In my beginning is my end….
… to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
T. S. Eliot begins Burnt Norton with a reflection of time as cyclical. Because time-past and present are enveloped by time-future, Eliot suggests that “all time is unredeemable.” This means that time cannot be treated in abstraction but as the vital ground of human reality. Lived time, as this is embodied by individual human beings, is Eliot’s main focus in Four Quartets.
Eliot informs us that “what might have been” is an abstract notion that can only be entertained as speculation. Instead, we only know what has actually come to pass, not what could or might have been. Eliot’s contention serves thoughtful people as a forewarning of the nihilistic demons to be unleashed by postmodernity in the coming decades. Human reality is often stringent, more hit-or-miss than postmodernists care to realize. The poet engages Parmenides’ argument that only being exists. Being denotes permanence. Nothingness, Eliot points out, cannot inform human reality because it never forms part of the present. For this reason, possibility—what might have been—is hemmed in by what has actually taken place:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.…
The four poems that make up T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets were published separately during a six-year period, from 1936 to 1942. Burnt Norton, 1936; East Coker, 1940; The Dry Salvages, 1941, and Little Gidding in 1942. The poems first appeared as a single volume in 1943.
Burnt Norton refers to the country estate of Sir William Keyt (1688-1741), who took his own life by burning down his house. The narrator describes walking through a garden and being led by a bird. The tranquil garden signals the reality of the present. This could be any garden. The bird encourages the narrator to discover the many echoes of time-past that, with a little imagination, can be heard among the rustling leaves.
Imagination, I contend, is what enables the narrator of Four Quartets to view the past as informing the present. In Eliot’s later work, imagination complements religious faith. The narrator strolls through the garden as if moving through a field mined with sights and sounds guarded by the garden’s past. The narrator raises the question of how a rose that is witnessed by human eyes appears to us. Here we are reminded of Berkeley’s notion that “to be is to be perceived,” “For the roses/Had the look of flowers that are looked at.” The embrace of time-past, through the exercise of the imagination, brings the past to life once again, if only as a memory.
The first section of the poem ends with the idea that reality, the only reality that flesh-and-blood individuals can embrace, is time-lived: the present. The bird leads the narrator through a drained pool that momentarily echoes the past: “The pool was filled with water out of sunlight.” The narrator goes on to say:
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Four Quartets captures the essence of human life as we experience it in the flesh, not as an abstraction. Eliot presents the reader with a vision of eternity and permanence as the ground of vital human reality. The strength of Eliot’s thought is the recognition of a hierarchical ordering of human existence. What we experience in space and time, as embodied souls, is but a semblance of the essence and form of reality. This is made explicit in the second section: “Only through time time is conquered.” We can only get a glimpse of eternity by experiencing the finality of time.
Four Quartets reminds us that inspired philosophical reflection, dating back to its inception by ancient Greek philosophers, is akin to poetic expression. Because early forms of philosophical reflection were attentive to myth and the power of imagination in daily existence, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and many other philosophers arrived at the conclusion that many of the puzzles of human life are best entertained through indirect confrontation. This is an exercise in patience and intellectual humility.
Eliot is doubtful whether language can substantially capture the essence of human existence. The poet gives credence to the notion that man’s reservoir of timeless knowledge is actually accessible to all who are willing to engage the imagination: “Words strain/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/Under the tension, slip, slide, perish …”
However, at the conclusion of the fifth section, the narrator warns us that we must assail words that merely serve the purpose of chattering individuals. Such words are used to kill time. Instead, words that confront the silent spaces—essences we must call them—are words that can deliver us to truth. Words that originate from the fullness of being should deliver us, not to motion as a sensual phenomenon, but to the “cause and end of movement.”
Eliot’s reflection on the cyclical nature of time continues in East Coker, a poem about dissolution and renewal. The realization that “In my beginning is my end” has a sharp-edged, biting quality that only a Christian thinker can keep from turning into Nietzschean morbidity and nihilism. The abandonment that the narrator encounters in East Coker, his ancestral village in Somerset, echoes the music and dancing that makes the village a witness to the holy sacrament of matrimony, where, “the association of man and woman/In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie-/A dignified and commodious sacrament.” The narrator reminds the reader that there was once life inthat decaying village.
East Coker offers the reader images of fleeting time. Taking a cosmic look at man and lived-time, the poet offers the reader a vision of the futility of overt concern with earthly existence. In one of the most striking passages of the poem, Eliot doubts whether mere poetry, or any of man’s modes of expression, can fully grasp the cyclical nature of time: permanence. Part of the beauty of Four Quartets is Eliot’s reflection on time as it consumes individual existence, and not as an abstraction. This makes Four Quartets an existential work. Eliot offers his vision of the “vortex of fire” that will devour the world. He tells us that the beginning contains the seeds of the end. However, time racing away from us, the reader is assured, does not really matter. The reality of human existence goes deeper than any mortal can ever suspect:
That was a way of putting it-not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
Continuing with a heartfelt, albeit momentary, bout of existential self-doubt, the narrator finds himself alone in East Coker with only memory as a companion. The narrator finds himself awed, perhaps even overwhelmed, with his stage in life. He discovers that experience alone is a bad teacher unless we reflect on the meaning of our experiences. Experience, the narrator realizes, is customized to individual existence. Because experience is so personal in nature, it burdens us with the need to make sense of it. This is where the past and tradition can aid us in our zest for life. We filter our experiences according to the strength of our convictions. Even though experience occurs in temporal parcels, truth remains objective in nature.
The narrator is confronted with the truths conveyed by his predecessors. After lifelong reflection on the essence of human reality, the narrator, who finds himself in middle age, discovers that the wisdom of the elders is replete with concerns about the sting of passing time. Eliot introduces the reader to his belief that humility,in the Christian sense of the word, is the ultimate form of wisdom that we can hope for. The key to Eliot’s Christian embrace of humility is the understanding that genuine humility is arrived at after much reflection. It is reflection on the nature of the self, God, and transcendence—that is, existential concerns—which equip the narrator to grasp the great wisdom of the elders. What the elders know, we, too, can possess, but only at the end of the struggle for truth. Nothing comes easy. Reminiscent of Parmenides’ notion that truth likes to hide, Eliot warns the reader that truth never gives itself away:
… There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
East Coker, like the other three poems that make up Four Quartets, is a reflection on human existence as this is amplified with a cosmic view of time. Captains of industry, merchants, bankers, eminent men of letters, patrons of the arts, statesmen, and everyone else who has ever walked on earthy soil, eventually embark into the darkness that frames our mortality. Yet what Eliot refers to as the “darkness of God” is the anticipation of hope. Human existence, the poet warns us, must master the art of patience: “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:/So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
East Coker offers the reader a view of life as resistance. The difficulties that we encounter in living pave the way for the attainment of truth. In my beginning is my end, since we cannot be who we are without first realizing the existential singularity of human life. We cannot trade differentiated being for a communal gown. Eliot’s narrator makes it clear that our intuition of the future, and passing time, are but the beginning of strife. Self-sustaining intuition of the nature of personhood propels us through the world, enabling us to become who we must be. This, Eliot cautions, before time runs out for us.
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
The hope and optimism that Eliot offers readers in East Coker is not the blanket form that populism uses to gloss over the sting of reality with social-political platitudes. Eliot asks the reader to embrace a stoic view of human reality. This means that we must accept the loss of much that is dear to us in order to attain divine transcendence. Life, the poet reminds us, cannot evade the truth of Adam’s curse—“And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.”
History, Eliot contends, is the struggle to keep ourselves civilized. This is why East Coker serves as a meditation on the importance of tradition; the truths that history has established must be safeguarded from decay and dissolution. For Eliot, everything worth saying has been said many times before, “by men whom one cannot hope/To emulate.” According to the poet, people of good will should not try to compete with history. Renewal is what man needs most. Yet few understand the value of all that we have lost, he tells us. The work of thoughtful people of good will is rather simple:
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The Dry Salvages reflects on time as a lived, existential reality that man embodies. The poem begins by considering the importance of rivers, what Eliot calls conveyors of commerce. “The brown gods,” as he refers to rivers, are only of immediate concern to us so long as they remain a problem to tackle. After a river has proven useful, the “worshippers of the machine” ignore it. The river, a metaphor for subjectively lived-time—we are told—informs human existence. This rendition of time is quickly contrasted with chronological time, which is nature’s time.
The Dry Salvages attempts to reconcile the tension between these two forms of time. Realizing that there can be no end to the passage of time, the narrator recognizes that man’s embrace of time is essential to our development as incarnate souls. Man, the narrator alerts us, cannot help but internalize the objective world in forming part of our existence: “While emotion takes to itself the emotionless/Years …”
Eliot confronts time not as an abstraction but as the reservoir of historical and personal experience. With increasing age, we come to regard the past as a closed-ended reality that contains the wisdom of the ages. For Eliot, the passage of time ought to teach us much about permanence: many people merely pass through experiences and miss their meaning. He ties this idea to the deceptive notion that momentary happiness is more important than well-being. It is the “meaning-of” which restores the meaning of experience: “We had the experience but missed the meaning,/And approach to the meaning restores the experience/In a different form, beyond any meaning/We can assign to happiness …”
Eliot creatively avoids the trap of treating timeas an abstraction; he depicts actual instances of motion. Four Quartets explores before-and-after, especially in seemingly trivial matters. In The Dry Salvages travelers board a train and quickly settle to their newspapers and snacks. A simple thing like taking a trip on a train signals the passage of time that cannot be recovered. The people who board the train are not the same individuals who get off at another destination. This is an allusion to Heraclietian flux. Every inch of rail narrowing behind the train ought to be measured not in feet, but in time that will never return. For Eliot, time is best measured in vital moments that metastasize into years, culminating in eternity.
The poet equally makes the reader conceive of the sea as time through which sea-going voyagers move.
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
Starting with common experience, the importance of which is often occluded by modernity, he goes on to demonstrate that the commonplace is indeed the poetic. This forms part of the beauty and sadness of Eliot’s poetry. Yet this is a rather tricky point to consider: If the commonplace is truly worthy of exaltation that delivers us to the sublime, why is it so neglected and dismissed by so many people? Eliot’s answer to this question is a Platonic one. The mystery and essence of creation is open to examination by everyone. However, because this requires the exercise of free will, many people shun it as being too taxing.
Make no mistake about it: time can be paradoxical, sinister even. Time is unrelenting in the permanence that it reveals. For Eliot, the commonplace is often overlooked because it tells us much about the nature of things that never change. This is Eliot’s genius at its most endearing. To convey the impact of this thought, he turns to the saint: “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time, is an occupation for the saint—.”
The essence of the saint is not encountered as an occupation. Rather, the saint intuits the nature of timelessness. Eliot points out that many people marvel at earthly existence, especially when this distracts them from seeking higher truths. He uses the image of winter lightning to highlight this thought. The architectonic of reality that the saint uncovers directs us to the intersection of the mundane and the sublime. The saint confronts his own existence with the necessary love to unhinge reality from the boredom of existential morbidity:
… But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint-
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
Little Gidding‘s focus is personal salvation. The town of Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, England serves as a point for further reflection on the earthly incarnation of the soul. Having visited Little Gidding once, Eliot was mesmerized by the apparent timelessness of the place. The quiet isolation of the locale allowed the poet to reflect on the stages of life.
The poem contains several allusions to middle age. Seeing himself reflected in a frozen pond, what he calls “a watery mirror,” the narrator feels that this is enough to “stir the dumb spirit.” This is a solemn poem that reminds the reader of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the Italian master is guided by the poet, Virgil. Eliot’s narrator is guided by a ghost who tells him about meaning and purpose, this, from a divine and timeless perspective. The narrator calls the ghost a dead master who is a “compound” of many others.
Faced with the ineffable, the narrator considers the question: What is prayer? Little Gidding is a place where one must do away with sense and notion. Of course, Little Gidding need not be a physical location. It serves as a stage of life, a moment in time when life is guided by an epiphany. This is the moment of understanding and feeling that makes the narrator reflect on salvation. Prayer affords us the ability to communicate with the divine. This is one way to recognize the dead-end quality of merely living for the here-and-now. For Eliot, genuine originality comes from respect for tradition. The latter is the recognition of limitation. Consider what the narrator says about the nature of prayer:
… And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
The ghost appears tired; happy to have lived and died. The ghost is the embodiment of the saying that the prerogative of the dead is that they don’t have to die again. It tells the narrator that few people benefit from the lessons that the passage of time offers. The ghost is bored by the prospect of having to tell the narrator all that it knows about life and death. “Not again,” it seems to say: “I am not eager to rehearse/My thought and theory which you have forgotten./These things have served their purpose; let them be.”
The ghost leaves the narrator with the assurance that fools achieve little more with their lives than to repeat their foolish ways daily, causing their soul to eventually become exasperated by folly. The way out of this circular, nonsensical existence is to be “restored by that refining fire” that leads to salvation. What matters most to Eliot is renewal.
Four Quartets garners renewal through understanding the importance of all that has been lost. This is one reason why tradition is so important in Eliot’s thought. Remembrance of the past is important because the dead are united in the “constitution of silence.” The dead, he contends, leave the living with a symbol of life that is perfected in death. This is Eliot’s way of saying that time levels all fields. Of course, this begs the question of why man clings to folly.
The opposite of folly is the understanding of necessary strife in the name of love. For it is love that has devised the necessary earthly torment that man must endure, and which we “cannot remove.” More than being just a stoic representation of Eliot’s view of life, the latter offers the reader his vision of Christian salvation. Augustine reminds us that, while we may be in the world, we are not of this world.
The main lesson that cyclical time leaves us with is not that time is ultimately cyclical, but that memory fails us. This is why the end is a beginning and the beginning an end. This is also why “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning./ Every poem an epitaph. And any action/Is a step to the block, to the fire, down to the sea’s throat …” Time is like a moving platform that man rides on. The problem, as Eliot sees it, is that we forget the sights, colors, people, and places that we encounter along the way. We cannot know what we do not seek: “A people without history/Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/Of timeless moments.”
Four Quartets comes to a cautiously hopeful ending, though. The poet assures us that all will be well. However, we must cultivate patience. The coming-to-fruition-of-history cannot take place until the end of time. This is redemption. There can be no earthly solution to man’s homelessness in the material realm. This is why we must revisit the places that we have taken for granted and learn to rediscover them. There, in the droning nuisance of cyclical folly, we are rewarded with the discovery that soul can only come to know itself in time.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.