Places: Four Quartets

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1943

Type of work: Poetry

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Burnt Norton

*Burnt Four QuartetsNorton. English country house in Ebrington, that T. S. Eliot once visited. His 178-line philosophical poem about the nature of reality and time begins and ends with references to the house’s gardens. The speaker suggests an edenic world of innocence and timelessness when he imagines walking through the door that opens into the rose garden, following the elusive voices of the hiding/playing children echoing in memory there, and following tentatively those sounds. But this “first world” is hardly a lush verdant place teeming with life and simple beauty; rather, the speaker takes readers into an empty alley, to look down into a “drained pool.” The dry concrete pool, stands for the illusiveness of time and meaning. In fact, the lack of extensive specific description of place in the poem is a deliberate teasing about the tangible boundaries of the physical world, underscored by the haunting suggestion that humans cannot bear much reality.

*East Coker

*East Coker. English village in Somersetshire where Eliot’s ancestors originated and where Eliot himself is buried. Again, the specific place is valued only because it stands for a general, universal process of dying and regeneration. This poem is about the idea of origin and destination and ironic redemption. A key to understanding Eliot’s detachment from actual place is seeing the essentially paradoxical nature of place: “where you are is where you are not.” For Eliot, setting is essentially metaphysical, a part of a moral endeavor. That moral process values the dissociation from place; he favors union not with place but with state of being. Eliot’s inclination is to escape the world’s increasing strangeness through love. Time and place decline in importance so love can increase.

*Dry Salvages

*Dry Salvages. Group of rocks, with a beacon, off the coast of Cape Anne, Massachusetts. This third part of Four Quartets relies on water symbolism and the play between relative stability of rock or earth and changeability of sea as they relate to the themes of variation and timelessness. The only American place in the “Quartets,” the Dry Salvages is paradoxically both a place symbolic of guidance and a place of wreckage, a place of concealment and of revelation. As with the other places mentioned in Four Quartets, the Dry Salvages is important as a metaphoric backdrop for a philosophical or moral process: the ways time and experience wash over human beings, the ways moments or occurrences guide people by being monuments or beacons. The refrain of the poem, “fare forward voyagers,” suggests the sea as the place for travel; however, the course covered by travel is not as important to Eliot as the process itself of faring. Similarly, the experience of place is valuable only as a prompt toward meaning.

*Little Gidding

*Little Gidding. Religious community established in England’s Huntingdonshire by Nicholas Ferrar in 1625. This culminating quartet implies the value of creating a religious community in times of political and religious upheaval. Like the other quartets, it is essentially a call for exploration: Besides exploring time and place, this poem suggests that the power of immediate love for one’s own fields develops into the extended love of country. Despite this attachment to field and land, for Eliot all spirits are “unappeased and peregrin”; human beings are all between oppositional worlds, worlds that can be variously conceived as time and place, immediacy and generality, or earth and heaven.

Sources for Further StudyCooper, John Xiros. T. S. Eliot and the Ideology of “Four Quartets.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Considers Eliot’s public persona as an Anglo-American poet creating images of cultural continuity for a wartime world badly in need of coherence.Ellis, Steve. The English Eliot: Design, Language, and Landscape in “Four Quartets.” London: Routledge, 1991. Suggests why Eliot’s landscapes are usually devoid of living people: They belong to an internationalist view of place that avoids strictly sentimental attachments.Foster, Paul. The Golden Lotus: Buddhist Influence in “Four Quartets.” Sussex, England: Book Guild, 1998. Lists many Eastern texts that Eliot might have used in the course of advancing the thesis that Eliot’s kingdom of heaven is very like the Buddhist Nirvana.Frye, Northrop. T. S. Eliot: An Introduction. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1962. Brief guide to Eliot’s thought and writing, by one of the twentieth century’s most famous literary critics, with a final chapter on Eliot’s Christian poetry.Gardner, Helen. The Art of T. S. Eliot. London: Cresset Press, 1949. A skillful and informative analysis of the poetry and verse dramas of Eliot. The chapter treating the Four Quartets offers a helpful interpretation of the poem as a musical work.Gardner, Helen. The Composition of “Four Quartets.” London: Faber, 1978. Written by a personal friend of Eliot, herself a literary critic of note, with access to his manuscripts.Howard, Thomas. Dove Descending: A Journey into T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Ft. Collins, Colo.: Ignatius Press, 2006. A Roman Catholic’s line-by-line meditation on Eliot’s meditative poems.Lobb, Edward, ed. Words in Time: New Essays on Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. A fine collection of ten essays by authors such as Denis Donoghue, Lyndall Gordon, and Louis L. Martz, which expands the discussion of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Useful for new readers and scholars alike.Martz, Louis L. Many Gods and Many Voices: The Role of the Prophet in English and American Modernism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. Written by a leading authority on the poetry of meditation. Includes a chapter on the formal structure of Eliot’s first quartet.Smith, Grover Cleveland. T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. A detailed and probing exploration of Eliot’s clever use of allusions and quotations to express his spiritual and philosophical concerns. This book remains a standard critical work on Eliot’s poetry, a good sourcebook for scholars.Traversi, Derek Antona. T. S. Eliot: The Longer Poems: “The Waste Land,” “Ash Wednesday,” “Four Quartets.” London: Bodley Head, 1976. A scholarly, objective analysis of the Four Quartets. Traversi sees Eliot’s poetry as a continuous whole and offers a detailed study of these poems on their own terms rather than primarily as expressions of a given ideology, Christian or otherwise.
Categories: Places