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The “Four Quartets” was composed after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity, and these poems appear to be Eliot working with a new understanding of the intersection between the temporal wosthe eternal. For him, the relationship between time and eternity is essential to both an understanding of life and a means for coping with it.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind. (Burnt Norton I, 11-15)
Eliot argues that it is senseless to entertain this sort of speculation:
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves
I do not know (Burnt Norton I, 16-18).
What has happened and what will happen, come together at the present moment only. According to Karey Perkins (2002: [sp]), Eliot’s concept of the nature of the universe “includes the idea of time (temporality), that is, the material, transitory, here and now, the physical world; and eternity, the intangible, transcendent realm where one finds God, and for Eliot, meaning and order in life. Four Quartets discusses the dichotomy between eternity and temporality, and the moments of union between the two.”
The poem opens with a simple statement of the fundamental problem, the relation between the temporal and the eternal, in its abstract form:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. (Burnt Norton I,1-5)
Terry Fairchild states that these opening lines “…demonstrate Eliot’s grasp of time, its spiritual significance, and its philosophically exasperating nature which the poet contemplates in the line: ‘time is eternally present,’ an assertion that lends to time both relative and absolute properties while conflating its various, fluctuating forms.” The past is forever disappearing, and the future forever being born. Thus, the present is forever being renewed into a single moment.
Eliot goes on to depict the unreal world of what might have been: a world with the children he might have conceived, which only exists in a certain light and that collapses with the passing of a cloud. But one cannot live in this abstract garden of possibilities, one cannot even remain there long, as he is driven from it by the urgent “Go, go, go”. One must return to reality; what the second section of Burnt Norton cites as the world of mud and blood, of artery and lymph, in which we are personified, and in which we are trapped in time.
This first poem is concerned with the several different qualities of time and eternity that he studies and revisits in the Four Quartets from many angles. It can be argued that this, the temporal and the eternal, is symbolised in the imagery. There is the unwelcome thrush, which does not have the garden’s timeless perfection and is not free, like the garden, from the bonds of time. Thus it symbolises the temporal. In contrast to this, the garden possesses perfect beauty and transcendence, and is the embodiment of timeless (or eternal) characteristics. However, the rose garden is also vulnerable to time because it is an ideal rather than an actual garden. In eternity, it will outlast a literal garden, but ultimately it is only a construction, and its beauty and perfection will be brought into question as ideals change with time.
Time, perhaps, is a designed context so as not to overwhelm the human mind:
cannot bear very much reality. (Burnt Norton I,44-45)
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beatâ€¦be remembered.
Only through time time is conquered. (Burnt Norton II,33-44)
Time is humanity’s necessary context. But, Eliot does not see time as ultimately fundamental to reality. He sees from a perspective which states that “all time is eternally present”; the “still point of the turning world”, the place around which everything revolves, but is itself stationary. There “past and future are reconciled”:
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where,
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
(Burnt Norton II,20-23)
This “still point” can never be completely experienced, but Eliot suggests that the present is the point where the past and future meet, and where humanity must learn to live.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present. (Burnt Norton I,46-48)
The second Quartet, “East Coker”, describes the pace of living. This conveys both reassuring constancy and exasperating inevitability in relation to life and living. “In my beginning is my end” is repeated throughout and is inversed in the final line. The beginning which anticipates an ending, pronounces that there is circularity to life. This also invokes a sense of predetermination:
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth.(East Coker I,2-5)
This passage illustrates the eternal cycle of creation and destruction, life under the authority of time. This is emphasised by the reference to funereal rites; “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” However, Eliot is inclined to paradox; eternity is embedded even in this hopeless image of time. As each house falls along with its tenants, only to give rise to new houses and new tenants which will subsequently fall, a continually growing body is formed out of the mounting individual moments of creation and destruction. Time is synonymous with change, but in the midst of change eternity is found forever lurking. (Fairchild, 1999: 61)
The dance in the first section further emphasises the circular nature of life, both in its content and in the strong rhythm:
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
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. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death. (East Coker I,37-47)
The dance is a moment of incarnation; a moment of the infusion of the eternal in the temporal. As Perkins (2002: [sp]) maintains, “it affirms the daily life and activity of the temporal world, which is not a meaningless wasteland because it is temporal and passing, but only when it is not redeemed by ordering itself to the presence of the eternal.” It can also be argued that, for Eliot, this dance is the converse of the “still point.” The eternal is present in this dance, and the earthly movement is full of meaning:
In contrast to “Burnt Norton”, with…the still point beyond time, “East Coker” presents an antithetical vision of our bondage to time, a vision of ceaseless and apparently purposeless activityâ€¦we are inclined to read the whole poem as black comedy… On the other hand, the echoes of Ecclesiastes later in the passage (‘there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation’) seem to imply a divine context for human activities, and the consequent possibility of their being meaningful.
(Lobb, 1993: 27)
This circularity and repetition is illustrated in the depiction of the collapse and reuse of the houses, as cited above, in the first section, and also in the fifth section in which Eliot realises that undiscovered intellectual pursuits are few; new discoveries are but rediscoveries:
â€¦what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate–but there is no competition–
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again:’ and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. (East Coker V,11-17)
East Coker also illustrates the confusion accumulated in historical time. The perspective on historical events are ever changing as it is viewed from the perspective of the present, which is ever changing; “The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies / For the pattern is new in every moment.” The present has humility as its wisdom, not knowledge; and will rather than intellect is the way to conquer time. Distance from the intellectual allows humankind to participate in the activity of love.
In “The Dry Salvages”, Eliot depicts the depth of our experience of evident meaninglessness. The poem is filled with images of the inevitable destruction brought on by river and sea, symbolizing the ever present disorder of existence, the inevitability of the last “annunciation” of the sailor’s death:
[the river] implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
(The Dry Salvages I,7-9)
[the sea] tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. (The Dry Salvages I,22-24)
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell. (The Dry Salvages I,37-50)
Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing…(The Dry Salvages II, 1)
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable…(The Dry Salvages II, 5)
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?
There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hoursâ€¦ (The Dry Salvages II, 6 -8)
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.
We have to think of them as forever bailing… (The Dry Salvages II, 21 -25)
There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. (The Dry Salvages II,31-35)
Everything must inevitably meet its end. And whatever meaning may be perceived must be wrong. But Eliot goes on to implore, in line 43, to give up “â€¦trying to unweave, unwind, unravel and piece together the past and the future”. Instead the importance of the present moment is expressed, living in a personal “still point” where past and future intersect. “The virtue of the moment must be diffused through the time process, since man must sooner or later return to the changing world” (Gregory, 1943: 104). Every moment is our last moment, the end of our former life, and the beginning of our coming life. Eliot “strives to transcend that [temporal] dimension, to apprehend the timeless pattern in time, to find an eternal purpose in temporal life” (Bergston, 1960: 36-37). Seen in this way, every moment is the moment of death. Eliot attends to this idea in “The Dry Salvages” section III:
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here. (The Dry Salvages III,7-8)
Here between the hither and the 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… (The Dry Salvages III,29 -37)
He also addresses it in section V:
â€¦ Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love ,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlightâ€¦ (The Dry Salvages V,16 -25)
The “still point” is not part of the normal curiosity about “past and future,” which implies that the still point’s intersection is the meeting place of the present and the eternal. There is another warning apparent in these lines, and expanded upon: to live well, one must seek to do good in the present. This involves abandonment of the self’s securities, and a reaching out in spite of the unknown:
In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
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.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not. And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. (East Coker III, 36-47)
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation… (East Coker V, 29 -36)
And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying; (The Dry Salvages V,41-46)
Eliot sees humanity as ultimately consumed either by the self or by love and detachment from the self. Caroline Swinehart agrees with this, maintaining that “complete simplicity, a unified consciousness with no internal contradictions, comes only through…self-surrender, ‘costing not less than everything’…In The Dry Salvages, the actualization and defeat of the eternal Word is ‘the hint half guessed, the gift half understood,’ by which ‘past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled’”(2010: [sp]).
The “Four Quartets” ends with a segment in which old age and death are squarely faced. The final quartet addresses the end of life. Little Gidding, which has given the title to the last poem, is the place where Nicholas Ferrar, the Anglican monk, founded his religious community; and signifies the last stage in the history of the soul, the stage where it comes closest to “the intersection of the timeless with time” (Voegelin, 1944:38).
Eliot states that, although all journeys take place within time, the season or time of day isn’t vital to the experience of the timeless at the end of the road:
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night…
If you came by day…
It would be the same. (Little Gidding I, 25-28)
Here it is pointed out that the eternal transcends seasonality and time itself; a human being is clearly within time and within specific instances and at specific places on earth when one is approaching the “intersection of the timeless moment”, but at the “still point” itself, the human steps out of time temporarily into the eternal, so a particular season or time of day doesn’t matter when approaching a place where the timeless intersects with time. From that vantage point the human experiencing the “timeless moment” can see time more clearly.
In the second section the poet meets a phantom combined of former professors, who “disclose the gifts reserved for age, to set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort…”
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains .
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.” (Little Gidding II.76-93)
Eliot sees our choices in life as leading inevitably to consumption as if by fire: either the fire of self and sin, or the fire of love, specifically the love of God, which consumes the self: “unless restored by that refining fire…” Eliot speaks in paradoxes to convey these ultimate truths. In the temporal world of desire and movement, of hope and despair, the “only hope” lies in redemption from the consuming fire of desire by the consuming fire of the Holy Spirit (Schuchard, 1993: 76):
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–To be redeemed from fire by fire.
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.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. (Little Gidding IV,5-14)
Eliot proclaims that life can be lived only in the present, which is the intersection of time past and time future, and the future is charged with the incomprehensible consequences of our choices. Humanity is only freed from past and future by living well in the present, but will ultimately be consumed, in a sense, by the choices it makes.
To conclude, the “Four Quartets” can be read to present the triumph of life over time. Eliot moves forward in the stream of time and eternity until he reaches the end of the poem, which is its true beginning; life lived forever in the timeless, no longer touched by the binding influence of time. The temporal is raised to the level of the eternal. In the midst of his timeless “still point,” Eliot sees that there “rises the hidden laughter/Of children in the foliage/Quick, now, here, now, always…” Eternity found in the still point gives joy to the temporal realm. Thus, the “Four Quartets” ends with a return to the rose garden with its contrast between the affirmation of reality and the temporal, and the true recognition that there is something more, the Eternal, echoing in the laughter of the children.
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