Except for the parts where the speaker slips into tight rhyme, this poem basically sounds like really, really well written prose more than poetry. There's a rhythm to the whole thing, sure, but if you read it out loud, it sounds a lot like a beautiful sermon being spoken by a spiritual shepherd. You can hear this prosey quality of the language in a place like line 666, which reads, "If you came this way / Taking any route, starting from anywhere, / At any time or at any season, / It would always be the same: you would have to put off / Sense and notion" (666-670).
Sure, the concepts and imagery are really poetic, but sound-wise the speaker isn't going for a ton of alliteration or internal rhyme, and he tends to speak in long-ish sentences. That said, you get this opposite of this starting at line 681: "Ash on an old man's sleeve / Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. / Dust in the air suspended / Marks the place where a story ended" (681-684). Now, you're really hearing something that sounds like poetry, and the speaker moves between free and rhymed verse throughout the poem almost seamlessly. The more prosey passages sound as though the speaker is exploring spirituality, while the rhyming passages suggest that he's actually submitting to an order larger than himself (i.e., the "classical form of poetry).
The poems were originally published as stand-alone works, and only later combined in a series in 1943 (New York) and 1944 (London). Their original name was supposed to be "The Kensington Quartets," named after the speaker's time in the Kensington district of London. Eliot, though, probably thought that this might make the quartets sound too connected to his specific 'hood, since he was already tossing a lot of his own life into the poems.
Instead, our title is the "Four Quartets," which might at first have you saying "No duh, how many quartets do you think there'd be?" That number is significant, though. Just as the first four sections of Eliot's "The Waste Land" mirror the four ancient elements (air, earth, water, and fire), the four poems of "Four Quartets" match this same pattern. "Burnt Norton" is connected to air, "East Coker" to earth, "The Dry Salvages" to water, and "Little Gidding" to fire.
Further, the five-part structure of each of the "Four Quartets" shows how much Eliot wants his poetry that brings not only nature, but human life into some sort of harmony, even if he can only get this sort of harmony to exist in his poem. (Getting people on the street to act exactly as you want them down is a different question, and we here at Shmoop don't recommend it.)
Of course, this larger poem has four mini-titles, too. More specifically, "Burnt Norton" is named after a house and garden that were located in southwest England that Eliot visited and found to be a pretty awesome place to hang out. "East Coker" is the name of a small village in Somerset, England where some of Eliot's classy British ancestors came from. "The Dry Salvages" is named after a group of rocks off Cape Ann, Massachusetts (where Eliot lived as a child), and "Little Gidding" is named after an English chapel that Eliot took a really long walk to (like, really long) in 1927.
The personal significance of each of these places in the titles shows how much Eliot, through his speaker, wants to connect his personal experience to universal spiritual truths, and it hints that the poet is trying to get his readers to make similar connections between personal details and our greater relationship to heavy subjects like time, death, and religion to show that any of us could find our lives just as deep and meaningful as is suggested here. This, in turn, shows Eliot's unending effort to give a sense of meaningfulness to life during a time in history when traditional sources of spiritual meaning (religion and belief in human progress) weren't all that cool anymore. Instead, Eliot plants his flags firmly in the titles here, and we as readers take our long, but hopeful, cues from the biographical and symbolic importance of those references.
The setting of this poem can be tough to pin down, but if you want a great starting point, just look to the title of each section. To a large extent, you can read "Burnt Norton" as mostly happening in the garden surrounding the destroyed English house of Burnt Norton: "Other echoes / Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? / Quick, said the bird, find them, find them, / Round the corner. Through the first gate" (19-22).
Similarly in "East Coker," you can picture the speaker (or his speaker) visiting this old English village, "Where you lean against a bank while a van passes" (195). "The Dry Salvages" refer to a group of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where the speaker spent some of his childhood, and you can again picture him taking a trip down memory lane as he talks about the "sea howl / And the sea yelp […] caress of wave that breaks on water" (417-420). The same goes for "Little Gidding," which could very well take place in the English chapel that the section is named for.
With all that said, the speaker's mind often leads him (and you) into other places that might only exist in the poet's mind as a sort of dreamscape. All in all, it's tough to say how much of this poem's setting is actually a physical place or a mental one, but this all stems from the speaker's expressed belief that there's really no line you can draw between your spiritual mood and the physical world around you.
Unlike "The Waste Land," the speaker of this long lyric poem seems to pretty much stay the same person. It's also not that much of a stretch to associate this speaker with Eliot himself, in fact, though that's always a tricky proposition. What can't be denied is that the speaker draws specifically from Eliot's personal life, recreating his walk around the old property of "Burnt Norton" or referring to Eliot's work as a night watchman at the Faber publishing building during the air raids of WWII. The speaker in this poem is super-meditative, though also and super-repetitive, especially when it comes to encouraging us to let go of our egos and our "normal" relationship to time and goals. But hey, at least the speaker is trying to be helpful in this poem. If you read "The Waste Land" or "The Hollow Men," it seems like all Eliot wants to do is talk about how brutal the modern world is. But here, at least his speaker's trying to help us out, even though he admits that true spiritual growth is going to hurt.
So how tough is "Four Quartets"? Well it depends on what you're trying to get from it. One thing that can really make this poem difficult to read is if you come at it hoping to "master" or totally understand it logically. This is actually something that Eliot is actively trying to keep you from doing. He wants you to read about things that are totally self-contradictory, and many of the images in this poem won't really make sense from a logical viewpoint.
For example, starting on line 64 you get the following: "Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither rest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered" (64-67). If you have a hard time following the speaker's repetitive, sometimes circular thinking, don't worry. It's actually designed to tie your brain in knots. Feel better?
We know. At first glance, it might also look as if "Four Quartets" is way more accessible than something like Eliot's "The Waste Land," but at least the speaker included some endnotes with "The Waste Land." There are a ton of buried references in "Four Quartets," too, but you don't have the benefit of any endnotes (depending on your edition). On the bright side, you can still get the gist of what the speaker's saying in these poems without totally understanding every allusion he throws your way.
But maybe the most difficult thing about this poem is the way its repetitiveness starts to hypnotize you after a while. It can be very, very difficult to read this poem straight through and to concentrate on every line equally. This is because, well a) it's long, and b) it's really tough to tell when the speaker is totally repeating an earlier point in different words or actually adding some new detail. If you've got a modern brain that searches for key information when it's reading, then Eliot has you right where he wants you. He wants you to give in to the poem. He wants you to go ahead and let the thing hypnotize you.
In many ways, "Four Quartets" is different from Eliot's other poems; it's tone, for starters, allows for much more hopefulness than poems like "The Waste Land" or "The Hollow Men." But one thing that remains pretty consistent is Eliot's obsession with diagnosing the spiritual emptiness of modern life and trying to figure out its causes.
What's particularly Eliot-ish about "Four Quartets" is how openly religious the thing is. Case in point: "That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood— / Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good" (350-351). Now it's not easy to say exactly what religion it's endorsing, but it's important to note that Eliot wrote about this stuff during a time when many great authors and poets weren't all that enthusiastic about religion. George Orwell, for one, criticized this poem a lot, saying that it was a sad departure from Eliot earlier (and apparently better poetry). The reason for this is that Orwell believed that Eliot "does not really feel his faith, but merely assents to it for complex reasons. It does not in itself give him any fresh literary impulse."
Basically, Orwell's beef seems to be with the fact that Eliot is looking to religion for poetic inspiration when (Orwell believes) religion doesn't really have any good poetry left in it. If you check out Orwell's article, you see that he has some really solid arguments for why he feels this way. But at the same time, you can't really read the dreary "The Waste Land" and be all that surprised at the angle Eliot later takes up in "Four Quartets." The dude wants spiritual fulfillment in the modern world, and he wants his readers to have the same thing.
Man, oh man. Where to begin? Like much of his other poetry, "Four Quartets" uses Eliot's tone of high seriousness. But even less than "The Waste Land," this poem uses almost entirely free verse, relying on constant repetitions of key words—as opposed to any fancy meter or consistent rhyme scheme—to make its message seem circular, just like the model of time that the speaker is trying to communicate to us.
That's not to say that regular rhyme doesn't pop up in this poem. Section Four of "East Coker," for example, does fall into a very tight ABABBrhyme scheme, repeating that pattern a total of five times. Meter-wise, the five-line sections start out in a form called iambic tetrameter, but then shift to iambic pentameter in each fourth line, and iambic hexameter in each fifth line. Come again? It's not as complicated as it might sound. An iamb is a pair of syllables where the first is unstressed and the second stressed (if you say "allow" out loud, you'll hear what one sounds like in real life: "daDUM"). So, four of those in a line would be iambic tetrameter (tetra- meaning four), five is iambic pentameter, and six iambs in a line is—you guessed it—iambic hexameter. Just check out one example of this set-up:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. (327-331)
This kind of sustained metric pattern and rhyme scheme is really rare in Eliot's poetry, which is all the more reason it sticks out to us as readers when we come across it in this poem. So what's it doing there? Well, it might just show that at this late point in Eliot's career, he's willing to explore new approaches in this work in order to get through to us.
The speaker's tight rhyming and meter is most obvious in Section Four of "East Coker," but if you look closely, you'll find that the fourth sections of all four poems are more structured than the others. In Section Four of "Burn Norton," you won't find a clear meter, but you'll see a complex rhyming of AABACDECDE, which is like a classic English ode in its last six lines, but not its first four (which should be ABAB). The speaker's choice here to write something like a classic ode, but not quite an English ode, shows how he has a certain level of attraction to classic artistic forms, but can't help but show these forms as being a little bit warped or broken, just as classic beauty might be warped in the modern age.
Just as there is a hidden pattern to the fourth sections in each of Eliot's "Four Quartets," so too might there be a hidden pattern in the world that we might not be noticing. This isn't to say we should go out and become conspiracy theorists. Rather, it seems that Eliot specifically would like you to look for spiritual patterns in the world.
All of "Four Quartets," in fact, gives the sense that the speaker is trying to find some way into our minds, striking at one place with a certain phrase, then repeating his point with different phrasing or a different image. In this case, he starts switching up his form to get at our hearts, though his message (the importance of humility and submission to higher principles) remains pretty much the same. Maybe Eliot's "submission" to traditional meter and rhyming might even suggest a certain humility on his own part.
You also find a strict rhyming scheme in part II of "Little Gidding" of AABBCCDD. This kind of rhyming is almost childishly simple for a man of Eliot's talent; but a big part of his message in this poem is humility, and he's no doubt showing it by abandoning his poetic complexity for grade-school forms of rhyme.
This little fella first pipes up in line 21 of "Four Quartets," telling us to "find them, find them," and probably referring to the children who are playing in the speaker's garden (also check out "Symbols: Playing Children"). Now rather than being some sort of parrot, the bird the speaker is talking about here is probably just your average bird. He just happens to interpret the sound a bird makes as telling us to pay more attention to our immediate surroundings.
These little tykes pop up mostly in "Burnt Norton," frolicking in a bunch of fallen leaves, but the speaker also comes back to them in the latter parts of the poem, too, especially the final flurry of "Little Gidding" (875).
All in all, children have a pretty conventional meaning in this poem. They represent the innocence of play and the ability to totally live inside the moment. Children are generally great because they're less invested in posturing than adults are. Children don't care about the past because there isn't much of it to care about (because they're young). They also aren't worried about the future the way adults are because they prefer to enjoy themselves in the moment. You could say that this is because children don't have responsibilities to provide for themselves, but the speaker would prefer that we forget that for the time being.
This is one of the speaker's most concrete attempts to bring together a whole bunch of life's contradictions together in harmony in a single image. The "still point of the turning world" is a place of neither body nor spirit, "flesh nor fleshless." It doesn't move from anything or toward anything. It isn't goal-oriented. It's a place where our souls can find a sense of stillness and peace, even as the world continues to change.
There's no getting around all the contradictions of our lives. After all, we always want what we don't have. Constant movement makes us stressed; lack of movement makes us bored. Focusing too much on our souls makes us forget about the world; focusing too much on the world makes us forget about our souls. But maybe, just maybe, the problem lies with the way we think, which tends to be in opposites. In this sense, the speaker explores the possibility of a mindset in which total contradictions can exist in harmony. The fact that our language tends to always make sense of the world in opposites, though, makes it really difficult for the speaker to express what he's trying to say here, and he more or less spends all of "Four Quartets" trying to make his point in different ways.
Like his "still point in the turning world," the speaker's dancing imagery is also his way to fuse all of the contradictions he's trying to bring together in his vision of a better spiritual existence. This is because dancing is constant movement, right? But at the same time, it's movement that doesn't lead you in any direction, like jogging does. It's totally movement for the sake of movement, and it plants you in the present moment, which helps explain why so many world cultures incorporate dancing as part of spiritual rituals. In this case, dancing is a great image for the speaker, since it fuses the opposites of body and spirit and absorbs passing time into a constantly "present" moment.
The bell seems to be a sea bell, and it pops up in line 430 of "Four Quartets" in "The Dry Salvages." This bell "[m]easures time not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell, a time / Older than the time of chronometers." When you think of the bell, what you really need to think about is the sound of a bell ringing—something totally beyond words, and totally connected to the present moment.
The bell reminds us of a sort of eternal present moment. It also reminds us of the non-abstract world, a world that underlies all of our concepts and anxieties, like those of the "anxious worried women / Lying wake, calculating the future" (435). The sound of the bell, for the speaker, draws together all of time into a single moment. It basically calls us to the "here and now" the same way that the noise of the bird does.
At the beginning of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker muses that "the river / Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed, and intractable." A he goes on, he talks about how the river has meant different things to different people over time, first as an obstacle, then as something that allowed boats to carry freight (something to be harnessed), and finally something that humans have learned to ignore altogether by building bridges over it.
Similarly in our lives, we tend to take the natural landscape of the world and bypass it, ignore it, because our goals and routines give us serious tunnel-vision in our lives. The river, though, holds onto "his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder / Of what men choose to forget" (401). In other words, the river is always around to remind us that it can flood and force itself back into our lives. It seems that we only pay attention to nature when something goes wrong, but it's always there, biding its time and refusing to be ignored forever.
The speaker mentions the "autumn heat" in line 27 in "Burnt Norton," and goes on to make several more references to the four seasons in the poem. The four seasons, of course, are traditionally symbolic of the different parts of a human's life: spring being youth, summer being one's prime, autumn being middle-to-old age, and winter being the final years before death. That said, the fact that there are four seasons also helps provide the speaker with a structuring principle for this poem through the number four.
The most significant use of the seasons in this poem appears in "Little Gidding," which the speaker begins with a meditation on a season he calls "Midwinter spring" (640). Midwinter spring seems to symbolize the little flicker of hope you get even when things are at their darkest (in the middle of winter). You get a little taste of spring, though, which represents the speaker's budding sense of hope, which never makes it past a bud in this poem. Still, for Eliot, that's still a huge thing.
Roses, like almost all of the speaker's symbols in this poem, are double-edged. On the one hand, roses represent love, rebirth, and the coming of a better time. They also have thorns, though, and can make our journey through life difficult if they block our path with their thick tangle of thorns. That said, the speaker actually ends "Four Quartets" with the line "And the fire and the rose are one." In this case, you get all of the destructive and purifying aspects of fire combined with all of the danger and beauty of the rose, making this final image a super-complex, yet also super-simple expression of the message of the entire poem.
The rose represents rebirth as flowers bloom in the springtime. It also represent violence with its thorns and with the coming fire, yet the fire also represents the purification that'll lead to a spring-like rebirth in all of our lives. All the while, the speaker is pulling together as many opposites as he can, trying desperately to give us a moment of spiritual clarity that sees (if only for a moment) into a world beyond opposites.
This is Eliot we're talking about here, and he's writing about religion for more than 900 lines. Sorry, gang—there's nothing sexy about this poem at all.