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.
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").
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.
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").
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.