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Four Quartets

By T. S. Eliot
(This is a poem broken up into four parts: Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding. I will point out four verses of interest in each section)


This chapter deals with time, reality, stillness and the middle ground of our current existence.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

This seems to only want to make one's brain twist for the sake of it being twisted. The way that Eliot put the verse is odd, and it does twist the brain. But when the twisting is undone, and we understand what he means to say, the truth, at least for me, is stronger.

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

I cannot explain how he makes this verse come alive, and it is a shame to strip the verse out of its home, but I hope that what I saw is seen by others. That is that humanity cannot bear very much reality. I had always thought this, but it had never found a sentence to cling to.

Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
that blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.

What I like most about this set of words is that men and bits of paper are together whirled by the wind. He could have said trees, making man as hard to move as a tree. And he could have said something as heavy as man. But by saying that we, like bits of paper, whirl in the wind it seems to make us as weak and light as paper. One cannot help but feel mortal and light and full of an end.

Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.

For the longest time the contrast between the infinite and the finite was always afar off. But when he states that love is unmoving, and yet the cause and end of movement, I sense a click of objects where there once was grinding. It makes me not imagine two opposing views but a stone in water, or an object everyone is traveling to see; like a great statue. It gives me comfort.


East Coker chants the anthem, "in my beginning is my end."

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

This comes at the end of the second part of East Coker. Before it, Eliot describes the contrast between existing things (houses, mice in walls) and mystical things (monsters, fancy lights). There is a great sense of conclusion in these two lines. I see all of mankind going under another green flood, and I see the spirits of our imagination, and the real spirits sinking away as well. The lines are purposefully separated from each other and I think it reaches the desired effect.

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

Here he rounds all of mankind together, as tragedy or war does. Death is the great rounder of the cattle of man. What I like most is his concept of the darkness of God. For that is his as well. I cannot illuminate on it any further except to say that God is no stranger to the heavy parts of life.

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.

I like this statement because it is simple, and can be in every way not profound if one plans on not using the truth inside of it.

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity

The lines would not have their potency if it were not for the word intensity. I would imagine other poets saying that older men need blankets or grandchildren. But Eliot hits a string when he says what he says.


This part is my favorite. It is a grand hinting.

His (the river's) rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

The previous verses speak of how man forgets the river. These verses speak of the river's presence in our food and lighting; in everything. A great image, a earthy and hearty closeness is that it is in the smell of the grapes on the table; such tight imagery.

We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.

The verse worth noting here is the first. Many times I missed the meaning of something because I was not looking or because I was staring.

Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and
chicken coops,
The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.

Two different things can be pulled from here. One is the raw description of the death found in the river. It is a simple combination of a dead black man, cows and chicken coops, but how powerful! The other thing is the bite in the apple; a heavier death.

'Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbor
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: "on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death"—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.
O voyagers, O seamen, You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.'
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

Eliot here proves his greatness. It is necessary to read the entire chapter and to be in a place (physical, mental and spiritual) to be able to read it rightly. But I will here explain my impression of the verses. The background is That Eliot is assuming the role of a voice descanting to someone voyaging on the sea. He tells that person that they think they are voyaging from one place to the next. But in reality, says the voice, the traveler is constantly at the door of death and so is always at the edge of another voyage. The voice states that there, on the boat, between the two shores, and between time, one is to consider the future and the past with an equal mind. At every place (in an elevator, on a hill, under water, in bed and in the shower) we are always moving closer towards that guillotine, which we cannot see!

In the shower I may trip, outside I may fall down the hill, in a building it might collapse. So, wisely, the voice says that the time of death is every moment. His intention in these words is not pointless fear. Eliot is speaking of a real thing that is hanging over our heads. This is why perhaps even this write-up cannot be read half-heartedly. For worse than not knowing of death's constant approach is being told of it when one is not in the mood of believing it...for that makes death even less real. To get back to the poem, the voice also proclaims that the voyagers might not surpass the sea that they are traveling on. But this is not of much of a matter, says the voice. Because that place: the sea, the battle field, the hospital bed, the empty field and the dark apartment building; these are not our real destinations. Lastly, Eliot gives the traveler the final word, which is: Not farewell, But fare forward, voyagers. If I ever deliberate to get a tattoo, this might be it. I have had an experience that is not one that can be fully shared. But, in essence, I felt called to a knotty spot of woods to see God. I did not go inside and I have felt different since. Eliot's phrase has, somehow, become the verse to sum up my experience.


The last part is festering with the feeling of an end.

There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.

Phrases in here that really give an exclamation are "dead water and dead sand" the vanity of toil" and "this is the death of earth." Before and after this verse he uses rhyming, which also adds to the feeling of apocalypse.

I am not eager to rehearse
My thought and theory which you have forgotten.
These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both bad and good.

The context is that Eliot imagines one appearing before him in the morning. They have a conversation and the stranger says this to him. Eliot explains what Isaiah also did, that our goodness is not good.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.

I am not certain what the shirt of flame is. Perhaps it is sin, perhaps it is death and perhaps it is being a man after Adam. This is the most Grace sounding part of the poem.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Every time I read this I imagine a man exploring some place like Iceland. It is barren and beautiful and unexplored. He then travels and ends up where he started. But when he comes back, that place of beginning is of so much more meaning. Spiritually speaking, our place of beginning is also our place of end; though it is not the same place. Or, as Eliot might put it, it is the same place but we are not the same people.


This is my favorite poem of all time, so far. There are many parts to this work that cause it to be my favorite. One is that it is short. That seems like a weak reason, but it is not. It takes some kind of genius to make such a small amount of words contain such potency. Secondly, it is universal. T. S. Eliot, like no other, can take me to a place that I find to be like a home. It is not Heaven, necessarily; it is a pure place, where one not only sees God but observes him with the eyes one had when alive (or something like that). Thirdly, it speaks of the important issues of existence without useless language. Lastly, this is my favorite poem because it speaks the truth, truly.

The Four Quartets were first published separately between 1935 and 1942