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T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets: Analysis & Explanation

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore T. S. Eliot's ''Four Quartets.'' In addition to the poem, we'll consider Eliot's life, the culture in which it was written, and its reception.

T.S. Eliot

Few poets of the first half of the 20th century evoked the unending, almost mythical respect as T. S. Eliot has. His profound, innovative work - both as a poet and a critic - resulted in him being one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

By the 1940s, Eliot had become one of the most influential writers alive.
Eliot

Eliot was born in Missouri in 1888 to a middle-class family. Due to physical illness, Eliot often found himself isolated and unable to engage with other boys, an experience that resulted in his learning to love literature. While earning his bachelor's and master's degrees at Harvard, Eliot published a handful of poems. In 1915, he published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which quickly received the attention of many writers and critics. He went on to produce other influential poems, such as Ash Wednesday and The Hollow Man, as well as The Wasteland, the poem that many consider his masterpiece. In addition to poetry, Eliot wrote drama and critical work. His essays on poetry, moreover, had a tremendous influence on many of the era's most prominent literary critics. Eliot died in 1965.

Context

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century brought tremendous changes to how the world was understood. With the growing influence of theories such as Darwinism and Freudianism, developing science and philosophy challenged traditional understandings of how people perceive and interpret the world around them. Additionally, a more complicated and faster lifestyle, advancements in technology, and the experience of witnessing the atrocities that occurred during World War I also challenged people to rethink their conception of reality. Faced with this new context, many artists believed that it was necessary to create art that reflected the complicated reality of the world that humans were living in. This movement came to be known as modernism and is defined by its use of innovative and often abstract art.

With his delicate language and stark images, Eliot is indisputably one of the most exemplary and influential modernist writers. Much of his work captures the anxiety and distress that was experienced during the early 20th century. Specifically, Eliot's work features the voice of a disillusioned, alienated generation that felt unsure of the major religious, economic, and social elements of Western society. Among the many fractions of modernism, Eliot's own modernist art emphasized the importance of clear, meaningful, and carefully crafted language. Despite the fact that his writings can be quite complex, a careful reading is worth the effort because few modernist writers were able to produce such controlled, delicate poems.

Four Quartets

Four Quartets consists of four long poems, each further divided into five sections, that were independently published over six years. The first, originally published in 1936, is Burnt Norton, which focuses on time and the need to be aware of the fact that humans can only control the present. This poem charts the process of a speaker meditating on life and the need to live in accordance with universal order. It begins with the narrator walking through a garden and trying to make sense of the process of moving through life. After meditating on the experiences of life, the poem ends with the narrator accepting the Christian notion that love is a crucial aspect of remaining conscious and present throughout existence.

In 1940, Eliot published the second poem, East Coker. The religious perspective introduced in Burnt Norton continues in this poem and is contextualized by the backdrop of ancient and animalistic rituals. These rituals allow the poem to focus on the recent efforts of humanity to overcome the eternal questions at the heart of life. Eliot explores the variety of experiences that humans encounter, ranging from destruction and war to moments of joy and release. In addition to depicting the human tension at the heart of life experienced by all human beings, the feelings of the speaker can be seen as distinctly ambivalent in regards to finding hope and discovering meaning in the process of being born and dying. Ultimately, the speaker finds solace in the notion of salvation offered by Christianity.

The motifs of time, life, and death continue in the third poem, Dry Savages, which was originally published in 1941. As the title implies, one of the main themes is water, and the poem frequently offers images of the sea. However, humanity in the poem is dry in the sense that technology and scientific theories have separated humans from one another, resulting in a sense of loss. Ultimately, the poem reasserts the idea that it's crucial that people not forget their interconnectedness to the past and remain aware of the experience of being human.

The influence of Eliot can still be seen throughout English poetry.
Eliot

Whereas Dry Savages provided many images of the sea, Little Gidding makes use of images of fire. The poem, first published in 1942, focuses on the attempts to solve the problems that the other three poems have introduced. Although the poem is often ambiguous, it insists on the possibility of renewal occurring through sacrifice, which is symbolized with the image of fire. Thus, Eliot's poem seems to offer hope that there is a way to discover meaning in the seeming chaos one experiences in life.

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