For my fourth and final installment on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I decided to do something a little different. For each of the first three poems, I explored some of the themes and symbolism that appeared throughout the poems. For “Little Gidding” I am going to focus on a single motif: Eliot’s impressions of the impact his poetry had on the world.
Eliot was 54 when he completed this poem in 1942. This would have been right in the midst of World War II. It is not surprising that as he was entering the later years of his life and observing the turmoil around him that he would contemplate the impact he might have had on the world as well as his contributions to humanity.
There are two sections of the poem that I want to explore. The first is within the long stanza at the end of Part II. Here, Eliot is having a conversation with himself. The elder self, having the wisdom that comes with experience, shares his insights with the younger self.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
It appears that Eliot feels he is at the end of his creative period and that a new voice, or new poet, is needed to begin advancing the next generation. I sense a touch of sadness, but the older self is encouraging and validating, reminding himself that his words had an impact, that they have value. Eliot’s poetry can certainly “urge the mind to aftersight and foresight.” I know that whenever I have read anything by Eliot, I find myself examining my past and at the same time envisioning my future, while somehow staying centered in the present.
The other section I want to talk about appears at the beginning of Part V.
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 word neither diffident not 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.
I almost feel guilty writing about this section. It is so beautiful and honest, I feel like anything I write would fail to live up to the poetic beauty expressed here. It is the perfect description of Eliot’s poetry. When I think about all the poetry I have read by Eliot, it is true that every phrase and every sentence is just right. Every word that he chooses, whether common or formal, fits right in and does not seem out of place. The cadence of the language has an innate musicality that causes the words to dance together, bringing the poems to life. And yes, “every poem is an epitaph.” Each of his poems honors his genius and his contributions to humanity.
As a writer and a musician, I am no different from many other artists. I have no desire to become rich and powerful, but I have a humble hope that something which I create and share might have a positive impact on another person. I wish I could let Mr. Eliot know that his words have made a difference in my life.