Malekghassemi – SupLongPoem – Four Quartets

Isun Malekghassemi

ENGL 458 – ALP

Dr. Mara Scanlon

March 18, 2013

T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and the Genre of the Long Poem

T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) are misnamed, fantastically structured, and deeply thematic. An easier read than his The Waste Land (1922), Four Quartets portrays a shift towards positivity in Eliot’s life – five or so years after he wrote The Waste Land, Eliot joined the Anglican Church and religion transformed him and his writing (“T.S.”). It amazes me that the same man could write these two separate long poems because of how different they are atmospherically, and because of how well they each maintain value to the discussion of genre that is so important to the existence of long poems.

The title of Four Quartets, first off, is a misnomer. There are four separate “quartets”, yes; however, the “quartets” are really “quintets”. Each quartet has five distinct sections marked by roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V) which are each approximately equal in length and substance to their peer sections. For example, each I section serves a similar purpose in each poem: to give an over-arching theme that will surely be of importance.  To continue, as a discussion on structure, each II section (except for in “Quartet No. 3”) begins with a structured form of lyric, be it multiple stanzas or a single longer one, that has a rhyme scheme and more-or-less a similar line length until there is a clear shift in style to a freer, lengthier structure. The III sections essentially do the exact opposite – they begin with longer, freer verses, and then they gain structure within their last stanza or so. Each IV section is a two or three stanza blurb (except for “Quartet No. 2” which has five stanzas) of strictly adhered to rhyme scheme and metre. The V sections are reminiscent of the I sections – again, over-arching themes with profound thoughts that both conclude and introduce subjects that, respectfully, have been mentioned and will be mentioned.

One of Eliot’s themes is that time exists concurrently. According to his biography at nobelprize.org, “for Eliot, tradition is a living organism comprising past and present in constant mutual interaction.” In his Four Quartets, the reader can recognize this idea of “time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point[ing] to one end, which is always present” (46-8 “Quartet No. 1”). This thought is a variation on one of two quotes, both by Heraclitus (fl. c. 500) that Eliot shares on the first page of his long poem: “The way upward and the way downward are the same.” Eliot argues, mostly in “Quartet No. 1”, that this configuration of time is a liberating one. “Time past and time future / Allow but a little consciousness” (84-5 “Quartet No. 1”). He continues,

“To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.”

(86-91 “Quartet No. 1”)

Time as an artificial construction is a limiting factor of man that man can “conquer” if only man combines the two of “time future” and “time past” into the present. On the subject of time, he begins section V of “Quartet No. 1” with “Words move, music moves / Only in time; but that which is only living / Can only die,” and he continues to another major theme in his poem: the meaning of existence (1-2).

This is where Eliot begins to discuss words through palimpsestical thinking, something which the genre of “Long Poems” tends to do quite a lot. Eliot says in lines 151 to 155 in his first quartet:

“… Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.”

Words get meanings layered on top of them, constantly, whether they are actively being used or their resonance is still in the air. Their usage and the silence that follows have a “co-existence” in which “the end precedes the beginning, / And the end and the beginning were always there / Before the beginning and after the end. / And all is always now” (147-51, “Quartet No 1.”). The meaning of a single word, always changing because it has been used in the past, but also always existing in the present being used, and also when it will be used next – all of these possibilities in one word.

Eliot brings up this theme of slippery words that “will not stay still” in section II of “Quartet No. 2” also. He has a structured lyric with metre and rhyme scheme, but then turns right around and criticizes what he just wrote in his next stanza. “That was a way of putting it – ” he begins in line 69, “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.” I don’t know what could be a more clear demonstration of rebellion against the lyric form than outright calling it old-fashioned. He does not want poetry to be a way to show off your metaphorical prowess, but rather a true form of communication in which there is no “intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.” Eliot is criticizing the reasons why poetry is written. He says that there is

“… 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” (82-88)

and because of this poetry cannot be written as prescriptive, ever – but that is how poetry has been used in the past. “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire,” Eliot states in lines 98-9, “Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” And that is the only lesson we can learn from the past or from poetry written to an audience.

Eliot’s writing in this long poem considers a number of major themes that we have spoken about in class, and reveals a more personal Eliot as opposed to the cruder poet we were introduced to in The Wasteland. Four Quartets proves to be representative of “the long poem” in Eliot’s regard of word meaning, attention to poetic structure, and palimpsestical relationships.

Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/heraclitus/>.

“T.S. Eliot – Biography”. Nobelprize.org. 18 Mar 2013 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1948/eliot-bio.html

This is the site I actually got the poem from: https://www2.bc.edu/john-g-boylan/files/fourquartets.pdf but because I can’t find out how to cite it, I’m going to cite another version of the poem:

Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1943. Print.

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One Response to “Malekghassemi – SupLongPoem – Four Quartets”

  1. Jen says:

    Gosh, it seems like all modernist struggled to come to terms with the role of poetry in society, and specifically their role as a poet of the long poem.

    Wallace Stevens, who wrote “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” also points out the limitations of perception and experience, noting that they are both personal and transient.

    I like Eliot’s suggestion of the wisdom of humility. Perhaps, this is what the long poem, as a genre, should strive to do–remain humble in its scope and not jump to make any false claims of a supreme pattern, truth, or understanding of the world…..

    Thanks for sharing your analysis of this poem with us, Isun!!