Rest for the Weary
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 his escalating fame meaningless, even painful, in the face of his sense of personal failure. He turned to the writing of plays dealing with these and related issues (Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion) and to the poems that became Four Quartets, recording in them his painful, but never despairing, attempts to find a lasting peace.
How well he succeeded is a matter of debate. Many readers see Four Quartets as the pinnacle of Eliot's poetic achievement, a moving and profound meditation on ultimate questions. Others follow the lead of a contemporary reviewer who said, "The poet is not merely singing—he is saving his soul; and he is putting the salvation before the song." In this view, Four Quartets completed Eliot's dispiriting metamorphosis from daring avant-garde poet to insufferable religious and socially conservative bore.
In general, if one is put off by Eliot becoming a Christian in the 1920s, he or she will tend not to like the work that most fully expresses that transformation. And, lest we forget how shocking that conversion was to his peers, consider Virginia Woolf's bitter lament to a mutual friend: "He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church … . A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God." She adds, "we must consider him dead to us from this point on."
Even those who allow Christians a right to life are sometimes unhappy with the style of the poem, broadly conceived. I remember my graduate school professor, many years ago, complaining that Eliot in Four Quartets had lost his "objective correlative," Eliot's own term for conveying emotion (hence meaning) through concrete images, situations, or objects rather than through direct assertion. Prufrock's famous fear of eating a peach, for instance, conveys something significant, but Eliot does not explicitly tell us what. There's too much abstract talk here, the poem's detractors say, too much playing the sage, too much ponderous pontificating..
And the poem is talky, especially the weakest of the four sections, "The Dry Salvages." We often find Eliot doing what he complained of in Tennyson—ruminating. When he isn't ruminating—chewing the cud—he is riddling, filling the poem with paradoxes and wordplay, as in its oft-quoted opening: "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / and time future contained in time past." Or in the last section of the poem: "What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from."
This sounds too confident for modern, secular tastes—the wise poet dispensing the Truth (what would Woolf say about belief in absolutes?). But it is not something Eliot invented. Such riddling as a means to insight is a feature of ancient wisdom literature in many traditions. Consider, for example, Ecclesiastes 3:15: "That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past." If wisdom literature often uses riddles (and Four Quartets arguably belongs in this genre), it's in part because of our feeling that there's a riddling quality deep at the core of human experience—particularly when we seek to relate that experience to transcendence.
Gordon claims the prosaic stretches in the poem are intentional, following the stylistic example of Eliot's Puritan ancestors, and something Eliot thought necessary in a long poem. But I can think of two other defenses of Eliot's style in Four Quartets. First, he may talk a lot, but he is talking through place. Better, he is thinking and feeling through place. That is, Eliot is using the concrete temporal, experiences of these four very real and rooted places to meditate on things beyond the merely physical. At Burnt Norton the formal gardens through which he walks become an "objective correlative" for the possibility that pattern lies behind (and within) the seeming chaos of the temporal flux. The same is true for the dance he imagines his ancestors enjoying in the fields of his ancestral home in Little Gidding. He talks a lot about death in "The Dry Salvages," but that talk grows out of considering the real deaths of fishermen in the foggy waters of the north Atlantic and childhood memories of watching the Mississippi at flood time carrying the bodies of people and animals toward the sea.
A second defense of Eliot's talkativeness in this poem is more straightforward: it's good talk. Call it talky, ruminating, meditative, or what you will, the poem is rich and serious and purposeful, and it addresses deeply felt human needs in a way that many find powerful and comforting.
One such person is Thomas Howard. While others may carp about this or that in Four Quartets, Howard, no fan of understatement, sees the poem as a landmark of Western civilization, taking its place alongside Chartres Cathedral, The Divine Comedy, and the Mozart Requiem. And he has written a rare and helpful book, Dove Descending, that is, in effect, a love letter to the poem and the poet. It considers a major work of modern literature without ever mentioning Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, the Other, or jouissance. It unapologetically offers no overt theory, no biographical information on Eliot, no placement of the poem in Eliot's career, no summary critical assessment.
It is essentially a dramatic monologue with an implied listener—as is Eliot's poem—filled with both self-consciously archaic language ("prithee," "Hey, nonnie," "heigh ho") and finely crafted insights. Howard claims to be offering only "a reading," and that is what one gets—an almost line-by-line, section-by-section paraphrase of what he thinks Eliot is saying.
What Eliot is saying, according to Howard, "has something to do with the odd business of being mortal … existing here and in time, when all the while we are profoundly dissatisfied with this dismal sequence of past, present, and future … that … drains things away." This situation is all the more maddening when we are blessed—or cursed—with glimpses of something beyond time, something more than the "Years of living among the breakage." Eliot calls these glimpses "timeless moments," and he experienced such moments of sight and insight at the four places celebrated in Four Quartets.
Eliot makes clear that these happen to be his "timeless moments" and spiritually pregnant places, not everyone's. I have taken students to both East Coker and Little Gidding and seen the polite indifference in their faces. What do the young know of "hebetude" or "the cold friction of expiring sense" or "the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly" or "the shame / Of motives late revealed"? They will, one trusts, have their own "timeless moments," but they will come somewhere else in time and place.
Four Quartets offers a clinical, unblinking dissection of spiritual vacuity in a buzzing world. In section III of "Burnt Norton," which Howard calls "one of the grimmest" in the poem, Eliot presents a ride in the London subway as an emblem of the modern condition:
strained, time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled in the cold wind
Such characterizations have earned Eliot the charge, from the likes of F. R. Leavis, of being anti-life, a familiar indictment against Christianity in general. Howard would say it is simple realism—seeing clearly how things actually are.
I do think Eliot walks on the edge of a gnostic-like devaluing of the physical. His keen eye throughout his poetry for etherized evening skies, and rats dragging slimy bellies, and young men carbuncular, and Sweeney's "withered root of knots of hair / slitted below and gashed with eyes," and the "rank … feline smell" of Grishkin, and on and on betrays a quickness, even eagerness, to seek out the scent of rotting things. And the clincher for moderns—he apparently didn't like sex. (At least that was something Woolf could understand.)
But if Eliot was strongly inclined to turn from all things temporal and physical, that was a temptation he finally rejected. And Four Quartets is the record of that rejection. For the single most dominant theme in the poem is that only in and through time is the waste of mere time made right. He alludes to this in the opening epigraph, citing the assertion of Heraclitus that the way down and the way up are the same. The way up is a reference to the transcendent vision that promises unity with God. The way down is immersion in and acceptance of our life in time. One gets to the Promised Land only by way of the wilderness. One gets to transcendence only through immanence. Howard says this outlook is evidence of Eliot's Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism—the belief that eternity intersects time at physical points, be they the cross or Communion or creation itself.
This view of the relationship of time to eternity is summed up in the claim in "Burnt Norton" that "Only through time time is conquered," an assertion Howard calls "a superscript for the entire work." Time is not so much defeated as it is redeemed—given meaning and the potential for significance. Time, in effect, realizes its purpose.
The ultimate validation of the temporal is the Incarnation, God with us. And though Eliot does not say so explicitly—despite the complaints of unsympathetic readers, he was and remained a poet, not a preacher—it is Christ who resides at, who is, "the still point of the turning world." Eliot returns to this point again and again throughout the four poems within a poem, teasing out the meaning and implications of this central truth: at the heart of all things, redeeming the creation and giving purpose and pattern to the chaos of fragmented time, is the Creator.
This makes possible an escape, not from time, but from a life ruled by what Eliot calls "appetency"—the unending chase after will-o-the-wisp desires:
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving.
Time, then, is not the enemy; it is the context for our salvation. As Howard says, "time is the form … in … which we catch the fleeting hint of eternity." Only within time are we given the opportunity to see that there is more than time. The sad, wasted time of "distracted from distraction by distraction" contains within it the possibility of biblical kairos time—time pregnant with opportunity if the moment is seized.
But why only glimpses of the still point—scattered for Eliot, as for us, in different places at different times, and only for a moment? Why cannot we simply live continuously in that timeless moment—in the beatific vision? Why, as the English Romantics lamented, does the "visionary gleam" always flee? Why after anything beautiful or powerful or good is there the morning after? Eliot's answer, not very satisfying but ringing true: "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality."
So, if it is necessary that we remain creatures of time, how do we make the most of our circumstances? How do we seize the day? One of the oldest questions in poetry. Eliot's answer, as you might expect, does not satisfy modern tastes.
The way to make the most of this life is to take it seriously. Howard is particularly good in talking about the word solemn in Eliot's description in "East Coker" of his 17th-century ancestors dancing: "joined in circles / Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter / Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes." Solemn here does not mean grim—how could it when applied to dancing? It retains, says Howard, its medieval sense of "both joyous and freighted with significance." Nothing is solemn in a random, solely material, and therefore trivial world. But a world that has at its heart a still point that gives order to everything revolving around it is a solemn world—one freighted with significance—and therefore one where joy is possible.
And if one takes life solemnly, Eliot believes, one will embrace a way of life that can only seem strange, even neurotic, in the contemporary world. It is the way of self-emptying. Eliot was ascetic by temperament and was drawn to Christianity, in part, because he said he felt the need for the severest kind of discipline. More than one critic has gotten the shakes in describing Eliot's appetite as a Christian for renunciation, as in his refusal to consider marriage to Emily Hale while his first wife was still alive. Perhaps he went too far in that direction, though that is often a charge made by those of us unwilling to go far enough.
He does not go too far in Four Quartets. Instead he invokes a traditional path to spiritual understanding and fulfillment. We have brief glimpses of eternity, yes—in places as out of the way and unpredictable as Burnt Norton and East Coker and the Dry Salvages and Little Gidding—but these give us "only hints and guesses." "The rest," he says, "is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action." Not the advice of most carpe diem poetry, to be sure, but an insight repeated over and over by those we call saints.
Eliot sums up this approach to life in the command—one could call it a plea—to "Not fare well, / but fare forward, voyagers." On the surface, there is nothing exhilarating in prayer and observance and discipline, but they, along with confession and penance, are Eliot's way—the Church's way—to putting oneself in the path of grace. Eliot calls this "right action," and declares "right action is freedom / From past and future also."
The opposite of faring forward is "hebetude," what Eliot elsewhere identifies as acedia or spiritual sloth, an extreme diffidence reflecting an inability even to desire to live purposefully. This is Eliot's besetting sin, explored directly and indirectly through all his work, and much of his life was defined by the struggle to overcome it. As Howard says, "the significant life is an imaginative act." One makes a life, if it is to be more than something dictated by chronology and bland societal expectations. A life is an artistic rendering, and artists—whether of the word or of the spirit—must exercise discipline, skill, and craft. Eliot is describing such a life in Four Quartets, as he both continues this life-long struggle against spiritual torpor and gives up the struggle to the "white light" of grace.
Eliot claims within the poem to have failed to say what he wants to say, just as he has failed to live as he knows he should live. In each of the first three poems, he devotes a section to lamenting the inability of the word, even in the hands of a poet, to do justice to this life, much less to the Word. But in the last part of "Little Gidding," he allows for the possibility of a "sentence that gets it right" and of words in "complete consort dancing together." Such moments are also possible in a life, and in relationships, and are an adumbration of eternity that we call Love: "A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)."
He felt far from earthly love during the years of writing Four Quartets, finishing the last of them amidst the bombing of London during World War II. He was plagued by guilt over his inability to live with a deeply troubled wife; he rightly felt his reputation as a poet to be at risk even as his celebrity increased; he knew his righteousness as a Christian to be filthy rags; and he felt keenly the ultimate emptiness of all merely human effort.
But he had also learned to "fare forward," and Julian of Norwich had taught him that even brokenness plays its part in the redeeming of all things—and that therefore "All shall be well and / All manner of things shall be well." This is an assertion of faith, reinforced by brief glimpses in "timeless moments" of "the still point of the turning world" —and it is the ultimate hope of this great and wise poem.
Daniel Taylor is professor of English at Bethel College. He is the author of Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories and the co-founder of the Legacy Center, which encourages people and organizations to identify and protect the shaping forces in their life stories.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.