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.
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.
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.
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.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
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.
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).
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!