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Daniel Taylor

Rest for the Weary

Eliot's Four Quartets

No one does decay, futility, and spiritual paralysis as expertly as T. S. Eliot, because no one with a gift for poetry has known them better. And nowhere is this seen so clearly as in Four Quartets, where he patiently dismembers the illusion that any lasting satisfaction is possible in a flat world without transcendence: "that which is only living / Can only die."

Here is Eliot's central question in a landmark poem, coming near the middle of a calamitous and confused century: How, given the corrosive acids of time, do we find meaning and peace in our brief lives? It is a question that never loses its pointedness. And neither does Eliot's answer.

From 1934 to 1937, Eliot visited four specific places that took on spiritual resonance for him and became the settings for each of the four poems that were combined into Four Quartets. In 1934, he visited Burnt Norton, an empty country house in England's Cotswolds, with Emily Hale, a woman he loved, in his characteristically ambiguous way, for much of his life. That visit provided the title and setting for the first of the poems (published in 1936). Two years after going to Burnt Norton, he made a pilgrimage of sorts to East Coker, site of a 17th-century religious community near Cambridge that provided a model of work and worship that Eliot found suggestive for his own life. Later that same year he traveled back to New England, to a place he spent summers as a boy sailing among some dangerous rocks off Cape Ann known as the Dry Salvages, title of the third part of Four Quartets. And then, in 1937, he delved even further back into his past, visiting East Coker, a village in southwest England, from which one of his ancestors made the perilous journey to America in about 1669.

During this period in the mid-1930s, biographer Lyndall Gordon claims, Eliot was seeking a new life. Living alone after leaving (a few say abandoning) his mentally fractured and fractious wife, and tormented by a hypersensitivity to his own sin, Eliot found ...

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