Study Guide

Four Quartets

Four Quartets Summary

"Burnt Norton"

This first poem of "Four Quartets" says a lot of stuff about how the past, present, and future all exist at a single moment, which is whatever moment we're living in right now. The idea that the past and future are somehow different from the present is a symptom of the fact that we have trouble focusing on the world around us in the present moment. If we're going to have any hope of getting back to the stuff of life, Eliot suggests, we're going to have to start thinking in the "here, now, always" (180).

"East Coker"

This poem expands on the themes of "Burnt Norton" and shows us that our lives are not ruled by clocks and calendars, but by the changing of the seasons and nature in general. Cultures of the past, Eliot suggests, were more connected to nature, and this is something we should envy. At the end of the day, there's no point in obsessing over our human-made accomplishments. We're all going to die someday, and the best we can do with the time we have is look for "a further union, a deeper communion" (389) with nature and with the present moment.

"The Dry Salvages"

Eliot really starts swinging for the fences in this one, especially when it comes to educating his readers on the value of letting go of their individual egos. All of our modern pain, Eliot suggests, is in some way connected to the way we think of ourselves as goal-driven individuals instead of as part of a larger whole. In this section, Eliot also levels with us and admits that letting go of our egos is probably going to be a really painful process. But he ends the section on a note of encouragement, saying that "We are only undefeated / Because we have gone on trying" (634-635). Rather than complaining about the modern world (as he does in "The Waste Land"), Eliot actually comes pretty close to giving a pump-up speech (though maybe not as intensely as this guy).

"Little Gidding"

In this final installment of "Four Quartets," Eliot focuses mostly on how drastically our thinking will have to change if we're going to have any hope of achieving the spiritual rebirth we're supposed to be looking for. Ultimately, he demonstrates that, in order to change the world, we'll first have to change ourselves, and one of the hardest things we'll have to do is move beyond thinking of the world in oppositions like up-down, past-future, self-other, etc. We need to find a new language for talking about experience, because the old language isn't working anymore. Eliot is surprisingly hopeful about our ability to change, though he does keeping admitting that real change can only come with a bit of pain.

  • Epigraph

    τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί
    ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν
    1. p.77. Fr.2

    ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή
    1. p.89. Fr.60
    Diels: Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Herakleitos)

    • We're sorry—what's that? You don't read original Greek? Well, welcome to T.S. Eliot's world, gang, where ancient languages are just par for the course. You know what else, though? Welcome to Shmoop, where we've got your back on all this ancient and obscure stuff.
    • That first quote, translated, is "Although logos is common to all, most people live as if they had a wisdom of their own." "Logos" here means logic, or knowledge. The second quote, for all you non-Greek-speakers, means "The way upward and the way downward are the same." And that last bit? That's letting us know that these quotes are from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whose writings—in fragments—were translated by the German translator Hermann Diels.
    • Got that? Great. So, what's all this doing at the start of the "Four Quartets"? Eliot, who was a big fan of epigraphs, wants to put us in a certain mindset heading into this work. And don't worry if your mindset is one of total confusion right now. We'll be with you every step of the way.
    • In this case, we have one idea about what kind of knowledge people have in common, and what they might think they know as individuals. Hmm. It seems as though Heraclius might be suggesting that our own, individual sense of the world may not be as rich, or as accurate, as the greater wisdom that we might all share. So, let's put that idea and stick it into our back pocket as we dive into these lines of poetry.
    • Before we do, though, the second quote lets us know that… um, well, we're in an elevator, we guess. "The way upward and the way downward are the same"? It seems here that, taken alongside that first quote, Heraclitus is describing a simpler, unified approach to… something. How does that fit with Eliot's poetry here? Well, Shmooper, there's only way to find out…
  • Burnt Norton, Section 1

    Lines 1-5

    Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past.
    If all time is eternally present
    All time is unredeemable.

    • There's no messing around here. Eliot comes out throwing philosophical haymakers in these opening lines. Often, a poem will open with a really clear image to help get you grounded; but our speaker starts off totally high-concept and tells you all about how the past and present are both contained in the future. Right away, we're wondering, "What does that mean?" Worry not, though, because Eliot's going to spend… oh, a couple hundred lines or so trying to explain. 
    • When the speaker says that the present and the past might both be contained in the future, it might be his way (we're just assuming our speaker is a he at this point) of talking about the idea of destiny. If you have a clear destiny, then everything that's going to happen has already happened in the future. Right? Right.
    • The more the speaker talks about past, present, and future being contained in one another, the more all time starts to collapse into a single moment. This effect is established further when the speaker uses chiasmus to reverse his earlier line: "And time future contained in time past." By making his claim about time one way, then saying the exact same thing by reversing the words, he's actually making it really hard for your mind to keep the ideas of past, present, and future different from one another. Why our speaker wants to do this, we're not so sure yet.
    • To polish off this opening nugget of thought, the poem suggests that if past, present, and future ("all time") is "eternally present" at the same moment, then there is nothing we can really do to change the course of history and no way we can make up for anything bad that's happened in the past (which is "unredeemable"). In other words, the poem doesn't open on the most hopeful of notes. Looks like ol' T.S. is picking up where the brutal dreariness of "The Waste Land" left off. At least for now…

    Lines 6-10

    What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    • Just when we're about to ask the speaker what he's talking about, he keeps rambling on about time, and says that there's not much point in wondering "what if?" about things that have happened in our pasts. What if you'd sunk that winning shot at the basketball game? What if you'd been born on another continent? What if Marty McFly hadn't gone back in time and taken his own teenage mother to the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance? You get the picture.
    • Well, the speaker says that there isn't much point in worrying about all this stuff, because it's all just "an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility" (6-7). By calling these thoughts a "perpetual possibility," the poem is saying that our questions of "what if?" will never become reality, because the past is over and done with. The only thing that this kind of thinking will give you is "a world of speculation" (8), or to translate, a world of endless wondering. 
    • Everything that's happened and everything that could have happened are basically the same thing, because the past is finished and all we have is what's around us right now, in the present. As in… now.

    Lines 11-15

    Footfalls echo in the memory
    Down the passage which we did not take
    Towards the door we never opened
    Into the rose-garden. My words echo
    Thus, in your mind.

    • Does anyone else think that Eliot's starting to sound a little creepy? Just checking.
    • In these lines, the speaker takes the abstract time stuff he's been talking about and turns it into a clear image. In this case, he takes our questions about "what could have been" and turns them into the image of echoing footsteps. Just like our pasts are full of things we could have done, the footsteps of our past echo figuratively through our memories, reminding us of the paths we never took (or people we never asked to the school dance). 
    • Whatever path we ended up taking in our lives, the speaker assumes that it hasn't led us to true spiritual peace. If it had, we wouldn't be sitting around wondering what could have been, would we? This ideal of peace is symbolized through the image of a rose garden, which is a pretty peaceful place to picture yourself hanging out in, if you compare it to the brutal desert that appears in "The Waste Land." The rose garden here might also refer to the actual rose garden that was part of the property of the real-life "Burnt Norton" house that Eliot uses as the mental setting for this poem. 
    • In the fall of 1934, Eliot was exploring the grounds of an abandoned house in the English countryside. This place was called "Burnt Norton" by the locals because it was built on the same site as another country manor that was burnt down by its suicidal owner, William Kyte, in the 1700s. We're not actually sure if Eliot knew this story when he was writing this poem, but he definitely starts playing on the "burnt" aspect of Burnt Norton through the fire and ash imagery he brings up later in this poem
    • (Check out "Setting" for more on this stuff.)
    • In lines 14 and 15, the speaker also says that it's not only your past decisions that echo in your mind and fill you with regret; it's also the speaker's own words. To put it another way, the speaker wants to make it clear that he's intentionally reminding you of all the things you regret about your past, almost in a jerky way. Gee, thanks.

    Lines 16-20

                                   But to what purpose
    Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
    I do not know.
                             Other echoes
    Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

    • At this early point, you might already be asking, "Hey speaker dude, why're you being so negative?" Well in these next lines, the guy admits that he "do[es] not know" (18) about "to what purpose" (16) he is using his words or "echoes" to remind us of our wasted potential. 
    • The speaker uses the metaphor of "[d]isturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves" (17) to express how his poetry "blows the dust off" our faded memories and reminds us of the happiness we haven't found in our lives. The best happiness we ever might have known is something like the perfection of the rose garden, but not really the genuine article. That's why, instead of an entire garden to lie down and relax in, we just get a crummy little bowl full of rose leaves, like the kind someone might have sitting on a table inside his/her house. The rose leaves are just enough to remind us of how enjoyable a rose garden is, but isn't exactly the real thing; so it just ends up being a tease. 
    • In these images then, the speaker shows us that the purpose of his poetry is to remind us that our idea of happiness is nothing compared to the true bliss of spiritual peace, the same way that a dusty bowl of rose leaves isn't the same as walking through an actual garden.
    • In lines 19 and 20, he actually suggests that—apart from our personal memories and his not-so-cheery reminders—there are "Other echoes" or traces of the peace we've never really achieved in our lives. We don't know what these reminders are yet, but when the speaker asks us if we should follow them, we pretty much get the idea that the question is rhetorical, and that we don't really have much of a say in the matter. On the other hand, the speaker also, asks, "Shall we follow?" which puts the ball in our court, pushing us to the deeper question of whether we even want to achieve spiritual peace. At first, we might be all like "Of course!" But we're about to find out that isn't not an easy road to peace.

    Lines 21-24

    Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
    Round the corner. Through the first gate,
    Into our first world, shall we follow
    The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

    • Wait, where'd this bird in line 21 come from, and how can it talk? Well, it might be a bossy parrot; but more likely, the bird's message is something the speaker imagines himself hearing in the chirping of your average bird. 
    • The sounds of this bird seem to be what the speaker means when he says there are more echoes in the "garden" of spiritual peace than just our own regrets. The bird, for example, repeatedly tells us to "find them" (21); but at this point, we've got no clue who "them" refers to. 
    • Apparently, the things or people we're supposed to find are "Round the corner" of the garden, meaning that they are just barely out of sight. They must symbolize something pretty meaningful, or else the speaker's bird wouldn't be telling us to find them.
    • By saying that the "them" of this line are "Round the corner," the speaker is able to establish that the deep spiritual meaning we're looking for in our lives always seems to be just out of sight. We never experience or "see" this meaning directly, but it always seems as if we're barely missing it. 
    • To see "them," we need to go "Through the first gate" (22) and "Into our first world" (23). It's not easy at first to realize what our "first world" is supposed to be. But if you look closely at how much the speaker focuses on the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of nature in these passages, you realize that the "first world" is probably the world we face directly through our five senses, instead of the "second world" of our abstract thoughts, which takes us away from our five senses and the present moment in a way that the speaker doesn't really like. 
    • When he calls the bird a "thrush" in line 24, he might refer to Thomas Hardy's famous poem from 1900 called "The Darkling Thrush." In this poem, the thrush's birdy song represents a sort of hope that the human listener can't understand, since the dude doesn't speak "bird." 
    • By saying that the thrush causes "deception," though, the speaker might mean that it's important for us not to make the bird into a metaphor or symbol, because that would just be our abstract brains taking us away from the "first world" of our senses and the present moment. What we need to do is just listen to the bird's song as a natural noise, and use it to focus our minds on the physical world that's more concrete and more immediate than the world of thoughts and words.

    Lines 25-31

    There they were, dignified, invisible,
    Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
    In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
    And the bird called, in response to
    The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
    And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
    Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

    • Still no word on who "they" are, but apparently there was a time in the past when "they" were right in front of us, looking "dignified [and] invisible" (25). We know what you're thinking: how are we supposed to find "them" if they are invisible and they can move without any weight or "pressure, over the dead leaves" (26)? Well there's no answer to that one yet…
    • Whatever or whoever "they" are, the speaker likes to link them with autumn, the time of year when the leaves on the trees start to die. Along with the image of Burnt Norton, the speaker's use of autumn brings up ideas of death and the coming of winter, both in the physical sense and the spiritual sense. Just as the leaves are dying and falling from the trees, the human spirit (or more specifically, your spirit) is starting to die.
    • At this point, though, the speaker says that "the bird called" (28) "through the vibrant air" (27) as a way of responding to "The unheard music in the shrubbery" (29). So either this bird is really good friends with the Knights Who Say "Ni!" or there's something in that shrubbery that's really worth checking out.
    • According to the speaker, there's an "unheard music" in the shrubbery. We might wonder how we know the music is there if it's unheard, but he's talking about the music of nature itself. He's talking about actual noise here but is calling it music, because music is something we're supposed to appreciate, just like nature. Just like we're supposed to listen to the noises that a bird makes, the speaker suggests that we should listen to the noises of the natural world carefully in order to root ourselves more firmly in the present moment. 
    • If we are going to actually achieve the kind of "direct hearing" and sense of present-ness that the speaker wants us to, we need to really, really pay attention to things without any distractions. The only way that roses can have "the look of flowers that are looked at" (31) is for us to concentrate on really looking at them without letting our minds wander to other things, like what we're going to do on Friday night. 
    • By using the past tense, the speaker suggests that there actually was a time when we were able to see the natural world this directly. But on the other hand, isn't he undercutting himself by using the past tense? After all, isn't it only the present moment we're supposed to be worrying about? Seems like a contradiction, if you ask us.

    Lines 32-35

    There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
    So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
    Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
    To look down into the drained pool.

    • The speaker keeps reminiscing about how we encountered "them" in the past. He actually says that "they" were our guests, moving with us in a "formal pattern" (33). Compared to nature, the "formal pattern" here actually seems kind of artificial. 
    • In addition, it seems that "they" and "we" went to "look down into the drained pool" while all this phony dancing was going on.
    • If you've come across Eliot's "The Waste Land," you know that a lack of water always symbolizes infertility and a spiritual thirstiness that never gets satisfied. Just like the pool, the spirits of modern people are totally drained. The case is similar here in "Burnt Norton," where the beautiful setting of the rose garden seems to change into an empty alley, a lame party, and finally a drained pool. 
    • It's good to remember here that, even though the pool and the rose garden are symbolic places for the speaker, they were probably inspired by the actual garden at Burnt Norton that Eliot explored in real life. 
    • At this point, you've got the speaker giving you two options when it comes to existing in the world. One is a life where you always worry about a past and future that you can't really change, and spend your whole life never paying attention to what's in front of you. The other is a life where you do pay attention to what's in front of you and enjoy the peacefulness and happiness that comes from that. But hey, if enlightenment were that easy, you wouldn't have three more quartets to read…

    Lines 36-41

    Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
    And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
    And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
    The surface glittered out of heart of light,
    And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
    Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

    • So the pool is still dry, which means that the speaker's probably still talking about a bad spiritual situation. But then something good or bright seems to happen in line 37, where the empty "brown edged" pool is suddenly "filled with water out of sunlight."
    • This idea of sunlight filling the pool with water definitely seems to suggest some sort of spiritual life or enlightenment falling on the pool and restoring its spiritual meaning. From this new spiritual light-water, we hear that the "lotos rose, quietly, quietly" (38). The lotos here, or lotus, is a flower that has a lot of significance in eastern religions. More specifically, the lotus rising out of the mud traditionally symbolizes the human soul climbing out of its dirty obsession with material possessions, and up toward the spiritual goals of peace and enlightenment. 
    • This pool sounds like it's doing pretty well at this point. We seem to have a sense of calm as "the surface glitter[s] out of heart of light" (39). But then in the reflection of the pool, we see "them" behind us, and suddenly a cloud passes and the pool is empty. This sudden darkness suggests that things have gotten bad again, though we don't exactly know why. Whoever "they" are, there's something about seeing them in the pool that makes our perfect moment pass, and brings with it a symbolic cloud that ruins our experience of calm.

    Lines 42-48

    Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
    Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
    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.

    • Now it sounds like the "them" that the bossy bird has been telling us to find are a bunch of children playing and laughing in the autumn leaves. This image gives us a sense of childish innocence, which might actually be a good guideline for helping us with the task of focusing more on the present moment. Unlike adults, children totally live in the moment when they're playing and laughing, and this is the quality we lose when we get older and start thinking more about the past and future.
    • The bird tells us to go play with these children, but then weirdly adds, "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality" (44-45).
    • This statement hits us like a slap in the face, since this same bird has been telling us for a while now to look at the reality of the "first world" around ourselves by focusing on the present moment. But maybe that's just the way it goes; maybe focusing on the present moment like children is what we should shoot for, even though we can't actually handle too much of this experience at once. Maybe it's something that can only happen to us in little moments.
    • The first section of "Burnt Norton" closes by repeating the ideas of lines 9-10, which show that everything in the past that "might have been and […] has been" (47) just point us to the present moment, which is the only reality we really have to go on. The rest is just memories of the past and wondering about the future, which our minds make up as they go along. 
    • There's a sort of naïve innocence in focusing totally on the present. After all, adults have to think about their jobs, mortgage payments, etc., which usually involves a lot of scheduling and planning for the future. Isn't this always the first thing your parents tell you once you hit your teenage years? "Well, you've had your fun as a kid, but now it's time to think about the future." In the first section of "Burnt Norton," the speaker might be suggesting that this attitude plays a big part in the general unhappiness of the modern world.
  • Burnt Norton, Section 2

    Lines 49-53

    Garlic and sapphires in the mud
    Clot the bedded axle-tree.
    The trilling wire in the blood
    Sings below inveterate scars
    Appeasing long forgotten wars.

    • The second section of "Burnt Norton" shows us a couple of random objects lying in the mud, and says that these things "Clot the bedded axle-tree." An axle-tree is the metal bar that joins two wheels on either side of a car or wagon. The "bedded" part is probably short for "embedded," meaning some sort of vehicle is stuck in the mud. This point carries on from Section One of "Burnt Norton," in which the speaker has been describing how our minds make us bogged down in thoughts of the past and future, which keeps us from focusing on the present. 
    • Also, don't forget that, whenever the speaker mentions mud, he's almost definitely referring to a battlefield. There was just too much of an association between mud and World War One during Eliot's time for readers to ignore this. The speaker also wrote "Burnt Norton" just before the outbreak of World War Two, and actually wrote the later quartets while the Germans were bombing England. 
    • "The trilling wire in the blood" seems to continue in the vein of the speaker's war imagery, making us think of the razor wire and communication lines that spanned the battlefields of Europe in the early twentieth century. To say that this wire is inside our blood, though, also suggests that we modern folks haven't really gotten over the anxiety and terror of war, and that we are still living with a fear of mass destruction. 
    • This anxiety in the blood "[s]ings below inveterate scars" (52). "Inveterate" is an adjective that refers to a habit that's unlikely to change. So, in other words, the scars left by modern warfare have changed the way we think, and this new way of thinking isn't likely to change. This new way of thinking is one of fear, loneliness, and spiritual emptiness following the destruction of the first half of the twentieth century, which can all be found in the thought of soldiers dying in the muddy fields of World War One. 
    • But if these scars cause us such awful feelings, how can they be "[a]ppeasing long forgotten wars" (53)? Here, the speaker's saying that, even after people have forgotten about World War One, the damage that this war did to the human spirit will still linger and make us depressed. In one way or another, the modern world has taken our spiritual faith and left us with nothing to hang our hats on when it comes to finding life meaningful. It sounds like not even a new sweater from Banana Republic would make the speaker happy at this point.

    Lines 54-63

    The dance along the artery
    The circulation of the lymph
    Are figured in the drift of stars
    Ascend to summer in the tree
    We move about the moving tree
    In light upon the figured leaf
    And hear upon the sodden floor
    Below, the boarhound and the boar
    Pursue their pattern as before
    But reconciled among the stars.

    • So far in Section Two of "Burnt Norton," the speaker has been his usual gloomy self. But starting in line 54, he starts saying some pretty hopeful things. For example, after saying that the vibration of violent wires is in our blood, he suggests that our blood contains a "dance along [its] artery" (54) that is "figured in the drift of the stars" (56). He includes the circulation of our lymph in this image, too, and in doing so he suggests that there is a deep connection between the flow of our bodily fluids and the movements of the entire universe. This is the kind of cosmic spiritual meaning that Eliot never really gives to human life in "The Waste Land." But here, our speaker seems pretty enthusiastic about it.
    • This connection between our bodies and the stars is what allows us to "ascend" from the autumn mud into the glorious "summer in the tree" (57). In the previous few stanzas, the speaker has implied that humanity is stuck in the dying days of autumn, like a dead leaf in the mud of spiritual emptiness. But now, he says that our connection to the stars brings our spirits back upward, turning us back into leaves (and souls) that are physically and symbolically un-fallen. 
    • From this new place of spiritual enlightenment up in the tree, we can still look down and the see animals like "the boarhound and the boar" chasing and killing each other. But these actions don't seem pointless from our new perspective, since we know now that this "pattern" of nature is "reconciled among the stars" (63). In other words, the speaker's telling us that everything (especially the cycle of life and death) is connected to the universe in a meaningful way, and realizing this can allow us to connect with something higher than ourselves. Far out.

    Lines 64-69

    At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
    Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
    But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
    Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
    Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

    • Well now we're right back in the abstract, super-conceptual territory that this poem started us out on. The good news? If you ever want a description of what the speaker is hoping to find in his spiritual quest, you don't have to look much further than, "the still point of the turning world" (64).
    • So what does the speaker mean by this image? Well if you think about it, the toughest thing about the speaker's spiritual quest is the fact that he's looking for a sense of permanent significance in a modern world that's all about change, all about the endless movement from past to present to future. 
    • The speaker is not foolish enough to think that he can stop the world from changing, but he does sometimes wonder if there's a chance for us to find a spiritual space of experience that will be like "a still point in the turning world." In order to describe what this space of experience would be like, though, the speaker has to overcome the slight problem of taking two completely opposite things (change and permanence) and combining them into a single image. That said, "a still point in the turning world" does a pretty good job of this.
    • When you try to combine the world of change with the world of permanence, there are a few other things you need to rope together too, like the physical world and the spiritual one. This is why the speaker goes on to say that this "still point" must be a place that isn't just physical or spiritual, or in other words, that is "[n]either flesh nor / fleshless" (62-63).
    • This place can't be something we're moving away from "nor towards" (64). In other words, you can't think of this place using the opposites that you usually use to make sense of your world (i.e., good-bad, close-far, fast food-healthy food). It needs to be a place that exists beyond opposites.
    • Another good image the speaker uses to describe this combination of opposites is the image of a "dance" (66). He's definitely taking this image from W.B. Yeats, who closes his own poem "Among School Children" with the line "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" 
    • Drawing on Yeats, the speaker uses the dance as a symbol that blurs boundaries between things that are supposed to stay separate, like the person dancing and the type of dance he or she is doing. 
    • Maybe in reading Eliot's poetry, you can actually catch a glimpse of something beyond opposites: a "still point in the turning world." This is a place that is neither moving nor still. We can't call it "fixity" or stillness, says the speaker, because we can't stop the world around us from moving. Also, we can't say that the ideal he's talking about is a place of movement toward or away from anything specific, like a goal. Instead, it's a place where movement happens for its own sake in the present moment, like what you get with dancing. 
    • This is a place where "past and future are gathered" (69). It's the real moment in your present life that all time points toward.
    • Haven't you ever been dancing and totally forgotten about all your worries? If not, our speaker feels bad for you.
    • Finally, he says that this "still point" is not a place where we rise toward the divine or fall into the mud of modern emptiness. It is only the still point for its own sake, and it's very hard for us to describe it, other than the fact that experiencing it is similar to dancing for its own sake. In this place, says the speaker, "there is only the dance" (73).

    Lines 70-75

    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.
    The inner freedom from the practical desire,
    The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
    And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
    By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

    • The speaker doesn't really know what to say about the still point in the turning world, other than that we've already been there.
    • He can't say where exactly this place is, but can only use the word "there" to talk about it. He also can't say how long we remain in this place, because the place exists outside of time. It's a place where we have "inner freedom from the practical desire." Or in other words, we don't spend our time worrying about practical things like exams and going to the mall. 
    • We are totally released from all action and the "suffering" that comes from action. This has to be the case, because you can't live a life of action without piling up a few regrets. In this place, we're totally released from all of our usual compulsions or desires, whether they're inner compulsions like love and hunger, or outer ones like really wanting the new HALO game. 
    • When we're freed of these desires (in a really Zen sort of way), we become "surrounded / By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving" (74-75). This white light seems to be the light of spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment, which has to be both still and moving, because neither stillness nor movement on its own would satisfy us. If we had stillness, we'd get bored and crave movement. If we had movement, we'd wish for a sense of calm stillness.

    Lines 76-80

    Erhebung without motion, concentration
    Without elimination, both a new world
    And the old made explicit, understood
    In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
    The resolution of its partial horror
    .

    • "Erhebung" is a German word that refers to the "elevation" or rise of the mind from the material world to the higher realm of spirit. The speaker insists again, though, that this rising happens "without motion," and that it comes from a "concentration."
    • Usually, concentrating on something means focusing your mind on a very limited scope. But here, the speaker is trying to talk about a type of concentration or heightened attention that still covers everything "Without elimination." 
    • Reaching this state of mind will allow us to understand the modern world and its connection to the old world through the "partial ecstasy" that you participate in by finding the still point in the turning world. But with this partial ecstasy comes the need to confront the part of experience that is "horror." There's no getting around it, humanity has done some rotten things over the course of history, and if you're going to have any hope of finding spiritual peace, you're going to have to come to terms with all of it.

    Lines 81-84

    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
    .

    • Don't get too happy about this whole thing about dancing at the still point of the turning world. In these next lines, the speaker shows us that the trap or "enchainment" of always thinking about the past and future is connected to the fact that we live in mortal bodies.
    • Just think about it; of course we're going to worry about the past and future. After all, we only get one life, and we're not getting any younger. We need to use our time wisely to get the most out of life, and this is why we don't spend every second thinking only about the present.
    • Worrying about the past and future might actually be our way of intentionally not focusing on the present, because maybe then we'd have to actually confront the fact that our modern souls are totally empty. This would be a tough thing for us to "endure," since no one wants to feel like they've wasted their life. 
    • Worrying about "heaven and damnation" is all well and good during Sunday mass, but we don't want to think about this stuff all the time. The speaker might be super-emo and take himself super-seriously, but he admits that this doesn't mean the rest of us have to be that way.

    Lines 85-92

                                                 Time past and time future
    Allow but a little consciousness.
    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.

    • Lines 85 and 86 seem to refer back to line 45, where the bird in the garden says that humankind "[c]annot bear very much reality." In other words, the speaker seems to dedicate this last little bit of his poem to saying that even though living in some sort of cosmic present is the ideal way to experience life, the fact that we are mortal creatures keeps us stuck in time and "[a]llow[s] but a little consciousness" (90) of the true reality of here and now. Basically, the fact that we have to worry about all our daily schedules and routines keeps us numb and ignorant to all of the beauty that's around us. It's kind of the same message that the really emo guy tries to communicate in American Beauty.
    • To be truly aware of the world, or "conscious" in the speaker's terms, means that you don't think at all about the past and/or future. But on the other hand, he admits that it's only possible for us to have beautiful moments if they happen in time. It's not like you can just freeze time. (But then again, the speaker didn't live in a world where awesome stuff like this happened.) 
    • In any case, it's still pretty great to remember our beautiful memories, like a "moment in the arbour where the rain beat" (89) or a "moment in the draughty church at smokefall" (90), and The speaker admits that we can only remember these things if they're actually "involved with past and future" and happen in a world where time keeps passing. 
    • The speaker ends this second section of "Burnt Norton" by saying that "[o]nly through time is time conquered" (92). By this, he suggests that you can't just jump outside of time, because you're a mortal human being and time is going to run out on you someday. That said, you can still be happier if you spend the little bit of time you have appreciating the world that's right in front of you. 
    • Ultimately, the speaker knows that it's not realistic to think that everyone in the world will suddenly go Zen and start pretending that they're rocks. But at the same time, it's good to have a perfect ideal in mind when you're trying to become less obsessive and anxious about your daily routine and your future.
  • Burnt Norton, Section 3

    Lines 93-101

    Here is a place of disaffection
    Time before and time after
    In a dim light: neither daylight
    Investing shadow into transient beauty
    With slow rotation suggesting permanence
    Nor darkness to purify the soul
    Emptying the sensual with deprivation
    Cleansing affection from the temporal.

    • No slowing down here. The speaker is still trying to describe exactly how modern folks like ourselves can find spiritual peace.
    • He falls right back into talking about how worrying about the past and future, or "time before and time after," is basically a place of "disaffection" or unhappiness that keeps us feeling crummy.
    • This "dim light" of unhappiness contrasts with the spiritual brightness that fills the pool in line 37. In other words, the speaker tells us here that there might still be a little bit of spirit (light) left in our modern lives, but it's dim at best.
    • Again, the poem tries to convey the numbness of modern life by saying that the "light" of our souls isn't bright enough to create the fleeting, "transient beauty" of shadows. What are shadows in this instance? Well, they're things that come and go very quickly (transient), which is just like a lot of things in our lives. Our possessions, our health, and even the people we love: all of these things will eventually go away, and with our spirits so dim, we don't even have the ability to recognize how beautiful these "transient" shadows are until they're gone. 
    • Even though our spirits are dark, they aren't quite dark enough to "purify the soul" through "deprivation." So what does the speaker mean by this? Well, he means that there's a silver lining in a person being completely broken down by sadness and spiritual emptiness, because, once you've hit rock bottom and are "deprived" of everything, you've got nowhere to go but back up. Unfortunately for us, though, we're caught in a state of numbness that's dim, but not quite dark enough to make us start getting brighter again. We're just sort of stuck between good and bad, and this stuck-ness is what creates the numbness that the speaker fears most.

    Lines 102-106

    Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
    Over the strained time-ridden faces
    Distracted from distraction by distraction
    Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
    Tumid apathy with no concentration

    • In his classic way of saying that modern experience is neither one thing nor the opposite, the speaker writes that we modern people have "neither plenitude nor vacancy," which reiterates his idea that we don't really have spiritual fullness or total emptiness. In this case, emptiness might be good because it might actually motivate us to change things. Unfortunately, we remain caught between the two extremes, totally depressed, but not depressed enough to do anything about it. 
    • So, if the modern world is so awful, why might we not feel it? Well, it turns out that we deal with the emptiness of the world by being "[d]istracted from distraction to distraction," or basically by keeping ourselves constantly distracted (i.e., shopping for clothes, watching reality TV, texting, etc.).
    • Ultimately, all of these distractions are "empty of meaning" for the speaker, and they create a deep spiritual numbness or "apathy" with no real purpose and "no concentration." That's because concentration would actually require some sort of effort, and the modern person's attention span is way more suited to distraction than concentration. After all, how far did you get through this summary before you checked your Facebook page? Hmm? The speaker rests his case.

    Lines 107-110

    Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
    That blows before and after time,
    Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
    Time before and time after.

    • In the spiritual blah-ness of the modern world, all we really find is "[m]en and bits of paper" (111). The bits of paper here could symbolize any number of things, like our obsession with money, thoughts that we try to keep track of by writing them down, or even little "to do" lists that lay out all the elements of our soul-crushing daily routine. In any case, it's basically impossible to think of anything spiritually uplifting in this "little bits of paper" image.
    • These schedules, receipts, bills, or what have you are blown around by the cold wind of people's anxiety about the past and future: "before and after time." This same wind makes us spiritually unhealthy, as shown in the phrase, "[w]ind in and out of unwholesome lungs." In other words, we're totally choking to death and blackening our spirit-lungs with our anxieties about the future and the past. That's right, folks. Spirit-lungs—we said it.

    Lines 111-116

    Eructation of unhealthy souls
    Into the faded air, the torpid
    Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
    Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
    Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
    Not there the darkness, in this twittering world.

    • Anyone know what "Eructation" means? Well, don't feel bad. Actually, you should giggle, because it's a really fancy word for burping. This is probably part of the "wind in and out of unwholesome lungs" The speaker mentions in line 113. Yeah, basically, the speaker makes his point about modern unhappiness even stronger by using personification (souls can't really burp) and talking about how we're all sitting around and burping like we've got spiritual heartburn. 
    • These weird soul-burps go into "the faded air," and all of us sad modern folks get blown around by the lame "wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London" (117). This symbolic unhappiness blows all over the place in London, through all the neighborhoods that the speaker lists in lines 118-119. It's not a really happy image, and it sort of makes us at Shmoop feel pretty lonely. Good thing you're with us on this, though.
    • Unlike in "The Waste Land," Eliot doesn't actually associate darkness with evil or sadness in this poem. This is because the thing our speaker hates most is the numbness he associates with the color grey, and he thinks that at least total darkness might actually give us something productive in the long run. 
    • When he says "Not here / Not here the darkness, in this twittering world" (119-120), the speaker isn't actually talking about people throwing up tweets on Twitter. But if he lived today, he definitely could mean it this way. Twitter is just another one of those distractions that keeps us numb to the deeper meaning of life, and the speaker wouldn't think much of anything that forces you to express yourself in 140 characters or less.

    Lines 117-124

        Descend lower, descend only
    Into the world of perpetual solitude,
    World not world, but that which is not world,
    Internal darkness, deprivation
    And destitution of all property,
    Desiccation of the world of sense,
    Evacuation of the world of fancy,
    Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

    • Compared to grey, maybe total darkness isn't so bad. At least it's something, right? The speaker tells us to start descending at this point, down into a world of "perpetual solitude." It's not clear why he wants us to do this, but it probably has something to do with acknowledging how empty our world is. Remember, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one.
    • Maybe our speaker doesn't feel like modern people have reached this stage yet, since we're all so busy ignoring how empty the world is by keeping ourselves distracted all the time. 
    • The speaker wants us to strip ourselves of our distractions (and even our friends) and sink away from the material world into our own "Internal darkness," where we forget about all the stuff we own through a "destitution of all property."
    • Then he actually wants us to strip away or "desiccate" everything we get from our five senses. In other words, close your eyes, plug your ears, and stick a clothespin on your nose. 
    • In line 127, he tells us to empty out or "evacuate" the "world of fancy," which means get rid of all our personal "fancies" or dreams. And finally, when all of this is gone, he asks us to actually give up our "spirit."
    • This doesn't sound like the same guy who was telling us not long ago to celebrate the natural world with our five senses and live in the present moment. But maybe he feels now like we need to start from point zero if we're going to rebuild ourselves. 
    • In any case, he tells us to let go of "the world of spirit" by admitting that it's broken or stuck in "[i]noperancy." He's basically asking us to break ourselves down, to face the darkness of the modern world head-on and acknowledge it for what it is. No more distracting ourselves with pointless pastimes. We need to get our spiritual lives in order. You in? Yes or no, keep reading anyway. This thing's just getting good…

    Line 125-129

    This is the one way, and the other
    Is the same, not in movement
    But abstention from movement; while the world moves
    In appetency, on its metalled ways
    Of time past and time future.

    • It turns out that diving down into the darkness of our souls "is the one way" for the speaker to bring about spiritual reform.
    • There might be "the other" way, too, but it's "the same." For the speaker, it's not about moving toward a goal, but about letting ourselves be still for a second—kind of like that scene in Eat, Pray, Love when Julia Roberts can't stand meditating. 
    • Improving our lives isn't about getting up and exercising more. No, it's about learning to be comfortable with being still, with being nothing. We need to do this even though the world around us keeps moving. People keep going to work and "getting ahead" in the world. Do you have it in you to sit still while that's all happening? The speaker hopes so.
    • When he says that the world keeps moving "on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future" he uses the image of railway rails to talk about how modern life is kind of like being inside a train, always moving smoothly from the past into the future.
    • This might make us feel good, but what we don't realize is that we're stuck on a single, narrow track when we focus only on our daily routines and personal goals. 
    • The speaker wants to help us get out of this habit and think more deeply about our existence. And here, at the end of Section Three of "Burnt Norton," he suggests that completely stripping away everything that makes us who we are might be a good first step toward this kind of deep thinking.
  • Burnt Norton, Section 4

    Lines 130-135

    Time and the bell have buried the day,
    The black cloud carries the sun away.
    Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
    Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
    Clutch and cling?
        Chill

    • Ever worked a job where they signaled the start and end of the workday with a bell? Hopefully not, but in the speaker's time this was pretty common. The New York Stock exchange still uses one, though, to start and end a day of trading
    • In other words, there might have been a time when human beings could act like actual human beings and enjoy their days. But now, our obsession with time and money (i.e., time is money) have "buried the day" with stress and greed. 
    • Our obsession with time and money is like a "black cloud [that] carries the sun away" (136). The speaker then asks if the "sunflower" will "turn to us," or if the "clematis" (another type of flower) will "bend to us." In other words, will the natural world acknowledge us at all? Will sunflowers turn to us as a source of symbolic light? These are probably rhetorical questions for the speaker, who definitely doesn't (at this point) think that modern people are a source of light in the world. 
    • When he asks us if the flowers "tendril and spray / Clutch and cling?" he seems to echo lines 19-20 of "The Waste Land,": "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?" (20). In other words, we have another hypothetical question about whether our modern mindsets (i.e., "stony rubbish") can support any kind of meaningful life, give the roots of growing plants something to grab onto. The sad answer at this point seems to be "no." 
    • Line 139 of the poem only says, "Chill," which in the context of this passage means that the modern spiritual climate is too cold for anything beautiful to grow. We're sure that, if the speaker were reading this poem to you, you might take this opportunity to tell him, "I get the point, dude." But good dude just plows forward.

    Lines 136-139

    Fingers of yew be curled
    Down on us? After the kingfisher's wing
    Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
    At the still point of the turning world.

    • Lines 136 and 137 definitely need a little clarifying because of their reference to a "yew" tree. First, it's important to know that the yew tree is known as the "Tree of Death" in pretty much every European country. However, the yew also symbolizes transformation and rebirth, since the branches of this tree (believe it or not) actually grow downward into the soil and keep living after the central trunk has died. There's your botany lesson for the day.
    • Through the image of the yew, the speaker seems to be wondering if spiritual death and rebirth is something that could happen to modern humanity, asking whether the "fingers of yew [could] be curled / Down on us?" He still seems to imply "no" as an answer, though, because we still haven't even acknowledged as a society that the modern world is totally broken. 
    • In line 141, the image of the kingfisher bird could refer to the British myth of the "fisher king" that Eliot relies on really heavily in "The Waste Land." The fisher king (here embodied as a kingfisher bird) is a traditional symbol of something that can bring back fertility to our barren modern landscape and restore our souls to their former glory. 
    • That said, even the kingfisher "is silent" for the speaker, "At the still point of the turning world" (143). This is because every time he starts to talk about this "still point," the speaker makes sure to remind us that no, it's not really like that. It's not really like anything. By constantly undercutting himself, he's showing us that the still point he's talking about is a space that might be beyond words, since words are part of a world where we try to make sense of things through opposites, and the still point is a place beyond opposites.
  • Burnt Norton, Section 5

    Lines 140-146

    Words move, music moves
    Only in time; but that which is only living
    Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
    Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern
    Can words or music reach
    The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
    Moves perpetually in its stillness
    .

    • The speaker opens Section Five of "Burnt Norton" by admitting that, even though words and music (and poetry) are important for talking about human spirituality, these are both things that "mov[e] / Only in time," which in the context of everything we've talked about, means that there's only so far that they'll take you. 
    • The "Music" and "words" of poetry are great, but they unfold in time and are part of our everyday living world. If living is all we're here to do, then dying is the only thing that waits for us: "that which is only living / Can only die." 
    • But moving in time isn't the only thing words do. Words "reach / Into the silence" because they never really capture what we're trying to say. Haven't you ever said to someone, "No, that's not what I meant at all"? Well, that's because words never perfectly capture the meaning we want them to, and for this reason, they're always reaching into a realm beyond our power of communication, a silent world that always dances away from our efforts to put it into words. 
    • That said, it is only "by the form, the pattern," says the speaker, that words can actually "reach / The stillness" (143-144). Now how could that be the case? Well if you think about it, things like form and meter in poetry aren't the same thing as words. (Check out "Form and Meter" here for examples.) They convey rhythms and ideas to us that words can't, and in this way, they might be getting to something more basic than the concepts that we try to get at with words.
    • Just imagine yourself looking out at a jungle and trying to name things. You can say "leaf," "tree," and "tiger" even, but these words don't even come close to capturing the physical experience of looking at the jungle. This is the "silence" of the natural world that goes beyond the power of our words and our speaking. There are primal rhythms and forms, says the speaker, that things like "form" and "pattern," the rhythm and meter of poetry, might be better at expressing.
    • The speaker is desperate to find a way to communicate his ideal of a "still point" to us. He wants to talk about something that's still and yet moving, the same way that "a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness" (145-146). Have you ever seen a Chinese jar? They're totally covered with really intricate designs that can make them look like they're constantly moving, even though they're just jars. Pretty awesome. 
    • This combination of stillness and movement in a single object is exactly what the speaker's trying to get us to think about. He doesn't want us to freeze the world, but wants us to find a sense of peaceful stillness even as the world keeps moving around us. 
    • Similarly, he thinks that poetry might be able to have this same effect, because even while our eyes are constantly moving over the words, these words stay totally fixed and still on the written page. The use of form and meter therefore has a way of making us feel movement even while the words on the page stay totally still. 
    • Anyone feel better about their life yet?

    Lines 147-151

    Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
    Not that only, but the coexistence,
    Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
    And the end and the beginning were always there
    Before the beginning and after the end.

    • The still point that the speaker compares to a Chinese jar (or to the form and meter of poetry) is not the same thing as "the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts" or at least "Not that only." The reason is because the note lasting on the violin is still a temporary thing, something that'll fade after a few seconds. The still point that the speaker wants to talk about is more like the Chinese jar or poetic form, which remain still (on a table or on a page) forever if we let them, but they still keep their sense of movement when we encounter them.
    • This is what the speaker wants to get at with his "still point in the turning world." It's not something that just pops up for a second and is gone, like a note played by a violin. It's something that's constantly there, ready to be experienced even when we're ignoring it. This ain't no "tree falling in the woods" riddle. According to the speaker, the still point of spiritual fulfillment is out there whether we feel it or not, and it's a place where the beginnings and endings of all things (like the past and future) are mashed into one moment. That might still sound a little vague and conceptual, but it's as clear as you're going to get with in this poem.

    Lines 152-155

    And all is always now. Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

    • It's important for us to realize that all of the past and future is contained in the moment that we're living right now. The speaker admits that "words strain" to express what this sense of a stilled present is like. In fact, they often figuratively "Crack and sometimes break, under the burden" of trying to express something that is so profoundly beyond our ability to communicate. 
    • Words don't just break, though. They "slip" and "slide" over the things they try to describe. The word "leopard" might make us all imagine a certain type of animal, for example, but each of us still has a completely different picture of this animal in our heads, and so words try to cling to the things they represent without ever really latching on. 
    • For these reasons, words "decay with imprecision," since they can never fully capture what they're trying to say and "will not stay in place" (155). In this way, the speaker says that our knowledge of the world can never be a fixed and unchanging thing, since we only understand knowledge through language, and language is never quite up to the task of expressing what we want it to.

    Lines 156-161

    Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
    Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
    Always assail them. The Word in the desert
    Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
    The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
    The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

    • Continuing with his smack-talk about how badly words do their job, the speaker says that words "Will not stay still," since they keep sliding away from the things they try to capture. The physical world has a way of mocking our attempts to capture it in language or in knowledge, always assailing language with its "shrieks," "scolds," "chattering," or what have you. Then the speaker talks about the "Word in the desert," which is "attacked by voices of temptation." The speaker's definitely getting Biblical on us here, which you can tell from the second he capitalizes "Word," traditionally a reference to the living word of God.
    • Saying that words are tempted in the desert adds something to the speaker's earlier points about the failure of words. Here, he suggests that words are imperfect because people are imperfect, always giving into temptation and all of our lame everyday concerns. 
    • It's not totally clear what the last two lines of this stanza mean, although the "crying shadow in the funeral dance" might signify how our spiritual emptiness makes us incapable of finding anything but sadness ("crying shadow") in the transformation (or dance) of death.
      The "chimera," on the other hand, is a mythical Greek beast with the body and head of a lion, another head of a goat, and tail of a snake. This compilation of animals into one could represent how all of us modern folks are constantly trying to be different people in our lives. We might act one way to one person, another way to another, and this alienates us from our true selves.
    • That's why we can't help but send out a "loud lament" and feel awful about the fact that there's nothing really grounding who we are in the modern world. We've lost touch with the still point at our cores, and the speaker wants to help us rediscover this.

    Lines 162-171

         The detail of the pattern is movement,
    As in the figure of the ten stairs.
    Desire itself is movement
    Not in itself desirable;
    Love is itself unmoving,
    Only the cause and end of movement,
    Timeless, and undesiring
    Except in the aspect of time
    Caught in the form of limitation
    Between un-being and being.

    • The speaker continues in talking about how "the detail" of visual and musical patterns (like we saw with the example of the Chinese jar) is able to combine the seemingly opposite principles of stillness and movement.
    • Next, the speaker gives us an example of this kind of movement "in the figure of the ten stairs." If you feel like the speaker's making a reference here, you're right. So how are we supposed to know what he's talking about? Never fear, Shmoopers. We've got your back. 
    • "The figure of the ten stairs" is specifically a reference to a text called The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross.
    • And no, it's not the inspiration for the latest Batman movie. It's a discussion of religious faith in which Saint John says, "there are ten steps on the mystical ladder of divine love." These stairs therefore symbolize the uphill journey we face on our road to spiritual salvation. 
    • "Desire," says the speaker, is a type of movement that isn't always that pleasurable. After all, desire is that sense of emptiness that keeps you striving after things in your life. Was the last pair of shoes you bought the final pair you'll ever buy? We didn't think so, because life (like Apple products) has a way of throwing something new in front of us and tricking us into thinking that once we have that new thing, we'll finally be happy.
    • "Love," on the other hand, "is unmoving." It's not about going out and chasing after something. It's about feeling totally comfortable in your own skin and feeling loved for exactly what you are. Love might cause people to have desire, since these people might crave love, but love itself is unchanging, like the still point in the turning world. 
    • Sound good? Well just in case it does, the speaker again undercuts what he's been saying here, and says that love is "timeless" except "in the aspect of time / Caught in the form of limitation / Between un-being and being" (169-171). So what in the world does that mean? Well, the speaker might be saying here that love is never a thing that we totally capture once and for all, but neither is it a thing that's just a fancy idea in our heads. It's real, but we can't touch it. It's an ideal, but there's more to it than just an idea. Again, the speaker tries to talk about a spiritual ideal, only to admit that it's a really tough thing to talk about.

    Lines 172-178

    Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
    Even while the dust moves
    There rises the hidden laughter
    Of children in the foliage
    Quick now, here, now, always –
    Ridiculous the waste sad time
    Stretching before and after.

    • In these lines, the first of Eliot's four quartets wraps up. After all the speaker's talk about the spiritual ideal of "the still point in the turning world," it's pretty reasonable for us to expect some sort of uplifting ending here. But hey, this is Eliot we're talking about.
    • In this final sequence, we find out that children's laughter fills our ears and comes to us "Sudden in a shaft of sunlight" (172). We might all feel tired and worn out "while the dust moves" on our souls, but the innocent laughter of children cuts through this tiredness. 
    • The speaker is referring back to lines 43 and 44 of "Burnt Norton," revisiting his image of innocent children who play in the leaves and haven't been corrupted by the schedule-driven, shallow thinking of modern adults. He wants us to focus on the image of these children in the present moment, just like the bird told us: "Quick now, here, now, always." This chain of words like "here" and "now" is supposed to focus our minds completely on the present moment, and to connect this present moment across all times "always." This is the kind of innocent spiritual moment the speaker wants to show to us modern folks.
    • But then… What the? Why does he call it "Ridiculous the sad waste of time / Stretching before and after"? Well he's talking about the concerns about past and future that completely take up our mental lives, and reminds us that our lives are pretty pathetic and ridiculous if we spend them worrying about everything except the present moment. You might think it's a shame that the speaker doesn't end "Burnt Norton" on the happy note of line 176, but hey, there are still three more quartets to go, and our guy's just getting warmed up…
  • East Coker, Section 1

    Lines 179-182

    In my beginning is my end. In succession
    Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
    Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
    Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

    • No slowing down now. The speaker elaborates on the theme of time in "Burnt Norton" at the beginning of "East Coker." If all times (like past and future) are one time (like the present), then it makes sense that the speaker says, "In my beginning is my end" (179).
    • So what are some other things we might associate with the passing of time? We would definitely say houses rising and falling, either crumbling or being built up, either filling an empty field or leaving one empty again. Here you almost get a time-lapse sequence of houses, buildings, or highway bypasses going up and coming down in England.
    • The speaker here might actually be talking about the place that "East Coker" is named for. East Coker is a tiny village in England that Eliot's ancestors came from. Like Burnt Norton, it's a part of the English landscape that basically hearkens back to England's rural roots. In fact, a church in East Coker is where Eliot's own ashes were housed after he died. So… dude must have really liked the place.

    Lines 183-186

    Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
    Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
    Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
    Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

    • The time lapse continues as the speaker talks about the "old stone" of the past giving way to modern buildings. Further, the "old timber" giving way to "new fires" is almost definitely a reference to the Burnt Norton manor of the previous quartet. 
    • The ashes of these past buildings sink down into the earth, joining the "flesh, fur, and faeces" (ew) of all the humans and animals that have died in the same landscape. By comparing buildings to things that live and die, the speaker's telling us that everything eventually decays and rejoins the earth. In this way, we can think of the earth as containing the whole past and future. 
    • Biography note: when the Eliot writes, "In my beginning is my end," he must really mean it, because the ashes he's talking about in this poem could be his own ashes, which were placed in a church in East Coker after he died. In this sense, Eliot's "end" was already contained in this poem as he was writing it. Think about it.

    Lines 187-191

    Houses live and die: there is a time for building
    And a time for living and for generation
    And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
    And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
    And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

    • As the speaker's cycle of time continues, he tells us directly that all the things that people make are basically the same as people—they're around for a while and then they're gone. That explains why he personifies houses here as being able to "live and die." There's "a time for building," he says, and a time for things to decay and fall apart, which he conveys really well with lines 189-191.
    • In a way, you could read this passage as the speaker saying that it's not so bad that the world has gone to ruins in the modern age, since this might just be a part of the natural cycle of growth and decay that controls everything. Here, Eliot might even be reneging on poems like "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men," which basically just talk about how terrible everything is. In this part of "The Four Quartets," the speaker suddenly becomes the smiling stoic, saying, "Aw shucks. Things might be bad, but that's just part of the circle of life." Cue the Elton John music.

    Lines 192-201

        In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
    Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
    Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
    Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
    And the deep lane insists on the direction
    Into the village, in the electric heat
    Hypnotized. In a warm haze the sultry light
    Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
    The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
    Wait for the early owl.

    • In case you hadn't heard him the first time, the speaker repeats, "In my beginning is my end," turning this line almost into a kind of mantra. Suddenly, he places "you" near an open field, standing on a country lane of some kind. You're leaning against a bank and you see a van pass. It's unclear if the van is in a hurry, but what is clear is that the road "insists on the direction / Into the village" (196-197). 
    • After saying that the lane insists on leading you (or the passing van) into the village, the speaker adds that "the electric heat" of the afternoon seems to hypnotize you. (Thomas Thomas Thomas, can't you see, sometimes your poems just hypnotize me?) 
    • It's not a stretch at all to say that the village the speaker mentions here is specifically East Coker, and that the force that leads you into it is your own desire for a simpler life and a more meaningful connection to the past and the natural world. Even the grey stone of this village seems to absorb light instead of "refract" it. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, Eliot will use the phrase "grey stone" to talk about the misery of human existence. But here, the fact that the stone absorbs light might be a positive thing.
    • The positivity of this stanza, though, is made a little more complex by its final two lines, which talk about how the dahlias (flowers) "sleep in empty silence" and "[w]ait for the early owl" (200-201). These lines just seem to show the speaker forgetting about all his fancy ideas for a moment so he can take in the beauty of nature. That said, there's also something Zen-like about these lines, as if they could belong in a haiku or something. 
    • We might ask ourselves, "Why do the dahlias sleep in empty silence?" and "What is the 'early owl' a metaphor for?" Judging by the enigmatic tone of this particular passage, though, the speaker might want these questions to remain unanswerable. These images don't need to refer to anything beyond themselves, because they are intended to clear our minds of their modern clutter and make us focus on the present moment (and the natural world) in an undistracted way.

    Lines 202-209

                                         In that open field
    If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
    On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
    Of the weak pipe and the little drum
    And see them dancing around the bonfire
    The association of man and woman
    In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –
    A dignified and commodious sacrament.

    • The speaker brings your mind back to the open field he's talking about, and says that if you don't come too close, you can "hear the music." By not coming too close, he most likely means not letting your rational mind try to control or make sense of the experience. This special experience isn't something you can "grasp" in the same way that you can memorize the facts in a biology textbook. It can only come if you're willing to remain a little ignorant, at least on a rational level. 
    • So what is it you'll be able to hear and see if you go along with the speaker's instructions? Well, you'll hear a bit of music "Of the weak pipe and the little drum" at midnight. These little traditional instruments could symbolize a sort of innocent (rural) past, still making itself heard in the dark times of Western culture. There is a simple dignity to be found in the past, hints the speaker, that we can still recapture today if we want to. 
    • The greatest symbol the speaker can think of to show the beauty of English history at its best is the "matrimonie" of man and woman in marriage. The "dancing around the fire" also alludes to England's pagan roots. 
    • As you might have also noticed, "matrimonie" is definitely not spelled right. That's because here, the speaker has actually switched to Old English spellings of certain words. "Daunsinge" for example, is actually "dancing." The speaker switches to these spellings to make it seem as though you've suddenly travelled back in time, and you're watching the wedding celebration of a man and woman from an age like Chaucer's (1343-1400). This old-school wedding celebration, with its simple folk and simple music, fills our speaker with a huge sense of nostalgia because the poet often wants to throw off the complications of modern life and return to a simple past. 
    • We can see his desire for a simple past in the way he describes the marriage as "dignified and commodious." Now, dignified might be a term that makes total sense to us in this situation, but commodious isn't all that romantic, since it basically means "simple and convenient." Nonetheless, the speaker's almost willing to admit here that he'd gladly give up all of his poetic brilliance and complexity of ideas if he could just return to a happier, simpler time.

    Lines 210-218

    Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
    Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
    Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
    Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
    Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
    Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
    Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
    Mirth of those long under earth
    Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,

    • As we read on, we find that the two marriage partners are linked together "Two and two" in "necessarye coniunction." The line keeps showing off the speaker's Chaucerian spelling and elaborates on the ideas of simple love and the happiness of a bygone age. The fact that this married couple leaps through the flames might symbolize their purification in fire, since fire has also served as an image of purification in "The Waste Land" and in Dante's Inferno (and let's face it, Eliot might be a little obsessed with the latter).
    • The dancing in circles symbolizes the couple's connection to infinity and the endless cycle of time—a circle traditionally represents unending things. And the dancing, of course, represents the kind of total commitment to the present moment that the speaker thinks we lack in the modern era (see also his discussion of dancing in lines 64-69).
    • All in all, the folks at this wedding party might not be all that sophisticated like the speaker, but their "rustic laughter" and "heavy feet in clumsy shoes" have something about them that the speaker really digs. This is because he thinks these people's dancing connects them to nature in a way that modern people aren't connected to nature. These dancing folks don't just have "heavy feet"; they have "Earth feet, loam feet," which directly connects their dancing to nature. 
    • Eliot doesn't hit us with many rhyming couplets in "The Four Quartets," but when he does throw us one in lines 220 and 221, his timing is perfect. The simple rhyming of "country mirth" with "under earth" totally captures the innocent beauty of the folks at this bygone marriage party. Further, the phrase "of those under earth" shows how their dancing directly connects them to all of their ancestors who once performed these same simple dances, but who have died. 
    • With this link between past and present, you can really start to sense why the speaker really liked religion and spirituality. Going to church for him wasn't just fulfilling because he felt that God loved him, but because he liked participating in the exact same rituals that people had been performing for thousands of years, and this made him feel connected to the past. 
    • Not only does the dancing of the simple wedding partyers connect them to their ancestors; it connects them to the natural world, as the speaker suggests a direct link by claiming that their dancing "nourishes the corn." Of course, back in pagan times, people would've thought that stuff like ritual dancing could have a direct effect on the weather and the quality of crops. In this sense, the speaker implies that this sort of dancing is an organic way of "Keeping time" that is way more meaningful than the mechanical clocks and trapper-keepers of our modern era.
    • And by the way, if you're starting to think that this guy's getting a little hippie on us here, it's not just you.

    Lines 219-225

    Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
    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
    And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
    Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

    • The speaker keeps on about how the folks in their past wedding celebrations are connected to their ancestors and to the earth through their dancing. Their dancing is also connected to the living seasons and "the constellations," in the sense that people used to tell what time of year it was by noticing the seasons change and by checking out the night sky. For the speaker, this is definitely a more natural way of keeping time than a digital Timex.
    • The seasons tell people when it's a good time for "milking" the cows, when it's a good time to "harvest" the wheat, and when men and women should "couple" or have sexual relations. This sort of connection to nature is something we've definitely lost in the modern world. 
    • When the speaker mentions "dung and death" at the end of this stanza, he doesn't mean it in a negative way. In this context, what he means is that dung and death are both the same, insofar as dung and dead bodies go back into the ground and fertilize the growth of new life ("nourish the corn"). In this way, the speaker reminds us that when we die, our bodies will go back into the earth and feed the growth of new organisms. For him, at least, it's comforting to know that we're part of this circle of life.
    • Okay, we can't help it. Here.

    Lines 226-229

         Dawn points, and another day
    Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
    Wrinkles and slides. I am here
    Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.

    • Now that the midnight wedding-peasant dance seems to be over, dawn comes, and "another day" prepares for the same "heat and silence" that has led the speaker down a country road to East Coker. At this moment, the speaker knows that the "dawn wind" is blowing out at sea, because he's totally connected to his surroundings. 
    • When he says, "I am here," you might want to say back, "That's right, dude!" But then he adds, "Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning." What this probably means is that the speaker knows he's already connected to his "beginning," which is a thing that draws time together and therefore draws together all of the places he's ever been. He knows that his "beginning" could reside in any number of places, so it's best to hedge his bets and say that he's in many places at once.
  • East Coker, Section 2

    Lines 230-236

    What is the late November doing
    With the disturbance of the spring
    And creatures of the summer heat,
    And snowdrops writhing under feet
    And hollyhocks that aim too high
    Red into grey and tumble down
    Late roses filled with early snow?

    • The speaker steps away from the summer images that have been pretty positive at the end of Section 1 of "East Coker."
    • Now we seem to be heading into "late November," which causes a transformation in the symbolic landscape of the poem.
    • We're not sure at this point if the change good or bad. But if "Late roses" are filling with "early snow," it definitely sounds like a time of life and happiness (roses) is about to give way to a time of snow, and maybe even death.

    Lines 237-246

    Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
    Simulates triumphal cars
    Deployed in constellated wars
    Scorpion fights against the sun
    Until the Sun and Moon go down
    Comets weep and Leonids fly
    Hunt the heavens and the plains
    Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
    The world to that destructive fire
    Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

    • The speaker listens to the rolling thunder, and feels like the sound of it is like the "triumphal cars" or maybe chariots "Deployed in constellated wars." Since these lines talk a lot about outer space, the speaker here is probably referring to the constellation Auriga, which is the Latin word for "charioteer." In the next line, he also mentions a "Scorpion," which no doubt refers to the constellation Scorpius
    • The speaker is here using his imagination in an innocent, almost child-like way to show how the night sky can fill us with wonder when we feel like we're connected to it. The speaker imagines great, ancient battles taking place among the constellations, and this fills him with a sense of connection to his surroundings. He talks about how comets "weep," possibly comparing the tails of comets to trails of tears. 
    • But what is all of this leading to, we might ask? Well for the speaker, the universe will ultimately "bring / The world to that destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns." In other words, the natural world has a cycle of fire and ice just like it has a cycle of life and death. The speaker has a half-optimistic, half-pessimistic view of modern culture, which seems to be going up in flames before our very eyes (remember that Eliot wrote East Coker just before the outbreak of World War Two).
    • At this point, though, it's not clear if civilization is symbolically still burning with passion and purity, or if it's just entered a long and numb ice age.

    Lines 247-251

         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 meaning. The poetry does not matter.
    It was not (to start again) what one had expected.

    • After hitting us with a really beautiful bit of writing, the speaker turns and criticizes himself, saying that all this poetry was just "a way of putting it—not very satisfactory." He says that at best, he's just "paraphrase[ing]" something he can't properly express, and worse yet, he's doing so "in a worn-out poetical fashion." 
    • Believe it or not, people in Eliot's time were already getting really concerned about the fact that nobody reads poetry anymore.
    • So here, the speaker is almost saying, "Yeah yeah, I'm really long-winded and tough to read. I know it's not all that fun."
    • However, whether we enjoy ourselves or not, and whether Eliot's poetry is any good or not, that still leaves us "with the intolerable wrestle / With words and meaning." In other words, it doesn't matter how much we dislike poetry or philosophy; we're still stuck with language as our main way of knowing the world, and language is never going to do quite the job we want it to. 
    • The speaker reaches a really weird conclusion when he says, "The poetry does not matter," because it seems that if anyone were going to think that poetry mattered, it'd be Eliot. But in the context of this passage, this comment makes sense because the speaker is saying that our struggle with language goes way beyond any single piece of poetry. A big part of this is because the poetry we end up producing is never quite "what one had expected." In other words, it's never quite perfect, because language can never be perfect.
    • There's no point in trying to write a poem that totally captures the truth of life, since language never turns out the way we thought it would. And that's kind of like life, eh? It never turns out the way you thought it would, and you wanna know why?
    • "Because we are not in control!" shouts the speaker, and there's no point in continuing to believe in the fantasy that we are.

    Lines 252-256

    What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
    Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
    And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us,
    Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
    Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

    • After spending a few hundred lines telling us about how great it'll be to find a sense of peace in the world, the speaker questions his own argument, asking what the value of this peace is supposed to be. He wonders if "the quiet-voiced elders" have deceived us into thinking that life was going to be great as soon as we found this supposed peace. 
    • Ironically, the speaker might be placing himself among this group of lying elders, since the deceitful arguments he's talking about here are very similar to the ones he's made throughout "Burnt Norton" and "East Coker." At this point, all of his words might just be "a receipt for deceit," meaning that they're scribbling on a piece of paper that remind us of the lies that we've "bought" into by believing them.

    Lines 257-262

    The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
    The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
    Useless in the darkness into which they peered
    Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
    At best, only a limited value
    In the knowledge derived from experience.

    • Maybe the serenity the speaker's been talking about is all a sham. Maybe all the stuff he knows about Latin, Italian, German, and all the fancy literature of the past isn't "wisdom," but "only the knowledge of dead secrets." Maybe these things that the speaker prizes so much are totally useless for making sense of the darkness of modern times. 
    • Ultimately, there might be a pretty significant limit to "the knowledge derived from experience." This is a really depressing thing to think about, though, because, if this is the case, then we can't learn from experience, and we'll just keep making the same mistakes over and over. Major bummer.

    Lines 263-267

    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.

    • Knowledge, says the speaker, just "imposes a pattern" onto the world that isn't really there—kind of like we do with constellations, which the speaker was literally celebrating like one minute ago. Now, though, he says that imposing our patterns onto the world isn't good enough, because in order to do the world justice, the patterns would have to change with the changes of the world and be "new in every moment." Trying to impose a pattern permanently would be like trying to create a building that would never fall down, and that's impossible. Don't you remember the opening lines of "East Coker"? If there's one thing we know, it's that buildings fall down.
    • Every moment that passes gives a new measurement or "valuation of all we have been." So we are constantly taking stock of how we've performed as a civilization, and when we think we are seeing the truth of the "undeceived," we aren't actually seeing the truth. We're just seeing another lie that doesn't have the power to hurt us anymore, or can "no longer harm."

    Line 268-275

    In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
    But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
    On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
    And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
    Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
    Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
    Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
    Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

    • We seem to be entering some sort of spooky "dark wood," where we can't really get a "secure foothold" and we're "menaced by monsters, fancy lights, / Risking enchantment." In short, the speaker seems to suggest here that there's a clear downside to the kind of imagination that he celebrates around line 230. 
    • He's suggesting that this kind of imagination can make the world seem beautiful; but it can also make the world seem terrifying, because there is a very thin line between spirituality and full-blown superstition when it comes to projecting our myths and stories onto the world. 
    • The speaker doesn't want to hear any more about the "wisdom of old men," which is again funny, since Eliot was no spring chicken (52 years old) when he wrote this poem. When he talks about old men's "fear of possession" (i.e., paranoia at having their actions controlled by some higher power), Eliot's speaker is definitely exploring the downside of having the kind of imagination that gets celebrated earlier in this poem. It might be great to look on the world with wonder, but what's keeping this wonder from turning into total paranoia or a schizophrenic nightmare? At this point, there's no clear answer to this question.

    Lines 276-279

    The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
    Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
        The houses are all gone under the sea.
        The dancers are all gone under the hill.

    • Ultimately, says the speaker, our biggest spiritual ideal should be "humility." It's pretty funny that of all people, T.S. Eliot is writing we need to take ourselves a little less seriously. But hey, the things we most often resent in the world are our own deepest flaws, and T.S. is human like the rest of us. 
    • Humility, says the speaker, is endless, and it is important for us to learn the lesson of humility. How do we go about doing this, you might ask? Well, have a look at the last two lines of this stanza. They basically end off where Section 1 of "East Coker" begins, reminding us that all humans (as well as all the stuff they build) will eventually return back to the earth and sea, and things will go on as though we never existed. Realizing that we will eventually die and every trace of us will be wiped from the Earth is a pretty good first step to becoming more humble, wouldn't you say?
  • East Coker, Section 3

    Lines 280-288

    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,
    The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
    Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
    Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
    And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
    And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
    And cold the sense and lost the motive of action. 

    • Quick question: who's gonna die? 
    • Quick answer: everybody (eventually…).
    • Or, in the speaker's words, "They all go into the dark." That's right, everyone in the world is going to die someday; no matter how important or immortal they might think they are, they're all going end up dead at some point. 
    • To make his point a little clearer, the speaker gives us a laundry list of all the proud figures who are going to die someday: "captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters…" And with this list, you can really get a sense of the Biblical proportions that the speaker gives his message. You get the sense that he's like God from the Old Testament, smiting the proud, the vain, and the gluttonous alike. 
    • And it's not just people who vanish into nothingness. Eventually, the "Sun" and "Moon" are going to disappear, too. In a fairly humorous moment, the speaker adds that important newspapers like the "Stock Exchange Gazette" (which, as you can imagine, talked about a stock exchange that had totally collapsed in America by the time the speaker wrote this poem). What's funny here is that, by mentioning these publications after saying that the moon and sun will disappear, the speaker mocks the idea that people in his time would have an easier time imagining the loss of the sun and moon than imagining the loss of important newspapers. And last time Shmoop checked, the sun and moon are still going strong, and newspapers… meh, not so much.
    • Surprise, surprise. After talking about how humanity is going to die someday and leave no trace on the universe, the speaker suggests that our senses are "cold" and we no longer feel the "motive" that's supposed to drive us to take "action" (284). Based on what the speaker has said so far, this has to do with the fact that humanity hasn't come to terms with its own mortality, and is spending too much time fantasizing about immortality and self-importance.

    Lines 289-294

    And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
    Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
    I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
    Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
    The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
    With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,

    • Not only will everyone and everything the speaker mentions die, but we (the readers) will also "go with them, into the silent funeral." This funeral is for no one in particular, "for there is no one to bury." In this case, the speaker is still talking about the plain fact that we'll all die someday. 
    • Having "no one to bury" at the funeral might sound good at first, but let's just think about that for a second. Burying someone is a way of getting closure on the fact that they're gone, and the painful act of burying is necessary if we're going to heal ourselves and move on with our lives. By denying us a body to mourn over, though, the speaker is suggesting that the sadness we all feel in the modern age is something we can't get over, because we're not exactly sure of what we've lost. Or in other words, we're not exactly sure what we're mourning (having no body to bury), and this makes it much more difficult for us to get over our sense of loss.
    • The speaker mentions next how he once told his soul to "be still" and to let the darkness of nothingness come over it. He wants his soul to accept total darkness and oblivion, which basically means he wants his soul to completely disappear. Why would he do this? Well throughout this poem, the speaker has been alluding to Eastern religions, and many of these religions believe that spiritual peace can only come to us after we've overcome the constricting force of our own self-obsessed egos. To this end, the speaker blends eastern with western religion by mentioning the "darkness" of the Christian "God," and associating God with this darkness that destroys the ego.
    • Now usually, we associate God with light; but here, the speaker wants us to associate God with darkness and death, because it is only by embracing our own mortality that we can learn to be humble and can find a true path to spiritual fulfillment. 
    • With an incredible image, the speaker compares the darkness that destroys our egos to the darkness that falls over a theater when the stage crew is changing the scenery, when we (the audience) can hear them rustling around in the darkness. This is like saying we can sort of sense (hear) God at work when we start to let go of our egos, but we can't really prove (see) that He's there.

    Lines 295-300

    And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
    And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away –
    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;

    • Just like the scenes being changed on a dark stage, we all know that secretly, all the superficial things we care about in our day-to-day lives are "being rolled away" forever. Or, to use another example, it's like when we're riding the subway ("underground train") and the train stops in the dark tunnel "between stations," and we're in a group full of people in the darkness. 
    • At this moment, the darkness and stillness reminds us of death. People deal with the anxiousness of the moment by speaking more loudly at first, but eventually, the conversation falls and "slowly fades into silence." This is the moment, the speaker tells us, when "you see behind every face the mental emptiness deeper / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about."
    • In other words, people aren't anxious just because they don't have anything to think about, but because they have nothing to think about. They have to think about their own approaching nothingness, which is going to come to us with death. Sounds like fun, eh? 
    • Also, think about the train image in this passage. We modern folks might prefer that our lives work just like a train, always moving forward on a straight track, and never veering away from that track. In this sense, then, the train symbolizes just how much people rely on constantly getting from one thing to another in their lives in order to avoid thinking about big spiritual questions. But every now and then, though, the train of life might get stopped in a dark tunnel, and we'll have to start thinking…

    Lines 301-307

    Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
    I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
    For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
    For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
    But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

    • Picking up on the subway and theater examples, the speaker adds another situation where we might confront our own nothingness, when we're under an intense drug like ether. When you're under the spell of ether, you're not completely knocked out, but your conscious mind almost is. In other words, this state gives us a little taste of what it's like to be almost dead, but not quite there. 
    • In this state of not-quite-being-dead, the speaker told his soul to lie still, "and wait without hope," because it seems at this point like the only thing that can really give rebirth to the soul is total humility and hopelessness. It's only by going to the deepest point of darkness that we can start to climb back toward a good spiritual state.
    • If we wait with hope, it will be "hope for the wrong thing." Why is that, you ask? Well, as long as we hope for things to get better, we haven't totally hit rock bottom. And it's only at rock bottom, the speaker suggests, that we'll actually rebuild ourselves on a solid foundation. Also, the speaker tells us that it's important to "wait without love," because it's not until we've experience total hopelessness, loveless-ness, and humility that we'll shake off our selfish egos. 
    • We can still have "faith" for good things to happen, but these lines imply that it's important that we don't think too specifically about what we're hoping for. We need a sort of general faith that isn't ruined by specific desires (like wanting a new iPad). 
    • Basically, the speaker tries to sum up what he's saying here when he tells us to "Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought." At first, we might be all like "Hey dude, don't you tell me I'm not ready for thought." But what the speaker means here is that we shouldn't start to think until we've purified ourselves by destroying our egos. And we can't do this until we've hit rock-bottom, which we haven't done yet.
    • The only way we can get rid of our egos is if we keep descending into the darkness of rock-bottom. In this sense, only the total "darkness" can "be the light" guiding us to redemption, and total stillness (the total collapse of the ego) shall be the "dancing" that gives us new life.

    Lines 308-312

    Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
    The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
    The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
    Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
    Of death and birth.

    • The speaker throws us a couple of images of nature to help, and based on what he's said so far in this poem, he does this to remind us of the importance of connecting with the present moment and the natural world. Also, though, he reminds us of all the stuff that's going to keep happening long after we're dead and the world has forgotten about us. The mention of the "wild thyme unseen" especially shows that the plants of nature will continue on, whether we're around "see" them or not. Here, the speaker is going after that old "tree falling in the woods" riddle and saying very clearly, "Yeah, the tree still falls with or without you."
    • Another thing that brings us into the present moment is the "laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy" that draws our minds back to those innocent children the speaker's always going on about. Again, he connects the awesomeness of experiencing the present moment with "the agony / of death and birth." In doing so, he reminds us that finding spiritual fulfillment is going to require a certain death in our egos and rebirth of our spirits, and this death is going to cause us a lot of "agony."

    Lines 313-317

                                          You say I am repeating
    Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
    Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
    To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
        You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

    • Yeah, dude, we totally are saying that you're "repeating / Something [you] have said before." You've been smacking us over the head with the same point for three hundred lines now. If only we could say exactly what that point is…
    • The speaker admits to how repetitive he's being. But the reason he needs to be repetitive is because he's trying to convince us of a spiritual truth, and this isn't as simple as training a cat to use the bathroom. The speaker can't just lay out instructions for spiritual enlightenment; he has to find different ways to say the same point, in hopes that eventually we'll be able to absorb the spirit of what he's saying. 
    • For us to "arrive there" (which is apparently the place we want to be), the speaker says that we have to take a route that's going to be really, really unpleasant, and "wherein there is no ecstasy." Where is this place we want to get to? Well, it's basically "where you are." But how is "where we are" the place we want to get to? Think about it for a second. The speaker has spent a lot of this poem talking about how we modern folks never actually enjoy the present moment. So in this sense, the place we're actually trying to get to is the place where we already are. Or in other words, the speaker implies that we spend way too much time trying to get somewhere in life, when it'd be better for us to try (just for once) to connect with where was already are, which is the present moment.

    Lines 318-321

    In order to arrive at what you do not know
        You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
    In order to possess what you do not possess
        You must go by the way of dispossession.

    • In order for us to get to this place that we "do not know" (since the speaker assumes we're all superficial and hollow), we have to totally empty our minds of all the stuff we think we know and "go by a way which is the way of ignorance." And if we want to gain the spiritual fulfillment that we all apparently lack, then we have to "go by the way of dispossession." 
    • So does this mean we have to give away all our stuff? Well maybe, but for starters, why not care a little bit less about the stuff you own and care a little bit more about the things you can't buy, like spiritual peace.

    Lines 322-326

    In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.
    And what you do not know is the only thing you know
    And what you own is what you do not own
    And where you are is where you are not.

    • In order to arrive where the speaker wants to bring us, we must "go through the way in which [we] are not," which according to the context of this section, is more or less saying that we have to pass through some sort of experience where our egos are totally broken down. 
    • Further, we have to totally embrace our own ignorance and accept the fact that we aren't nearly as smart as we think we are. In other words, the only knowledge that's going to lead us to redemption is the knowledge that "what you do not know is the only thing you know." The only thing we really own is the freedom to let go of our desire to own stuff, and the only place we really are is "where [we] are not."
    • The speaker leaves us in a bit of a conundrum. He's basically saying that we can't even safely say that we are "here" at any one moment, because our minds are always elsewhere, focusing on all the achievements and possessions we want to have. To this extent, we basically just need to get over ourselves in a really radical way.
  • East Coker, Section 4

    Lines 327-331

    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.

    • To start off this section, we hear about a "wounded surgeon" using some sort of steel instrument to help whatever part of the world is "distempered." By this point in the poem, we can just assume that no matter what symbol or metaphor the speaker uses, he's always talking about the pain of the modern world and the individuals living within it. 
    • This "wounded surgeon" might remind us of a doctor out on a battlefield in war, doing whatever he can to help someone who's been injured. Similarly, the speaker might feel spiritually wounded by the modern world, and might be trying to save his readers, who've been injured in the same battle. 
    • As we feel the hands of this healing surgeon upon us, doing what they can to stop our bleeding, we feel the compassion that motivates what the doctor is trying to do. The "bleeding hands" here, though, could also refer to Jesus Christ being nailed to the cross, which he willingly accepted in order to spiritually "heal" the sins of humanity. 
    • As the surgeon or Christ-like figure tries to help us, this figure must also "resolv[e] the enigma of the fever chart"; or like a doctor staring at a chart he doesn't understand, this figure has to figure out the correct way of curing us. This is sort of like what the speaker is doing by trying to find the right combination of words to help our souls through poetry.

    Lines 332-336

        Our only health is the disease
    If we obey the dying nurse
    Whose constant care is not to please
    But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
    And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

    • According to these lines, "our only health is our disease." In other words, the speaker is suggesting that the only health we can hope to gain is the health that comes after acknowledging our disease. Further, the "dying nurse" here seems to be another healer whose "constant care is not to please" or make us feel good. Rather, her job is to remind us that health isn't always about feeling good. It's about always remembering that humanity has fallen from its original perfection (Adam's curse), and that the only way we're ever going to be "restored" is for our spiritual sickness to get so bad that we finally have to get up and start doing something about it.

    Lines 337-341

        The whole earth is our hospital
    Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
    Wherein, if we do well, we shall
    Die of the absolute paternal care
    That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

    • It looks like when it comes to the sickness we're all suffering from, "The whole earth is our hospital." And if anyone pays for this hospital, it's God, who probably looks like a "ruined millionaire" to the modern world because he's quickly running out of true worshippers.
    • In this situation, we can't succeed without dying of the "absolute paternal care / That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere." The speaker here seems to criticize our instinct to be followers in the modern world, to take our cue from others ("paternal" fathers) and pretty much do as we're told. 
    • Under these circumstances, we might very well succeed, but it won't be an authentic success, because it's always happening under someone else's watchful eye, that "prevents us everywhere" from really finding our own spiritual path. It's not clear here if the speaker is actually criticizing religious people who don't think for themselves here, or modern people who just do what the folks in charge tell them to do. Let's keep reading to see if this is cleared up…

    Line 342-346

        The chill ascends from feet to knees,
    The fever sings in mental wires.
    If to be warmed, then I must freeze
    And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
    Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

    • This chill we feel in our modern lives also gives us a sort of hectic fever, which could symbolize the stress and anxiety that comes with not having any solid spiritual ground to stand on. Again, the speaker goes nuts for collapsing the difference between opposites, and says that it seems the only way he (or any of us) can be warmed is if we "freeze and quake / In frigid purgatorial fires." Basically, the only way we'll ever find comfort is if we first go through a really uncomfortable experience, like totally changing the way we think about our lives. 
    • In this instance, the speaker says that the fire that purifies us is one where "the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars." In this instance, the speaker brings us back to imagery of the natural world, since he's never willing to let us forget about nature for too long. It is only by painfully setting fire to our egos (hence the smoke and fire) that we'll be able to enjoy our lives in the present moment that's symbolized by nature (symbolized here by the briars).

    Lines 347-351

        The dripping blood our only drink,
    The bloody flesh our only food:
    In spite of which we like to think
    That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
    Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

    • Always the one for grand closing statements, the speaker ends Section 4 of "East Coker" with a really vivid stanza about how, in the modern world, our only drink is blood and our only food is bloody flesh. This could mean that we've totally all become cannibals in some sort of post-apocalyptic world. But it more likely means that the blood and body of Christ (which Catholics ritualistically "eat" at mass) is the only thing left to nourish our spirits.
    • In other words, religion is what we have to turn back to if we're going to going to find any meaning in our lives. And yet, in spite of this, we tend to think only of our individual minds as the only true reality. The only thing that matters in our lives is our self-interest and personal goals. We do this thinking that we are "sound, substantial flesh and blood," or in other words thinking that we're totally authentic people who are in control of our own lives. 
    • Yet in spite of "that" (meaning our own selfishness), we're still willing to refer to the day of Jesus's death as "Good Friday."
    • This whole stanza (and whole section of "East Coker") is pretty tough to follow. But basically, the speaker's saying that we need to reconnect with the humility that Christ showed when he offered himself to die for all of humanity's sins. We need to learn to show this kind of humility in our own lives, and more importantly, to feel it in our hearts. This is why it's so important to remember why Christians refer to the day of Jesus' sacrifice as "Good Friday."
    • This concludes Section 4 of "East Coker," which is by far the most obviously Christian section of "The Four Quartets" up to this point. All this Christian imagery contrasts pretty sharply with the Buddhist-Taoist-Hindu emphasis of "Burnt Norton" and the beginning sections of "East Coker." We wonder which direction we'll be taken in next…
  • East Coker, Section 5

    Lines 352-358

    So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
    Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres—
    Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
    Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
    Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
    For the thing one no longer had to say, or the way in which
    One is no longer disposed to say it.

    • At the beginning of Section 5 of "East Coker," the speaker seems to take stock (much as T.S. Eliot himself might) of his life as a poet, saying that he's middle-aged now, and has been writing for twenty years between World Wars One and Two, or "l'entre deux guerres" ("between two wars").
    • Throughout his life, the speaker has tried to learn how to use words properly, yet has discovered that "every attempt / Is a wholly new start." Even though the speaker was one of the most famous poets in the world when he wrote "East Coker," he shows a lot of humility in saying that he's still merely trying to "learn" how to use words. Here, he's actually showing some of the humility he thinks we should all try to show in our own lives.
    • Every time he sits down to write, says the speaker, he completely begins again. He can't just take the skills he's developed as a poet and completely scribble down perfect poetry. Everything he writes feels like starting over, and this is because each time a poet finishes a work, he or she "has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer had to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it."
    • In other words, the speaker says that since life is always flowing and changing, and language is never quite grasping the thing it wants to say. We have to accept the fact that, no matter how good we think we are at communicating, we're ultimately powerless to make language do what we want it to. Or worse yet, we keep changing as individuals, so by the time we've actually gotten language to express our deepest emotions and beliefs, we've become different people and don't totally believe those things anymore. Darn the luck.

    Lines 358-362

    And so each venture
    Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
    With shabby equipment always deteriorating
    In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
    Undisciplined squads of emotion.

    • Since we're always changing and language isn't under our control anyway, it turns out that every time we try to communicate something, we're basically starting over. Continuing with his war imagery, the speaker claims that our efforts to communicate are like a "raid on the inarticulate," or like an attack we constantly make on something that can't really be spoken or written. 
    • As we make these attacks on the inexpressible, our "shabby equipment" (our words) are always deteriorating, because the more that time passes, the more these words are removed from the idea or emotion they were supposed to express. In this sense, our words are constantly deteriorating as they're left behind by the changing or "turning" world. 
    • Our words are also constantly deteriorating because our emotions are always "imprecise," never quite the thing that words are trying to express. Instead, our "undisciplined squads of emotion" are always disobeying the organizations and patterns that we try to force onto them with words.

    Lines 362-369

    And what there is to conquer
    By strength and submission, has already been discovered
    Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
    To emulate—but there is no competition—
    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.

    • Our words are totally useless when it comes to the inexpressible stuff we're always trying to express. Besides, even the stuff that we could conquer through our willpower "has already been discovered / Once or twice." The speaker is probably talking here about the true greats of Western literature like Dante or Shakespeare. It's totally possible that these men have been able to express the inexpressible, but the speaker admits that we modern people can't possibly hope to be as great as these guys. 
    • That said, it's not like we're competing with Dante and Eliot here. We're all in this thing called life together, and our biggest concern now is trying to "recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again." What has been lost, we might ask?
    • Well it's not totally clear here, but the speaker is probably talking about some higher meaning to life that great literature can help bring us toward. 
    • There's another problem, though. Even though words can never quite say what they mean, the age we live in is especially bad for finding higher meaning in our lives. This is what the speaker means when he says that we work "under / conditions / That seem unpropitious." But who knows? Maybe our modern world has seen "neither the gain nor loss" of any great meaning. 
    • In any case, the speaker concludes this thought by saying that "For us, there is only the trying." Or in other words, all we can really do is keep trying to express our deepest emotions in words, even though we know we're going to keep failing. To say that "The rest is not our business" is the same thing as saying that the desire to be a "great author" in order to feed our egos no longer has any meaning in the modern world. All of the things that actually are sayable have been said by great men like Dante or Shakespeare, and no one from the modern age will ever be as great as these men. We modern folks are simply arriving at the party too late.

    Lines 370-376

    Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
    The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
    Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
    Isolated, with no before and after,
    But a lifetime burning in every moment
    And not the lifetime of one man only
    But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

    • Even though we don't really know where our words end up taking us, we do know that "Home is where one starts from." But on the other hand, isn't this whole poem about feeling spiritually homeless? Where's home, for the speaker? 
    • At least he clarifies what he means by implying that the "home" we start from is the sense of home we have when we're young.
    • We can assume this because he then says that "As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living." So as we grow up, we realize more and more that we don't actually understand most of the world. 
    • When we are younger, the world looks as though it has a clear pattern and works according to certain rules. But this pattern becomes more complicated and harder to recognize as we get older and enter the adult world. By saying that the pattern "Of dead and living" becomes more complicated, the speaker implies that our relationship to the dead becomes more complicated as we grow out of childhood. It's no longer a simple matter of, "Dead people go to heaven and live forever in happiness," and we start asking deeper questions about what's actually waiting for us after death. 
    • As we grow older, we don't experience an intense moment just every now and then, but instead feel "a lifetime of burning in every moment," which is not only the pain and suffering of our own lives, "But of old stones that cannot be deciphered." In these lines, the speaker seems to suggest that, as we get older, we try to find new ways of connecting to past generations, since a feeling of continuity is important in our lives. 
    • We don't have any direct way of connecting to the past, though, only a bunch of "old stones that cannot be deciphered." In this, the speaker means that our connection to the past is written in words that we can't fully understand. This reference to old stones might refer to the Rosetta Stone, an ancient stone that first allowed scholars to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the speaker's case, though, the old stones of the past are never fully translatable, since we can never truly know the intent behind writings that were created hundreds of years ago. 
    • Much like in Eliot's "The Waste Land," the focus here is on our collective inability to connect to our own pasts, which might have been way richer in meaning than our current world is. Because words are always a failed attempt to give meaning to inexpressible emotions, though, our efforts to make sense of our common condition will always fail. Yet we have no choice but to keep trying. So buck up, buckaroos. 

    Lines 377-381

    There is a time for the evening under starlight,
    A time for the evening under lamplight
    (The evening with the photograph album).
    Love is most nearly itself
    When here and now cease to matter.

    • Okay, we'll admit it. These lines are super-tough to unpack, and it seems almost like Eliot might be bringing in specific occasions from his own life here. There's an inside joke quality to a line like "The evening with the photograph album." But if we do a little digging, we can find some accessible meaning in these lines. Shovels ready?
    • The line, "There is a time for evening under starlight" suggests that the speaker thinks there's a time for us to be out in nature and to experience the night sky (probably without any pollution from the cities). But at the same time, he also admits that there's "A time for evening under lamplight," meaning that there's also a time for us to experience the night sky from inside the city and under "artificial" streetlights. Unlike other parts of "East Coker" and "Burnt Norton," the speaker says here that sometimes the city and modern technology can be okay. 
    • There is even a time for spending our evenings with a photograph album, thinking back on past times. After all, says the speaker, "Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter." This is a weird thing for him to say here, since the rest of "East Coker" and "Burnt Norton" have been all about bringing us back to the present moment of here and now. But now, the speaker's hinting that there's something beyond here and now that we have to get in touch with.

    Lines 382-389

    Old men ought to be explorers
    Here or there does not matter
    We must be still and still moving
    Into another intensity
    For a further union, a deeper communion
    Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
    The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
    Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

    • Traditionally, we might think of old age as a time to settle down; but the speaker thinks it's a good idea for old men to be "explorers" and to continue experiencing new things. Throughout "Burnt Norton" and "East Coker," the speaker has constantly implied that one of the worst forces in human life is the force of routine and habit, which makes us take things for granted and makes us feel bored and empty. 
    • After saying that "Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter," the speaker says that "Here or there does not matter." So in other words, there's no use thinking of our lives as being here, there, now, or anywhere, because these categories are too limiting. The important thing is for us to find a way to "be still and still moving." It's not quite clear how this is possible, but it seems to have something to do with being spiritually connected to something that can change while still staying the same. If that sounds complicated or contradictory, just know that it's supposed to.
    • As we try to find a place of stillness that's also moving, we must always be looking for "a further union, a deeper communion," or some way of becoming more connected to the people and the natural world around us. Even though the modern world might be a place of "dark cold and empty desolation," we have to keep pushing for ways to bring ourselves together. 
    • The final images of "the wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters / Of the petrel and the porpoise" point forward to the nautical imagery of "The Dry Salvages" (just trust us at this point). But they also close "East Coker" with the image of feeling like we're stranded out at sea, and they associate this image with a great cry, which is probably the cry of our own souls feeling adrift, and looking for a deeper connection to the world. 
    • After leaving this final image in your mind, The speaker writes, "In my end is my beginning." The statement is a chiasmus of the opening line of "East Coker," which reads, "In my beginning is my end." Like a double-helix, these two lines wrap around each other and draw all of "East Coker" together as if we've read the entire thing in one instant, while also reading it over an entire lifetime. Every moment of our lives marks a beginning and an end, and if we are going to get over our modern spiritual sickness, we're going to have to completely rethink our relationship to time, and start seeing significance in every single moment, just like the speaker is trying to get us to do.
  • The Dry Salvages, Section 1

    Epigraph

    The Dry Salvages—presumably les trois sauvages—is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, of the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages. Groaner: a whistling buoy.

    • At the opening of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker gives his only explanatory note of the entire "Four Quartets," telling us that "The Dry Salvages" is a rock formation off the coast of St. Ann, Massachusetts (where Eliot spent time as a child). In this sense, the poem gets a little more autobiographical than in "Burnt Norton" and "East Coker," and makes a more direct attempt to link to Eliot's personal past. Also, the speaker explains that a "Groaner" is a type of buoy, and not a terrible pun or a lame joke, which is pretty nice of him.

    Lines 390-394

    I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
    Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
    Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
    Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
    Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

    • The speaker thinks that the river is a type of "brown god" which is "sullen, untamed and intractable." The image of a river is appropriate, considering all the stuff the speaker has said about language and words not staying still in "East Coker." To clarify, meaning is like a river to the speaker, always flowing. Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote, "You can't step into the same river twice," which is another way of saying that time is always flowing and nothing is permanent. 
    • At the same time, the speaker recognizes that the river-god is "[p]atient to some degree," since it has allowed us to throw meanings onto it that have managed to stick for a century or two (after all, we're still using the periodic table, right?). 
    • Next, the speaker starts talking about the river non-metaphorically, but rather as a real, physical thing. At first, he writes, we thought of the river "as a frontier," or maybe as a "conveyor of commerce," meaning something we could use to transport goods on boats. Next, we thought of it as something that only engineers had to deal with, since we created bridges to go over these rivers. 
    • What the speaker is getting at here is that we used to work with nature out of necessity. But in modern times, we build bridges over nature in order to avoid thinking about it. Instead of taking boats onto a river, we just build a bridge across a river, cutting nature out of our lives altogether. So long, nature, it was fun while it lasted.

    Lines 395-399

    The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
    By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable,
    Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
    Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
    By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting. 

    • Once we've solved the problem of dealing with the dumb river (personified here as a "brown god") we build cities and pretty much forget about it—and about nature—altogether. That said, the river is still there, washing out roads every now and then with "his seasons and rages." In its ability to destroy roads, the river also reminds us of what we "choose to forget," which is that we're connected to the natural world and all of the stuff we build is going to go away someday, along with us (don't forget the message of "East Coker"). 
    • We might go on worshipping technology and machines all we want, but the natural world—like the river—will always be waiting for us, lurking and watching as we grow old and our buildings eventually fall down. In the end, we might try to conquer nature, but we'll never succeed.

    Lines 400-403

    His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
    In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
    In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
    And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

    • Even when we're little children shut up in our nurseries, the river-god's "rhythm" is there with us. After all, we're still animals of nature, and we still have nature's rhythms inside us, no matter how hard we try to forget that. 
    • The rhythm of the river is also present in the "rank ailanthus of the April dooryard / In the smell of grapes on the autumn table / And the evening circle in the winter gaslight." Basically, the speaker is saying here that all things, like the flower ailanthus or the smell of grapes, are connected to the river. Everything we encounter in our daily lives is connected to nature, although in the modern world, we often forget this fact.

    Lines 404-410

        The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
    The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
    Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
    Its hints of earlier and other creation:
    The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
    The pools where it offers to our curiosity
    The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.

    • No matter how much we try to deny the fact that we're connected to the natural world (which is always changing), "the river is within us." After this, the speaker switches to the image of the sea to show how inescapable nature is. After all, the majority of the Earth's surface is still covered by the vast sea, and it's unlikely that humans are going to be able to change this anytime soon. 
    • In addition, the sea is "the land's edge," which is true in the literal sense, but also in the metaphorical sense, if we think of the sea as the untamed wild and the land as the realm of human civilization. 
    • The sea (nature) is always reaching into our human realm, eroding things until they're gone and tossing "Its hints of earlier and other creation: / The starfish, the horseshoe crab." In other words, nature reminds us of simple, unthinking organisms, and it might remind us that we're not so far off from these organisms, no matter how much credit we like to give ourselves. 
    • The sea also leaves tidal pools, which we can look into and find "The more delicate algae and the sea anemone." Here, the speaker is no doubt describing all of the things he might've found on the beach when he was a little boy vacationing in Massachusetts. But he's also using these beach creatures as metaphorical reminders of his own connection to nature, and of the fact that, deep down, he's just a simple creature (like a starfish). This admission is no doubt part of his bigger project of making us humble and preparing us for a better spiritual existence (if that's possible).

    Lines 411-416

    It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
    The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
    And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
    Many gods and many voices.
                                                  The salt is on the briar rose,
    The fog is in the fir trees.

    • Literally speaking, the sea destroys anything we might try to put into it, shattering our lobsterpots and breaking our oars and nets (a "seine" is a kind of fishing net). Metaphorically speaking, nature destroys any type of meaning or pattern we try to layer onto it. Lying at the bottom of the sea is "the gear of foreign dead men," which means that these men are made anonymous by the swallowing power of the sea. Basically, the sea is like a god because it's so infinitely larger and more powerful than anything humans will ever be able to come up with. 
    • The sea is in fact so big that not only one god, but a whole bunch of gods live inside its waves. The sea, the speaker tells us, "has many voices," meaning that you can't pin it down by giving it a single name like Neptune or Poseidon. The sea gets into everything. Its salt gets into the air and settles on "the briar rose," while its fog rises off the water and gets into the "fir trees."
    • These images show that the sea (and the natural forces it represents) are always pushing into the realm of human life (i.e., land), always reminding us of the natural world.

    Lines 417-424

                                               The sea howl
    And the sea yelp, are different voices
    Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
    The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
    The distant rote in the granite teeth,
    And the wailing warning from the approaching headland
    Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner
    Rounded homewards, and the seagull:

    • More and more groaning fills our ears, as wailing sounds seem to come from the sea in these lines. Yet they do not all mean the same thing. As the speaker says, "The sea howl / And the sea yelp, are different voices / Often together heard." Again, he's undercutting our desire to think that the sea is one giant entity with one voice. He's making it into a plural thing, which makes it tough for us to pin it down. 
    • Even the sound of the buoys (which is meant to keep boats from hitting them) joins in this general wailing, which—if we remember "East Coker"—could also represent the wailing of our own mortality, since the devouring power of the sea serves to remind us that we'll never live forever, and that the sea symbolizes how the natural world will eventually come for us.

    Lines 425-431

    And under the oppression of the silent fog
    The tolling bell
    Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
    Ground swell, a time
    Older than the time of chronometers, older
    Than time counted by anxious worried women
    Lying awake, calculating the future,

    • The silent fog of the sea oppresses us by reminding us of how temporary and unimportant human lives are in the eyes of nature. Then we hear a "tolling bell," which could be the bell on a buoy out at sea. This bell "measures time not our time," which is the time of the natural world, which thinks in terms of thousand- or million-year periods unlike the minute- or day-long periods we humans tend to think about. 
    • The time of nature is a time "Older than the time of chronometers," or older than human-made clocks, and older than the time "counted by anxious women / Lying awake, calculating the future." This last line makes it seems as though there's no real point at all to humans worrying about their futures, since these futures will all end up in the same place anyway, which is death. Um, hooray?

    Lines 432-439

    Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
    And piece together the past and the future,
    Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
    The future futureless, before the morning which
    When time stops and time is never ending;
    And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
    Clangs
    The bell.

    • The "anxious women" who represent human anxiousness in general are seen here "[t]rying to unweave, unwind, unravel / And piece together the past and the future." This line could suggest that all human attempts to make sense of life will be useless until they come to terms with the fact that they are going to die someday. 
    • When we try to make sense of our lives on our own terms—or in other words, on egocentric terms—we tend to come up empty. In this situation, all of our attempt to make sense of the past are "all deception," since it's just our own desires we're projecting onto the past. Further, our future is totally futureless because there are no plans we can make that will change the fact that we're going to die. 
    • Finally, Section 1 of "The Dry Salvages" ends with the clanging of a bell, which is the sound that marks the end of our time here on Earth. This is the only thing we really need to focus on, because it is only by coming to terms with our mortality that we can actually get down to enjoying our lives. It's the fantasy of being in control and living forever that causes us stress because we know it's a lie. If we give up this fantasy and admit that death is waiting for us, we might be able to live more fulfilling lives.
  • The Dry Salvages, Section 2

    Lines 440-445

    Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
    The silent withering of autumn flowers
    Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
    Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
    The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
    Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?

    • Here, the speaker's asking about when our suffering will end. When will we get past all of this wailing and wreckage? The rest of these lines continue in the same vein with images (wilting flowers, bone) associated with death—except for the last part about the "unprayable / Prayer at the annunciation," which kind of comes a little out of left field. 
    • First of all, why would the annunciation (where the archangel Michael told the Virgin Mary she's going to give birth to Jesus) be a "calamitous" thing? Well for starters, it was an event that completely changed the course of human history, since Christianity would eventually rise to be a dominant force in the world. In this instance, "calamitous" might not have a negative meaning, but a positive one. Maybe a really jarring world event is what we all need before we can get back to being good people. 
    • With all that said, it's good to know that, unlike "Burnt Norton" or "East Coker," Eliot was writing "The Dry Salvages" right smack in the middle of World War Two, when the Nazis were bombing England on a daily basis. So here, the speaker might actually be wondering when the suffering of the war will end, but also wondering if the end of the war will bring about any kind of spiritual rebirth.

    Lines 446-451

        There is no end, but addition: the trailing
    Consequence of further days and hours,
    While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
    Years of living among the breakage
    Of what was believed in as the most reliable—
    And therefore the fittest for renunciation.

    • Well, it turns out that maybe there is no end to all of our suffering, only "addition" to it. After all, we can never forget or escape our pasts, just like we can't escape "the trailing / Consequence of further days and hours." Like a river, time is always flowing.
    • But unlike a river, life keeps piling up memories and events that become part of us, and we have to deal with that. 
    • Why would this piling up be a bad thing? Because when you're living through an awful time like World War Two, you start to get a little bit numb just to live daily life with the knowledge that a bomb could drop on you at any second. During this phase, you might grow cold in a way you can never escape, as "emotion takes to itself the emotionless / Years of living among the breakage." This breakage, though, is not just the physical rubble of England, but the metaphorical breakage "Of what was believed in as the most reliable," meaning the symbols and beliefs that had significance in the past. Now we're right back in the rubble of "The Waste Land," picking our way through the shattered beliefs of the past with our old buddy T.S. Eliot, the world's most sullen tour guide. 
    • That said, the speaker adds a final line here that would never fit with "The Waste Land," saying that all of the things we once thought we could rely on are "therefore the fittest for renunciation." Changing his tune from his younger days, he says we especially have to start letting go of the beliefs and values we prize most deeply, because it's only after losing everything that we might be able to start rebuilding our spiritual lives.

    Lines 452-457

        There is the final addition, the failing
    Pride or resentment at failing powers,
    The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless,
    In a drifting boat with a slow leakage,
    The silent listening to the undeniable
    Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation.

    • It's only when we have nothing that we're able to start over and create something good. The speaker thinks of our final loss as our "final addition" because is it only by losing that we gain (or add) the power to start acting. This "final addition" is therefore the failure of our pride and our resentment at "failing powers," or things we once thought were powerful.
    • More specifically, the speaker might feel resentment at the "failing power" of England for getting beaten up so badly by Germany. At this time in world history, remember, England had been the world's most powerful country for hundreds of years, and the idea of being attacked on English soil had been unthinkable for pretty much just as long. In these lines, then, you can see the speaker trying to see a silver lining in the beating that England was taking from Germany at the time.
    • Further, we need to "unattach" our devotion and almost start to look hopeless if we're going to hit rock-bottom (which the speaker seems to think we must do). In modern times, we're all "In a drifting boat with a slow leakage," meaning that we're constantly stranded and sinking. And finally, we must continue to listen silently to the sound of the bell that reminds us that we're going to die, either a minute from now, an hour from now, or a decade from now. It's going to happen, and we need to make peace with that. Feel any more peaceful?

    Lines 458-463

        Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
    Into the wind's tail, where the fog cowers?
    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.

    • Again, the speaker asks, "Where is the end of it all?" Where is the end of all our sailing on stormy seas? We can't think of a time that doesn't have an ocean (an abyss of nature that conquers us way more than we conquer it). We can't think of a time when this void-like ocean isn't filled with the "wastage" of our failed and vain human projects. 
    • Never will we have a future that has a clear destination and purpose. All things lead to death, and for like the hundred-and-thirty-eighth time, the speaker implies that this isn't that bad of a thing. He's just trying to make us give up our conventional desires so we can replace them with more spiritual ones.

    Lines 464-469

        We have to think of them as forever bailing,
    Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
    Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
    Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
    Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
    For a haul that will not bear examination.

    • If we think of ourselves as a bunch of folks on a leaking boat (and yes, the speaker wants us to do this), then we have to think of ourselves as "forever bailing." The work of trying to keep ourselves and our culture afloat is neverending, and there's no point in trying to make it end. 
    • We have to think of the fishermen (ourselves) as coming to shore to draw their money from their bank savings because they're losing money, or as drying their sails on the dock, a repetitive activity that they'll never escape having to do over and over again for as long as they live. 
    • What we can't do is think of ourselves as "making a trip that will be unpayable / For a haul that will not bear examination."
    • These lines paint a metaphorical scene of fishermen going out to sea for a fishing trip they'll never be paid for, for a "haul" of fish that no fish buyer will ever examine. In other words, we need to find a way to embrace our neverending struggle without completely giving into feelings of hopelessness or giving up. Most people, implies the speaker, will probably give up instead of accept and endless struggle, but we must try to avoid this.

    Lines 470-475

        There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
    No end to the withering of withered flowers,
    To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
    To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
    The bone's prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely payable
    Prayer of the one Annunciation.

    • Did we mention that there's no end to the struggle of life? Well, the speaker sure has. There's no end to the sound of "voiceless wailing" the marks our suffering. There's no end to the withering of flowers, meaning that there's no end to death and decay.
    • There's no end to the sense of drifting we get in our lives, the sense that we lack direction. 
    • There is no end to the prayer that our mortal bones make to Death, which is actually our God, since it haunts everything we do. The only end we could possibly see to these things is the prayer we can just barely make to the "one Annunciation" of Christianity, which promises us that we'll get into heaven and have eternal life when we die. It's not clear here if the speaker's totally saying that Christianity is the answer, but this line does give us one of our rare (very rare) hints that there is something waiting at the end of our lives instead of death.

    Lines 476-480

        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,
    Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

    • As we grow older, we start to realize that history isn't just a story of ongoing progress. It "has another pattern," and isn't just some "sequence." This belief comes from our "superficial notions of evolution," which lead us to think that we're somehow improving ourselves as time goes on. But in the end, this is just a way of "disowning the past." If we believe in evolution, then we don't really worry about the past all that much, because all that matters are the improvements that evolution is always making on us. 
    • By forgetting the past, though, we turn away from the proof that we aren't getting better. If anything, suggests the speaker, history has just been one giant mess of suffering. 
    • History note: while Eliot speaker was writing this poem, the Nazis were going around saying that they were the next step in human evolution. They believed that blond-haired, blue-eyed "Aryans" of German descent were higher beings than Africans or Jewish people. And as most of us know, they didn't turn out to be much of an improvement on anything. 
    • Now on with our show. If we're ever going to make our lives better, says our speaker, it's not going to come from forgetting about the past or clinging to some idea of constant human progress. It's going to come from humility and from accepting the natural cycle of birth and death that we're all a part of.

    Lines 481-487

    The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
    Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,
    Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
    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.

    • Our moments of happiness have a deep meaning, but this meaning is something we miss if all we think about is our own happiness. For example, our moments of happiness don't just consist in the "sense of well-being, / Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection, / or even a very good dinner." Rather, our feelings of well-being are basically just as temporary and superficial as our enjoyment of a good meal.
    • What matters to the speaker is the "sudden illumination." We have had an experience of something deeper, he says, but we "missed the meaning" because we didn't look for it properly. Further, if we actually manage to approach this deeper meaning in our lives, this meaning completely brings back or "restores" our past experiences "In a different form." This new form is something completely different from anything we've experienced, because it's beyond "any meaning / We can assign to happiness." 
    • In other words, the speaker's telling us that our quest for spiritual meaning can't be the same thing as a quest for happiness. It has to be a quest for something deeper than happiness, and we have to be willing to endure pain if we want to make this quest.

    Lines 487-494

    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
    Something that is probably quite ineffable:
    The backward look behind the assurance
    Of recorded history, the backward half-look
    Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.

    • The speaker has said before (many… many times already) that the past experience we're trying to find meaning in is not just an experience from our personal lives. It's an experience from the life of our entire culture, and it has to come from "many generations." In looking to the past, we must try not to forget something about our lives that it's completely impossible to express, something "ineffable" in the speaker's words. We can't say what this thing is because it's probably unsayable, but whatever it is, it connects us to our history and to the lives of all the people who lived before us. 
    • In our "backward look" to the past, we glimpse something beyond the normal, comfortable "assurance / Of recorded history."
    • We see something scarier than what the textbooks tell us about the past. We can look on this directly, so we can only give it a "backward half-look / Over the shoulder." And the thing we end up looking on (without being able to express it) is a form of primitive terror. Maybe it's death we're looking at. Maybe we're looking at the fact that everyone before us has had the exact same relationship to death as ourselves. Maybe we're looking at a world that existed without us for thousands of years, and will continue to exist without us for thousands more.

    Lines 495-501

    Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony
    (Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,
    Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,
    Is not in question) are likewise permanent
    With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better
    In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
    Involving ourselves, than in our own.

    • We also come to realize that, like our moments of happiness, our moments of agony stay with us in a nearly permanent way, becoming part of who we are. It doesn't matter what caused these moments of pain, whether it was a misunderstanding or "Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things." What matters is that we tend to gain an appreciation for how much agony changes people when we see it in others. We don't see it changing ourselves to the same degree. This is why it's important to relate other people's lives to our own, and to forge connections in this way.

    Lines 502-508

    For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
    But the torment of others remains an experience
    Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
    People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
    Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
    Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops,
    The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.

    • We might not realize how much our pasts have changed us because in our own pasts, we tend to remember things that have happened and actions we have taken. But when we look to the "torment of others" we can see very clearly (probably more clearly than those people) how pain has shaped them, how it stays with them even after years of trying to get over it. People change, and we might see them smile when we meet them, but we know that "the agony abides" inside them. 
    • Even though the speaker's been talking about how time tends to knock down buildings and destroy all of our attempts to make something permanent, it also has a way of preserving the stuff that we'd like to get rid of: like pain. In this sense, "Time the destroyer is [also] time the preserver." 
    • The same is the case even for the river, which is a symbol of endless change, and yet the river still contains the history of all the "dead negroes, cows, and chicken coops" it has washed away. In other words, the fact that the river is constantly washing things away doesn't wash away the fact that the Western world has a horrifying history of slavery, which the speaker alludes to with his comment about the "dead negroes," who were once treated no better than farm animals like cows and chickens, or worse.

    Lines 509-514

    And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
    Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
    On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
    In navigable weather it is always a seamark
    To lay a course by: but in the somber season
    Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

    • In the final lines of Section 2 of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker appears to directly reference the formation of sea rocks that this poem is named for. They appear to be something that is totally unmoving even as the waters around them are "restless." Waves can wash over the rock all they want, and fogs can conceal it, but it's still there, sticking out like something that'll never change. 
    • It can sometimes serve as a monument "On a halcyon day," meaning that it can be a monument to happier and more youthful times, a halcyon being a type of kingfisher bird that—according to legend—makes a nest that floats on the sea (check out our analysis of the kingfisher in lines 136-139).
    • In "navigable weather" (or in other words, when things are going pretty well), this unchanging rock is a seamark that we can use to figure out what direction we want to head in. At this point, we should probably realize that the rock isn't just a rock, but a symbol for some unchanging principle in our lives that we can use to remember the past or to figure out where we want to go in the future. 
    • But when times are gloomy or violent, "in the somber season / Or the sudden fury," this rock is "what it always was," which is nothing except an unmoving shape in the middle of a restless sea. Because it's unmoving, we try to project our meanings onto it. But the rock is ultimately something that is inexpressible. In fact, it might be this inexpressible thing that we use to orient our lives. Maybe the rock stands for death. In any case, it symbolizes the place where our words fail us, and this place will always be around for the speaker, no matter how much things may change. The meaning that escapes our words will always be out there on the horizon, just as the Dry Salvages were on the horizon of the sea when a young T.S. Eliot gazed out from shore at Cape Ann, Massachusetts.
  • The Dry Salvages, Section 3

    Lines 515-520

    I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—
    Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
    That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
    Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
    Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
    And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

    • The speaker continues to struggle with all of the contradictions that he faces when he tries to talk about something he knows is inexpressible. His energy starts to wane a little here, and he starts to wonder about the true meaning of something said by Krishna, one of the primary avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu.
    • When it comes to wondering about what Vishnu meant, the speaker is wondering if everything he (the speaker) has said in Section 2 of "The Dry Salvages" can be linked to the spiritual teachings of Krishna. For example, he wonders if "the future is a faded song," meaning that it's just going to be a time of regret for those who aren't around (who haven't been born) to regret yet. 
    • He wonders if the future is actually a time of sadness that no one really cares about, "Pressed between the yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened." He further wonders if we truly wish to elevate our spirits, "the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back." These questions actually bring us all the way back to the beginning of "Burnt Norton," where the speaker's second epigraph comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, translating as, "The way upward and the way downward is one and the same." Here, we see the speaker continue to struggle with the unsayable meaning of life by talking in riddles and contradictions. He does this quite frankly because life itself is a bundle of contradictions, and the more he writes like this, the more the speaker wonders if he's just saying the same stuff that the Hindu religion said thousands of years ago.

    Lines 521-527

    You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
    That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
    When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
    To fruit, periodicals and business letters
    (And those saw them off have left the platform)
    Their faces relax from grief into relief,
    To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.

    • Whatever it is that the speaker's been trying to get at (death, the rock, the inexpressible, etc.), he says "You cannot face it steadily." But, in spite of this, one thing is sure, and that's that "time is no healer." Why can't time heal us? Well, because the person who needs to be healed no longer exists, because we're constantly changing in the flow of time. That's why he says that "the patient is no longer here," because, from moment to moment, the person we once were disappears and is replaced by another person, then another.
    • The speaker uses the image of a train to once again symbolize the forward-moving, single-track way that most modern people approach their lives. We all get into a train in our own lives when we settle into our routines and focus on our personal goals.
    • When we do this, we stop thinking about others in the same way that train passengers, after a moment of grief, relax "into relief" and settle into their snacks (fruit), entertainment (periodicals), and work (business letters). The overall effect of our routine, though, is numbness, and the speaker emphasizes this by showing that the train passengers relax into "the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours."

    Lines 528-535

    Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
    Into different lives, or into any future;
    You are not the same people who left that station
    Or who will arrive at any terminus,
    While the narrowing rails slide together behind you,
    Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
    You shall not think "the past is finished"
    Or "the future is before us.
    "

    • On the one hand, we don't escape the past as we move forward on the journey of our lives. Further, we don't escape into some completely different life, or into the future, even though we're never the same person we were a few moments ago (when we left the station), and we're not the same person we'll be a few minutes in the future (when we arrive at any terminus). As we move forward, we won't be able to say that the past is finished or that the future is coming. 
    • As you might have already noticed, the speaker finds it much easier to say what the nature of life isn't ("Don't look ahead. Don't look back.") more than he can say what it is. Every time he starts to say, "Well it's kind of like this," he has to backtrack and say the opposite. It seems like the closer we get to the heart of things, the more unavoidably contradictory we get.

    Lines 536-541

    At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
    Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
    The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
    "Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
    You are not those who saw the harbour
    Receding, or those who will disembark.

    • Now all of a sudden we're back to the nautical imagery. As we continue on our life's voyage (this time on a boat and out at sea), we can hear the murmuring of a shell, which if you've ever heard it is like an endless, droning hum. The message of this wordless hum is pretty much the same as the speaker just told us: we're not the same person we were a moment ago (when we saw the harbor) or the people we'll be in the future (those who will disembark). 
    • In this sense, we only "think [we] are voyaging," although whether or not we're actually getting anywhere is uncertain. After all, if we're always changing from one moment to the next, can we really say that it's "us" who will arrive somewhere in the future? Think about it (but be sure to do some brain stretches before you do—don't want to cramp up).

    Lines 542-544

    Here between the hither and the farther shore
    While time is withdrawn, consider the future
    And the past with an equal mind.

    • Between the moment you just left behind and the one that's approaching, says our speaker, make sure to consider both the past and the future in the same way, or "with an equal mind." There's no point in emphasizing the past with unnecessary nostalgia, or the future with unnecessary faith in progress. Just think of them both in the context of the moment you're living in right now.

    Lines 545-552

    At the moment which is not of action or inaction
    You can receive this: 'on whatever sphere of being
    The mind of a man may be intent
    At the time of death'—that is the one action
    (And the time of death is every moment)
    Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
    And do not think of the fruit of action.
    Fare forward.

    • In a moment where you aren't really acting or not acting, you can receive the great message that every single moment of your life is the moment of your death. Wha? This might sound really depressing, but what it really means is that your life is totally meaningful every second of every day because you might die at any moment. It's kind of like what people are getting at when they say to live every day like it was your last. Well, that's what the speaker is saying here. He's telling you to live every minute like it's your last. 
    • This is what he means when he writes that "the time of death is every moment." He further says that realizing this truth is the only thing that will bring goodness to the people around us. We will "not think of the fruit of action" because we won't be thinking about ourselves so much anymore. The more we pay attention to the fact that we'll die, the less inclined we'll be to do things for ourselves. 
    • With this piece of advice in our minds, the speaker tells us to "Fare forward" on our life's journey while trying to stay humble and connected to our own mortality. We're getting tons of advice here. We hope you're taking notes.

    Lines 553-560

                           O voyagers, O seamen,
    You who come to port, and you whose bodies
    Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,
    Or whatever event, this is your real destination."
    So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
    On the field of battle.
                                       Not fare well,
    But fare forward, voyagers.

    • The speaker understands that all of us, like sailors, will suffer from a lot of hardship, just like "the trial and judgment of the sea." But no matter what happens, "this" is our "real destination." "This" probably refers to an experience in which we can be intimately connected to the moment (or at least realization) of our own death at every moment. 
    • Here, we also realize that we've been getting a straight quotation from the Hindu god Krishna since the single quotation mark back in line 546. The speaker has been quoting from the lesson that Krishna teaches Arjuna on the "field of battle" in Hindu Holy Scripture. What Krishna hopes to teach Arjuna in this quotation is the importance of acting without thinking about how one's actions will benefit oneself. Like Arjuna, we must all learn to act in a way that reflects our spiritual respect for death. If we do this, we will become humble, giving, and good people. 
    • At the end of Section 3 of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker is not promising us a pleasant journey, so he won't say "fare well." He'll only say, "Fare forward" as he keeps encouraging us to press onward in our spiritual education.
  • The Dry Salvages, Section 4

    Lines 561-565

    Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
    Pray for all those who are in ships, those
    Whose business has to do with fish, and
    Those concerned with every lawful traffic
    And those who conduct them.

    • In Section 4 of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker invokes a prayer for some "Lady," whom we might be able to assume is the Virgin Mary. He asks this woman, "whose shrine stands on the promontory" (like a cliff or outcropping) to pray "for all those who are in ships." This could be a literal request to pray for fishermen, but in all likelihood, the speaker's asking this Lady to pray for all of us who are fishermen sailing on the vast sea of life. Again, you just have to keep the context of this passage in mind. 
    • The speaker asks this woman to pray for us because our "business has to do with fish." Fishing is also a powerful symbol of Christianity (since Jesus was referred to as a "fisher of men," insofar as the guy went around trying to bring people into Christianity like a fisherman catches fish). 
    • The speaker especially wants the Lady to pray for people who act well in their lives and are "concerned with every lawful traffic." These people are the ones who follow the rules in life and who are humble, since egotistical people tend not to respect rules and do whatever they want.

    Lines 566-570

        Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
    Women who have seen their sons or husbands
    Setting forth, and not returning:
    Figlia del tuo figlio
    Queen of Heaven.

    • The speaker also asks the Lady to say a prayer for all the women who've watched their husbands and sons go out to sea and not come back. The line "figlia del tuo figlio" translates as "Daughter of thy son," which comes from Dante, and is a way of saying that the Virgin Mary was the "daughter of her own son" insofar as her son (Jesus) was actually the son of God. So he is the Father of all people (even Mary). It's tough to wrap your head around, but there it is. The Virgin Mary is probably the same figure as the "Queen of Heaven."

    Lines 571-575

        Also pray for those who were in ships, and
    Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea's lips
    Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
    Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell's
    Perpetual angelus.

    • Finally, the speaker asks the Lady to pray for all of the people who've died lost at sea, falling deep into the "dark throat which will not reject them." This image seems to refer to all of the people who've spent their entire lives spiritually wandering and who have never found the peace the speaker wants us to find. In their lives and in their deaths, they were never able to hear the bell that was supposed to call them home. Now instead of just signifying death, the speaker's bell has come to represent a sense of spiritual home that is lost to people who die without ever knowing peace, like sailors lost out on a vast sea.
  • The Dry Salvages, Section 5

    Lines 576-581

    To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
    To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
    Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
    Observe disease in signatures, evoke
    Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
    And tragedy from fingers;

    • The speaker opens Section 5 with a long list of superstitious, occult-type stuff, such as communicating with Mars, the Roman god of war, conversing with the dead, telling the future (which is what "haruspicate" means), and palm reading. It's not clear where he's going with this list just yet, so we'll wait and see what he comes up with in the following lines.

    Lines 581-587

    release the omens
    By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
    With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
    Or barbituric acids, or dissect
    The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—
    To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
    Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

    • The speaker makes it all the way through his list of superstitions and ways of telling the "inevitable" future as though it's already happened. He suggests that many of these superstitions come from "pre-conscious terrors" that we might not fully understand.
    • So what's a pre-conscious terror? Well, it's basically a deep-seated fear of things that we have trouble making sense of in rational or "conscious" terms, like what happens before we're born (the womb), after we die (the tomb), or even what our dreams mean. 
    • The speaker says that everything he's just listed are "usual / Pastimes and drugs," basically saying that we use these superstitions to literally pass the time and to numb ourselves to the emptiness of daily life.

    Lines 588-592

    And always will be, some of them especially
    When there is distress of nations and perplexity
    Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.
    Men's curiosity searches past and future
    And clings to that dimension.

    • The speaker adds that superstition and trying to predict the future will always be a feature of human life, especially when times aren't looking so good for cultures or nations as a whole. Here, he's almost definitely talking about what was happening in World War Two at the time when he was writing this poem, where the shores of Asia were being overrun by the Japanese army and "Edgware Road" (a major road in London) was getting really heavily shelled. The speaker draws these places together under their common experience of destruction, and suggests that it's natural for people to respond to these situations by superstitiously trying to connect the present with the past and future.

    Line 592-597

    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.

    • We might try to connect our own lives to some larger and more permanent principle, but the speaker realizes that this is a very difficult thing to do. He knows that "to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time, is an occupation for the saint," and not for the regular Joe. 
    • Further, he goes back on his use of the word "occupation," as though it were a job, and says that grasping the point where time meets the timeless means living your life on a totally spiritual level and showing constant "selflessness and self-surrender." Also, it's seeing the connection between death and love, and knowing that our mortality is the only thing that makes us capable of love, since it makes us do the most with the little time we have on Earth.

    Lines 598-604

    For most of us, there is only the unattended
    Moment, the moment in and out of time,
    The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
    The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
    Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
    That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
    While the music lasts.

    • Most of us, the speaker admits, aren't saints. We can't just live our lives at every moment thinking about our spirits or a higher power. For most of us, we only catch the intersection of time and the timeless in isolated moments, like in a sudden "fit," or when we look out at nature and see the "winter lightning." Sometimes, we even manage to hear music "so deeply / That it is not heard at all." But in this case, says the speaker, we are the music "while the music lasts." 
    • It's tough to figure out how we could be music, but the speaker here might be reminding us that we participate in the rhythms of the natural world simply by being alive. In this instance, he's probably referring back to the "rhythms" of the river-god that he talks about at the very beginning of "Dry Salvages."

    Lines 604-614

    These are only hints and guesses,
    Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
    Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
    The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
    Here the impossible union
    Of spheres of existence is actual,
    Here the past and future
    Are conquered, and reconciled,
    Where action were otherwise movement
    Of that which is only moved
    And has in it no source of movement—

    • The speaker admits that his observations in this section (or maybe in all of the "Four Quartets") are just "hints and guesses" at some sort of spiritual truth. The rest, he says, is all the usual stuff you might think of, like "prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action." 
    • Throughout this poem, the speaker has been talking about the impossibility of overcoming life's contradictions. But here, he suggests that "the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual." In other words, he believes in the spiritual place where the distance between past and future is "conquered, and reconciled." Here, the principles of action and movement are totally combined with "that which is only moved / And has in it no source of movement." As the speaker has suggested throughout "Four Quartets," it is almost impossible to convey a sense of this religious experience directly, because our language will always sound contradictory. Nonetheless, he forges ahead in trying to talk about it.

    Lines 615-621

    Driven by daemonic, chthonic
    Powers. And right action is freed
    From past and future also.
    For most of us, this is the aim
    Never here to be realized;
    Who are only undefeated
    Because we have gone on trying;

    • This force that the speaker is talking about is something driven by "daemonic, chthonic / Powers," meaning that it's something that springs from the Earth itself ("chthonic"), or from nature. In this place in the poem, our actions exist in a sort of constant present moment, freed from all the baggage of the past and our anxious thoughts about the future. 
    • For most of us, this is the goal we'll never reach. But we're never totally defeated if we go on "trying." This is sort of like the speaker's big pump-up part of his speech. Just imagine that you're in a football locker room at halftime, and he's your coach.
    • With the speaker, it might be a little weird to picture, but his message is pretty coach-y. You can't ever lose if you keep trying, gang.

    Lines 622-625

    We, content at the last
    If our temporal reversion nourish
    (Not too far from the yew-tree)
    The life of significant soil.

    • The speaker ends "The Dry Salvages" on a note of idealism, more or less suggesting that we have the power to nourish for ourselves "a life of significant soil." You'll never near anything about significant soil in "The Waste Land," where the totally barren soil is a metaphor for the impossibility of restoring our spiritual lives. Here, by contrast, significant soil promises us hope for the future. 
    • That said, this life of significant soil is "Not too far from the yew-tree," which we need to remember is actually the tree of death in most European cultures. Throughout "Four Quartets," the speaker has been talking about how becoming more connected to the idea of our own death can help us become humble and more spiritual. Well here, he uses the image of the yew-tree to remind us that, when we start creating a new spiritual life for ourselves from the soil of spirituality, we have to do this while keeping the yew-tree (or thoughts of death) nearby.
  • Little Gidding, Section 1

    Lines 626-633

    Midwinter spring is its own season
    Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
    Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
    When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
    The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
    In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
    Reflecting in a watery mirror
    A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

    • The speaker opens "Little Gidding" with a discussion of "Midwinter spring," which sounds like a strange concept, mixing spring and winter. He claims that it's "Sempiternal," which means timeless, though it gets wet and muddy toward the end of the day.
    • Drawing on the speaker's fusion of opposites throughout this poem, this moment is "Suspended in time." 
    • The moment is also caught between "pole" and "tropic." The poles of the Earth are the two tips (north and south) and the tropics are horizontal lines that go around the Earth both above and below the equator. If something's caught between pole and tropic, it basically means that these are the regions where the change of the seasons is felt most dramatically. If it's suspended in time, though, it seems to go beyond the logic of changing seasons. This points to the speaker's desire to talk about something in our lives that stays constant even as other things change. 
    • When he talks about a "windless cold" being the heart's heat, he might be gesturing back to his earlier idea that it's only when you hit rock-bottom that you start to discover your spirit. It's only when your world is spiritually cold that you feel the warmth of your heart. (We know, that sort of sounds like cheesy slow jam lyrics, but hey.)

    Lines 634-638

    And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
    Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
    In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
    The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
    Or smell of living thing.

    • At this metaphorical moment, the speaker says that, amidst all the cold in our spirits, there's a heat that warms us, threatens to thaw us out. Here, he's really getting optimistic about our ability to come out of spiritual winter and to thaw until our "soul's sap quivers." In this case, the flowing of the sap in spring shows the restoration of the "flow" of life to the natural world. There might be "no earth smell / Or smell of living thing" yet, but we can feel the very, very beginnings of spring even in the middle of winter. 
    • With this line, Eliot's come a long way from saying (as he did in "The Waste Land") that April is the cruelest month. Now it seems like the coming of spring is back to its more traditional meaning, which is one of rebirth.

    Lines 638-645

    This is the spring time
    But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
    Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
    Of snow, a bloom more sudden
    Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
    Not in the scheme of generation.
    Where is the summer, the unimaginable
    Zero summer?

    • The speaker throws us another image, saying that the hedgerow suddenly has a blossom that's "neither budding nor fading." He reminds us here that we can't be totally sure that our spiritual world is coming back to life just yet. In our minds, we might actually wish that it was always summer in our souls, and that things were always "blooming." For this reason, the speaker anticipates our desires when he asks, "Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?" In other words, where's a summer that's neverending? Where can we find happiness that never ends? (Seriously, if you have an idea, please email us pronto, folks.)

    Lines 646-650

                  If you came this way,
    Taking the route you would be likely to take
    From the place you would be likely to come from,
    If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
    White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.

    • The speaker lets us know that if we "came this way," meaning the spiritual path he's outlining for us, we'd find the entire world all lit up with life. (Interestingly, this is in May, just after Eliot's famous "cruelest month" of April.) Further, he's saying that we can find a little glimpse of this ideal world even in the "Mid-winter spring," which gives us a glimpse of the ideal without really handing it to us. But that's usually the best you're going to do in this poem. There might be a world of total fulfillment that exists somewhere, but a glimpse of it is the best you're going to get.

    Lines 651-656

    It would be the same at the end of the journey,
    If you came at night like a broken king,
    If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
    It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
    And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
    And the tombstone.

    • The speaker says that, no matter how we come to it, our ideal existence will always be the same ideal. Even if we come to it like Jesus, "a broken king," even if we come by it "not knowing what [we] came for," this spiritual ideal (represented by hedgerow blossoms) will still be the same. Even when we leave the path we're on and see the dirty aspects of life (the pig-sty) or our own death ("the tombstone"), nothing changes the ideal that we're supposed to be seeking.

    Lines 656-665

    And what you thought you came for
    Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
    From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
    If at all. Either you had no purpose
    Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
    And is altered in fulfillment. There are other places
    Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
    Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
    But this is the nearest, in place and time,
    Now and in England.

    • Suddenly, the speaker's tone shifts, and he tells us that the meaning we thought we were after "Is only a shell, a husk of meaning." Well… um, that's not good. We only get a husk because the second we actually grasp the meaning of something, the true meaning slips away and we're left only with a husk. This is because meaning is always changing, and by the time we reach what we're after, it's like a mirage in a desert and it disappears. This is how the purpose of our journey always shoots "beyond the end" or goal we wanted, and because of time our goal is always "altered in fulfillment." In other words, our goal really isn't our goal anymore once we've fulfilled it. Rather, once we get what we want, we tend to go "meh" and then move on to the next thing we want. 
    • There are other places in the world that show us this absence of meaning, this abyss that lurks beneath our goals. But the nearest, says the speaker, is "Now and in England." 
    • History note: when Eliot was writing "Little Gidding," England was still being bombarded by the Nazis, and he was no doubt beginning to wonder how much longer the country would last. He'd been living through this stuff for a few years, and it's not surprising that his hopefulness is always tinged with a bit of despair. Also, he's T.S. Eliot, the Debbie Downer of the poetry world.

    Lines 666-672

                    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 motion. You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report.

    • It doesn't matter what your starting point is; the speaker's ideal will still be the same thing. It's not something you can prove ("verify"), or learn from a textbook ("instruct yourself"), or tell other people about in clear terms ("carry report"). It's just something that's inexpressible, something we can only talk about through metaphors like blossoms and hedgerows.

    Lines 672-678

    You are here to kneel
    Where prayer has been valid. 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.

    • We are here on Earth, says the speaker, to pray at the same spiritual place where other people have prayed before us ("where prayer has been valid"). Further, prayer is more than just a bunch of words we say ("an order of words"). There's a substance to it, and it's more than just thinking about the stuff we're praying for, or the "sound of [our own] voice praying." 
    • Prayer connects us to a space of mystical silence that "the dead had no speech for, when living," but which the dead can now silently tell us about, "being dead." We pray so we can communicate with the dead, and the only way we can do that is by contemplating our own deaths, and our own relationship to nothingness. Sound familiar? Yeah, the speaker's been getting at this point for some time now.

    Lines 679-680

    Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
    Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

    • In this closing image, the speaker merges the opposites of a specific place (England) and "nowhere," while also merging "Never and always." Again, he's trying to slowly but surely wear down our rational, self-interested minds and to get us to think about a place beyond contradictions. Is your brain bent yet?
  • Little Gidding, Section 2

    Lines 681-688

    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.
    Dust inbreathed was a house—
    The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.
    The death of hope and despair,
           This is the death of air.

    • Here we've got a whole lot of writing about dust. Notice the speaker's tight rhyme scheme, which gives this section a creepier vibe than the others. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that good stuff.) Here especially, talking about dust, death, stories ending, and old houses seems to be the speaker's way of talking about human mortality and how temporary our time on earth is. By this point in the poem, you can basically tell that he's never going to stray from the same basic themes he's been talking about throughout "Four Quartets." (Check out our "Themes" section for more detail.)
    • He also associates this stanza with the "death of hope and despair," which is a shame, since things were just starting to get a little hopeful. This first stanza reflects the "death of air," and the speaker goes on in this section to talk about the death of all four ancient elements, these being "air, earth, water, and fire." What he means by this sort of death, we're not sure yet, though at this point in "Four Quartets," it's not a long shot to argue that he's still talking about the death of the human soul.

    Lines 689-696

    There are flood and drouth
    Over the eyes and in the mouth,
    Dead water and dead sand
    Contending for the upper hand.
    The parched eviscerate soil
    Gapes at the vanity of toil,
    Laughs without mirth,
         This is the death of earth. 

    • Now the speaker's talking about floods and drought ("drouth"), which affect not only the symbolic landscape, but us too ("Over the eyes and in the mouth"). We're smack in the middle of Eliot's Waste Land here, with "parched eviscerate soil." Within this landscape, all of our efforts to make meaning of our lives seem vain and pointless ("the vanity of toil"). When we actually think about how pointless our efforts are, we might laugh at them without finding them particularly funny ("laughter without mirth").

    Lines 697-704

    Water and fire succeed
    The town, the pasture and the weed.
    Water and fire deride
    The sacrifice that we denied.
    Water and fire shall rot
    The marred foundations we forgot,
    Of sanctuary and choir.
         This is the death of water and fire.

    • In this stanza, the speaker talks about how water and fire consume everything in their path. They are both parts of nature that don't care about the meaning of human life. In fact, they completely insult ("deride") any meaningful action we take in the name of our ideals ("the sacrifice that we denied"). Water and fire will also destroy ("rot") all of the meaningful traditions we've started to neglect ("the marred foundations we forgot"). Our churches ("sanctuary") and our worshippers ("choir") have nothing to say against the brute force of water and fire.

    Lines 705-711

    In the uncertain hour before the morning
        Near the ending of interminable night
        At the recurrent end of the unending
    After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
        Had passed below the horizon of his homing
        While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
    Over the asphalt where no other sound was

    • The speaker's just giving us a really long set-up here. He's basically saying, "Just before things are (or were) about to get better… just before the bad things (the dark dove with the flickering tongue) had all gone away…" Well… we don't know what happened at this time, only that the speaker's taking a really long time to set up the situation for us. 
    • Here, he's probably referring again to the Second World War specifically, which would've felt like an "interminable night" and the streets ("asphalt") would have often been deserted ("where no other sound was").

    Lines 712-721

        Between three districts whence the smoke arose
        I met one walking, loitering and hurried
    As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
        Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
        And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
    That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
        The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
        I caught the sudden look of some dead master
    Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
        Both one and many;

    • Now it definitely sounds like we're talking about the war, as "the districts whence the smoke arose" sounds like places that have just had bombs dropped on them. The speaker mentions that he saw a person wandering toward him "as if blown toward me like the metal leaves." Metal leaves here could definitely refer to the shrapnel blown off of dropping bombs. 
    • The speaker mentions looking at a person's down-turned face, and feels like he recognized someone in the face. It might even be someone he'd "known, forgotten, half recalled," although he can't put his finger on it.

    Lines 721-729

                                         in the brown baked features
        The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
    Both intimate and unidentifiable.
        So I assumed a double part, and cried
        And heard another's voice cry: "What! are
    you here?"
    Although we were not. I was still the same,
        Knowing myself yet being someone other—
        And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
    To compel the recognition they preceded.

    • While staring at the person he has met on the bombarded streets, the speaker feels he can both recognize and not recognize this person, as though he's not sure if the person actually looks like someone he knew or if his eyes are playing tricks on him, since the person is "Both intimate and unidentifiable." To hedge his bets, the speaker just pretends to know this person either way and calls to him. Then another person calls out in recognition ("What! Are you here?"). 
    • The speaker admits, though, that neither of them was the person the other one recognized. The speaker claims that he "was still the same" even though he knew he was "someone other." Drawing on what the speaker has said about identity and time throughout this poem, this section remarks on how our identities are always changing, especially in difficult times, and it's tough to say who people really are. 
    • On the other hand, the guy the speaker is looking at is "a face still forming," and you get the sense that the speaker's talking about a dream here, one of those dreams when you recognize a person even though that person's face isn't the exact one you know from real life.

    Lines 730-737

        And so, compliant to the common wind,
        Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
    In concord at this intersection time
        Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
        We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
    I said: "The wonder that I feel is easy,
        Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
        I may not comprehend, may not remember."

    • Weirdly enough, the speaker decides to walk alongside this person whom he may or may not recognize. In an intimate moment, he admits to this friend-stranger that he feels a certain kind of wonder that is "easy," and he seems to distrust this sense of ease, asking the other guy to speak, while also admitting that he "may not comprehend [or] remember" what they talk about.

    Lines 738-746

    And he: "I am not eager to rehearse
        My thought and theory which you have forgotten.
        These things have served their purpose: let them be.
    So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
        By others, as I pray you to forgive
        Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
    And the fulfilled beast shall kick the empty pail.
        For last year's words belong to last year's language
        And next year's words await another voice.

    • The guy walking with the speaker tells him that he doesn't want to talk about a bunch of theories and stuff that he's just going to forget anyway. Save your breath, pal. It's best to just leave those old ideas alone. 
    • The guy says the same should go for the speaker's own ideas; he should just let them go and hope that he's forgiven by people for all of the mistakes he's made in his life and his writing. Symbolically, "Last season's fruit is eaten" means that, if there's anything we're going to get out of the speaker's writing, we should have gotten it by now. We've heard his message, we've eaten the fruit of his knowledge, and if we still don't get what he's saying, then we're just not ever going to. The stuff the speaker's talking about has gone on for too long now, and "last year's words belong to last year's language."
    • The speaker admits that there can't be enduring truth to what he says because the world is constantly changing. The future waits for someone else, someone younger who can put the new historical era into perspective.

    Lines 747-757

    But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
        To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
        Between two worlds become much like each other,
    So I find words I never thought to speak
        In streets I never thought I should revisit
        When I left my body on a distant shore.
    Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
        To purify the dialect of the tribe
        And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
    Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
        To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.

    • Now that this other person feels like his spirit doesn't have the obstacles ("no hindrance") that it once did, he feels like the worlds of spirit and everyday life have "become much like each other." In this instance, he finds that he has things to say that he's never thought of before, and feel that he has become almost completely interested in spirit ("I left my body on a distant shore"). 
    • He goes on to say that his primary concern was with language (speech) and with trying to "purify the dialect of the tribe." This is another way of saying that the work of the poet is to always work at making his culture's or his "tribe's" language more precise and more spiritually fulfilling. For example, by constantly making us think beyond opposites, the speaker is trying to provide us with a language that will allow us to have a spiritual experience that's impossible within the terms of everyday common sense. 
    • Further, this man tells the speaker that he's willing to give the speaker the "gifts reserved for age," and to give him credit for ("or set a crown upon") all of the things that the speaker has tried to do with his life. The speaker might be gaining wisdom at this point or feeling validated for the work he's done. But then again, this entire sequence of the poem might be a dream.
    • Wouldn't that be just a kick in the pants.

    Lines 758-769

        First, the cold friction of expiring sense
    Without enchantment, offering no promise
        But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
        As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
    Second, the conscious impotence of rage
        At human folly, and the laceration
        Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
    And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
        Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
        Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
    Of things ill done and done to others' harm
        Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

    • So here are the "gifts reserved for age" that the sort-of-dream-dude wants to give the speaker: the unpleasant feeling (cold friction) of losing your hearing, eyesight, etc. (expiring sense). There's no upside to this loss of senses, only a "bitter tastelessness" as your body starts to fail you.
    • Second, you become more aware of how stupid people are at the same time you can no longer do anything about it ("impotence of rage"). You don't laugh at stuff as much anymore, either ("what ceases to amuse"). 
    • Finally, you have to live with the pain of watching everyone make all the same mistakes ("the rending pain of re-enactment") you made in your life, and you realize that no one has learned from the past. You see all of these younger people's motives.
    • You see how people convince themselves, like you once did, that they can justify bad and harmful actions as good ones ("Of things ill done and done to others' harm / Which you once took for exercise of virtue"). Worst. Gifts. Ever.

    Lines 770-776

        Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
    From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
        Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
        Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."
    The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
        He left me, with a kind of valediction,
        And faded on the blowing of the horn.

    • When you get old, the guy continues, you stop caring about getting approval because you only seem to get it from fools. Further, anything you do out of honor just marks you as bad ("stains") in the world's eyes. 
    • In this state, you just move forward "from wrong to wrong," thinking like an old coot about all the things the world could be doing better. This is the way the world keeps going, unless something restores it through destruction, or that same "refining fire" the speaker has talked about at other points in the "Four Quartets."
    • In this sense, the new model for living becomes the model of the dancer, who is able to move in an organized way and able to make sense of the seeming randomness of the changing world. 
    • That said, the dream-dude leaves the speaker in the street at this point, and the speaker can hear the blowing of an air-raid horn, which would signal the approach of German bombers. Bad times.
  • Little Gidding, Section 3

    Lines 777-783

    There are three conditions which often look alike
    Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
    Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
    From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
    Which resembles the others as death resembles life
    Being between two lives—unflowering, between
    The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:

    • The speaker starts this section by telling us that there are basically three ways of living your life: being super-attached to ourselves, to material things, and to persons; being super-detached from ourselves, from things, and from persons; or between these two extremes, becoming indifferent to both attachment and detachment in a way that kind of makes us resemble dead people. This third way seems to be the best for the speaker, since it exists "between two lives," and the rule of thumb for this poem is: if something overcomes an opposition and doesn't take sides, it's probably the way to be.

    Lines 784-789

    For liberation—not less of love but expanding
    Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
    From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
    Begins as attachment to our own field of action
    And comes to find that action of little importance
    Though never indifferent.

    • The purpose of memory is to free ourselves of time and desire and to love something beyond these things. In other words, we might love something like a country, but this sort of love begins in love of ourselves (attachment to our own field of action), but eventually learns to "find that action" (or our personal lives) to be "of little importance." This brings us back to the lesson of humility that the speaker keeps going on about in this poem.

    Lines 789-795

    History may be servitude,
    History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
    The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
    To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
    Sin is Behovely, but
    All shall be well, and
    All manner of thing shall be well.

    • These lines talk about how the history of humanity might be a history of freedom or servitude, depending on how you look at it. In this history, we can remember all of the people who have lived in human history, how they've all disappeared just like we will. But this isn't the end, because people are ultimately "renewed, transfigured, in another pattern." This could mean anything from becoming part of the earth to being totally reincarnated. The speaker's talking about the concept of renewal more than any concrete example. 
    • In these lines, the speaker more or less tells us that everything's going to be okay. Heck, even sin is something useful and necessary ("Behovely"). In this case, he could very much be telling this message to the people waiting for World War Two to end.

    Lines 796-801

    If I think, again, of this place,
    And of people, not wholly commendable,
    Of no immediate kin or kindness,
    But some of peculiar genius,
    All touched by a common genius,
    United in the strife which divided them;

    • The speaker sets up another statement with an "if," saying that if he thought about a bunch of people who aren't particularly all that great, but who are united in "the strife which divided them," then he… well, as always, it takes him a long time to finish a thought, and he doesn't finish it yet here. What he seems to be referring to, though, is the war and how it manages to unite people under a common "strife," or hardship.

    Lines 802-808

    If I think of a king at nightfall,
    Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
    And a few who died forgotten
    In other places, here and abroad,
    And of one how died blind and quiet,
    Why should we celebrate
    These dead men more than the dying?

    • The speaker mentions several famous figures in history who've died to much ceremony, especially Jesus, who was crucified with two other men (making it three "on the scaffold"). There have no doubt been other people who've died "In other places" without anyone taking much notice. No doubt, many people have suffered deeply. 
    • But, at the end of the day, he wonders why we should celebrate these dead men "more than the dying?" In other words, why don't we pay equal attention to everyone who dies? Isn't every human life worth the same thing? Is celebrating the deaths of some people more than others just a way of opening the door to selfish thinking? Won't we all just start trying to beat each other out for the best funeral?

    Lines 809-814

    It is not to ring the bell backward
    Nor is it an incarnation
    To summon the spectre of a Rose.
    We cannot revive old factions
    We cannot restore old policies
    Or follow an antique drum.

    • We can't just go back in time and bring the past into the present, nor can we expect everybody to find religion again and become super-Christian (symbolized here by "the spectre of a Rose"). We can't "revive" all the old factions and groups that have fought throughout history, and we can't live our lives moving to the beat of "an antique drum." We need to find new ways to live, and new ways to engage with our world.

    Lines 815-822

    These men, and those who opposed them
    And those whom they opposed
    Accept the constitution of silence
    And are folded in a single party.
    Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
    We have taken from the defeated
    What they had to leave us—a symbol:
    A symbol perfected in death.

    • Great men of history like Jesus and all the people who were against him have all lived their lives and are now dead. In this sense, they have accepted their "constitution of silence" and are now all together, dead in the soil of the earth ("folded in a single party").
    • Whatever advantages we've had in life, we inherit them from other fortunate people. Further, we've also taken "from the defeated" what they had to leave us. The defeated in this case is someone like Jesus, who left his death to us as a symbol that could only be perfect in his death. Why does death make the symbol perfect? Because it freezes it in time and helps it to be more permanent. After all, if Jesus had gone on to live the rest of his life and get overweight like Elvis, we might not remember him quite the same way.

    Lines 823-826

    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    By the purification of the motive
    In the ground of our beseeching.

    • Again, the speaker closes this section of "Little Gidding" by telling us "Don't worry, be happy," that everything is going to be okay. It's tough to say if he would've been this optimistic or comforting if the entire world around him wasn't exploding when he wrote this, but hey, we'll take it. 
    • Ultimately, what the speaker wants in the "Four Quartets" is for us to stop acting selfishly and to find a way to "purify our motives." He's only got two more sections to make his case, so it'll be interesting to see what sorts of closing arguments he can come up with, or if they'll be any different from the stuff he's been repeating throughout this poem.
  • Little Gidding, Section 4

    Lines 827-833

    The dove descending breaks the air
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    The one discharge from sin and error.
    The only hope, or else despair
        Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
        To be redeemed from fire by fire.

    • This pesky dove seems to be flying around us again, and usually we'd think it was a symbol of peace, but the speaker has complicated that idea in "Little Gidding." First of all, what kind of dove "breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror"?
    • Again, this could be a good thing because the speaker thinks fire is rejuvenating; but still, this is one scary dove.
    • So here's what this dove seems to be telling us (according to the speaker): the only way we're going to improve our world ("discharge from sin and error") is if we make a choice that ends up hurting or "burning us" ("pyre or pyre"). If we're going to be redeemed, all of our choices are going to be painful ("redeemed from fire by fire"). But hopefully, it'll all be worth it in the end. 
    • It looks like the speaker knows that one of the toughest things about making people change is getting them to accept that it'll be painful.

    Lines 834-840

    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.

    • If all of us are in need of a good whoopin', then who is it that decided this is necessary? Who's the higher power in all of this?
    • Well in a word, it's Love. Love is the one thing that'll drive us to make the right decision even though it's difficult. After all, it was Love personified that was behind the "hands that wove / The intolerable shirt of flame." This is a reference to the "shirt of Nessus" from Greek myth, which was the poisoned shirt that eventually killed the great hero Hercules. 
    • The shirt of flame symbolizes the terrible pain of "burning away" our love of ourselves and replacing it with a higher, more divine love. We do not have the power to remove this shirt from ourselves, and all we can really do is give in to its burning and allow ourselves to become something more than goal-driven, self-admiring individuals. In the end, there's no choice; we can be "consumed by either fire or fire."
  • Little Gidding, Section 5

    Lines 841-845

    What we call the beginning is often the end
    And to make an end is to make a beginning.
    The end is where we start from. And every phrase
    And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
    Taking its place to support the others,

    • The first two lines here continue the most dominant motif of the entire "Four Quartets," which is the speaker's collapsing of the difference between beginnings and ends. All of us get so obsessed with beginning and finishing our journeys or projects (like beating Halo 4, or painting that old shed in the backyard) and we don't even realize that our lives are lived totally in the present moment, where beginnings and ends are the same thing. 
    • To this extent, "the end" of something "is where we start from." In other words, the end of one civilization needs to happen before we can make a good one. The speaker is likely talking about the end of the Second World War, and the need for people to start a new civilization since the old one led to two gigantic wars. In a sense, the speaker might be finding some hope in the idea of starting over again after WWII.
    • Next, he introduces a long thought about writing a "sentence that is right," discussing how a sentence can only work properly if "every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others." Metaphor alert: the speaker's talking about people here, and the need for people to make the world into something beautiful by finding a sense of spiritual peace (or home) and supporting the people around them, too.

    Lines 846-852

    The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
    An easy commerce of the old and the new,
    The common word exact without vulgarity,
    The formal word precise but not pedantic,
    The complete consort dancing together)
    Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
    Every poem an epitaph.

    • Like the words in a sentence, people can't be too showy ("ostentatious"), but should find an easy way of bringing together what's traditional and what's modern ("An easy commerce of the old and new"). Further, people should seek out a way to express themselves plainly ("the common word exact") without falling into crudeness or "vulgarity." People should also be willing to speak in formal terms from time to time, but not in a jerky, self-absorbed way ("pedantic"). 
    • All in all, we should all engage in this dance of life where we're constantly striking a balance between opposites, where everything we do is both an end and a beginning, and every work of art ("poem") should remind us of our own mortality ("an epitaph") to keep us humble.

    Lines 852-858

    And any action
    Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
    Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
    We die with the dying:
    See, they depart, and we go with them.
    We are born with the dead:
    See, they return, and bring us with them.

    • In this new world we're trying to make, we must realize that "any action" we take leads us to our death. Any action we take is meaningful only insofar as its effects will be temporary and will eventually be forgotten. Every action is "a step to the block" where our heads will be chopped off, a step to "the fire, down the sea's throat." 
    • Coming back to the idea of the "illegible stone," the speaker again brings up the idea of the meaning of life being something that's in front of us, but that we can't properly read or understand. 
    • When people die, we go with them, says the speaker. This is true because all of us are going to die someday, and therefore we are never removed from someone else's death. It's the thing that totally unites us. This is how "we go with them" when the dying people "depart."
    • The speaker then reverses this idea, though, and says that "We are born with the dead." This doesn't mean we're all going to turn into zombies. Instead, it means that the meaning of our lives is reborn when we see someone else die, because the reminder of our own mortality should make us appreciate the time we have, and our newfound humility should make us more spiritually alive. This is how the dead have a way of returning (reminding us of death) and in this way bringing us toward thoughts of our own death, which allows us to get beyond our individual ego in a divine way.

    Lines 859-864

    The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
    Are of equal duration. A people without history
    Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
    Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
    On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
    History is now and England.

    • According to the speaker, the moment of life ("the rose") and the moment of death ("the yew-tree") pretty much take up the same amount of time in our lives ("Are of equal duration"). We can't escape the passage of time just by rejecting the past and pretending like we're a "people without history" because history isn't just some unfolded thread, but a "pattern / Of timeless moments" that are all happening at once. 
    • Confused yet? Well the speaker might be too. If he weren't, then he wouldn't have written such a long and repetitive poem.
    • He's still reaching for the right words to explain a certain spiritual state to us. So he ends this long stanza by giving us an image of light fading ("fails") on a "winter's afternoon," where we can imagine the peaceful silence of a snowy landscape, sitting in some "secluded chapel" in the company of sacred objects. Maybe now we can fully realize that "History is now and England." 
    • Here, the speaker is without a doubt sending out a specific message to the people of England, who've just been through years and years of hearing bombs dropped all around them. For the speaker, it's important for the people of England, at this specific historical moment, to realize that they're living in history at all times, and that history is something that you live in the present moment. It's not some meaning that a textbook gives your life after you're dead. It's right now. And the speaker would no doubt want you to realize, dear Shmooper, that in your life, history is right now. You're living it. History doesn't require exceptional things to happen. It is happening right now and always, and life is always significant for its own sake.

    Lines 865-869

    With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
         Calling
    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    • We will continue following the Love, the voice, and the Calling that draws us toward spiritual renewal. Even when we get old, we won't stop looking for new experiences ("shall not cease from exploration"). And at the end of our exploring, we will look upon the same life we've always known and see it as though for the first time. 
    • For the speaker, our spiritual quest should make unfamiliar things familiar to us; but even more importantly, it should make familiar things unfamiliar. We need to not take things for granted, and the only way to do this is to keep looking at our world through fresh eyes and to avoid the numbing effects of our routines and habits. 

    Lines 870-878

    Through the unknown, remembered gate
    When the last of earth left to discover
    Is that which was the beginning;
    At the source of the longest river
    The voice of the hidden waterfall
    And the children in the apple-tree
    Not known, because not looked for
    But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
    Between two waves of the sea.

    • At long last, the "Four Quartets" is coming to a close. As it gathers its final momentum, the speaker starts summoning all of the images he's thrown our way throughout all of "Burnt Norton," "East Coker," "The Dry Salvages," and "Little Gidding." Soon, says the speaker, someone will discover every last corner of the Earth (our bets are on James Cameron and his crazy submarine). When this happens, it'll turn out that all we've really found is a new beginning.
    • Nothing good comes from the impulse to be finished with something. "At the source of the longest river," could be the speaker referring to the Nile River in Egypt, which is literally where the first human beings lived. The "source" of this river is Victoria Falls (located between present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe). This waterfall could be an image of restored spiritual fertility that is so badly lacking in a poem like "The Waste Land," and it could therefore symbolize hope for Eliot's speaker in this poem.
    • The children in the apple tree make their reappearance in this section, too. The apple tree usually symbolizes the loss of innocence and fall from perfection (story of Adam and Eve). But these children playing in the apple tree seems to represent the recovery of innocence, our ability to get back to a more innocent form of thinking. We might not see the path to this innocence because we don't know how to look for it. But no matter what, we can still hear it "in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea." In other words, we can hear this more innocent way of thinking in the natural world and in the silence that reminds us of how we will one day rejoin the earth and the sea in death, and become part of the living whole. In this sense, the silence of death could actually symbolize our return to innocence (cue Enigma's 1994 hit).

    Lines 879-886

    Quick now, here, now, always—
    A condition of complete simplicity
    (Costing not less than everything)
    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    When the tongues of flame are in-folded
    Into the crowned knot of fire
    And the fire and the rose are one. 

    • In these closing lines, the speaker takes us back to what the bird tells us early in "Burnt Norton," which is to focus intensely on the "now," the present, which is here and which is always the present. We need to return to a "condition of complete simplicity," which will ultimately cost us everything, including all of our big plans, goals, ambitions, and self-absorbed dreams. 
    • If we can do this, says the speaker, everything will be okay in the future ("all shall be well"). It won't always be comfortable, as we are reminded by the "tongues of flame" and the "crowned knot of fire." But in the end, the symbol of pain and purity ("the fire") and the symbol of life ("the rose") will come together and give us the kind of existence that our hearts yearn for. Could this really be a happy ending to a T.S. Eliot poem? It's a Shmoopy miracle!