Dear Listers,
This is holiday season and we'd love to take some time off.
Well, here's something to engage our attention when we
return from our jubilation.
Merry Christmas / Greetings of the Season !!!
~ CR

T. S. Eliot's poetics of self: reopening Four Quartets
William D. Melaney 
Journal of Comparative Poetics
This article discusses how T. S. Eliot's long poem, Four Quartets, employs the thematics of time, self, and history in an autobiographical work of literature. The article approaches autobiography primarily as an intellectual concern, rather than as a factual account of the author's life, in examining a work that is difficult to subsume under available interpretive paradigms. The first part of the article emphasizes how Augustine's Confessions, when considered as a meditation on time and religious experience, illuminates the hermeneutics of Four Quartets. The second and central part of the article provides close readings of key passages in this poem, which inscribes Greek cosmology and medieval epic in a narrative of literary development and spiritual change. The third and concluding part of the article explores how the author's later poetry and criticism highlight major tendencies in twentieth-century literature and anticipate the postmodern interpretation of history.


T. S. Eliot's contribution to a poetics of self is often difficult to appraise due to his daunting reputation as a modernist poet as well as his initiatory role in the founding of New Criticism. As the representative poet-critic of his age, Eliot emphasized impersonality and aesthetic formalism at the expense of subjectivity and life-experience. His canonization as a literary icon has prevented his readers from considering his poetry as a record of personal change. In Four Quartets, however, Eliot explores his poetic development as an autobiographical concern that challenges the way that his work has been persistently read in modern criticism. In this short essay, I indicate how Eliot addresses the question of the self in religious terms, just as he allows us to resituate his life in a new conception of the self in time. In conclusion, I contend that Eliot's Four Quartets could be called "postmodern" in suggesting new approaches to his poetry and criticism that engage the reader in the spiritual adventure itself.


Eliot's theological interests, as they emerge in Four Quartets from beginning to end, often frustrate the attentive reader from considering literature apart from the matter of personal belief. But the poetry itself, rather than the poet's own life as an independent source of value, can be read as a sign of increasing commitment and/or as a narrative that places those same commitments in temporal perspective. Criticism, properly considered, can suggest how the poet's own words emerge in time, not necessarily as an obscure beginning that was later articulated theologically, but as a clear response to a contemporary situation. The mediation between language and the world that occurs in Fours Quartets is a matter of discourse, which might be read as the verbal effort to provide communal significance to the self's journey through time. The self that emerges as the theme of a discursive elaboration enables the poet to return to the past as both personal and historical. R. A. York suggests that Eliot may be "the greatest master of discursiveness in modern poetry," but also that "he practices discursiveness to show its limits; to hint at what is private, immediate, incommensurate with speech" (144). In Eliot's case, discourse opens up rifts in the being of language, showing us that the poem as such is neither a timeless artifact nor simply the result of impersonal reflection.

Hence, if considered in terms of the difference between a complete theology and a phenomenology of experience, Four Quartets calls attention to rifts in time which animate the speaker's account of his own journey from doubt to religious certainty. Furthermore, this journey, which involves the reader in an experience of disillusionment that prevents the poem from becoming merely a retrospective survey, cannot be assessed unless the movement from past to present can be appreciated as a temporal process. This would mean, for instance, that the poem as a whole cannot be understood in view of the 'modern' theological (and perhaps Utopian) view of history as complete in advance of its unfolding, but that instead the poem is more wisely situated somewhere between prospective experience and the seal of meaning that the poet has chosen to place on his religious life. It would seem, therefore, that a compelling interpretation of the poem would depend on the possibility of distinguishing the experiences that informed it from what might be theologically formulated or reflectively examined, since the poet's own life may possess a singular value that is easily misunderstood.

It is useful at this point to reflect on the role of the autobiographical tradition itself in constituting the limits of Eliot's own project, which is neither reducible to metaphysics nor to a private account of the author's past. The importance of Augustine to this project, while hard to assess with complete assurance, suggests itself immediately, not simply in view of Eliot's own insertion of religious themes in his long poem, but also because Four Quartets as a literary work sometimes interprets spiritual experience through the discipline of philosophical tradition. And yet, Eliot's religious perspectives often challenge received interpretations of Augustine. In traditional accounts of Augustine's Confessions, Platonic and Neo-Platonic constructions minimize the difference between the temporal condition of a finite being and the movement that culminates in religious truth. Eliot's poetry, in contrast, more typically places the reader in a situation in which the self is radically limited and temporally concerned. If this is the case, how can Four Quartets acquire a meaning that both derives from Augustine and modifies received interpretations of his basic insights?

In approaching this question, we might consider how Martin Heidegger's reflections on Augustine's Confessions provides one basis for reading Four Quartets as an autobiographical poem. (1) In a comprehensive study, Otto Poggeler discusses Heidegger's early interest in recovering the original meaning of Augustine's intuitive sense of time and the experience of the self. While Heidegger's reading is indebted to Husserlian phenomenology, his "Augustinus und der Neuplatonismus" is not limited to the discovery of hidden meanings but already suggests how the metaphysical tradition must be challenged before a canonical text can be interpreted as traced with religious meanings. Poggeller suggests that Heidegger challenges the idea that Augustine's meanings correspond to what can be comprehended in a metaphysical reading: "The interpretation must grasp through the concepts at the experience which is truly at the core to free this experience from the inadequate concepts by which it is expressed" (26). Metaphysics fails to express the movement of life in finite time and space: "It disguises the fact that what matters for factical life is the non-objectifiable performance and this performance is 'historical'" (28). The non-objectifiable and historical nature of performance marks a departure from the traditional view of the self as constant in time.

It would seem that a hermeneutics of the self underlies Augustine's deepest intuitions concerning finite being and our relationship to time. He clearly demonstrates in his Confessions that the paradox of time is related to time's status in language, Augustine considers it strange that time, while familiar to language, is difficult to comprehend and express. The paradox is related to our inability to communicate what is immediately understood: "And surely, we understand it well enough, when we speak of it: we understand it also, when in speaking with another we hear it named. What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not" (Augustine II.XI, xiv, 237-38). The experience of time endures in language, but it can become the theme of an explanation. Time is not an idea; it quickly evaporates whenever the speaker attempts to explain what cannot assume the form of an answer. Neo-Platonism may have obscured Augustine's basic insights concerning time, memory and the self. However, Augustine's words on each of these issues are a verbal enactment of what metaphysics partially conceals. The experience of time no longer allows us to stabilize in discourse what might otherwise enable the speaker to escape the condition of human mortality.

The interpretation of time that can be found in Augustine is often consistent with what emerges in Eliot's Four Quartets, a poem that employs language in a way that suggests many of the central paradoxes of time and history. This poem also suggests that spiritual concerns cannot be directly expressed in language, but can, in some cases, constitute a basis for poetic form. Eliot often seems to adopt a mode of expression that enables him to present abstract statements as transparent and unarguable truths. Nonetheless, his language is usually ambiguous enough to imply that experiences and intuitions are factors that support religious insights. Furthermore, this language defers the return to presence that a traditional discourse on time seems to promote when identified with the religious life. It is as if the poetry itself enforces a limit to the way that a basically cognitive intuition might arrest the flow of time in a closed system. However, in order to determine how the poetry integrates a more radical experience of time, we must examine how the poet's discourse as a temporal and historical performance poses a limit to (metaphysical) unity, just as it offers us a prospective understanding of his autobiographical journey.


Four Quartets demonstrates how public events are hard to separate from the history of literature, just as it provides an autobiographical commentary on the author's early modernism. The relationship between the poem and the context in which it was composed is somewhat concealed in Eliot's use of various scenes as references that suggest remoteness from his own place in time. "Burnt Norton," the first section of Four Quartets, was published in 1936, and the three succeeding sections--"East Coker," "The Dry Salvages," and "Little Gidding"--were published during the 1940-42 period. "East Coker" compares poetic composition to actual combat, and it also suggests that the poet is separated from the world of his ancestors, which is shown to be harsh and uncertain. However, "Burnt Norton," the first section of the poem, centers around a backward glance over lost security, whereas "Little Gidding," the concluding section, is concerned with the persistence of a textual agon that complicates historical interpretation and literary practices. Autobiographical motifs are perhaps more likely to call attention to the contradictory strains in textual traditions than to the moments of resolution where the past becomes present in an achieved narrative. The poem as a whole is haunted by a sense of mortality and impermanence that not only highlights the poem's religious thematic but also evokes a musical sense of return that establishes the rationale for each section.

However, Eliot's movement beyond a musical conception of poetry, particularly as associated with the Symbolist tradition, is often overlooked in literary criticism. (2) In Fours Quartet, Eliot moves back into literary history for a meditative style that is more fully related to a spatial concern than it is to a (purely) musical conception of poetry. Hence, while the poem often recalls the Symbolist comparison between poetry and music, it also links this interest to a poetic sense that remembers Donne and Herbert, Gray and Collins, as well as Mallarme and Verlaine (Kenner 438). Eliot's late poetry is less concerned with the way that words evoke sensuous delight than with their capacity to name what cannot be limited to an experience of perceived things.

Here Augustine's reflections on the power of language to carry the speaker beyond a purely sensuous present are particularly useful as a key to Eliot's interest in poetic objects. Like his reflections on time, Augustine's concern for things is impossible to separate from his conception of language: "We have heard the name, and we all confess our desire unto the thing, for we are not delighted with the sound only" (Augustine II.X, xx, 130-31). In Eliot's late poetry, pre-Romantic models emerge as an alternative to Romantic-Symbolist exemplars, but they should not be detached from a religious concern that sometimes seems to be Platonic in origin. However, this overt religious concern, which sustains our relationship to the things of this world, begins to look less "metaphysical" and more "autobiographical" as soon as it is related to the spiritual quest that Eliot enacts in four different settings.

The poem as a whole can be read as an epic that centers around a meditative subject for whom different places represent various aspects of a spiritual journey. The role of the self in this reading would be inseparable from a teleological pattern that gradually emerges in the poem as a whole. However, the poem does not always seem to move forward toward a predetermined goal; instead, it rests upon four "worlds" that are rooted in the elements themselves. While each world is in some sense complete in itself, the use of four worlds in establishing the frame of the poem already suggests that unity cannot be posited in terms of a single source. Eliot employs ancient cosmology as a framing device and uses two fragments from Heraclitus as the poem's epigraph. (3) Moreover, the poem's protagonist often reminds us of Orestes, another culture hero who evokes the themes of guilt and atonement. Eliot's use of pre-modern sources decenters the poem in a way that prompts the reader to consider how various religious possibilities acquire related meanings as the poem progresses.

The poet's autobiographical journey begins with "Burnt Norton," the visionary sequence that initiates the entire cycle (lines 175-81). The setting for this poem is a seventeenth-century manor, but verbal action is not bound to time or locality. The opening of the poem recalls Augustinian themes: "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past" (I, lines 1-3). The fluidity of temporal experience is tentatively suggested in these formulaic lines, which also lend themselves to theological constructions. One interpretation of this experience supports a religious reading: "If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable" (I, lines 4-5). Eliot suggests that the time that grounds metaphysics may be what separates the believer from the possibility of personal redemption. The speaker strongly questions "a world of speculation" that prevents us from coming to terms with time in some new way (I, lines 6-8). A belief in human finitude cannot be identified with meditation alone, or with a sudden passage into subjective immediacy.

After beginning the poem in this rather abstract manner, Eliot punctuates his stable rhythms with a single line that descends quickly enough to produce a radical change in tempo: "What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present" (I, lines 9-10). The word "point" initiates a new poetic sequence, and this transitional word has been identified with an early movement from static to dynamic form (Gross 171-72). The Dantean evocation of the rose garden with its echoes and inviting thrush, as well as the appearance of elders who emerge in the autumn heat, are aspects of a poetic scene that never entirely stabilizes. "Burnt Norton" indicates that structure may involve perception but need not be identified with an eternal present. The rose garden itself may be a mirage. The image of the elders disappears in the water behind the onlooker. Nonetheless, this section of the poem also dramatizes how experience assumes the form of a temporal pattern, instead of turning into a discrete series of moments. Here, Eliot is engaged in confronting the specifically Romantic view that the individual can substitute for a loss of religious authority that is capable of endowing tradition with concrete significance. The problem with this substitution is that it evades the tendency of experience itself to become radically discontinuous whenever the subject becomes fully autonomous. The argument of "Burnt Norton" is largely an attempt to demonstrate how the isolated self is prey to the dangers of subjectivism, since the past as past provides no firm basis for present action.

The movement from static to dynamic form becomes inherently destabilizing when it suggests how language evades closure as it foregrounds the withdrawal of personal security. "Burnt Norton" is a tribute to air, but its real theme is not the realm of the mind but the phenomenon of impermanence. The elders who appear are placed above the viewer, and the quest for authority acquires religious overtones as the young observer, remembering childhood, attempts to join the elders: "There they were our guests, accepted and accepting" (I, line 32). In a moment, however, the lotus emerges in the pool composed of sunlight. The disappearance of the adults registers a crisis in the child's world: "And they were behind us, reflected in the pool/Then a cloud passed and the pool was empty" (I, lines 37-39). The image of permanence proves to be illusory, but the spiritual significance of the encounter is hard to evade. (4) The contrast between the space of the elders and the actual situation of the self in time could be interpreted in terms of a sharp opposition between deceptive security and the possibility of a radically non-phenomenal truth. But to read this contrast in exclusively doctrinal terms would be to neglect a dimension of experience that cannot be assimilated to religious knowledge.

The desire for constancy in a scene of appearances also animates a brief narrative that demonstrates how aesthetic apprehension provides an inadequate basis for assessing the poet's insertion in both time and language. "Burnt Norton" evokes the concept of a stable pattern that survives the flux of time, implying the presence of the self in an aesthetic experience of meaning. However, Eliot criticizes the basically abstract conception of experience that underlies "aesthetic differentiation" as a modern strategy that tends to reduce actual experience to the level of pure sensation. (5) It is not the single note, played on a violin, but the "co-existence" of the end and the beginning that brings true stillness into being: "And the end and the beginning were always there,/Before the beginning and after the end" (V, lines 11-12). When transcribed into a discourse on creativity, this musical analogy can be read as a commentary on how the individual talent is best considered in terms of an experience of wholeness in time, rather than as an isolated aesthetic phenomenon. Language, however, is not primarily founded on a one-to-one correspondence between names and meanings: "Words strain/Crack, and sometimes break," and the voices that assail the protagonist are often the cause of further deceptions (V, lines 13-22). The cultural process is not a seamless unity but presupposes a kind of semantic strain that may be an ineradicable aspect of language itself.

"East Coker," the second part of Four Quartets, honors a village in Somerset where Eliot's family lived before migrating to New England in the seventeenth century. The circularity of ends and beginnings is a basic theme in this sequence, which registers the distance between past and present, just as it offers the reader revealing glimpses of the modernist poet. The transition from a modern to a pre-modern setting occurs in the second half of the first section of the poem. In "East Coker," the author is engaged in writing the poetry of the earth. However, while his description of a country dance recalls medieval England, Eliot's literary references provide the basis for a contrast between two periods in time. (6) The ancestor's dialogue with Augustine is part of a qualified recommendation of dance as a controlled expression of the humane virtues. The poet reverses this acceptance, not only in associating the dancers themselves with an impermanent nature, but also in questioning the possibility of grounding that dance seems to offer as an artistic discipline. Hence, just where the poem might seem to offer the strongest evidence of an unbroken tradition, Eliot emphasizes the phenomenological discontinuity between earth and world. (7)

The value of inherited wisdom is also called into question when the poet acknowledges how modern life proceeds on the basis of an underlying discord. The knowledge that derives from experience is by no means based on a stable relationship between knower and known: "For the pattern is new in every moment/And every moment is a new and shocking/Evaluation of all we have been" (II, lines 35-37). Just as Eliot's medieval ancestors lived in a time when the patterns of existence were mysterious and uncertain, the modernist poet is subjected to 'the shock of the new,' which prevents twentieth-century art from being subsumed under the categories of traditional humanism. While the earth may be enchanting, it is also the site of a dark wood where the journey is confusing and the foothold is insecure. We are lost "not only in the middle of the way/But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble," at the beginning of a spiritual quest (II, lines 39-40). The speaker's words refer the reader to the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy and indicate as well that the poet is situated in a time of crisis.

"East Coker" also re-creates the conditions of a twenty-year journey that has involved unceasing efforts to renew language in spite of continual setbacks. "Twenty years largely wasted, the years of entre deux guerres" have led to an understanding of how language constantly falls behind the demands of the present (V, lines 2-7). The condition of living between two wars can be interpreted in terms of twentieth-century history or as a description of the modernist writer's journey between two moments of cultural depletion. Poetry may be incapable of forestalling the return of international conflict or personal disintegration. The political situation has been one of internecine discord, rather than armistice, and the response of the vigilant artist can be compared to that of the modern combatant who engages in strategic actions. And yet, every "new beginning" requires the use of "shabby equipment always deteriorating" amidst raids and missions conducted in a strict effort to renew our relationship to what we seem to possess (V, lines 7-18). Eliot's use of the vocabulary of war draws an analogy between the historical situation in which tradition itself is under siege and a basic agon in the mind of the modernist writer, whose relationship to the past is abrupt, discontinuous, and constantly threatened with the possibility of internal dissolution.

In contrast, "The Dry Salvages," the third part of the poem, employs language very differently in its invocation of river and sea as symbols of continuity and civilizational awareness. Unlike "East Coker," in which the poet reveals a surprising kinship between two ways of life only to suggest how language itself does not permit us to achieve constancy in time, this part of the poem employs a more symbolic approach to personal experience in order to restore a measure of psychic wholeness to the speaker's words. The title of this section refers to a small group of rocks off Cape Ann, Massachusetts, marking a place that Eliot knew as a boy. The element of water is appropriate to an expansive quality and to a certain flatness of tone that are suggestive of epic writing in general. However, while the subject-matter and tone suggest epic tradition, the speaker is somehow reluctant to adopt the knowing attitude of the epic writer, who somehow mediates between divine authority and the more limited experience of men. In contrast to the epic mode, an attitude of uncertainty and a sense of distance inform the lyric admonitions that place all human adventures under the sign of mortality. And yet, in the first section of the poem, the prayer to the Lady above the promontory overlooking the sea of drowned sailors becomes a symbol of rebirth. Hence, while alluding to the final canto of the Paradiso in addressing 'Figlia del tuo figlio,/ Queen of Heaven," Eliot refers us to a common action that is enlisted in the defense of an actual homeland (Dante III: 33, lines 1-29). The symbolic aspect of "The Dry Salvages" points to the possibility of otherwordly transcendence, but it also indirectly indicates how religion is to be realized as, in some sense, 'historical.'

The theme of history finally emerges more strongly in "Little Gidding," the final section of the poem, which resumes the Augustinian concern with time and mortality that informed the poem at the outset. The opening of this poem sets up a strange antinomy: "Midwinter spring is its own season" (I, line 1). The darkest time of the year has become the scene for unearthly illuminations. The spirit stirs in the winter glare, but the hedgerow that whitens "the transitory blossoms/Of snow" may not belong to mundane experience (I, lines 14-18). Here, Eliot returns to the starting point of his long poem. The impermanence of the world, the illusion of progress, and the loss of traditional authority are themes that recur in phrase and diction, suggesting the circularity of the poet's undertaking. (8) This final sequence commemorates a religious community founded by Nicholas Ferrar in the seventeenth century (Gish 112). However, since the speaker suggests that the pilgrim should go in a spirit of contrition, rather than triumph, the journey cannot be read as purposive unless purpose itself can be assigned an indeterminate meaning (I, lines 25-35). The role of nature in this movement is not as important as the prospective repetition of a spiritual beginning, which prefigures a rebirth that should not be confused with the rotation of the seasons.

"Little Gidding" revolves around the image of fire, but the four elements that constitute Four Quartets are lyrically dispersed throughout the second part of this concluding sequence. This final section provides an emblem of creative wholeness, just as it holds out the possibility of resolving basic differences in a single 'text' of achieved unity. However, the emblem constitutes a promise, rather than an achievement, and the text that it constitutes is far from seamless. The poet's task is presented through an encounter that indicates a possible gap between expression and realization. When the poet meets his precursor, we cannot be sure that he has begun to move toward the successful appropriation of an alien style and spirit. The speaker walks on the asphalt road in the early morning only to discover "some dead master" whose features may be those of Brunetto Latini, the Florentine man of letters whose longing for immortal fame inspired his listener to seek eternal life (Dante I: 15, lines 80-90). The image "of some dead master/ Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled/Both one and many" is other to the poet and yet strangely familiar (II, lines 39-41). After remarking on the strangeness of the encounter, the modern poet listens to his visitor rehearse the pains and disappointments of literary life (II, lines 58-92). Gardner traces this "familiar compound ghost" to Eliot's reading of Dante, and mentions that he cites a line from Mallarme and also recalls the words of both Virgil and Milton (179-81). The suggestion that the visitor also may be Hamlet's ghost is reinforced by his departing words, which suggest that Shakespeare as well provides the poet with a model for understanding his own past (Blackmur 181). (9)

Moreover, later in "Little Gidding," Eliot extends the difference between self and other into the text of history, particularly in evoking major figures in a civil conflict that was not resolved peacefully (III, lines 26-32). In such situations, history often seems to assume the form of a pattern, "but the pattern is within all history; it is not a rare and transitory achievement within chaos" (Gish 115). The relationship between love and suffering allows the poet to conceive of the air-raids conducted over wartime London as a redemptive sign (IV, lines 1-7). And yet, whatever new world may be in the making is never entirely original. The poet reopens the issues of time and language, which are inseparable from the possibility of initiating new beginnings. A new beginning, however, cannot involve a complete severance from the past anymore than it constitutes a total revision of tradition. The initiation of a new beginning involves a retrospective survey, which sets the scene for a progressive movement beyond the immediate present: "What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning" (V, lines 1-2). Even in situations that seem to exclude historical conflict, we cannot assume that human beings can escape the pressures of time: "A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern of timeless moments" (V, lines 20-22). History seems to be a situation that permits achievements of lasting worth, rather than the universal site in which the past continues to erupt upon the present.

And yet, if the patterns of history transcend everyday experience, how can "timeless moments" be presented in a language that remains inexorably temporal? Surely the poet is not in the position to communicate the verdict of history when the meaning of action is hard, if not impossible, to determine. Eliot often suggests that history is inseparable from the appraisal of figurative meanings that form the pattern of tradition at any given moment. This would mean, however, that the pattern of tradition would be difficult to detach from conflicts in interpretation that often constitute experience itself. The reader is encouraged to participate in a movement toward a religious goal, but the movement itself, rather than the imagined end, is the theme of the journey.

The words that form the conclusion to Four Quartets state that "the tongues of flame are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/and the fire and the rose are one" (V, lines 44-46). (10) The opposition between fire and rose can be traced back to different traditions, which, in turn, proliferate rather than consolidate hermeneutical options. At the end of the journey, the image that brings together discordant visions is "laced" rather than "fused," suggesting different strands of a disparate text (Jay 247-48). From this standpoint, Eliot's "crowned knot of fire" is associated with a poetics of indeterminacy, but it also suggests how the poet assumes a unique role in a temporal setting. This movement of the poem is one that "promotes," rather than merely signifies, the action of conversion itself. (11) Moreover, the dual sign that engages the reader attests to a figural difference and sustains the hope of an open future by taking us to the very site where the self steps back from the eternal moment and becomes personally engaged in literature and in the task of shaping his own life.


The importance of 'discourse' to Four Quartets offers a critical rejoinder to those who would minimize the historical nature of literary production. New Critical orthodoxy always tended to favor Eliot's early essays over the later ones as authoritative in matters of interpretation and literary method. However, Eliot himself expressed the hope that The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1932), rather than his early essays, might be taken as the major statement of his own work as a critic. Based on the Norton lectures that he presented at Harvard in 1932-33, this book emphasized the social and historical nature of poetry and criticism, instead of arguing that poetry is essentially 'pure' or that criticism entails the same tasks during all periods. (12) Here Eliot maintains that literary understanding is culturally mediated and that the identity of the poem is more than a function of the author's self-understanding, since we do not understand ourselves apart from the signs that mediate our existence: "What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning--or without forgetting, merely changing" (130). This element of change becomes an essential theme in a 'discursive' poetry that sometimes alludes to the poem's original condition as a state of perpetual nonclosure. Moreover, the possibility that literature can change in meaning places the existence of the poem itself somewhere between the writer's expression and the reader's experience of his words (30).

The reader of Four Quartets who responds to the author's directives is invited to imitate a skeptical quest that surpasses the will to return to any single place, just as it opens up an Augustinian concern for temporal experience. The poem, in short, encourages us to step back from what might otherwise become an exercise in speculative theology in order to envision, in the mode of repetition, what William Spanos has identified with the moment in which the past is "repeated forwards" (529). This kind of action radically contrasts with what occurs in the mode of recollection, which enables us to separate ourselves from the past and to envision time under the aspect of eternity. It is true, of course, that the original reception of Four Quartets, and its persistent canonization as an essentially Tennysonian poem, have prevented it from being read as a repetition in which the past is re-configured. An author who often alludes to a vanished past in a quasi-narrative style of writing seems to encourage remoteness and detachment. Moreover, in this case, the reluctance of many critics to consider Four Quartets as a development of modernist ideas and practices could be attributed to the poem's dry tone, its relative unconcern with concrete experience, and its sustained use of reflective procedures.

Nonetheless, the poem itself can be read as the repetition of a basically temporal experience that cannot be assimilated to either a Platonic scheme of recollection or to the historicist theme of an 'end to history' that Christian theology tends to project as formally sufficient and universally binding. What this means in critical terms is that Four Quartets is a poem that often defers presence instead of instating it, and that its concern with conversion can be related to patterns of repetition that announce the arrival of what is new in the mode of historical awakening. William Spanos discovers "the absence of presence" in Four Quartets, which "is not ultimately a logocentric poem," but remains open to a movement beyond a purely recollective view of the past (526). From the autobiographical standpoint, the opposition between recollection and memory is particularly important in view of the changing role of the self in a poetic drama. If the poem were mainly concerned with the past in a reflective sense, it would be more or less grounded in a creative ego that surveyed its previous accomplishments in terms of stable moments in a continuous life. However, Eliot's interest in the redemption of the past, as opposed to its conscious reconstruction, suggests that his late work is certainly not historicist in the narrow sense anymore than it is reducible to apocalyptic yearnings for divine intervention.

Eliot's poetry is complicated precisely because it offers a textual record of the writer's immersion in a 'structure' that cannot be 'unfolded' once and for all, that is to say, it shows us how a pattern of irresolution brings absence into the presence of the present. Jacques Derrida has demonstrated how the 'fold' of the text provides a key to the auto-biographical, which should not be confused with what empirically pre-exists, but demonstrates how 'inside' and 'outside' are no longer opposed as discrete realities. (13) The poet interprets the past in terms of a process of repetition. For Derrida, however, such a process does not occur within a reflective mode, since "reflectivity is but an effect of the fold as text"; and indeed, when considered as a site of hermeneutical doubling, literature itself constantly "resists, within a given history, the pure and simple abolishing of the fold" (270). Literature, from this perspective, ceases to be a detached object that can be assimilated to formalist interpretation.

The spatial concerns of Four Quartets, which are often assumed to be marginal to the poem's temporal thematic, constitute settings through which the poetic speaker presents autobiographical meanings in a textual discourse. The place of objects in Eliot's late work can be traced back to the role of the image in modern poetry to the degree that literary modernism was always concerned with the "textuality" of literature, rather than limited to the referential uses of language. (14) Discourse performs an essential role in Four Quartets, where the unstable nature of time relativizes the sharp distinction often made between the act of memory and the scene remembered. The reader of Eliot's poem occupies an indeterminate locale, rather than a dogmatic scene, in which, for example, a return to both Dante and Heraclitus merely places us on the threshold of religious conversion. Within this framework, the function of poetry becomes inseparable from the attempt to gather the many threads of tradition, composing a larger text that cannot be interpreted according to a single code. The role of undecidability has less to do with self-conscious skepticism than with the reader's experience of the textual content of literature.

Thus we are now in a better position to suggest why Four Quartets is actually impossible to read in terms of a teleological pattern that structures the poem as the (closed) narrative of a poetic speaker. First of all, the poem works against the teleological reading by revealing how the poet implicates his use of poetic objects with a discourse on time and language, which questions the Platonic appropriation of Augustine and underlies the recourse to Heraclitus as the pre-metaphysical thinker of becoming. Eliot's rehabilitation of tradition is often interpreted in relation to a passion for unity that seems to be inconsistent with the emergence of poetic indeterminacy in the reading process itself. (15) However, while Eliot clearly privileges Dante over Shakespeare in much of his criticism, "Little Gidding" includes an encounter with an Italian master that culminates in an allusion to Hamlet's ghost, and, in this way, marks how a divided sensibility prevents the poet from fully resolving a personal crisis.

Second, the poem departs from teleology when it resists the subordination of aesthetics to a purely religious vision of spiritual perfection. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot argues that the aesthetic sensibility should possess a fluid relationship to spiritual perception, thus confronting the problem of subjectivism that has been a hallmark of modern aesthetic theory since Kant (102-04). His insistence on the connection between the realm of the aesthetic and that of spirit stops short of adopting the position of Hegel, who attempts to merge art and the Concept (Begriff) in a progressive philosophical system. In Four Quartets, where the appearance of nature is often welcome, the poet accepts the life of sensibility as one of the conditions of mortality, just as he demonstrates an interest in an opaque historicity that cannot be assimilated to a single meaning. The poem both exceeds a basically aesthetic approach to life and points toward a figurative dimension that cannot be comprehended in a hermeneutics of closure.

The possibility that Eliot's late work might be called "postmodern" has been suggested in recent criticism and might be deepened philosophically in a way that would allow us to reinterpret how memory performs a distinctive role in Four Quartets. (16) Our discussion of Eliot's late poetry began with a brief examination of Augustine's hermeneutical importance to the discourse on time that strongly emerges in the opening of "Burnt Norton." Our subsequent discussion of Eliot's autobiographical poem cast light not only on different aspects of the writer's life, but also demonstrated a use of memory that is irreducible to a purely reflective account of either personal or historical experience. While previous commentators on Four Quartets tended to read the poem teleologically, and thereby perpetuated a broadly Hegelian intepretation of the speaker's movement toward absolute truth, we have chosen instead to emphasize how the speaker invites us to repeat what cannot be recovered reflectively, but can only be remembered through the medium of poetry.

In The End of Modernity, Gianni Vattimo has argued in favor of a "postmodern" conception of hermeneutics that would allow us to move beyond the position of nineteenth-century historicism, particularly as represented by the Hegelian tradition with its emphasis on dialectical resolution as the key to cultural advancement. In this spirit, Vattimo has contrasted Heidegger's view of memory with Hegel's more systematic view as operative in historical phenomenology. (17) Vattimo's reading of Heidegger has the advantage of providing us with an interpretation of how memory can function in a specifically poetic mode, rather than as a mere servant of the metaphysical tradition. In interpreting Four Quartets, we are confronted with a textual rupture that enables us to see how the Heideggerian "overcoming" of metaphysics can be combined with a Kierkegaardian emphasis on creative repetition in suggesting how conversion can be assigned autobiographical significance. Eliot's poetics of self allows us to imagine how the movement of conversion involves a new relation to time and history. It also suggests that the self is a mystery, and that the indeterminate nature of experience, rather than a fixed concept of the past, is what opens up the possibility of repetition as the 'space' of change. The drama that unfolds is one in which the poet intervenes at crucial moments in a remembered life, inviting us to share in unfinished experiences of pain and joy, failure and success, darkness and knowledge. The view of tradition that becomes operative in this drama is one in which the poem becomes an autobiography that cannot be read apart from the spiritual quest that it inscribes.


(1) During the summer semester of 1921, Martin Heidegger offered a series of lectures on Augustine's Confessions that emphasized the difference between the religious conception of truth and the metaphysical orientation of traditional Greek philosophy. An early example of the philosopher's reappraisal of Western metaphysics, "Augustinus und der Neuplatonismus," explores the importance of the self to Augustine's own account of an existential crisis that reaches us in the form of autobiography.

(2) Eliot's later interest in subjective experience has been interpreted in much literary criticism as a prolongation of Symbolist values. Hugh Kenner's contention that the poem was "written under the sign of Mallarme" might be debated in some respects (133, 136-37). F. O. Mathiessen also acknowledges Mallarme's influence, but also emphasizes that, in one instance, Eliot does not want to develop the content of an obvious allusion (180). The Symbolist interpretation of Eliot's work, while not inaccurate, is misleading when it neglects to examine the poet's movement from a basically aesthetic conception of art to a more committed view of the artistic vocation.

(3) The poem was discussed in the earliest criticism in terms of the four elements in pre-Socratic cosmology (Gardner 45-46). Eliot refers to Hermarm Diels as his source for both citations. The first fragment has been rendered: "But although the Logos is common the many live as though they had a private understanding" (Kirk 57). The second fragment reads for almost all translators: "The way up and down is one and the same" (Kirk 105).

(4) The symbol of the lotus invokes Buddhist tradition, which also reminds us that both Eastern and Western mysticism often link fullness with vacancy, self with not-self. The first movement of "Burnt Norton" takes us to the limits of natural experience, conceived here as pure empiricism, particularly when it confounds the Absolute with personal annihilation (Moody 187).

(5) Hans-Georg Gadamer employs the term "aesthetic differentiation" in Truth and Method to describe one of the unfortunate effects that modern aesthetic consciousness exerts on art and artist alike (85-88). The overdevelopment of aesthetic consciousness in the nineteenth century disrupts the traditional accord between the work of art and the world itself. I will argue that Four Quartets registers this disruption, but that it also provides a deeper basis for understanding the poet's experience of this crisis in consciousness.

(6) The poet's allusion to Thomas Elyot's famous prose work, The Boke Named the Governour, modifies an ethos of nature that can be ascribed to Tudor Humanism (Moody 208-11). Eliot's use of his ancestor as a negative precursor reverses a system of values that Renaissance-Romantic art tended to endorse in an aesthetic of organic unity.

(7) The use of the terms 'earth' and 'world' has been suggested by Heidegger's essay, "The Origin of the Work of Art," an important study for the development of twentieth-century hermeneutics. "East Coker" suggests how the quality of material indeterminacy (earth) always exceeds the delimited space of cultural experience (world). Eliot's modernism in this context is concerned with how the work of art, as suggested by means of the dance, emerges through a 'rift' between the world and materiality itself.

(8) Thematic recurrences invoking the recapture of time compare to what can be found in the novels of Proust (Matthiesen 198). In Du cote de chez Swann, Proust's use of the two "ways"--namely, that of Meseglise and the Guermantes--provides his novel with scenic content. Eliot's poem makes use of scenic backgrounds to highlight distinct phases of his personal journey.

(9) Gregory Jay has emphasized the importance of Hamlet's ghost to the con clusion to "Little Gidding," thus testifying to the survival of Shakespearean poetics in Eliot's later work (235-36, 242-43). While Eliot's indebtedness to Dante is both evident and openly acknowledged, his use of Shakespeare, if often ambiguous, is perhaps no less important as a textual resource for his autobiographical poetry.

(10) We must not underestimate the degree to which Eliot has achieved a uniquely Christian vision in the Four Quartets. A. V. Moody, in agreement with Elizabeth Drew, has suggested that the oneness of fire and rose must be related to the Purgatorial aspect of the final encounter, which invokes Arnaut Daniel, who suffers in Dante's movement toward divine union (258-59). And yet, Heraclitus is still in the background of Eliot's final words: the flame is "in-folded" because it remains both separate and also integral to the Purgatorial scene. Eliot clearly privileges Christian tradition over pre-Socratic cosmology, but perhaps in a way that suggests Heidegger's late admission, particularly in "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking," that a-letheia has less do with the original Greek experience of truth than it does with a prospective view of what could be grasped as "unconcealment" in our own (postmodern) age (69-71).

(11) Paul Ricoeur distinguishes "promoting" figures from those that merely refer back to the past, but the problem of teleology reemerges whenever figurative language is interpreted symbolically, which would mean, in this case, in view of metaphysical considerations (326). While it would be hard to deny that Eliot's religious commitments can be interpreted metaphysically, Four Quartets is a text that does not always allow us to assume that the future is altogether implicit in the past.

(12) In discussing the importance of history and pluralism to his later criticism, Richard Shusterman contrasts The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism to Eliot's earlier work. Noting that in 1964 Eliot expressed the wish that this book, rather than his earlier essays, be taken to represent his work as a critic, Shusterman emphasizes "that the book's main thrust is towards critical pluralism," in contrast to the strong tendency toward objectivism that characterizes the earlier essays (78). His discussion emphasizes the importance of history to Eliot's later criticism.

(13) Derrida's notion of the fold lies at the heart of my study of Eliot's textual poetics. William Spanos succeeded in restoring the hermeneutics of temporality to a poem that was previously read in terms of New Critical formalism, but in my view the next step must be to rethink the importance of space as a textual issue that cannot be adopted as an untheoretized given in a 'poetics of self.' Derrida's notion of the fold can be interpreted hermeneutically in terms of the link between signifier and signifed, or it can be read deconstructively as the setting for autobiographical writing.

(14) Joseph Riddel has discussed how Ezra Pound's early definition of the word image, which bears a definite relation to a deconstructive reading of psychoanalysis, was initially concerned with textual layering, rather than with the 'representation' of external objects (340-49). This reading of Pound's work is an inherent criticism of the idea that Imagism was primarily a poetics of stasis, and it also suggests how Eliot's early modernism (which also integrates an awareness of imaginal consciousness) could be grounded in a more historical view of tradition at a somewhat later period in the poet's career.

(15) Octavio Paz has identified Joyce, Eliot, and Pound with a return to the European heritage that coincides with a "re-Latinization of English-language poetry" in the twentieth century (163-69). In Eliot's case, this would apply more clearly to his early work, which employs classical allusions and French models as well as an interest in Dante and medieval literature. While his later work certainly continues to bear witness to the presence of Dante, the broader question of religious truth cannot be interpreted in exclusively linguistic terms.

(16) Ronald Bush suggests that the term "postmodern" might be useful in describing the late works of Joyce, Woolf, and Lawrence (200). A more theoretical use of the term informs my discussion of Four Quartets. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard defines the postmodern in art as what refers, within the limits of presentation, to what cannot be presented (79-82). Although Eliot's criticism hardly supports this kind of art, his poetry sometimes anticipates it and casts light on overlooked aspects of modernist poetry.

(17) Gianni Vattimo places Hegel's "recollection" (Erinnerung) against Heidegger's "poetic thinking" (An-Denken) as dissimilar versions of memory in the Western philosophical tradition (115, 118-20, 171-76). This contrast concerns the difference between Hegel's "onto-theology" and the "weakening of Being" that can be found in Heidegger's later work. From this standpoint, Eliot's use of memory in Four Quartets communicates the process through which religious belief challenges traditional Platonism, instead of merely confirming its ahistorical agenda.

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