Friday, September 3, 2010


T. S. Eliot

If there is a single poem that draws me back into its folds year after year, it is T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, The Four Quartets.  I go there in times of deep questioning, knowing that I will always find solace; I go there when I think that I have found answers, knowing that my answers will be tested and destroyed if false; I go there for the sheer music and arrangement of words that prod, delight, and challenge me to pay attention to the reality — not the ideal — of my life.

From my perspective, The Four Quartets is essentially the journal of a questing soul.  In words  that delight as much as they confound, the poem speaks to those questions that lurk silently in every human heart:  What are the unmitigated truths of our lives?  Is there anything that we can rely upon?  What are the consequences of denying our authenticity and living lives designed by others?  Can we trust the wisdom of the wisdom-givers?  How do we find peace in a spinning world?  How do we confront the impermanence of everything, including not only our lives, but the present moment?  What shall we do with the autumn of life?  Is there anything that is eternal, beyond the realm of time?

The poem is too long to quote in full.  I have chosen a few excerpts, however, that offer a small glimpse into the mind and razor-sharp intellect of Eliot.  I would be interested in knowing if any of you discover, as I have, something in these words or images that resonates with your own lives.

Each change in color represents a separate excerpt. Enjoy!

The Four Quartets

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.
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.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

At the still point of the turning world.  
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, 
there the dance is . . .

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time . .

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.
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.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and 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.

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.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire 
Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.

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 your are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by the way wherein there is no ecstasy.
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 to arrive at where 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.

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.

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving . . .

We had the experience but missed the meaning.

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  lightening
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.  These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses: and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought, and action.

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

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.

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.



  1. I too am an Eliot fan George. I love all his work - maybe The Waste Land most of all. For individual poems I love 'The winter evening settles down.....' which conjures up such a beautiful set of images. I once stood by his tomb in Poet's corner in Westminster Abbey and watched his widow lay a bunch of violets on the stone. Very moving.

  2. To Pat,

    I'm always glad to find another Eliot fan, and what an experience it must have been to be in Westminster Abbey and see Eliot's widow place violets on her husband's tomb. Thanks for that very interesting anecdote.

  3. Hi George, I shouldn't admit this, but I haven't read Eliot since I was a young college student, MANY years ago. Why? I can't fathom, because once again I'm drawn to his philosophy, and my (older) brain grapples with his meaning. Now, I believe you've opened the door to his poetry for me once again. I do love this quote: "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."

  4. To Barb,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Barb. For what it's worth, I find "The Four Quartets" to be more compelling with every passing year. Eliot is really looking back on his life and telling us not only what he has learned, but also what he has failed to learn. At one point, he writes —

    "The poetry does not matter. It was not (to start again) what one had expected. What was to be the value of the long looked forward to, long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity and the wisdom of age?"

    Spend time with the poem and you will surely be rewarded with insights. Thanks again.

  5. Yes, this poem's a very significant one for me too, George, and I've quoted it several times on my blog. Can't go into things as much as I'd like to right now - have come back from Cornwall with a bad cold, am feeling tired and a little unwell - but it would be great to expand on this great poetic masterpiece later.

  6. To Robert,

    Thanks and be well, Robert. I've been under the weather myself for a couple of weeks and I know how difficult it is to get back in the swing of things. If you have something to add to the Eliot discussion later, it would be welcome. Here's hoping you will feel better soon.

  7. PS I came back to reread the excerpts you've provided - I think I'm hooked. I also wanted to say that the "Dreamfields" painting goes well with this post. It also opens the mind to possibilities.

  8. To Barb,

    Thanks, Barb. Glad you are hooked and also happy that you like the painting.

  9. Hi George: I have to slow down. I wrote a comment earlier this afternoon, but I think I click 'post comment' and then click away without the word verification. Frustrating, because I wrote the most profound and erudite comment - now lost in the ether. ;-)

    Fist, let me say what a beautiful pairing you have made. The layers and chinks of gold in your painting summon up a vision of Eliot's lines: 'lost in a shaft of sunlight' and the last line where 'the fire and the rose are one'.

    I could happily lose myself in Eliot and always re-emerge with fresh understandings and insights. What genius.

    In The Four Quartets, I always drop to my knees at the phrase, '...costing not less than everything." Giving up our neuroses, stories, possessions, hope, understanding of where we are and where we are going, etc. is certainly what is required - and always what I seem to resist.

    Thank you George. Have to sign off as we are meeting friends for supper. Nice to begin the long weekend with edifying things to contemplate.
    Hope you are not being hit too hard by Earl!

  10. To Bonnie,

    Thanks for the lovely comments, Bonnie. I can't imagine that the earlier comments, which are floating out there somewhere in the ether, were more meaningful.

    I really like what you say here about the meaning of the phrase, "costing not less than everything." It truly is encompassing, isn't it? — the notion that we must also give up our neuroses and the threadbare narratives we have created about our lives. Thanks for sharing these insights, and I hope you have a lovely weekend. No problems with Earl here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

  11. When your post came up on Google Reader yesterday, I was at work, and I suddenly panicked, looking around for my copy of The Four Quartets. It had sat by my office phone for years, waiting for me to pick it up and read a few lines every now and then. I never read the whole thing, but I fell in love with the words “garlic and sapphires in the mud” and knew there was something special there. Actually, my poetry mentor Diane Wakoski had told me she thought it was the most important and wonderful poem in the world of poetry, which is why I picked it up from the free book table in the hall. I still have not found my copy, which I believe is here at home somewhere. I will look when the house wakes up.

    I’m going to respond to these excerpts before reading the comments of others, so my thoughts won’t be shaped by them. Then I’ll read them and see if I have anything to add.

    I see there the stanza that my dear friend Barry had at the bottom of his blog, which I didn’t discover until he had passed away,

    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.

    In general, I hear Eliot say, Don’t be attached to anything, think for yourself, but think with the part of you that is deepest and most connected to eternity. The thinking is not thinking as we think of it. It’s more like feeling the world. This passage speaks to me the clearest this morning:

    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.

    Waiting without answers has been very difficult for me most of my life. But as I told you recently in a comment response at my place, I am seeing the unfolding of living with ambiguity, not knowing how what I do or say will affect someone, but living in the reality of who I am and being OK with what may be not-too-happy consequences.

    Now I relish the task of going back and reading others comments, and your responses. Thank you for this, George.

  12. To Ruth,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think that you will find much in "The Four Quartets" that will illuminate your journey. Having said that, I must admit that my understanding of the poem grows deeper with each reading and each year. There are parts of the poem that have often seemed obscure and confounding, leaving me with a bit of frustration that I may be missing something. With more experience, however, and more time spent allowing myself to marinate in the words, I find that new truths are unveiled. In many of Eliot's poems, I hear the poet saying something like this: "I have something important to tell you, but you must be patient; you must grow comfortable with not understanding everything before you can understand anything; you must be willing to wait and watch; and then, by grace, you will see the timeless and eternal unfold before your eyes."

    Good luck in your discoveries. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find a new jewel each time you read the poem.

  13. Thanks. I found my copy, just where I thought it would be (on that pile on the dresser that might topple any second, but maybe it has a longer life now that I've taken the Four Quartets out). I like thinking of the poem as a lifelong friend, as you've described it, to come back to, to sit with, to learn from, about the world and ideas, and about myself.

  14. i certainly am lost with much of this but i find enough to intrigue me and want to return.
    there are ways we try to transcend time, perhaps with memories and dreams, with what results? i have no personal memories of the world wars, can i remember them without memories?
    i also ponder the difference between hope and faith.
    typing is not easy, i am horizontal for a few days, it is a time for reading and marinating.
    hope you soon get yourself out from under that weather.

  15. To Ruth,

    I'm glad you've found your copy, Ruth. You have, indeed, found another lifelong friend, someone who has made the walk ahead of you.

  16. To Tramp,

    Sorry that you find yourself horizontal at this point, Tramp. May good blessings put you back on your feet soon.

    I'm glad that you are intrigued by Eliot's poem. Its meaning does not always come quickly, but patience with the poem has yielded great riches to me over the years.

    Personally, I don't think that time can be transcended through either memories or dreams. Memories are about the past and dreams are about the future. As Eliot reaffirms over and over in his poem, however, the eternal — which is to say the timeless — can only be found in the present moment, that point of reality that is blessedly free of the the twin fictions — past and future.

    As for hope and faith, I think there is a difference. Faith, to me, is a commitment to the mysterious unfolding of life, with all of its ebbs and flows, even when experience tells my ego that there is no reason to hope for a particular result. Maybe hope is the work of the ego, whereas faith is the work of the deeper Self, the Spirit, that which weaves everything together as One LIfe.

    Get well soon, my friend.

  17. I saw your post at Dutchbaby's about Arles and the Roman aqueduct. Today Peter in Paris has a post on just that. I don't know if you know him. It's great to see blog friends meeting and enjoying each other.

  18. To Ruth,

    Thanks. I will check out Peter's blog. Have a nice Labor Day weekend.

  19. 'Thinking of the poem as a lifelong friend', as Ruth said, is absolutely the way to see it. Now - back to the throat lozenges and lack of sympathy from everyone else in the house (oh, yes, do I feel sorry for myself!)

  20. To Robert,

    I agree, Robert, and you have my sympathy because I am in much the same shape. Perhaps we can feel sorry for one another.

  21. George, I finished my first read-through today. Some passages "took" immediately, and my orange pen was madly underlining. Some passages were opaque, though whether it was from my own state of mind, or his words, I can't say. But you say there are passages like that for you too. Anyway, I came back to tell you that I'm hooked. Now, to go back, and to let places like the following do their work . .

    Desire itself is movement
    Not in itself desirable;
    Love is itself unmoving,
    Only the cause and end of movement, . . .

  22. Thank you for nudging me towards these poems. I've not read them for a while - but I will, now.

    One of my favourite bits is

    "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
    Is a strong brown god--sullen, untamed and intractable..."

  23. To Ruth,

    Glad to know that your are hooked on "The Four Quartets," and I'm especially happy that you have not been discouraged by the opaque passages. With those sections of the poem, as well as difficult passages in some of his other work, I spend some time reading them very slowly in the context of the rhythm and flow of the whole piece. When that doesn't work, I relish what I have understood elsewhere and move on. Often, however, I return to the opaque passages after many years and, suddenly, the meaning becomes clear. It's as if some intervening experience in my personal life has made it possible for me to see Eliot's words with new eyes.

    You will find that Eliot will be a good friend and companion on your journey. Like all good friends, however, he often requires that we be patient.

  24. To Dominic,

    Thanks, Dominic. I, too, like that passage about the river being a strong brown god. It's a very powerful verse.

  25. Sympathy winging your way!

    Btw, I really liked your definition of and distinction between hope and faith.

  26. To Robert,

    Many thanks, my friend, and I trust that you are on your way to a full recovery. Mine has been quite slow.

  27. 'we shall not cease.." is probably my most favorite part-- the one I have found and quoted in my workshops and blog..from time to time.. the idea that we go along the journey, learning and trying and doing, and think we have learned something new, but we really just started to notice and pay attention and focus to what was always there.

  28. To Donna,

    This passage is my favorite as well, Donna, because it reminds us that the journey is always inward to discover who we were in the first place. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

  29. I'm nodding my head and doing an inward cheer. I recently had a debate with a friend about why Eliot is a master. She dismisses him as being "overrated." She is wrong, wrong, wrong. She also couldn't come up with any concrete arguments. Sadly, many MFA programs are starting to adopt this attitude.

    The excerpts you have chosen are brilliant (and some of my favorites). Like you, I learn something new every time I read.

    The painting is also amazing and goes so well with this post. Thank you again for another stimulating read!

  30. To Julie,

    Glad you liked the post, Julie. To each his own, I suppose, but I suspect that those who dismiss Eliot as "overrated" have not made the commitment to trying to understand the depth and meaning of his work. Here is a brilliant poet who has walked ahead of me on this journey of discovery, and who has worked assiduously to provide me with the insights gained from his experiences. For that, I feel nothing but admiration and gratitude.