoon, but it was a vague and fleeting image in your mind and heart. What about the old white horse? Maybe it is Shadowfax or the white stallion of a long lost king. The important thing was the disturbance of possible violence, the flutter of fear on the approach of a storm, or the sweet sadness and fleeting beauty of the scene.
So Eliot will use concrete images in this world to evoke the other world. This is where his debt to the metaphysicals comes in. George Herbert, John Donne, Crashaw, and Vaughn wrote poetry that was similarly charged with the grandeur of God. “I saw eternity the other night, like a great ring of pure and endless light, as calm as it was bright.” That’s Vaughn’s “The World,” and in Vaughn’s vision, like all the metaphysical poets, the ordinary world shines with an inner light accessible only to the contemplative soul.
This use of the objective world as a gateway to the eternal brings us to the third key: Eliot’s biography. This is where the poet is somewhat of a trickster. He insists that the poetry should not be judged by biography. It must stand on its own merits. Yes, perhaps, but not really because in Four Quartets especially Eliot’s verse is deeply personal, and it is only as we connect the biographical details to the poetry that the verse can most vividly come alive. It is Eliot’s own life, if you like, that becomes the objective correlative. It is his trials and tragedies, his heartbreak and heart’s love, his prayer and obedience that unlock the mysteries of the poem, untangle the confused heart, and enlighten the bewildered mind.
In the weeks to follow I will use these three keys to unlock Eliot’s great work. I do not promise a complete and professional explication. I am at best a poetaster, an amateur, and am certainly not a literary critic. However, what I do offer is a lifetime’s reading of Eliot and the conviction that somehow or other that nine-year-old boy connected with the boy from the American Midwest who went to England to become a poet.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Favourite Poet” (1888) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.