Simon Grant's notes on Four Quartets

These notes are made for use with my edition of Four Quartets. It is a very personal view, reflecting how the poems have lived in me for 50 years. Over the years I have read little if any other reviews of Four Quartets, so this is largely the fruit of my own reflection over the years, some of which I noted in my own copy. My edition was based on a copy available on the web, which already had some notes, which I extended.


I purchased my still present copy of Four Quartets in February 1975, when I was still in my first undergraduate year at Oxford. This was because it had made a big impression on me while still at school, where I was introduced to it in the summer (of 1972 or 1973?), in a class held outside in the Warden's garden at Winchester College, by the late Trevor Park, who was one of my teachers there. It is he who is named by the Michael Hofmann I knew at school, as documented in the PhD thesis of André Naffis Sahely (pp. 52–53). I took to the four-fold symbolism, which is to be found in so many places. Most obviously, the four elements, significant to me because earlier I had briefly looked at mediaeval alchemy. Then, naturally, the four seasons. But after that, what? Were there four quartets in play here? What were, what are the other two?

I looked for themes running through the Quartets. One was four stages of life: childhood (rediscovered, or in retrospect); adulthood, towards fuller maturity; old age towards death; death towards resurrection. I notice now a pattern of movement throughout. I'm not sure whether different times of day form a quartet.

But, just to take the most obvious ones, the elements and the seasons, what I saw was this.

I should mention also my pleasant surprise when I discovered that my mother, who had no higher education, studied some of the works of Eliot with an adult literature class. I have her copy of Eliot's complete works. And, in the progressive grip of Alzheimer's, when she was past communicating in words, in an old people's home on the Isle of Arran, I took it upon myself to read Four Quartets aloud to her. I have no idea whether she heard, or what impression it made, but it felt to me like an important, significant gesture.

Quartet by quartet

I'll start by looking at each quartet in turn.

Burnt Norton

What I have more recently read, in other people's notes on the Quartets, is that Burnt Norton was written without yet thinking of it as the first of a set of four. So maybe the ‘quartet’ identifications are naturally less marked.

Part I features a bird, first appearing at line 19. The bird – a creature of the air, no question. The bird heralds children. For sure, the children seem to be described retrospectively, not as it were present, but nevertheless, the image of childhood is stronger than any other stage of life image.

The season seems not so clear to me as in the other Quartets. The only season explicitly mentioned is autumn, though that mention seems to me to be only in passing. Spring does not appear by name. But Eliot is talking more about the still point, the point out of time, so perhaps it is not surprising that he doesn't locate this quartet in a clear timeframe.

What are my favourite quotes from Burnt Norton? One must be “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality”. This is echoed by “Protects mankind from heaven and damnation / Which flesh cannot endure.” And then, so many phrases about time.

Much of the significance of Burnt Norton to me is that it introduces themes that will carry through the other Quartets. The passage beginning “Descend lower” to me marks two perspectives on the via negativa. Then there is the start of the theme of complaining about words: “Words strain”. More about those themes below.

East Coker

The imagery starting at line 14 speaks to me very clearly of summer. While fire is also present, the dominant element seems to be earth, mentioned as early as line 6, and repeated twice in quick succession from line 37. Later, in line 100, “The dancers are all gone under the hill.” It may be summer, but it's midnight, which is why the fire is incidentally present. It's all very earthy. Other references to earth in the other Quartets are only in contrast, not as a prime subject. In Little Gidding, “the death of earth” is preceded by that of air, and succeeded by that of water and fire.

East Coker says much about the stage of maturity in life. It speaks of the adult walks of life, adult professions and activities, including “The time of the coupling of man and woman”. Adulthood doesn't necessarily bring wisdom. “Had they deceived us / Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders, / Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?” Such a tension here! The elders haven't done what they ought to have done. “Do not let me hear / of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly” and “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility” It's up to us, as we grow older, to try to put that right, as life is not over – we are still looking for transformation, “to arrive there”.

As we grow older” … we reach a passage that I have been growing into as I get older, which speaks of this continued growth. Right now, it has a deep emotional resonance in me. It appears from line 202:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion

The Dry Salvages

The element of the Dry Salvages runs so clearly throughout the quartet – water – and most clearly, the river and the sea. Boats, ships, seamen, fishermen. I imagine that Eliot was clear at this point about the representation of the four elements in the Four Quartets.

And then there is the way that the rhythms of the sea are portrayed. The ground swell is slow, first reflected in the two shortest lines, which invite an extremely slow reading: Clangs / The bell. Then Part II has the remarkable rhyming scheme that I've seen nowhere else, bringing up that sense of the long wave.

Death is very present, from “foreign dead men”, through “The bone's prayer to Death its God” and “dead negroes”, to what feels like a climax in the passage rendered as a quotation from line 156:

… “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:

Thus it is very easy to see that stage of life – death – as the one represented here.

For the season of The Dry Salvages I am inclined to say: autumn. It's a late autumn: where there is “the withering of withered flowers”, and maybe also “the sombre season”. We're past the fruiting season here. Things are dying back. People are dying, with the hope that their “temporal reversion” (i.e. their decaying corpse) nourishes “The life of significant soil.”

Little Gidding

As in The Dry Salvages, it is hard to miss the element associated with Little Gidding. In this case it is fire. The word appears no less than 15 times in this quartet. The words flame and blaze appear alongside several times. That fire is a transforming, alchemical fire.

The seasonal setting is given right at the start: “Midwinter spring”. I don't feel this to be the solstice, the astronomical midwinter, but rather perhaps a month or so after the shortest day, when the day is still short, but the weather is usually even colder. So, maybe late January or even early February, when there is most often ice around.

Death recurs here in Little Gidding. The first three stanzas in part II join up the four Quartets, with their different flavours of death. Dust recalls Burnt Norton, and suggests retrospectively the identification of that Quartet with air. Ash comes more from East Coker, linking the death of air to the transition between Burnt Norton and East Coker. The death of earth links East Coker's earth with the water of The Dry Salvages. The death of water and fire, curiously, doesn't appear to use any language from The Dry Salvages. The sanctuary and choir seem to point to Little Gidding. I'm puzzled why Eliot didn't write four separate stanzas, one for each element, referring to each of the Quartets in turn.

But death here has a different quality to the death in The Dry Salvages. “And what the dead had no speech for, when living, / They can tell you, being dead:” Communication is not cut off by death. The dead master that is met before dawn is able to communicate his message, which contains what is for me one of the most deeply poignant ironic passages, about “the gifts reserved for age / To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.” I feel it. But Eliot brings in Julian of Norwich to remind us, repeatedly, that “all shall be well” — death, here, is not an end, but a beginning. It is death complete with resurrection.

The last stanza is where Eliot reworks the pattern that has emerged from these Quartets. Arriving where we started takes us back to Burnt Norton: “Into our first world.Through the unknown, remembered gate” leads straight to “the first gate” of Burnt Norton. The children in the apple tree also belong in Burnt Norton, while “Quick now, here, now, always—” is a direct quote. East Coker, with earth, is represented in “the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning”. The water of The Dry Salvages is there in plenty: river; waterfall; waves of the sea. And finally, after restating Little Gidding's own fire themes, “the fire and the rose are one.” we are back where we started, in Burnt Norton's rose garden, now united with the fire.

Themes running across the Quartets

Time and the moment

Time” – the first word of the work. In the first five lines, Eliot poses the question of determinism. It is the present that is key. That theme recurs. Here are some of my favourite time lines…

Only through time time is conquered.
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
(And the time of death is every moment)
            But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
            A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

There is also thyme – “the wild thyme unseen” – both in East Coker and The Dry Salvages. I wonder if they are just homophones with no significant connection to time?

Words and meanings

Eliot talking about words and meanings starts in Burnt Norton part V and becomes clearly a complaint, and you could say rather “meta”, at BN 149 with “Words strain, […]”. East Coker picks this up at line 68, leading up to “the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.” In part V almost the whole first stanza is given over to the complaint — about what exactly? Language changes, and by the time you've worked out how to say what you want to say, it's moved on. Or you've moved on. Or the world has moved on. I feel this as a rather masculine frustration, as I identify that narrow channel of verbalisation with the slighly less broad corpus callosum in me and in most men.

The Dry Salvages doesn't mention words, but does mention meaning from line 93

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 resolution, such as it is, comes in the first stanza of Little Gidding part V, “where every word is at home”.


Eliot says a lot about patterns, and I won't quote every instance. In Burnt Norton, line 140, the pattern of words is explained as the key to their reaching beyond themselves. Shortly afterwards, “The detail of the pattern is movement,” which I don't really grasp.

East Coker has one of my favourite passages, about “the knowledge derived from experience”. It continues:

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

I read this as a rather ironic reference to falsifiability in the philosophy of Karl Popper, and a clear signal to look beyond mere science, when we are talking about patterns of meaning. I quoted this passage in 1990 in the dedication of my PhD thesis.

This leads well into the pattern as one gets older. In East Coker, (from line 190) we have…

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living.

And in The Dry Salvages (from line 85)

    It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development:

This points me to the passage in Little Gidding I mentioned above:

Let me 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.’

It may not be called a pattern, but it signifies a drastic change of the way that some patterns in life are experienced and perceived — as slightly further on, to be again, further “renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

The Via Negativa, the journey, the path, the way

Wikipedia redirects ‘via negativa’ to apophatic theology.

The spiritual journey in Four Quartets brings up much paradox.

The journey directions begin with “Descend lower, descend only”. There's a double negative here. First, the directions are towards all kinds of emptiness; and then there is another way which “Is the same”, but does not even move.

East Coker brings us more very explicit paradox in the thinly veiled directions, from line 123

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

And a mere few lines later:

Shall I say it again ? 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.

It's as if Eliot knows perfectly well that this is hard to understand, so he reassures himself that it's helpful to repeat it in different words. And, as I've already quoted above, “Old men ought to be explorers”.

In The Dry Salvages, part III gives more directions. Fare forward, travellers! And this links with death.

Little Gidding moves into a different mode. If you came this wayIf you came this way – this is what you would have to do. He tells us, wisely.


Death has been dealt with in passing, above. The last word about death is in Little Gidding, at the end of part III

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

I note: a symbol perfected in death. And then straight on to Julian of Norwich, who stands as a reminder of hope, of resurrection, of the reality that death is part of life, and we do not need to see it as an ultimate end.