Thomas Stearns Eliot OM (September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965) was an American-born English poet, playwright, and literary critic, arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. The poem that made his name, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock—started in 1910 and published in Chicago in 1915—is regarded as a masterpiece of the modernist movement, and was followed by some of the best-known poems in the English language, including Gerontion (1920), The Waste Land (1922), The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and Four Quartets (1945).
He is also known for his seven plays, particularly Murder in the Cathedral (1935). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and educated at Harvard, Eliot studied philosophy at the Sorbonne for a year, then won a scholarship to Oxford in 1914, becoming a British citizen when he was 39. “[M]y poetry has obviously more in common with my distinguished contemporaries in America than with anything written in my generation in England,” he said of his nationality and its role in his work. “It wouldn’t be what it is, and I imagine it wouldn’t be so good … if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America. It’s a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.” Four Quartets is a set of four poems written by T. S. Eliot that were published individually over a six-year period. The first poem, “Burnt Norton”, was written and published with a collection of his early works following the production of Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral. After a few years, Eliot composed the other three poems, and “East Coker”, “The Dry Salvages”, and “Little Gidding” were written during World War II and the air-raids on Great Britain. The poems were not collected until Eliot’s New York publisher printed them together in 1943. They were first published as a series in Great Britain in 1944 towards the end of Eliot’s poetic career. The central focus of the Four Quartets is man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. Time is depicted as a binding force that prevents mankind from transcending the boundaries of the material world and hinders them from finding redemption. The overall message of the series is that only through realizing Christ’s sacrifice for mankind is an individual capable of being saved. In describing his understanding of the divine with the poems, Eliot blends Christian theology with allusions to Western literature, Eastern texts including the Bhagavad-Gita, and the works of Dante.Eliot regarded Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and it is the work that led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It consists of four long poems, each first published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942). Each has five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect—theological, historical, physical—and its relation to the human condition. Each poem is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire.
Burnt Norton asks what it means to consider things that might have been. We see the shell of an abandoned house, and Eliot toys with the idea that all these merely possible realities are present together, invisible to us. All the possible ways people might walk across a courtyard add up to a vast dance we can’t see; children who aren’t there are hiding in the bushes.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
East Coker continues the examination of time and meaning, focusing in a famous passage on the nature of language and poetry. Out of darkness, Eliot offers a solution: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope”.
The Dry Salvages treats the element of water, via images of river and sea. It strives to contain opposites: “… the past and future/Are conquered, and reconciled”.
Little Gidding (the element of fire) is the most anthologized of the Quartets. Eliot’s experiences as an air raid warden in The Blitz power the poem, and he imagines meeting Dante during the German bombing. The beginning of the Quartets (“Houses …/Are removed, destroyed”) had become a violent everyday experience; this creates an animation, where for the first time he talks of Love as the driving force behind all experience. From this background, the Quartets end with an affirmation of Julian of Norwich: “all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well”.
The Four Quartets cannot be understood without reference to Christian thought, traditions, and history. Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration which inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road of sanctification.