Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets

1. Burnt Norton

Recently, at a poetry reading, someone asked me who poets wrote for and why. This question chimed with my rereading of T.S.Eliot’s The Four Quartets. The questions which arose in my mind, were to do with audience and purpose. Who was Eliot writing the poems for and why did he write them at all? Unlike The Waste Land, where there is a variety of voices and the poet appears absent or occluded by them, in The Four Quartets there is a controlling first person presence, who sometimes seems to be a rather magisterial donnish or public figure, sometimes an agonized private consciousness riven by guilt and doubt. T.S. Eliot is said to have come to Christianity through a long and, in his own view, consistent process of intellectual exploration: In his introduction to Pascal’s Pensées (1931), he wrote

[The Christian thinker] finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory: among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world and especially for the moral world within; and thus, by what Newman calls ‘powerful and concurrent’ reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation.[1]

Eliot’s conversion seems to have been willed, a choice rather than a Damascus moment, and it seems that following his intellectual commitment he struggled to subdue his emotions and sentiments to the commitment he had made. Nevertheless, it seems also that he was attracted by the discipline of Anglo-Catholic practice, by the Sacrament of penance and by the various mortifications expected of the devout adherent, from the period of fasting before Holy Communion, the insistence on eating fish on Friday all the way to the vow of celibacy he apparently took in 1928 at the time when he was separating from his wife. He claimed that nothing could be ‘too ascetic’. He believed that the exercise of his faith should involve not only the rigorous observation of outward forms but also the persistent spiritual and intellectual battle to sustain faith against the scepticism and doubt which were always with him:

 

For him, religious belief was in constant tension with scepticism: ‘it takes application, and a kind of genius, to believe anything, and to believe anything …will probably become more and more difficult as times goes on… There is always doubt.’[2]

 

Thus we may see The Four Quartets, at least in part, as a spiritual exercise or even a penance; a prolonged effort by the poet to order his ideas and his emotions in order to approach the spiritual freedom and certainty he yearned for. Nevertheless, the voice of the poems is also infused with Eliot’s sense of himself as a public figure, a social critic, almost an elder of the tribe; this is increasingly true in the three last quartets, published in wartime, in 1940, 1941 and 1942. I should like to consider these questions of voice, tone and audience by looking more closely at the way in which the poems address the reader at different points, specifically through the way in which the poet makes use of personal pronouns. This post will be concerned with Burnt Norton and I intend to discuss the three subsequent quartets in three further posts.

 

Burnt Norton was originally a stand-alone piece and completed considerably earlier than the others, in 1936. The poem opens with a fairly bald statement of the theme or argument and only introduces a personal pronoun in line 12, ‘the passage which we did not take’. This ‘we’ may be inclusive, allowing readers to recall their own missed opportunities, although it could also be as A.N. Wilson suggested in his recent television documentary, Return to T.S.Eliotland[3], a reference to his relationship with Emily Hale, to whom he had been close since a young man and who was with him when he visited Burnt Norton while walking in the Cotswolds. The subsequent lines

‘My words echo/ Thus, in your mind.’ would then seem personal, with the ‘your’ addressing a specific other, rather than a generalised public. This reading also sharpens the regret and feeling of futility in revisiting the past, so that the first use of the first person singular ‘I’ sounds vulnerable rather than vatic:

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

However, Eliot’s immense reserve and his doctrine of impersonality tend to deter us from looking for such specific references or readings, while his very conscious evocation and acknowledgement of cultural and theological reference propel us towards a public or universal explication. Roses and gardens, especially secret or lost gardens, have resonances far beyond a particular manor house in Gloucestershire which may serve to enrich the poem through the symbolism attached to them[4]. This huge cultural burden on the poems works to mask or hide the poet, as Eliot might have hoped, but the intellectual trawl through references and sources may dissipate the emotional power and impact of the poetry. Thus, the subsequent vision of ghostly visions from the past may seem to be a shared moment of enlightenment: ‘They were as our guests’, ‘we moved, and they, in a formal pattern’ ,‘And they were behind us’ but this apparent intimacy is lost in the closing lines when authorship is given to the bird ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality’ and the poem reverts to the pedagogic pronouncements of the opening. The lyric passage which follows has an aureate style which repels emotion and demands an analytical, decoding response. The ’we’ in line 58 ’We move above the moving tree’ , which is magisterial, the voice from the podium, disappears in the final three line resolution of this section:

Below, the boarhound and the boar

Pursue their pattern as before

But reconciled among the stars

 

The poem moves back to a more philosophical tone and longer line with a series of negative paradoxes attempting to define the ‘still point’ which refers us back to the idea of axis or axle in the previous passage but also connects to the Aristotelian idea of the Prime Mover who does not move, a way of speaking about God. Apart from a rather tetchy imperative ‘And do not call it fixity’ there is no sense of a personal poetic voice in these lines which build to the assertion ‘Except for the point, the still point/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance’. However, immediately following this, the ‘I’ reappears, yearning for the visionary but indefinable moment which may have been shared ‘there we have been’ or which the poet may be asserting to be an experience which many will recognise. After some further fairly abstract discussion, the poet gives specific examples of these out of time moments of vision or full consciousness: ‘the moment in the rose garden/The moment in the arbour where the rain beat/The moment in the draughty church at smokefall’. The appeal of these examples is that they are both sufficiently specific and general for readers to feel that they do recognise them. Thus we are unsure whether Eliot is here in an internal dialogue with himself, or addressing readers in general or thinking of one specific interlocutor.

 

In Section III of Burnt Norton, there are no personal pronouns at all. The disembodied, disimpersoned voice presents a gloomy vision of modern life , located in ‘the gloomy hills of London’, a phrase which a friend of mine finds hugely irritating as she remembers the London of William Blake.[5] However, this is a very subjective view of London, which perhaps the Blake who wrote ‘London’ in The Songs of Experience might have recognised. Compare Blake’s ‘And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ with Eliot’s ‘strained, time-ridden faces’. Section III seems to be a repeat of the description of the ‘Unreal City’ in The Waste Land where the London crowds are shown as inhabitants of Limbo. Here too the citizens are in Limbo, or even Hell: ’Tumid apathy with no concentration, Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind’. Although the poet never uses the pronoun ‘they’, the figures described are criticised as prisoners of the material ‘twittering world’ ( a horribly prescient phrase) who have not discovered ‘the ‘true darkness’. At the same time, the passage only gains its power because we recognise that the ‘unhealthy souls’ here presented are not really ‘they’ but ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘I’, the poetic voice. So in the second part of Section III, when the poet again resorts to the imperative ‘Descend lower, descend only/Into the world of perpetual solitude’ we understand that he is exhorting himself, and that this ‘via negativa’ is not only theological, the approach to God by saying what God is not, but also an attempt to escape the material world, not by rising above it but through a process of mortification which is indicated through the nouns Eliot uses: ‘deprivation’, ‘destitution’, ‘dessication’, ‘evacuation’, ‘inoperancy’, most of which begin with negative prefixes. This takes us back to the biography of the poet and his declaration on conversion that nothing could be ‘too ascetic’. After this denunciation of the world, with its ‘metalled ways/Of time past and time future’, the extraordinarily sensual and natural imagery of Section IV comes as a surprise. Perhaps this is another ‘other’ way; not the path down and away from the senses but the path through them. There is an extraordinary ambivalence in these lines: yearning for the sunflower of the clematis to ‘turn to us’, ‘us’ here being either Eliot and his companion in the Burnt Norton gardens or ‘us’ humankind but also fear and almost repulsion in the verbs which follow ‘clutch and cling’. This is followed by ‘Chill/Fingers of yew’ reminding us of our mortality but somehow in their vegetal nature reminding us of renewal. The passage reaches its climax in the allusion to the ‘kingfisher’, which in its startlingly beautiful and fleeting appearances has traditionally been associated with visionary and idyllic moments.

 

This very short passage is followed by a recapitulation of the key themes and images. Again this section abounds in abstract and paradoxical language which attempts but, at least for me, does not succeed in capturing the mystical or theological ideas about time with which the poet is concerned. Although we may know that the poet is referring to St John of the Cross, for example, and the language may reflect theological and mystical belief, they do not always carry poetic conviction, especially to the untutored reader. We can recognise the following lines as a description of God, but they are poetically unconvincing, providing as they do, a dry-as-dust definition of Love:

Love is itself unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless and undesiring

Except in the aspect of time

Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

In two places emotion breaks through and the writing moves from versified philosophy into poetry. The first is the cry of frustration at the inadequacy of language:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

The second is in the final lines, where a sense of hurt, having been shut out, excluded from a community, of being oneself the disregarded other, transcends ideas about different periods of time co-existing, or childhood as a type of Edenic innocence. Somehow, for Eliot, it seems always too late; the children will always hide from him and thus he is perpetually condemned to ‘the waste sad time/Stretching before and after.’[6] Thus, although the first person is nowhere used in this section, the poignant ending reflects a poem which is concerned with the personal and spiritual travails of the writer and whose primary audience may have been himself –or God.

[1] Quoted by Benjamin G Lockerd in the Introduction to T.S. Eliot and Christian Tradition 2014, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

[2] Barry Spurr, ‘T.S. Eliot and Christianity’ in The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot, edited by Jason Harding (2017) Cambridge University Press

[3] BBC 4, 9th October 2018

[4] See Annotations to T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets, by Herman Servotte/Ethel Grene, iUniverse, 2010

[5] Conversation with Dinah Livingstone: Jerusalem, ‘To the Jews’ by William blake

The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Her little ones ran on the fields,

The Lamb of God among them seen

And fair Jerusalem his bride,

Among the little meadows green.

Pancras & Kentish Town repose

Among her golden pillars high,

Among her golden arches which

Shine upon the starry sky.

 

[6] Peter Ackroyd (T.S.Eliot by Peter Ackroyd, 1984)suggests this imagery may be based on hearing the voices of schoolgirls in the next-door schoolyard of the Mary Institute. While this may be too reductive, this earlier example of the hortus conclusus is an appealing prefiguring of the gardens at Burnt Norton