Well, in a nutshell, "Four Quartets" is about as hopeful a poem as you're ever going to get from T.S. Eliot. That's surprising, really, since the dude wrote most of the thing while the Germans were dropping bombs over his head during World War Two. During this time, many people in England found Eliot's writing encouraging, because the thought of Nazi invasion made Eliot feel like he needed to defend England's culture and history, and in this sense, the war actually gave him the kick he needed to start getting a little more positive about the country he'd trashed so badly in "The Waste Land." Who would've thought that the threat of Nazi invasion was all it would take?
Eliot wrote the four poems that make up "Four Quartets" at different times and published them in different years. The poems were finally published as a series in 1942 (in New York) and 1943 (London). In these poems, Eliot takes many of the same points of reference he used to create "The Waste Land," but brings them together in a much more hopeful and un-cynical way. Eliot's writing can still be difficult to follow, but "Four Quartets" doesn't contain the same intentional difficulty that Eliot injected into "The Waste Land."
The critical response was mostly positive, although some critics like George Orwell really weren't happy about the later turn in Eliot's writing. In a 1943 review, Orwell wrote that it wasn't so much a shift in Eliot's technique that was wrong but "a deterioration in Mr. Eliot's subject-matter." What Orwell meant by "subject matter" was the religious-spiritual tone of "Four Quartets," which he found to be a sign of intellectual weakness in Eliot. For Orwell, intelligent people didn't believe in silly things like religion. Orwell supported independent thinking above all else, and he tended to see religious people as unthinking sheep (enter Animal Farm).
Despite Orwell's jive-talk, though, "Four Quartets" is considered by many critics to be one of the most important works of poetry of the twentieth century. The critic Santwana Haldar, for example, celebrates "Four Quartets" for the same religious content that Orwell dislikes, writing that "'Four Quartets' has been universally appreciated as the crown of Eliot's achievement in religious poetry, one that appeals to all including those who do not share Orthodox Christian creed." No matter how you feel about religion, though, Eliot definitely knows how to write, and it's impossible to deny the significance that many people have found in "Four Quartets."
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever wondered what the meaning of life is? Well if you say "no," we here at Shmoop don't believe you. There are all kinds of things we do in our fancy modern world to distract ourselves from life's big questions. There's TV, music, talking about the weather, whatever it takes, right? Just try sitting still and staring at the wall. See how long you can last without getting anxious.
Basically, T.S. Eliot doesn't want us just moving from goal to goal, distraction to distraction, in an endless chain. After all, where's the deeper meaning in that? He wants us to wonder about life's big questions and to do it with a sense of hope.
For Eliot, the modern world has a tough time thinking about life's big questions because the religious guidelines that used to give clear answers to these questions have lost a lot of currency in modern secular society. Eliot wrote "Four Quartets" to help all of us (including himself) look for new and hopeful answers to these questions. Just like he does in "The Waste Land," Eliot draws from many different religions and works of art to lead us beyond the cold rationality of modern life. This experience is supposed to help us get past our own egos, connect with other people, and learn to live more in the present moment. And who doesn't want that?