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Four Quartets [Paperback]

T. S. Eliot
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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5.0 out of 5 stars Must-Have March 20 2002
The first two poems of this collection -- "Burnt Norton" and "East Coker" -- are among the greatest extended poems written in English in the 20th Century, or in any other century for that matter. The last two -- "The Dry Salvages" and "Little Gidding" -- contain, hands down, some of the worst episodes ever produced by any major poet, though these should by no means be included amongst the worst poems. The sins these later poems share in common are the related ones of flagging inspiration and patchiness, both of which can be seen as having their root in Eliot's attempt to take the 5-part prototype of "Burnt Norton," the first of the bunch to be written, and to will the others into being by using it as their model. If, however, this is failure, then we should all be so fortunate to be such failures.
Anyway, despite obvious flaws, "Four Quartets" is one of the landmarks of modernist poetry. Basically, the poems are meditations on time and eternity and, most importantly, the excruciatingly difficult task of trying to attain a little "consciousness" therein. Those, however, who feel no great kinship with philosophical poetry -- who indeed feel that poetry should express "no ideas, except in things," are perhaps never going to warm up to this collection. For those, on the other hand, who believe that poetry is one of the primary tools for grappling with the verities, then what else can I say except pounce on this collection? Oh, it's going to take many readings, much time and a great deal of thinking to plummet the furthest recesses of this profoundly great art, but then again what more could you ask for from poetry?
By the way, if you've never heard the recordings of Eliot reading these works, then you simply haven't lived.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Making the 20th century speak with Dante's tongue July 29 2001
By A Customer
This, quite frankly, is the best poem of the 20th century, and it gets better everytime you read it. From the apparent darkness of the first stanzas of Burnt Norton to the broadening towards lucidity of the last lines, there is much to love, much to admire, and much to quote. You will find lines that speak to the heart directly: you will also find, after numerous readings, splendid little details, which reveal the craftiness with which Eliot handled this superb adieu - for it is the last great work in poetry he has written. The greatest achieve of Eliot in Four Quartets, is the way he manages to reach out to the greatest poet in history, who lived a number of centuries ago, and have the language speak with his tongue, simultaneously admitting that Dante's world view cannot be copied in today's world - but that does not mean that his form of structure and vivid allusions should not be employed: in this poem, the Trecento and the century of the atomic bomb have found common ground to behold each other as not quite congenial, yet deeply related brothers. The past is not dead - it's not even past yet.
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This, Eliot's last work, is by far his finest. In it he explores the nature of reality (where do we come from, where are we, where do we go) in an ever opening play of language that rewards numerous re-readings (I have carried this book EVERYWHERE in the nine years I've owned it. Not a week goes by that I don't read, quote or pawn it off upon someone). Like a rose it opens and, like truth, it's impossible to pin down or draw into some box that is easily describable; able to be shown as parts that construct some whole.
The "Bhagavad Gita" heavily influenced Eliot at this time, and you can see references both to the players (Arjuna and Krishna) and ideas of that text in each of the poems contained in "Four Quartets" (in much the same way as "The Golden Bough" informed "The Waste Lands"). Indeed, the entire book feels decidely Eastern (with every statement being balanced somewhere by it's complimentary didatic-opposite), or at least of the Classical, if any, Western period (the cyclical nature of both the ideas and the structure of the poems feels like a Zoraster or Golden Dawn, see Yeats' "Second Coming" or "Sailing To Byzantium", manuscript).
All of this is just to say, these poems cover a lot of mythical and actual ground. They may not appear as lush and vibrant on first reading as, say, "The Waste Lands"- but this is only due to thier precision and conciseness ("The Waste Lands", although a wonderful piece, being more of a sculpture than a poem, with whole segments being dropped, moved, added, rewritten, tweaked and recalibrated numerous times by two people other than Eliot over a span of decades).
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5.0 out of 5 stars Not "The Waste Land," but what is? March 17 2000
T. S. Eliot's last significant poems -- completed more than 20 years before his death -- are exquisite philosophical musings on the nature of time and history. Though they have a firm religious underpinning, shameless heathens like me still find them immensely beautiful. Eliot's "timeless moments" -- those instants of blinding epiphany and heightened existence that make the rest of life seem pathetically tame -- are common to all humans, as is the lament for the rarity of such experiences: "Ridiculous the waste sad time / Stretching before and after."
Be warned, however, that the Quartets are more uneven than most of Eliot's work. There are numerous passages of surprising blandness, as well as a few embarrassingly pompous lines ("I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant" -- yeah, me too; all the time). In addition, the religion in the poems becomes progressively more explicit, which may or may not bother you. "Burnt Norton," the first quartet, was originally written to stand alone; it is the most continuously interesting and least Jesusy of the lot, as well as the shortest.
"Four Quartets" has sometimes been criticized for being more a product of reflection than emotion. While this is at least partly justified (I consider "The Waste Land" to be TSE's supreme masterpiece), 4Q remains a compelling, unforgettable poetic valediction by one of the greatest masters of the art.
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