Study Guide

Four Quartets Memory and the Past

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Memory and the Past

"Four Quartets" is a very personal poem for our guy Eliot. It's maybe even his most personal poem, since it draws on a lot of stuff from his past. On top of that, though, a major theme that's explored in this poem is the way that we relate to the past through memory, and the way the past is able to live through us in the present. For the speaker, it's really crucial for us to acknowledge how indebted we are to the past and how much the past has shaped us. We aren't just a bunch of totally unique individuals walking around and inventing new ideas; we're undeniably shaped by the past in ways we don't always realize. Time to wake up and smell the history, gang.

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. Why does Eliot include so much material from his own life in this poem? Do these memories take away from the poem's universal message?
  2. What is the speaker's view of the connection between memory and history? Is history just a constant line of progress leading from the past into the future? How well do we learn from the past?
  3. What does the speaker mean when he says that a "primitive terror" lurks behind "the assurance of recorded history" (499)? What parts of the poem support your ideas?

Chew on This

For the speaker, humans are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, because we can't ever seem to learn from the past. We get an F+ for history.

For the speaker, there is no difference between our individual memories and the memories of our society as a whole. Both influence us in ways we don't even realize, and this totally undercuts the idea that we're individuals who totally think for ourselves—troubling, but kind of cool.

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