Lidia Vianu on Four Quartets


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)


Desperado Literature

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         © Lidia Vianu

Published in LIDIA VIANU, T. S. Eliot – An Author for All Seasons, Paideia, 1997



Soothing is the first attribute that comes to mind in connection with Eliot's FOUR QUARTETS. Written between 1935 and 1942, they mark the end of Eliot's major poetic achievement, in 1942, when he must have been no more than 54 years old. Books of literary criticism, books of essays on culture and other topics, as well as theatre plays followed, but no more remarkable poem was to issue from his hand. The same as Shakespeare's Tempest, these Quartets look like a farewell to poetry. As far back as his youth, when Prufrock was published, Eliot was haunted by the fear that soon he would no longer be able to feel and write poetry. The ‘sad ghost’ of Coleridge often beckoned to him from afar. As a poet, Eliot was by no means prolific. So much greater his merit of creating, in quite a few great poems, an imaginary world which has haunted poetry ever since. If he has not got whole shelves of books to boast of, he is, in exchange, a consummate master of concentration and ambiguity.

We have seen Eliot sternly hiding behind various masks, in his previous poems. Strange, however, to think that he accepted the French translation of his Waste Land to be entitled La Terre Mise à Nu. We have seen him as an innovator, as a difficult poet, a magician of the understatement. The Four Quartets are his last feat of magic. It takes a mature, an experienced and also somewhat tired sensibility to really enjoy them. There is a certain fatigue in these lines. Eliot no longer strives to strive. He no longer devises masks of friends or wizards for himself. This time he is the wizard, the wizard of obvious words, and he is at peace with his fate. This must be the reason why the quartets seem soothing: in them, a tired imagination is ‘mise à nu’. There is a poem by Yeats (The Circus Animals' Desertion) which describes a poetic mind, whose waterfall of imagined faces has tarried. ‘All ladders’, Yeats concludes there, ‘go down to the rag and bone shop of the heart’. This is precisely what happens to Eliot in his Quartets. The effect is bewildering. On first reading Eliot, a young reader can hardly see the point of them. If, advancing in age, he ever goes back to Eliot and his Quartets again, he cannot fail to perceive their essential, their astonishing directness, so much in contrast with Eliot's previous indirect poems. A soothing directness, by means of which, for the second time in his career, Eliot taught following generations an innovating lesson of poetry.





BURNT NORTON (1935) is a place which Eliot visited in the summer of 1934. He was paying a visit to Emily Hale, a friend of his young days. About their relationship little is known. Their letters are safely deposited in some American library, not to be opened, it seems, until the second decade of the third millennium. Could they contain a dazzling revelation? If so, Eliot would certainly have betrayed it in his work as well. But never mind the letters, never mind the unknown halo of Emily Hale. Fact is that, one summer, she took Eliot to see this Burnt Norton, a restored 18th century manor house. It was so called because, centuries before (in 1737), its first owner had set fire to the house and had been burnt up with it. At the time Eliot visited it, the house was empty. In the surroundings, there were wooded hills, lawns, and in the garden there were two dry pools. The author of The Waste Land (with its ‘empty cisterns and exhausted wells’) could hardly have failed to notice that detail. Consequently, the poem bathes in the imaginary water of these dry pools. Eliot quietly retraces his steps into a lost youth. No pain hardens his voice. Or, rather, it is pain transfigured: an exhausted soul, grateful for the remembrance of  things past.

‘Time’ is a word often uttered. In spite of its abstractness, in spite of many high-brow lines, the quartet is sentimental. Its best definition is, indeed, Eliot ‘mis à nu’. All time is reduced to the graspable present. What might have been, what has been, what has never been or will never come to pass, all these are dismissed as ‘abstractions’. ‘All time is eternally present’, Eliot decides. Yet, the poet of wasted happiness and lost youth hastens to add: ‘all time is unredeemable’. The line is whispered without despair, though. A haze of peace veils his eyes, he turns his eyes inside:

‘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.

                     But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves

I do not know’.

Pain transfigured into peace, loss into silent resignation. A whispered carpe diem is the accompanying music. The tragic waste of the hyacinth garden, the young man's dark despair of failing again, the burden of the future are far behind. In these lines Eliot seems to fly, to float, to hover over his own life with a bodiless soul. Had he lost the fear of future pains, because he had lost the very desire for, the very sense of his future? One answer is beyond doubt: all his quartets are futureless poems.

How striking the difference is between the memories of lost youth here, and those in Ash-Wednesday. Eliot paces about this garden of maturity (the same obsessive garden of all his poems, yet how unlike them all), and hears ‘other echoes’. Voices of birds, laughter of children, music of leaves: what a sweetened landscape, for the distonance-loving Eliot. ‘Through the first gate’, he steps into ‘our first world’: his and hers? The autumn heat, the ‘unseen eyebeam crossed’, the roses in full bloom. How far behind he has left the annoying female, who was twisting a lilac stalk in Portrait of a Lady. Far behind, too, La Figlia Che Piange and the hyacinth girl, both drowned in the misery of their fully awakened emotion. A dulled well-being sweeps over this quartet. The dry concrete pool seems filled with water ‘out of the sunlight’. Lotus flowers (flowers of forgetfulness in a forgetful poem) rise slowly to the imaginary surface. No horrors mentioned. No slimy rats, no skeletons in sea-waters, no lidless eyes. Remarkable, this new ‘heart of light’, born out of sun and no water. Light reminiscent of another ‘heart of light, the silence’, which in the hyacinth garden dries the young man's life and thoughts. If anything, then, these soothing Quartets are first and foremost poems of the mind. Emotion mastered, love reconsidered, sensibility dissected by serene thought.

This thought has the upper hand. No emotional turmoil will be allowed to menace the secluded smile of Burnt Norton. A cloud covers the sun, and the pool is a dry pool again, empty of wishes (past or present). A safe distance must be preserved:

‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present’.

Could there be any secret behind Eliot's unexpected serenity? The essay on Yeats, of 1940, touches on the matter. Of course, few of Eliot's words (especially critical statements) can be taken for granted. Eliot states there that middle age leaves a writer quite few choices. He can either stop writing (unless he means to repeat what he has already written) or, if he is lucky, he may manage to ‘adapt himself to middle age, and find a different way of working’. Gerontion, and even one of the Quartets, underline the tragedy of old age. Eliot's essay on Yeats reverses the idea, and finds that old age has its own emotions, which can be lived as intensely as those of youth. He consequently finds Yeats to be ‘pre-eminently the poet of middle age’. We can hardly say the same about Eliot himself. It is not middle age that he catches best. At the same time, there is something for and of every age in his work. Exquisitely painful poems of youth; self-contained poise of early maturity; the dark despair of a deteriorating body which, however, is mastered by the deep serenity of an experienced mind. His work is a realm for human spring, summer, autumn and winter. T.S. Eliot is an author for all seasons.

To come back to the late summer of Burnt Norton, the poem goes on with memories of youth silenced by the lullaby of elderly thoughts. There is a ‘trilling wire in the blood’, and this blood still sings below ‘inveterate scars’. But the old wars are ‘long forgotten’, or, in Eliot's words, ‘appeased’. A ‘still’ point is mentioned. It reminds of the prayer to the silent sister in Ash-Wednesday:

‘Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still ...’

We hear several words about a defeated ‘partial horror’, about the chains of a ‘changing body’ (how close to Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium the image comes), about unnamed experiences which ‘flesh cannot endure’. All painful moments are annihilated when they are reconsidered. ‘To be conscious’, Eliot decides, ‘is not to be in time’. The mind empties itself. The trick is not new to Eliot. Only, he uses it here much more openly. Nothing is left to pine for. He disinfects his sore soul when he says:

‘I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where’.

The philosophizing included in these Four Quartets has been (too) amply discussed. It is a major point, certainly, and it is well worth being examined. Yet, because of the same sentimental reasons that made me detect a sentimental Eliot in these poems, I shall leave sophisticated ideas aside, for a while. Words such as time, timeless, eternity and so on, mean nothing to beings who can never experience more than the quick passage of seconds. Besides, the emotional lines are always close at hand to be quoted. ‘Here is a place of disaffection’, one of them goes. The faces are ‘strained time-ridden’. An image of The Waste Land suddenly returns, apparition of old times. ‘Men and bits of paper’, with ‘unhealthy souls’ inhabit this ‘twittering world’,

‘the gloomy hills of London,

Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,

Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate’.

The main space of  Burnt Norton is, however, the ‘still point of the turning world’. Imaginary or not, who cares? Fact is that deep below, at the bottom of the poem, stillness and restlessness coexist. They sadly go hand in hand, with Eliot inertly watching:

‘Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die’.

He repeats, over and over again, that ‘all is always now’. Yet, can he really have managed to forget ‘the loud lament of the disconsolate chimera’? They are all present in a poem which, though vowed to forgetfulness (old ideal of Ash-Wednesday), has not yet forgotten everything. Stubborn memories of old pains and thrills enliven it:

‘Quick now, here, now, always –

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after ...’

It is not only memories that hurt the poet, but also his struggle with the words which should express them. In Burnt Norton, serene as the tone may be, peace of mind is wishful thinking, and the poet's words reveal a restless mind trying its hand at relaxation, but ...

‘Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still’.





EAST COKER (1940), title of the second quartet, is the name of a Somersetshire village. In the 17th century, Andrew Eliot, the poet's remote ancestor who was living there, left England for the New World. Later in life, T.S. Eliot himself required that, at the time of his death, his body should be cremated, and the ashes buried at East Coker. Which his second wife dutifully accomplished.

With these two points, a beginning and an end, in mind, we shall soon perceive that the main theme, the key line of the poem is ‘In my beginning is my end’, reversed later into ‘In my end is my beginning’. Even if this were to annoy the subtle researchers of  Eliot's philosophical turn of mind in his Quartets, again I can hardly help noticing that East Coker is soothing, rustic and sentimental. Soothing, because no harshness of tone betrays panic. Rustic, because its images are comfortably close to the life of the soil, peasants, plants, animals. Sentimental, because Eliot seems once again to be in love with his own tone, his landscape, his acquired (self imposed) beatitude.

In 1940, when East Coker was written, Eliot may not have necessarily envisaged yet that, twenty-five years later, his ashes would actually be taken back to the native land of his paternal ancestor. The poem mixes death and life. Eliot writes it in a foretelling, blessing hand. The first images are surprisingly coherent and picturesque. Eliot wrote them at another stage than The Waste Land. Implicitly, they were meant to illustrate another season. We are in early autumn, here. Who would have expected of the city-loving Eliot these rich observations of village nature? Certainly, the feeling that cements them like brick upon brick in the secluding wall of the poem does not betray Eliot's already known sensibility. But, this time, we actually see the succession, the explicit connections between one image and another. Houses, an open field, a factory, a by-pass, a field-mouse trotting, and winds breaking in through loosened panes. ‘Houses live and die’, we are told. The images replace one another constantly. It feels as if the ground itself were wheeling over and over, mixing

‘flesh, fur and faeces,

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf’.

A short moment of ‘empty silence’ arrests this mad succession of life and death. Somebody leans against a bank, while the open field is bathed in a golden light. It happens one unknown afternoon, not far from a pleasantly darkened ‘deep lane / Shuttered with branches’. A van passes toward the village. The warm haze, almost unreal (like a saintly aura) absorbs the sultry light. Evening is drawing near. In a fit of gothic disposition, Eliot advises: ‘Wait for the early owl’.

The night that follows is described by Eliot under the influence of Germelshausen. At least this is what Eliot states in some letter. In the legend of that village, the Pope punished the people of a whole parish: they were neither to live, nor to die. They just sank alive under earth, and only once every hundred years were they allowed to come above and enjoy life for the space of a single day. This undeniably impressive waiting suited Eliot's mood. Utterly devoid of bitterness, it mixes now and after (‘memory and desire’, The Waste Land would have put it):

‘In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire’.

A faint thought of Yeats' eternal flames (Byzantium) which ‘cannot singe a sleeve’ may pass across our minds. Only Eliot does not go the same way. No question of forever in this time-ridden poem. They do come to life, these sad living ghosts, but, in good Eliotian tradition, this life cannot help smelling of death:

‘Round and round the fire

Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy 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’.

A reassuring image of death, though. Death buried in an all-preserving earth. Another dawn, another day. The waters of the sea, wrinkled by wind at the break of day, are as benevolent as the earth. The poet fears no place, no time whatever. He merely whispers:

‘I am here

Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning’.

Soon afterwards, the second part of the quartet lets us know that the houses are all gone under the sea, the dancers under the hill. Winter is upon the land. Snow and the late November wind kill the creatures of the summer heat. Late roses are stifled by snow. Snowdrops writhe under the feet of the passers-by. For a short while, we are back into the mood of The Waste Land: the ‘cruellest month’, the cruelty of all seasons, the cruelty of all ages. The bewilderment of human beings who will never learn how to welcome tomorrow. All through our lives we seem to be

‘... in a dark wood, in a bramble,

On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,

And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,

Risking enchantment’.

There is no such thing as acquired experience, or old age wisdom:

‘The only thing we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless’.

This second part does not sound serene. The ‘Long hoped calm, the autumnal serenity / And the wisdom of age’ are said to be a mere ‘receipt for deceit’ (masterly assonance). The least Eliot is able to do here is to milden his recurring restlessness by acknowledging that:

‘That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory:

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter’.

And he leaves it at that. A death and life struggle with meanings, these Quartets  indeed are. The ‘poetry’ in them does not seem to matter, at first sight. It does matter a lot, at the deeper level of the poet's mood and spirit of innovation.

Following the more abstract third and fourth parts, the fifth resumes the same idea:

‘Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living’.

Complication, then, is Eliot's fear. The fear of not being able to understand, to reach the heart of light. This is, poetically, a fertile uncertainty. The words may stagger, but the poet's hand is firm. He is basically daring and determined:

‘So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years –

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And 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. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business’.

This long quotation reveals what Eliot had in mind when he mentioned the wisdom of ‘humility’. A humility versus the word. Strange humility, that of a poet supported by the self-consciousness that he can master any word he chooses. Humility which is an understatement of poetic magic powers. This is, then, the beginning and the end, the theme of East Coker: Eliot's unshattered and loving belief in the WORD.





The narrative intention, which could be detected in The Waste Land, can just as well be identified in the Quartets. Burnt Norton was the time of the ‘first world’ (first love), the memory of the ‘ridiculous waste sad time’... East Coker sounded like a fortune teller's words: look at the wheel of fate, a beginning never comes without dragging behind it the end of a lifetime. THE DRY SALVAGES (1941) is the moment of mature pain, bravely experienced. In an essay published by Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (The Influence of Landscape upon the Poet) in 1960, Eliot confessed that his second quartet

‘begins where I began, with the Mississippi; and ends where I and my wife expect to end, at a parish church of a tiny village in Somerset’.

On the wall of his tomb, in East Coker, the following lines were actually carved:

 'in my beginning is my end'

Of your charity

pray for the repose

of the soul of

Thomas Stearns Eliot


26th September 1888 – 4th January 1965

'in my end is my beginning'.

The pain in the third quartet is lacerating. The poet feels excruciated, and this is the reason why the third is the most humane, the most direct, the most appealing of the Four Quartets. Reticent Eliot comes out of his hiding, giving an account of his mature inner life. The spiritual burden placed upon it is heavier than Sisyphus himself would have been able to push uphill. But the feeling of pain is Eliot's depth; without it, he invariably sounds superficial. The way in which the soul makes visible its tragedy is interesting in this third quartet. The Waste Land and Ash-Wednesday were a frantic carnival of faces contorted by despair. The Dry Salvages is purged from dread. If there is anything as serene suffering, it is here that Eliot best approximates it.

These Dry Salvages, Eliot explains, are a mispronunciation of the French ‘les trois sauvages’. They are a group of rocks with a lighthouse on them – a spot that must have brought about the death of many a ship and many a sailor. They rise near Cape Ann, Massachusetts – a place where Eliot used to spend his summers while a teenager. It is not for the first time that the dreamland of the sea bewitches Eliot's lines. Prufrock wished he would live at the bottom of that mysterious and (he thought) reassuring world; he hated his own world of towns, rooms, aggressive females. The drowned Phoenician sailor in The Waste Land also undergoes the well-known Shakespearian change into a more precious and more enduring substance than life: ‘those are pearls that were his eyes’. Eliot hardly wrote any poem without touching with his fingertips images of water, of the sea. So does The Dry Salvages. It openly states:

‘The river is within us, the sea is all about us’.

The river is likened to a ‘strong brown god’. It is menacing, ‘sullen, untamed and intractable’. Bridges may solve the problem of crossing it in towns, but so much the worse for the city-dwellers if they forget about its hidden powers. One line unpleasantly reminds us of The Rock, when it speaks of townspeople as ‘worshippers of the machine’. Eliot did not have it in him to denigrate urban landscapes. We learn later that water, the river, witnesses all human ages, all seasons of life; the nursery bedroom, the flowers in April, the grapes on the table in autumn, as well as the halo of the gaslight on winter nights. In The Waste Land, the river headed for the sea. We find here the same cruel, yet life-giving sea. The images are picturesque, though marked by a heavy sadness. The sea eats the edge of the land: a feeling of universal solitude hovers about the words. Its beaches are littered with bones of starfish, horseshoe crab, and whales. The sand looks like a ‘torn seine’, which (resourceful assonance) ‘tosses up our losses’: a broken oar, rags of foreign dead men. In short, a gloomy image of the sea echoing lost voices. This is the image of a shipwreck, which Eliot would have liked to squeeze into The Waste Land, if Pound had not advised against it. Fear lurks nearby: yet, somehow we feel sure that, this time, Eliot will manage to hold it at bay.

He hurries to let us know: ‘People change, and smile: but the agony abides’. Old scars are unveiled here and there: ‘the calamitous (or last) annunciation’, ‘the bitter apple and the bite in the apple’ (another interesting assonance, reminiscent of the ‘wrath-bearing tree’ in Gerontion, the ‘withered apple-seed’ in Ash-Wednesday, V), the ‘prayer of the bone on the beach’ (alliteration). The sign of this agony is the fatal group of rocks, The Dry Salvages. They embody the Biblical punishment uttered by God to Adam (Genesis, 3):

‘Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of the wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee saying, Thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life (...); In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return’.

Ash-Wednesday is not far behind. One thing, however, is changed, and this change makes all the difference. Eliot is no longer trying to terrify. He shuns away his anger and revolt. He tries to look resigned. He speaks of horrors in a blank voice. We do hear about wailings, withering, wreckage, unprayable prayers, failing powers, wastage, primitive terrors, and ‘sudden fury’. We feel we are drifting together with the poem on the waves of a whimsical sea. Our life, like anybody's, is a ‘drifting boat with a slow leakage’. The future, we are told, like the past, has ‘no destination’.

If the substance of the images is the same, what has changed must be Eliot's poetic manner. Hope has deserted him. Wishful thinking has been replaced in the poems by hopeless thinking. Eliot's intelligence has taken a tamer course. He urges now:

‘Not fare well,

But fare forward, voyagers’.

His tired sensibility means to show he has given up striving to catch a star. He has abandoned his dread of the future, hoping to adapt to another season of his life, a rather futureless age. The change from sickening to soothing is welcome, especially when it so masterfully renders the abstract in concrete terms:

‘... time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.

When the train starts, and the passengers are settled

To fruit, periodicals and business letters

(And those who saw them off have left the platform)

Their faces relax from grief into relief,

To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past

Into different lives, or into any future;

You are not the same people who left the station

Or who will arrive at any terminus,

While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;

And on the deck of the drumming liner

Watching the furrow that widens behind you,

You shall not think 'the past is finished'

Or 'the future is before us'.

At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,

Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,

The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)

'Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;

You are not those who saw the harbour

Receding, or those who will disembark.

Here between the hither and the farther shore

While time is withdrawn, consider the future

And the past with an equal mind (…)’ ‘.

Eliot the literary critic repeatedly put aside from him ‘flights of abstruse reasoning’. Of course, literary critics will go on dissecting the philosophy of the Quartets. Eliot's wish was that poetry should be felt before it was understood. This is one of the reasons why these quartets should be handled carefully. We must learn to protect the fleeting feelings they delicately outline. Philosophy may have had a part in these poems, but only as a discipline of mind. The main thing is that these Quartets reveal something unique in Eliot's poetry: a warm directness. This evidence of attachment to man and life in Eliot's creation can hardly be stressed enough. Reading these lines, we realize why Eliot hated those critics who called him learned and cold. The more the poet writes about indifference, peace of mind, ‘detachment’ and so on, the more attached he feels to everything. His former ties to the world were grumbling. He kept feeling hurt and howled out. This new attachment is spiteless; it is generous and warm. The warmth of a poet who hides in his poetry a heart for all seasons. In his own words, a

‘music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts’.

The end of the third quartet, poem of middle-age, in which sadness is cunningly overshadowed, sounds encouraging, in spite of, or just on account of mastered fears. It speaks of us all, we,

‘Who are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying;

We, content at the last

If our temporal reversion nourish

(Not too far from the yew-tree)

The life of significant soil’.

Whether called humility, or directness, Eliot's mood is here a hymn to man's conquered fragility.





LITTLE GIDDING (1942) is the last of the Quartets. The title comes from the name of a village in Huntingdonshire. During the plague of 1625, this village became a kind of secluded religious ideal community. man's fight against death by plague may have suggested to Eliot some sort of religious, spiritual access to the ever after. Consequently, the poem is rather abstract, or, in other words, fleshless. It speaks, for instance of the ‘unimaginable zero summer’. We are back in Ash-Wednesday, which tried to approximate eternity (the disappearance of all ends and deaths) by means of self-devouring images. We find in Little Gidding: ‘midwinter spring’, ‘a glare that is blindness’, ‘never and always’, ‘England and nowhere’, ‘the timeless moment’, ‘the recurrent end of the unending’, and so on. The fourth quartet tries to build the image of an untrue end. If you manage to visualize the idea of death in your mind, then death may sometime be defeated, who knows? Yeats used his imagination many times to the same effect. Browning too, if we think of his Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. A dark tower, which meant the end of one kind of life, but by no means the end of everything. This dark tower will catch up with the traveller anywhere, along whatever way he may be walking. It simply springs out of the depths, and swallows the bodies. The intellect survives. It survives – in Browning's imagery – to blow the final sound of the horn, and tell the story. Eliot's image looks very much the same. From wherever you come, he says, by whatever ‘route’, at whatever time of day, and wherever the mystery may overtake you, it will always be the same:

‘If you came this way

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion’.

Eliot writes as if he had already experienced the jump, as if he were already inside the image he is building. Herein resides the novelty of this quartet. Eliot's mind looks ahead into what he always dreaded, and his soul envelops the sight into a carefree mood. A poem for the last season. He actually sees himself beyond being. He has access to the world of the dead. He speaks to the ghost of his dead master:

‘So I assumed a double part, and cried

And heard another's voice cry: 'What! are you here?'

Although we were not. I was still the same,

Knowing myself yet being someone other –’


The poet's visionary mind splits into two: one half is sent ahead to witness the nightmarish vision, the other stays behind and watches the show with the contentment of the creator. This vision of death Eliot produces is in fact the best proof that his other half means to stay alive. The whole quartet becomes a sight of life exacerbated.

Eliot's images come closer and closer to Yeats' eternal fire in Byzantium. The same as with Yeats, the ghost that addresses Eliot gives him no clue, no encouragement as to what is to come. The apparition moves ‘in measure’, like a dancer in the flames. Last of all, it vanishes ‘on the blowing of the horn’. Eliot's visionary half is left agape: his words are not any more convincing than Yeats'. Even the ghost's terrifying description of the horrors of old age resembles Yeats' words (‘fastened to this dying animal ...’). Some successful alliteration here and there reminds of Eliot's skill (‘faces and places’). Quotations turn up again, and allusions to mythical times. A shirt of fire, which symbolizes love, some religious female's visionary words, to the effect that

‘... all shall be well

And all manner of things shall be well’.

We learn about some ‘gifts reserved for age’, such as:

‘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 ...’

Gerontion had already told us all this, which obsessed Eliot at thirty-two, as well as at fifty-four. The tone was rougher, more pathetic:

‘I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it

Since what is kept must be adulterated?

I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch ...’

At the age of fifty-four, Eliot is no longer the young man who looks back (or ahead) in anger. He has become an author of all moods and for all seasons. He merely notices. His lack of rage cannot fail to impress, even deeper than the rhetorical winter of his young discontent.

The end of East Coker is – what else could it be called? – sweetly rending:

‘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,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning’.

Somebody who knew Eliot, some younger acquaintance, once wrote that, towards the end of his life, Eliot had become a little too ‘pontifical’. By which he must have meant that Eliot was no longer the diffident young man, afraid he would not last through all the seasons of good literature. The remark may have had some truth in it. Eliot had matured since his first Prufrock volume, and he was entitled to this tone of benevolent self-assurance, which charms the more experienced reader of the Quartets.

Eliot's newly acquired protective air makes us share without distaste his metaphysical visions in Little Gidding. The landscape is weird. Midwinter spring, unimaginable zero summer, ‘suspended in time between pole and tropic’. The day is ‘brightest with frost and fire’, ‘the brief sun flames on the ice’. In short, contraries are reconciled. The mere thought of reconciliation is new for Eliot. Ash-Wednesday simply joined opposed, self-devouring words. It defied the reader. Twelve years later, Eliot had learned how to propitiate his readers. He had broadened his own understanding, in order to have these contraries coexist. Which amounts to as much as saying that, by the time he wrote his last major poem, and at the time he was beginning his playwright's work, Eliot had finally found his way to hearts, to readers of all tastes, to minds of all seasons.

We follow him through Little Gidding without objecting at the half-understood lines. We believe him when he assures us that whatever it was we thought we have come for ‘is only a shell, a husk of meaning’. We side with him, because he sides with us. He speaks of ‘other places’, ‘which may just as well be the end of the world (‘the sea jaws’, ‘a dark lake’, a desert, a city), yet we are not afraid, because he himself guides us without fear. After a season of hope, one of dread, and another of pain accepted, a season without hope, without dread, without pain has come. It is a season without emotional barriers, one of generous sensibility.

‘Prayer’ is recommended. We have reached this mysterious final point, Eliot informs us, not in order to ‘verify’, to instruct ourselves, to satisfy our curiosity or to imagine we shall have something unheard of to retell when we go back to the land left behind. There is no way back. This irreversibility was not accepted in Ash-Wednesday. That was the reason why all the imploring words there (pray for us, help us, teach us ...) were desperate prayers. The prayer Eliot mentions here is not really a supplication. It is a strong discipline of the soul. As he says,

‘... prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying’.

His life-long literary love, Dante, interferes again in his lines. As time goes by, Dante's echoed words change. First they can be detected in picturesque, hell-like images. Later, the same vision of after-death is accompanied by Dante's fearlessness, which Eliot previously ‘chose but oppose’. Eliot still descends, but he no longer withdraws. He climbs down the ladder of language, into poetic depths which are so devoid of misgivings and shudder that, to a certain extent, they reassure their author himself. These Quartets are soothing for the readers, but also for the man who wrote them while learning how to master his own hell. The poet finds a new belief in life. Even the dead seem to be more alive than the living. Eliot listens to them reverently:

‘And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living’.

They teach him that the seasons follow their course, that

‘... Last season's fruit is eaten

And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail’.

Words go by with their season and, the ghost insists, these consumed words must be forgotten and forgiven. The poet's fate is sad, as Eliot draws it here:

‘For last year's words belong to last year's language

And next year's words await another voice’.

Eliot's first major critical essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, was written in a different mood. It forced the words of ‘next year’ upon the words of years gone by. At that moment, Eliot found it natural that today should have its say. It was, for him, the season of certainty, youth and fight. He could not have foreseen, when The Sacred Wood was issued, that his work would experience first praise, then abuse, and that the two would alternate till the next millennium, even after that.

Fact is that, as his seasons followed one another, Eliot's aggressivity relented. His poetic energy did not weaken, it merely learned how to face the world. As shyness vanished, its grotesque masks were dismissed. Prospero was letting go of his Ariel. An air of affectionate freedom stole into the Quartets:

‘... This is the use of memory:

For liberation – not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

From the future as well as the past’.

Faces and places, memories and hopes, all these vanish away, ‘into another pattern’. What pattern? That of the ‘end’. A false end, since it is in fact a beginning.

‘Why should we celebrate

These dead men more than the dying?’

Whether this dying is really the beginning of another ‘pattern’, I must confess that I am not convinced. Eliot's words fail him here. But it is a superb failure, if we consider an image like the following:

‘... And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem is an epitaph’.

Valéry dreaded such ‘epitaphs’, finished poems, finished projects. He was the more sceptical of the two. Paradoxically, however, or because of that very reason, he was the more prolific, as well.

Eliot proves in these liberated Quartets a certain virginity of thought. The submissive candour of a brain which has travelled far out, though not to the utmost (sterile) limits, like Valéry. Far enough to open all gates, and beckon us in. If we accept his invitation, which puts an end to the last quartet,

‘We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always –

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing no less than everything)’ ...

For or against Eliot, several generations have already shared his first shyly aggressive, then wisely candid poetic moods. Some prefer the forceful grimness of Eliot's colder spring. Others enjoy reading Eliot's only outspoken love poem (A Dedication to My Wife, 1958), the last he ever wrote (or the last published). It first came out as an introduction to his last play:

‘To whom I owe the leaping delight

That quickens my senses in our wakingtime

And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,

The breathing in unison

Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other

Who think the same thoughts without need of speech

And babble the same speech without need of meaning.


No peevish winter wind shall chill

No tropic sun shall wither

The roses in the rose garden which is ours and ours only


But this dedication is for others to read:

These are private words addressed to you in public’.

Seven years after writing these lines, Eliot passed away. Time and literary tides have carried him up and down, but it hardly matters. His poetry survives. There is, among others, a mysterious reason for that: his crab-like backwardness. Quite a number of his poems must be misread, or read backwards. His sensibility advances gradually from shyness to freedom. Tenderness, the core of Eliot's nature, comes out in the open at the very last. Here is a poet who lived his own life backwards.

Eliot was a poet whose endeavours to record all his ages in poetry left us with the theatrical image of a contorted life. A dramatist who showed more lyrical tenderness in his plays than in his early poems. A literary critic whose dramatic intelligence never had a moment of dull rest. A writer who has bewitched generations of readers, among whom, definitely, the author of this book. The reason? T.S. Eliot is and will always be AN AUTHOR FOR ALL SEASONS. At least I hope so.