[NOTE: this is a section, expanded and modified, from a presentation I will be giving in the Fall. As such, I may have take this down as the event approaches. For now, I wanted to share the section on Eliot.]
There is marked debate among literary scholars over whether Four Quartets, which is composed of four distinct poems or “quartets,” is one work or four. Themes shift according to each quartet, while at the same time echoing images and concerns common to all four and prevalent throughout Eliot’s larger corpus. The poet wrote the quartets to be succinct, cohesive, and self-contained on one level, while being dependent upon each other on another. This means, essentially, that Four Quartets is designed as one work considered under four distinctive and progressive thematic meditations. Neither Four Quartets’ inner unity nor its true distinction can be overridden, and retaining such a simultaneity of unity and distinction is key to navigating Eliot’s work. It will also appear to us as a major theme.
“Burnt Norton,” the first of the quartets, opens with the following puzzle:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
The poet here suggests a complex notion of time, one in which the past, the present, and the future—all of which we are used to treating as discrete units of time—are present to one another. This does not mean, however, that there is no such thing as “past” or “present” or “future”; or that time is only an illusion. Eliot resists such a conclusion, insisting in the very next lines: “If all time is eternally present/ all time is unredeemable.” Time must still function as time, with its progressive flow of anticipation, of decision, and of recollection if it is to be redeemed. All three forms of time, as time, always relate to one another—not simply as aspects of a moment considered from the perspective of time’s passage, viewed as we move past them like markers along a rail line. This is not sheer linear time. The past, the present, and the future are, instead, inward forms of one another. All of time is held together by a single telos or end, present to each aspect of time as its inner fulfillment.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
To navigate his compound understanding of time, Eliot employs a dizzying rush of images, lingering on certain favorites but settling on none. In the poem “Burnt Norton” alone, time is presented as a “garden” composed of both dead leaves and moving air; time is a “dance,” “reconciled among the stars”; time is caught up in words, which themselves bloom and die like the flowers in the garden.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
And these are just the major images in one of the quartets. “East Coker’s” major temporal theme is the relationship between beginning and end; “The Dry Salvages” takes up time as a river and a sea; “Little Gidding,” which recapitulates and resolves the previous three quartets, confronts time’s suspension. Eliot is forced to use multiple images because there is no single understanding of time that can rest as whole and complete. Time is always moving, and that is precisely the problem.
There is, in Eliot, a constant struggle between fragmentation and fulfillment, disappointment and fullness. In order to be redeemable, time has to advance; that is, there must be change, a progress from yearning to satiation, from encounter to decision. Time must be malleable; it must have potency. In theological terms, time itself is an expression of creatureliness; it indicates the limited capacity of the creature, which must progress from decision to decision in time. Potency implies also that time (and the creature) is always somehow unfulfilled, always struggling toward fullness that it does not possess. This is, for Eliot, time’s “partial ecstasy” and “partial horror.” Instead of descending into despair over such an insight, Eliot sees time as eternally held together in inward fulfillment by the Incarnation, by the “still point of the turning world,” which reconciles the sinews of time through time, “making explicit” the inward completion that the Incarnate God works in the world: “only through time time is conquered.” It is an inward completion both because it has not come to ultimate fulfillment, and because the completion wrought in the Incarnation corresponds to the inmost desire of the world, bringing it beyond its boundaries without violating its basic structure. Thus, the telos of time is the Incarnation, which is already present to it in and through time itself: the Incarnation is part of history and beyond history. The Incarnation is “Erhebung without motion, concentration/ without elimination… / woven in the weakness of the changing body.”
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
The Incarnation functions as a significant focal point for Eliot, enfolding his insights into a single, surpassing whole. This Christological unity, “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood,” permits Eliot his coherence without destroying the central paradox of his work: the repeated insistence that redemption consists in a return to what was lost and in an absolute transformation. This cannot but be paradoxical, since the return is now almost unrecognizable. How is redemption a return if the place to which we return is both the place we remember and not at all what we remember? This is what Eliot calls, “Knowing myself yet being someone other,” a concept he recollects in temporal terms when he repeats, “In my beginning is my end.”
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
An end and a beginning are not the same; but for Eliot, they are found in one another. Time is intimately bound up in the question of redemption, and time itself needs to be redeemed. Time introduces the possibility of change, but also of decay and despair; and these last must be overcome. In Eliot’s terms, we must inquire after our “destination,” which in the language of the Four Quartets is ultimately a “garden” that haunts us as memory, presence, and goal—haunts us, that is, in all the forms of time.
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.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
The garden is a complicated image in Eliot’s corpus not only for the way he utilizes it in several poems beyond the quartets, but also because of the garden’s history in Western literature (English and otherwise), Judeo-Christian tradition, and non-Western literature (of which Eliot was highly aware). What is important to us is the Judeo-Christian facet of the reference, where the most important referents include Eden and the enclosed garden in Song of Songs 4:12. Eden is the garden from which Adam and Eve are exiled after the Fall and to which the world returns in the Book of Revelation; and the enclosed garden is a metaphor for the yearned-for beloved in the Song of Songs. Thus, the garden sought after in Four Quartets is both a place and a person; the garden is ultimately a reference to Christ, the one toward whom we journey and in whom we are transformed.
Eliot’s Christocentrism would be woefully incomplete and insufficient if it were only a theoretical unifying principle, a bloodless resolution to temporality. Instead, Four Quartets is filled with constant references to the cross and its relationship to redemption, since in the crucifixion Eliot perceives the ultimate form of the “intolerable flame” that consumes history and humanity.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire
Fire is another major image in Four Quartets, appearing at once as a threat and as salvation. It is both, since the healing of the shattered person occurs only through the pain of the cross (of letting go, of experiencing the terrible unknown of a new self). Here Eliot draws on common themes in mystical theology, so that the cross is often experienced as a painful loss of self and even of temporality. Eliot calls this
…not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.
Redemption consists in the double loss of self and time, and no less, and in so losing these, the Christian adopts the inner qualities of the cross. The Christian becomes cruciform, losing every embrace of self in order to become more capable of love, and losing even an iron grip on time in order to be inhabited by eternity. In Eliot, the Christian comes to imitate the stillness of the cross:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets gathers together numerous Christian themes into one of the most important literary achievements of the twentieth century. I have reviewed Eliot’s interest in time, and four key aspects emerged. (1) Time continues to function chronologically (with a past, present, and future), but cannot be understood as a primarily linear reality because eternity is always present to time and is its fulfillment. (2) The fulfillment of time, experienced as fire and as joy, is both the restoration of what was lost and an entirely unanticipated surpassing of its original good. (3) The Incarnation is not only the effective redemption of the world, taking place in the world and always present to it as its fulfillment, but also serves as its inner coherence. (4) The inner “coherence” of the world, provided by Christ, is achieved through the paradox of the cross, which through darkness brings light to the world, and through loss makes the person whole.