TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was a drastic departure from the modernism he helped to create and the style that made him one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, away from the nihilist metaphysics immortalized in The Wasteland toward something earthier, more realistic, grounded in the King James Bible of his youth. In four long poems of five parts each, Eliot humanizes his towering voice, turning from the surfeit data of his earlier work to such subjects as nature, time, death and war; the result is some of the most effective, concrete, and moving work that he, or any poet, has ever done.
Eliot ended his career as a poet with Four Quartets, one with highs and lows that both his fans and detractors have yet to come to terms with. Taste is always personal, and it is this writer’s opinion that his flaws, both as a poet and a thinker, can be explained, but not explained away. He wrote too well, accomplished too much on the page, and meant too much to the language to be thrown away by history. Any case in his defense should begin here.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tounges declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
~from Little Gidding
At the time of their publication, the poems were criticized for their religiosity, sparse symbolism, and abandonment of despair: cardinal sins to a generation of writers still adamant in their lack of faith in humanity. Read today, these complaints miss their mark; it is the religious context of Eliot’s language — the sermonic tenor there in all of his best work, the way he doesn’t adapt the tenants of symbolism as much as take them to church — that gives these poems their beauty. In Burnt Norton and The Dry Salvages Eliot derives his symbols from his religious upbringing and the poems achieve unity through them. Although saddled by the occasional fey oratorical pronouncement, they show that if Eliot stopped being a modernist deity, he didn’t necessarily stop being a modernist.
It is in his vision-strewn testimonies of London under attack where Eliot’s writing soars. Like so many writers of the early 20th century, he believed the vile superstitions of the time regarding Jews, banks, and social credit, and thought that if one was to achieve peace, all three needed to be dealt with. The second world war, and especially Nazi Germany’s bombing of his beloved London, snapped him out of those beliefs quickly; East Coker and Little Gidding were his response. In both poems, Eliot is the literary comforter on high, despairing of humanity’s slide into war, firm in his belief in civilization, and adamant, in post-apocalyptic tone, that London would delivered through this fire, that
“With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
England, and humanity with it, would be saved.”