Eliot’s Four Quartets, like the other works, take some deciphering. This is not always due to a perverse attempt to be obscure and to force us to pay attention. If, that is, he had been able to be plain, then he would have done so.
As an aside, note that I don’t take intentional obscurity as anything other than a weakness of the writer, and an annoying smear across his work.
Eliot does ‘write poetry’ from time to time, which means he veers from the point he is trying to make. But he does also state bluntly what he is getting at. One of his occasional stylistic mannerisms was to drop a blunt statement at the end of a meandering digression. The obscurity in Four Quartets is not intentional, but due to the nature of the thing he is thinking about.
The thing being thought about is this: the individual in isolation setting up a prayerful relationship to himself and to God. Such a theme is common and simple, at a superficial level. One talks to God, and God listens; so far so easy. And so far so untrue: that is, the prayerful relationship is not actually this superficial.
The trouble in expressing this situation of the individual before God is that the relationship does take place outside time, in eternity, and in the absolute present moment. And it happens because of an act performed by the believer; an act which Eliot refuses to call by any common name. But we can call it prayer. And, such a relation between God and the self has already made us dismiss the world and history, which poses its own problem. Because if this dismissal of the world of time and history is what we aim for, and what fulfils or redeems us as individuals is this movement to the outside of time, then what was the meaning or the point of all the random rubbish of history? And, related to this: what is the point of other people, and do they play any role in our redemption?
Such a problem does naturally arise to the Christian after any experience of the efficacy of prayer as a means to giving sense to a life in time. Prayer does do what it promises; it eternalises us, and offers theosis. And yet, again, what then was the point of history and of other people, and what significance does the world of the natural man have, other than that it is the province of the meaningless, the lost, the sinful?
It is not an easy subject, and Eliot expresses his answer in the language of the one who is emotionally involved in this problem. The answer to the question of why other people exist, and have existed over many hundreds of years (that is, why ‘English’ people have existed) has an answer on which our whole being, our emotional orientation as well as our intellectual inquisitiveness has a stake.
I have the benefit of his work, so I can express it simply, and without too much obscurity, both to assess the truth of his answer, and to explicate his work. The section of the Four Quartets headed ‘Little Gidding’, which was written during wartime, addresses the question: what is history and the history of England? I want to be as clear as possible, and come with a fresh insight. When we speak of history, we speak of England, and of English people. It is written:
‘A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.’ (Little Gidding, section V).
Which is to say: not only the individual can be redeemed from time, but also the whole people, the whole land. And, indeed, they should be redeeemed; and, finally, they are in danger of becoming entirely what they are for the most part, that is, pointless and without any history.
In this poem we have entered the area of discourse where we would normally speak about a church, or the Church, and its people. Having established that individual liberation and purgation is possible, we should now attempt to redeem our people, too. Eliot sees that this can only happen by finding those moments of our history where individuals, engaged in history, were themselves redeemed.
History is formed from concrete instances, or facts. Eliot has in mind the factual historical existence of the community at Little Gidding, which Charles I visited three times (a religious community, similar to the monastery, but without a formal Order or Rule). The king himself and those who during the Civil War were seeking to dethrone him, are here given as instances of individuals who sought for and reached the timeless moment. Speaking after the event, and at length, he intends to point out that it is of no consequence now what they were fighting for, or what they did, but rather, what remains of importance is their intention in its motive. They wanted to seek to do right by God, and to secure his Church. As such, they are symbolic of the eternal moment within time, each of them in his own life. (The issue of the purity of the motive behind the acts of history is, indeed, the source of the whole cycle of poems, which began with extraneous notes intended originally to be part of the dramatic representation of the martyrdom of St Thomas a Beckett).
That is to say: England only has a meaningful history if that history is centred on such moments of religious ecstasy, such as the moment when ‘the broken king’ came to Little Gidding. By such moments and events of history, a constellation or pattern is established which can bring together lots of other events, into a story with real foundations, in the eternal world. And, for us, this history gives meaning because we ourselves may go to that particular church, to this or that important site.
‘You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than the order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.’
(Four Quartets, Little Gidding, section I).
You might point out that history means something else for you: great men, battles, liberation struggles, etc. Eliot doesn’t agree, I suppose. Those ‘narratives’ of struggle, or war, or whatever they are now, are just inspiring stories – or, more often, the tale of the decline of what really mattered all along: the relationship of men to God. The story of the relationship of God to man, embodied in physical historical places and times, is the only meaningful and redeemable part of time.
And, note above all what is perhaps familiar to the Orthodox Christian: that it is in the company of the saints and the great but failed men of the past, that we do worship in a Church. History has meaning because in those choice parts of it and the places where it took place, you will be able to do the one important act: to kneel and pray to God.
As a side note, throughout ‘Little Gidding’ we find a rather dismissive attitude toward the dead. As if, as is true for most of Eliot’s thinking, the living are just those who are not-already dead. The kingdom of the living is only ‘death’s dream kingdom’. And the dead themselves are just across the thin barrier, in the other kingdom. So, they, like us, are pointless. And yet, those dead also have already been purified of all of the distractions of the sinful world. And so, praying around them allows us to listen to the knowledge which they have: the wordless insight into the eternal world, insight purified by fire.
In summary, England and history is the history of man’s relationship with God, at specific points of time, in specific places; remembering which, praying at which if appropriate, the individual gives meaning to himself, and to the world around him. Most of history is dross and waste, but not these specific places and times. He also indicates that these places, having touched the eternal world once, are still holy sites, ripped out of time and made available for all future and past times. Like, perhaps, sites of pilgrimage, our great Cathedrals, holy wells, and the like.