The Structure of the Four Quartets

Does the center hold in Eliot's Four Quartets?

The Quartets are structured like music

"There are possibilities for verse which bear some analogy to the development of a theme by different groups of instruments; there are possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the different movements of a symphony or a quartet; there are possibilities of contrapuntal arrangement of subject-matter." -- T.S. Eliot,
"The Music of Poetry" "The music of a word is, so to speak, at a point of intersection: it arises from its relation first to the words immediately preceding and following it, and indefinitely to the rest of its context; and from another relation, that of its immediate meaning in that context to all the other meanings which it has had in other contexts, to its greater or less wealth of association." -- "On Poetry and Poets"

A quartet has a number of movements; each has its own keys, meters, rhythms, tempos, themes, and colors.  Quartets build their effect on repetition, variation, point, and counterpoint.  Its instruments imitate and answer each other; they develop previous themes in new directions, add new or different harmonies, change tones, as well as reverse melody lines and chord changes.

E.g. Burnt Norton 1 (lines 1-15), 2 (lines 61-73a), East Coker 3 (compare lines 102-129 with 135-148)

The Quartets are structured through the repetition and development of motifs

Roses (BN 1 -- the rose-garden, BN 2 -- "the moment in the rose-garden," EC 2 -- "Late roses filled with early snow," EC 4 -- "the flame is roses," LG 2 -- "Is all the ash the burnt roses leave," LG 3 -- the folding Rose,  LG 5 -- "the fire and the rose are one." [Likewise, one could note the use of flowers in general -- the clematis (BN 3), the ailanthus and lavender (DS  1 and 3), the snow blossoms on the hedgerow (LG 1)

Light and Dark (BN 1 -- the light on the roses and filling the pool, BN 2 -- "a white light still and moving," BN 3 -- the darkness of the subway, BN 4 -- The unturning light of God, BN 5 -- "Sudden in a shaft of sunlight," EC 3 -- the darkness of the funeral age, DS 5 -- "lost in a shaft of sunlight," LG 1 -- the sempiternal light, LG 2 -- the night of the bombing

Movement [Subways, Dances, Voyages, etc.] (BN 3 -- the subway as "a place of disaffection," which moves "on its mettaled ways," EC 3 -- the conversation in the subway; BN 2 -- "The dance along the artery," BN 5 -- "The crying shadow in the funeral dance," EC 1 -- the country marriage dance, LG 2 -- "Where you must move in measure, like a dancer," LG 5 -- "The complete consort dancing together". DS 2 -- the movement of the dock workers, the continual movement of the river and the sea; DS 3 -- "Not fare well,/ But fare forward, voyagers." LG 5 -- "We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started."

Stillness [The Wheel, Love, etc.] (BN 2 -- "At the still point of the turning world" that is the hub of the wheel and God. BN 3 -- "But abstention from movement," BN 5 -- "Love is itself unmoving," EC 3 -- "wait without hope [...] without love [...] without thought," DS 4 -- "Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory". 

Time, The Past/ The Present, History -- (BN 1 -- opening lines, BN 2 -- "Only through time time is conquered." EC 1-2 -- associated with Thomas Elyot and past ways of expressing poetic ideals; EC 5 -- "There is a time for the evening under starlight/ A time for the evening under lamplight." DS 2-3 -- "We cannot think of a time that is oceanless," "Time the destroyer is time the preserver," Time is no healer," DS 5 -- In the Incarnation "the past and future/ Are conquered, and reconciled," LG -- the whole poem is based on the way past symbols and conflicts are resolved in the present: "A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments."

The Way of Negation (BN 3 -- "Desiccation of the world of sense,/ Evacuation of the world of fancy,/ Inoperancy of the world of spirit," EC 3 -- "You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy [. . .] You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance [...] You must go through the way in which you are not." DS 5 -- "And taken, in a lifetime's death in love/ Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender." LG 1 -- "And what you thought you came for/ Is only a shell, a husk of meaning" LG 3 -- "For liberation -- not less of love but expanding/ Of love beyond desire".

Wordless Prayer (BN 5 -- "Words, after speech, reach/ Into silence," EC 3 -- "I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope/ For hope would be hope for the wrong thing," DS 2 -- "The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable/ Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?" DS 4 -- The Angelus, DS 5 -- "the rest/ Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action." LG 1 -- "And prayer is more/ Than an order of words, the conscious occupation/ Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying."

The Quartets are structured through the four elements and the seasons

Burnt Norton -- Air (the references aren't direct, but Little Gidding seems to make this association -- cf. section 2.  In many ways I think BN is more about light than air.)

Autumn -- "In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air"

East Coker -- Earth (lines 1-8) Summer -- "On a Summer midnight, you can hear the music"

The Dry Salvages -- Water (both the river and the sea) No single season, the river and ocean are associated with all seasons -- "the April dooryard [. . .] the autumn table [. . .] the winter gaslight"  "but in the sombre season/ Or the sudden fury, is what it always was."

Little Gidding -- Fire (cf. pentecostal fire, the bomb, Purgatory, the flaming hairshirt, the roses) Winter solstice -- "When the shortest day is brightest"

There are also references to the elements throughout all four poems.

The Quartets are structured through similar movements

Section four of each poem is lyrical and has some association with the Trinity or Mary:
  • BN -- "the light is still/ At the still point of the turning world" -- God the Creator
  • EC -- "The wounded surgeon" who is Christ
  • DS -- The Angelus to Mary
  • LG -- The Holy Spirit who is "the dove descending."
Section five of each touches on the problems of language and speech:
  • BN -- "Words move, music moves/ Only in time;"   This explores in some detail the limits, even the brokenness of words, as well as the temptations they are subject to.
  • EC -- "Trying to learn to use words"  This looks at the struggle we have with finding new words, which are always "raids on the inarticulate" and which always "fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again and again."
  • DS -- "That it is not heard at all, or music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music"
  • LG -- "The common word exact without vulgarity,/ The formal word precise but not pedantic."  This suggests that language can finally serve its limited purpose, for it can find the humble, exact word.

The Quartets are structured through thesis and antithesis (often in individual lines)

  • Birth-Death
  • Rising-Falling
  • Stillness-Movement
  • Desire-Love
  • Beginning-End
  • Affirmation-Negation
  • Time-Eternity
  • Silence-Speech

The Quartets are structured through/ to the tradition of poetic references

BN -- Ecclesiates, Genesis, Dante, Tennyson, Hegel, John of the Cross

EC -- Thomas Elyot, Ecclesiates, The Psalms, Shakespeare, Dante

DS -- Homer, Twain (? cf. 120-122), The Bhagavad-Gita, Baudelaire, Dante

LG -- The Acts of the Apostles, Milton, Dante, Mallarme, Shelley, Yeats, Julian of Norwich

The Quartets are structured by exploration into the meaning of metahistory

BN -- The cacophonous moving world of time in relationship to the still and meaningful world of eternity

EC -- The failure of the wisdom of the traditional past and the redemptive possibility of divine love

DS -- The theodicy of the world of evolutionary death and the "impossible union" experienced by the saint

LG -- The challenge of national and poetic histories and the way that eternal symbol speaks into those histories

The Quartets are also structured through associations with Eliot's personal and family past

BN -- His (mystical) experience in the garden at Burnt Norton.

EC -- The Eliot family originated in East Coker

DS -- The Mississippi River; Gloucester, Mass. (Boyhood homes)

LG -- London bombing; A visit to Little Gidding

The Quartets are structured by an overarching pattern

Burnt Norton, which was written originally as a separate poem before Eliot had thought of writing the others, acts as an introduction to the themes of time, the past, the way of negation, mysticism and self-denial, the limits of language, and the power of symbols.

East Coker poses the problem of the past more completely by exploring Eliot's own family heritage, his concern with worn-out poetic language, the need for spiritual discipline through Christ, the Church, and the sacraments, and the call to wordless prayer and the selfless of love.

The Dry Salvages extends the problem of human suffering by looking at the ravages of time as it is experienced in this life.  It prays the Angelus in hopes of the Annunciation and the Incarnation. The later is the answer to the realm of time for it brings together time and the timeless, history and eternity.

Little Gidding completes the cycle by answering the questions of the previous poems.  It repeats the themes of negation, wordless prayer, selfless love, and suffering.  It suggests that this personal spirituality of love in suffering has ramifications for a community's history and its symbols; these too can be redeemed.