Study Guide

Four Quartets Quotes

  • Humility

        Descend lower, descend only
    Into the world of perpetual solitude,
    World not world, but that which is not world,
    Internal darkness, deprivation. (117-120)

    The speaker wants us all to find our inner spiritual light; but in order to do this, he pretty much says we'll have to totally strip down everything we know and love about ourselves. We have to go into a realm of "Internal darkness, deprivation" before we can come out on the side of spiritual fulfillment. Sheesh, maybe that's why Eliot's work is usually so dreary.

    O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
    The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
    The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters. (280-283)

    Who's going to die eventually? The answer is everybody, no matter how rich or famous they become. It doesn't matter if you're a captain, merchant banker, or (like T.S. Eliot) an eminent man of letters. Everyone dies eventually, and the sooner we all accept that we're all alike in this way, the sooner we can get down to the business of leading better, more humble lives.

    In order to arrive at what you do not know
                    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance (318-319)

    Spiritual fulfillment is something we haven't found yet, and if we plan on achieving it, we're not going to get there by trying to "master" our spirits. We can't just force enlightenment on ourselves. We have to adopt and attitude of submission, of passivity. We have to become humble and allow something beyond ourselves to take over. This might be God or it might be nature. The most important part of this passage, though, is that we have to admit our own ignorance before we can start to learn.

    From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
         Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
         Where you must move in measure, like a dancer. (771-773)

    The speaker shows us that fire doesn't just have to be a symbol of ambition or lust. Rather, it can be an image of purification and humility. Like fire, the lesson of humility can really cause us a lot of pain. But also like fire, humility can purify us of all our bad qualities and make us better in the long run. If we don't learn to accept the pain of humility, then we'll just spend our whole lives moving from bad decision to bad decision ("From wrong to wrong"), getting more exhausted as we go.

    Quick now, here now, always—
    A condition of complete simplicity
    (Costing not less than everything) (879-881)

    If we're ever going to get out of our own heads and start appreciating the world around us, we're going to have to start focusing on the "here" and "now" in a totally uncomplicated way. The thing is, though, that if we're going to do this, it's going to cost us everything, especially our sense of individual pride.

    Who then devised the torment? Love.
    Love is the unfamiliar name
    Behind the hands that wove
    The intolerable shirt of flame
    Which human power cannot remove.
         We only live, only suspire
         Consumed by either fire or fire (834-840).

    So why does it hurt so much to be humble? What is responsible for all the pain we're willing to endure to become better people? In short, the answer is love. Love is what makes us put on the "shirt of flame" and live through the pain of being humbled. Without love, we would never try to improve ourselves. There's just no choice in the end. If we want to become better people, we have to become more humble, and either way, the experience is going to be painful.

  • Man and the Natural World

                            Other echoes
    Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
    Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
    Round the corner. (19-22)

    As we walk into the symbolic garden of "Burnt Norton," we hear the echoes of nature trying to draw us out of our sad modern lives. A bird suddenly tells us to find "them" around a corner. In this image, the speaker encapsulates that nagging feeling we all have about something missing in our lives, and suggests that this nagging should lead us into nature.

    Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
    Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
    Clutch and cling?

         Chill
    Fingers of yew be curled
    Down on us? (132-137)

    As human beings, we might sometimes think that the world totally revolves around us. But, as the speaker reminds us with these rhetorical questions, the world doesn't get happy or sad depending on how happy or sad we are. It just keeps doing its own thing, and the quicker we realize this, the quicker we can stop worry about "doing something with our lives" and start living in the moment.

    Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
    Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
    Mirth of those long since under earth
    Nourishing the corn. (215-218)

    The image of the pagan dance is a good one for showing the close connection with nature that modern humans don't really have anymore. The people in this image who are connected to nature are simple folk, and not concerned about modern problems. They're also totally aware of their own connection to the dead. Because dead people get buried underground and end up becoming food for plants. The circle of life continues, and this makes people feel fulfilled. We don't realize this truth in the modern world, though, because we all like to pretend that we'll live forever.

    Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
    Of what men choose to forget. (397-398)

    The river at the opening of "The Dry Salvages" is a force that humans can never fully conquer. It'll always have the power to suddenly flood and destroy the flimsy buildings that humanity puts around it. In this case, it's a reminder of what humans choose to forget, which is the fact that we're never going to totally conquer nature.

    Between melting and freezing
    The soul's sap quivers. (636-637)

    Our soul is like sap, basically, and we're like a tree. If our sap gets frozen and rigid, we think only about ourselves and strive constantly to prove ourselves as individuals. If our soul melts, then we totally lose track of who we are as individuals and just melt into our surroundings. Somewhere between these two extremes, though, you reach a place where your soul is both your own and not your own, a place where you can be comfortable with who you are, but also deeply connected to the surrounding world.

  • Memory and the Past

    So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
    Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres— (332-333)

    The speaker reflects on the writing career he's had leading up to "Four Quartets." In a gesture of humility, he admits that these twenty years have been largely wasted. Why? Well because the twenty years have taken place between two World Wars, and no matter how much he's tried to write the truth, humanity is still prepared to make all the same mistakes it made twenty years earlier. No progress has happened.

        It seems, as one becomes older,
    That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
    Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
    Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution (476-479)

    As you get older, you start to realize that the idea of human progress is a little bit farfetched. If anything, it starts to look as if things have steadily gotten worse for humanity throughout history. Sure, we don't die from the plague anymore. Instead, we die in wars that wipe out tens of millions of people in only a few years. The idea of evolution in this sense is pretty silly, since it's really tough to argue that human beings are becoming stronger or better as time goes on.

    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. (483-487)

    In the past, we might have had the kind of spiritual experience that the speaker wants us to have, but we missed the meaning of this experience because we don't really know what to look for. That said, all is not lost. If we can somehow approach the meaning that this spiritual experience was supposed to have, we can still recover the truth that we missed the first time around. This won't necessarily be a happy experience, because true learning rarely is.

    I have said before
    That the past experience revived in the meaning
    Is not the experience of one life only
    But of many generations—not forgetting. (487-490)

    The past contained in our memory isn't personal, you know. Our memories form part of the history of an entire culture, and of many generations stretching back into the past. We can never truly know how much the past is governing what we do, but it's totally silly to think that we're a bunch of individuals whose personal memories are starting from point zero when we're born.

    The backward look behind the assurance
    Of recorded history, the backward half-look
    Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror. (492-494)

    We might be pretty comfortable with the idea that humanity is making progress through history. After all, our history textbooks prove this, don't they? Well, behind these comforting textbooks ("the assurance of recorded history"), we might actually glimpse a terrible truth: that humanity hasn't learned from its mistakes at all, and that we modern folks are not any more intelligent or moral than all of the people who came before us. We have to come to terms with this fact before we can start really getting a grip on how to improve ourselves and the world.

    We shall not cease from our exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time. (866-869)

    We might think we've seen it all and done it all, but the truth of life isn't to know everything. It's to take a close look at what you think you know and to see it again for the first time. In this case, we need to get over the confidence we have in the thought that we already know a lot, and we need to realize that life isn't about getting anywhere, per se, but about getting back (for once) to where you already are. This is how you start living in the "here" and "now."

  • Time

    Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past. (1-3)

    Right off the bat, the speaker wants you to understand and accept the fact that the past, present, and future are not three different times. They're all the same, because time is a single seamless fabric. It's not clear at this point why this is so important, but as you read on, you realize that the speaker thinks our normal conception of time makes us sad by taking us away from the present moment.

    I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
    And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time. (70-71)

    The speaker wants to show us the experience of spiritual enlightenment, but he has a really tough time doing this in words. This is because our language doesn't really provide us with the tools we need to talk about an experience that's basically beyond words. The speaker can only say that the spiritual experience is "there," and point toward it, though he can't say much more than this. He also can't say how long we've been in this place, because that will just put it into our normal concept of time, which is not how a spiritual experience works. It's something that takes place in a sort of unending present moment, where clocks aren't welcome.

    Yet the enchainment of past and future
    Woven in the weakness of the changing body
    Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
    Which flesh cannot endure. (81-84)

    The reason we worry so much about the past and future is because we know our bodies are always getting older, and this concerns us because it means we're going to die someday. It's because our time on Earth is limited that we obsess over the past and future. But if we're going to start living in a constant spiritual present moment, we're going to have to get over this fear of death and aging.

    As in their living in the living seasons
    The time of the seasons and the constellations
    The time of milking and the time of harvest
    The time of the coupling of man and woman. (220-223)

    People of the past had a healthier relationship to time than modern people. They were connected to the land because they were mostly farmers, and this connected them to the changing of the seasons, which happened in a constant circle. Compared to the dead emptiness of clock time, the seasons are "living," and throughout this passage, you can see how a connection to the natural world is connected to a more natural type of time, which is controlled by when the cows need milking, not some lame alarm on your bedside clock.

    The tolling bell
    Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
    Ground swell, a time
    Older than the time of chronometers. (426-429)

    The image of a tolling bell pops up throughout the later stages of "Four Quartets," always reminding us of the reality that death will one day come for all of us. It also signals a type of time that is way older than the clock-time ("the time of chronometers") we tend to think of in the modern world. There's nothing natural about the seconds and hours that clocks tick off. These are totally arbitrary segments of time that humans just made up. The changing of the seasons, though, is a natural way for the Earth to track the passing of time, and we need to get back to relating to the Earth in a more natural way if we're going to be happy.

    We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
    Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
    Or of a future that is not liable
    Like the past, to have no destination. (460-463)

    There's just no getting around it. You can't think of time without seeing a massive void that's littered with the waste and crumbling ruins of human history. Further, you can't think of a future or past that's actually heading somewhere in a progressive way. The past and the future don't have any destination; this is just something that we humans like to believe because we think it makes life more meaningful. The truth is, though, that life can only be meaningful if you let go of this need for progress and just start living for the present moment.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Go, go, go said the bird: human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality. (44-45)

    The bird in the speaker's garden suggests that modern folks spend so much time distracting themselves from reality, they can't really handle too much of it at any one time. This is because we've become way too dependent on work and entertainment to keep us from thinking too deeply about our lives and our place in the universe.

    The inner freedom from the practical desire,
    The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
    And the outer compulsion (72-74)

    If we're ever going to be happy, we have to achieve a form of consciousness that goes beyond our everyday routines and practical thinking. We need to think of something that in rational terms might not have a clear purpose. We have to think about the nature of existence, which is at the root of our sadness. Getting that pair of boots or new cellphone isn't going to make everything all better. We need to get to the roots of our spiritual sickness.

    Erhebung without motion, concentration
    Without elimination, both a new world
    And the old made explicit, understood
    In the completion of its partial ecstasy. (76-79)

    The German word that kicks off this excerpt means a sort of spiritual enlightenment that make us feel like we're being lifted up. But, for the speaker, it can be very easy to mistake normal excitement for a true spiritual experience. If we're really going to have a go at a rebirth of consciousness, we're going to have to open our minds to possibilities that might not seem to make sense at first.

    I am here
    Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning. (228-229)

    It's not really possible to say that you are here, there, or anywhere at one time, since the mind has a way of wandering away from the present moment. Haven't you ever had the experience of hearing someone say, "Hey, I've been talking to you for like the past twenty seconds. Where did you go?" For the speaker, this isn't just a figure of speech, because you are wherever your thoughts are, not where your body is.

    Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
    And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
    And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
    Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about. (297-300)

    You might not like the claustrophobic feeling of being crammed inside a dark train with a bunch of other people. So why would this be? Well it's probably because you don't like hanging out in the dark, because your mind starts to wonder about the meaning of life, and this doesn't tend to be a happy experience for people who don't really have any answer to this question.

    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing (305-306)

    When it comes to spiritual enlightenment, it's important not to think too much, because thinking hasn't really gotten the modern world anywhere. The secret is to learn how not to think for a moment. This way, you can truly listen to what the world around you is trying to say, whether it be nature or other people. You need to give up your ego and form a deeper connection with everything around you, instead of just trying to gain personal success and master the world.