A philosophical study of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

by Martin Warner

Edwin Mellen, 1999. xi + 138. Cloth (price unknown).



This is an very clever, well-researched and useful book. At least, it will be very useful for those interested in Eliot’s work, and more generally for those interested in how (if at all) one can treat poetry as philosophy. More indirectly, it raises interesting questions about the scope and (perhaps-necessary) limitations of the project of literature functioning as (in effect) non-literary assertion.

            Warner’s short book efficaciously works through the influences upon Eliot, making an indisputable case in particular for the thoroughly Augustinian metaphysics and phenomenology at work in the poem -- or at least in the poem as Eliot created it and saw it.

            Now, genine poetry, according to Eliot, can communicate without being understood (p.1). The difficulty I have with Warner’s impressive scholarly presentation is that he mostly reads Eliot as (in his poetry) communicating with us essentially indirectly, but ultimately not unprosaically. I mean: he reads Eliot (and indeed this is in practice sometimes, unfortunately, how Eliot would I think have liked to have been read) as communicating things that are in the end in themselves (as opposed to in their mode of presentation) not much different from things that might be communicated in a set of theoretic assertions, in a plodding philosopher’s thesis.

            Eliot correctly observed that “The reader’s interpretation [of a poem] may differ from the author’s and be equally valid -- it may even be better...”. I suspect that the very best ‘interpretations’ of The Four Quartets are mostly not those that Eliot himself would have offered, not even as (thoroughly and in a way very admirably) paraphrased and ‘footnoted’ by Warner. I think that Eliot did not understand just how fine his own grasp of the musicality and philosophically-astute tonality of English -- of poetry -- could be, when left in his poetry. Warner writes rightly (p.128) of the “linguistic ‘music’ of Four Quartets,” but very little of his analysis actually moves in that register. Reading Warner’s book, one might almost miss the extraordinary (and, I believe, important) sound of lines such as:

‘Distracted from distraction by distraction,

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning...’

Here, the plainness of “empty of meaning” importantly contrasts with the qualitatively complex sound of the line and a half preceding it. Much later in The Four Quartets, we have:

‘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 lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.’

            I believe that one does not hear the word-music here deeply enough, if one does not pay specific attention to the way the rhythms and repetitions in the poem are not separable from the philosophizing one can hear Eliot as here undertaking vis-a-vis the nature of time, of meaning, and so on.

            My sketched criticism here is not however only of Warner: the same difficulty is, again, in Eliot himself. Warner quotes Eliot’s important essay, “The music of poetry” (p.2): “[T]he poem means more, not less, than ordinary speech can communicate.” Yes; but I would claim that a deeply-rewarding interpretation of The Four Quartets would pay more attention to the musicality of and the ‘display’ of language in that poem than Eliot in actuality sets out the ground for in that essay of his. The sound of presented paradoxes and indeed of conceptual impossibilities, impossibilities that force one to philosophize for oneself, from them: that is what Eliot I think (almost unknowingly) gives us in the greatest passages in “Burnt Norton” and “Little Gidding” (and in the poem’s ‘coda’) in particular. That is how a poem means ‘more’, not less, than ‘ordinary language’. It is not that a good poem concentrates a heavy dose of ordinary meaning into a small pill of words. It is that it sounds or displays the ordinary -- or nonsensical violations of the ordinary -- and thus gives us a marvellous illusion of managing to mean so much, when in the ordinary sense it does not mean anything at all.

            What is regrettable is that Eliot himself has I think too unsubtle and unpoetic a notion of what it is for a poem to communicate. A poem should above all communicate itself. In theory, Eliot believed this (there are famous witty episodes of his refusing in various ways asinine requests for him to explain his poetry to listeners), but in not understanding this in much of the actual practice of his literary theory and criticism, and perhaps also failing to stay true to this thought at some key moments in Four Quartets, Eliot probably communicates his own works without (or at least ‘before’) understanding them...

            Eliot’s poetry, ‘even’ in the Four Quartets, is, I submit, at its best when it is starkly ‘untranslatable’, unparaphrasable -- when it resists all of Warner’s fine efforts. The language of great poetry (“In order to arrive there, to arrive where you are...”) is the language of paradox; great poetry, in my opinion very like the greatest philosophy, starkly and bluntly resists being prosified, largely because it retains a condition of paradoxicality even when (intelligently) spoken of or criticised. Warner sees this (e.g. on p.122) but is not fully comfortable with it; in my view, he is too concerned to have Eliot’s “vision” end up as “coherent” (his words). This is in effect to attempt to reveal the meaningful and coherent (non-literary) assertion(s) allegedly latent in Eliot’s work; and misses I think the moments when Eliot’s writing is greater and stranger than even he knows.

            I do not think Eliot quite as great a poet as (say) Wallace Stevens, because the latter’s (also clearly philosophical) poetry has consistently stronger styles and distinctivenesses than Eliot’s. Stevens’s voice is, one might venture, more distinctively that of a poet, whereas sometimes Eliot seems almost to want to be how Warner apparently wants him to be: that is, more prosaic than he actually is. Stevens (like with the unparaphrasable ‘prose’ of Faulkner or Woolf) develops more of a ‘language’ of his own, a ‘language’ that can never be our language, never be a language in use. Thus he endlessly forces us to understand the form of our language, and to realize (through the absurdities he draws out) the nature of sense. A book like Warner’s written of Stevens, however deeply-learned, would more definitely fail.

            Whereas Eliot, especially at times in The Four Quartets, invites Warner’s approach. But that still does not imply that the very best thing to do is to accept Eliot’s invitation. (Eliot is among other things a poet who seems to believe both that poems communicate in unparaphrasable ways and that they provide stuff for exegesis -- if, as I suspect, this just is incoherent, then continuing to strive to find the coherence in his vision is going to be subject to the law of diminishing returns.)

            In sum, this is a very effective book, on its own terms. My only three regrets are first that it doesn’t pick on the Buddhist allusions and aspects of the Four Quartets, especially in “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker”; second, and most crucially, that it accepts Eliot a little too much on his own reflective terms, rather than treating him as the fairly strong philosophical poet who he actually is; and third that it lacks an index. For a book that in effect supplies an extended set of brilliant and erudite footnotes to Eliot’s great long poem (footnotes of roughly the kind which Eliot himself famously and perhaps-regrettably provided in the case of The Wasteland), the latter is I think a surprising omission.

            A last word: I wonder that more has not been made by literary critics (and philosophers) of the bizarre title of Eliot’s work, The Four Quartets. For the poem seems to consist of four quintets of poems, even plus perhaps a fifth very short poem, or the beginnings of seeing “Little Gidding” as a sextet (I am referring to the so-called ‘coda’, at the end). Light can possibly be cast on this, if one reads section I of each of the four named poems in Four Quartets in turn, then section II, and so on  [If you want to try this for yourself, I suggest you try it first with the section Vs of each named poem.]. My suspicion is that Eliot’s poem is at least as much Five Quartets as it is Four Quintets (and perhaps the ‘coda’ itself is already a hint in the direction of the ‘criss-crossing’ reading I am intimating here). So, is Eliot’s great ‘numbered’ work perhaps comparable to Wittgenstein’s, not only in ‘leaving everything as it is’, but also in approaching the same points over and over again from different directions, in sequences both deliberate and (yet) inviting re-reading in a different order? After all, Wittgenstein remarked both that his own philosophical writing should be read as a kind of poetry, and that if his remarks came out as verse, then that would be a (bad) mistake. This latter point relates crucially I think to the brief discussion of musicality and philosophy, above -- and all this might be a worthy topic for philosophical study and investigation, continuing in the footsteps Warner has begun to tread for us.



University of East Anglia, Norwich.

                                                                                                Rupert Read.