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on 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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on December 16, 2001
By far the crowning of T.S. Eliot's poetry. The evanescent equilibrium point between a whole set of couples of antagons. The present is such a point, but demultiplied by a myriad of other couples. Past-Future, Has-been-Might-have-been, and this point is movement, constantly moving between those antagons. It gives you a vertigo, the vertigo we feel in front of the present that is a constantly moving equilibrium point. Fascinating. Men are no longer hollow but they are unstoppable motion. They are some light, fine and fuzzy moving line between all the antagons of human nature, of nature as for that. Then a long and rich metaphor of life with the sea, neverending movement that ignores past and future but is pure present and nothing else. Men and women can only worship this everlasting present motion, time and place that is no time, no place and no motion, just unstable energy burnt in its own existence.
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on July 29, 2001
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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on June 19, 2001
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). These meditations are firmly planted in place (each pieces name coming from a place) and time ("And yet, they call this Good Friday" [paraphrasing]); and, with his life drawing to a close, they are focused, as well, upon death.
Buy these poems and plant them in your breast. You'll be amazed at the tree that grows there.
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on 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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on November 28, 1999
All I can say is that "Burnt Norton" has had a very deep and profound effect on me "I can only say THERE I have been/I cannot say where" Exactly. This poem truly captures the essence of the meditative experience,expressing something that it seemed there were no words for.
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on November 20, 1999
A kind friend introduced me to this book 25 years ago. It is so full of real life, as it is. In grasping for words to describe what cannot be described by words, T.S.Eliot has written a masterpiece that will endure for as long as there are people to read books. Each reading takes you inside, yet out of time a space. If I could pick the most meaningful book I have ever encountered, this would be it... the one you take to that desert island; the one you take with you through your life. Don't analyze this book, let it reach out to you, allow it to become an old friend, and it will enrich your life.
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on January 4, 1999
FQ can be argued to be one of the finest English poems of the 20th Century. Whether it is the timelessness of its words, its vivid imagery, the narrator's contemplative tone, or the fact that this is Eliot at his finest, FQ is a rare, profound poem, modest in some respects, epic in others.
FQ is a poem to be read and reread over a lifetime, as its meanings grow with you and you return to it with a new understanding of familiar lines, along with fresh wonder. Few poets attain what Eliot achieved with FQ: a spiritually and philosophically-charged work deftly delivered with a subtle passion, a yearning, an awareness of all points of time and place and eternity, and the calming closure to follow the end of one's beginning and the beginning of one's end.
Until you have read FQ, your literary understanding of Eliot will be incomplete and deprived of a lyricism, balance and flow little found elsewhere in his other works, including Waste Land. Buy FQ, read it, reread it and share it with all those near and dear to you.
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