By T.S. Eliot
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1943
39 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2012

Many of T.S. Eliot’s earlier poems have been ones I’ve read often and loved. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is one of my favorites. However, I had tried to read Four Quartets several times in the past and just couldn’t make much sense of it. Finally, feeling quite inadequate to the task, decided to turn to the critics to give me some guidance and leads, and then see if I couldn’t find out just WHY so many have thought this to be among Eliot’s very best poems.

I first read and took some notes from critics, then turned to the quartets themselves, reading them, taking notes, thinking about them, and going back to them. I did this for five readings within two days and finally I began to “get it.”

But, alas I wasn’t as pleased and enlightened as I had hoped. I have finally come to get a decent understanding of the poetry, but I don’t like the message and don’t see the world as Eliot did.

I would separate the notions of the poem into two different categories – first he has a view of how the human world moves from generation to generation, learning, changing, yet not much “progressing,” just changing, learning to improve this or that, while at the same time doing more harm to the society, planet and other creatures as the human species changes. However, there is an overarching “meaning” to human existence for Eliot. It has a purpose; this purpose is related to a higher power and, because of the agency of this power (God), humans face a life after death and some sort of eternal reward.

I tend to see this natural world in much the way Eliot does in the first sense; a world which may change technologically, but doesn’t change much in the everyday sense and that both memory and expectation condition the way we humans see our world.

But, Eliot not only describes that world, but does so magnificently in brilliant poetry (at least after the help of critics and several reading I have come to that conclusion).

However, unlike Eliot I don’t see the world through the eyes of religion and redemption and eternal life. For me, coming as I do out of an Existentialist background and different experience than Eliot, the life of each human is just as temporal as that of a mouse, a rose or a cloud. Each being lives out its life according to the laws of nature, and then dies and is gone. Certainly not necessarily gone to the memory of others, but gone in any real sense “of the world”. Thus, despite the magnificent manner of Eliot’s poetic description, I just couldn’t go with his view, especially in the third and fourth quartets where we see this commitment to the human merging with the infinite.

Despite the fact that we have different philosophical and religious views, I am delighted that I “sought help” and finally disciplined my reading with the help of the critics and came to what I think is an understanding of his insights and brilliant ability to bring them to this reader in a FEELING manner.

What I began to notice by about the fourth or fifth reading was that while I was at times brisling intellectually at the message, at the same time I was feeling deeply the manner of description, the images, and the poetry of the presentation. Were I to have had the joy of actually meeting Eliot and heard him read the work, I would have congratulated him for the power of the presentation of his vision even though the vision itself would not have been my own.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett