T. S. Eliot

How does Eliot’s understanding of himself as a poet emerge from

his criticism and The Four Quartets?


One who knows of Eliot’s “impersonal theory of poetry” [1] from his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” may be surprised by his semi-autobiographical poems The Four Quartets, written from 1939 to 1942. “The progress of an artist,” Eliot wrote in 1919, “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”[2] Yet many critics believe that The Four Quartets are an exposé of personality—although critics cannot agree in what way. For example, Bernard Sharrat calls the poem Eliot’s attempt “to make sense of a persistent moral dilemma” pertaining to his first marriage,[3] and William D. Melaney reads it as an exploration of “a new conception of the self in time” [4] in the tradition of Augustine’s Confessions.[5] In contrast, —— Brown, citing Eliot’s —- essay on Blaise Pascal, believes that Eliot depicts himself as “an intelligent believer” who strives to vocalize “the progress of the intellectual soul”[6] as Pascal did in his Pensées. Each of these critics focuses on The Four Quartets, referencing Eliot’s critical essays, historical situation, or personal life to illuminate the poem’s meaning. Similarly, I will analyze three sections of The Four Quartets in which Eliot discusses poetry and the poet’s experience, when necessary drawing on Eliot’s criticism and historical context to show how his self-image in the poem is linked to his theories of language and time.

“Burnt Norton”


In “Burnt Norton” V, Eliot discusses the nature of poetry as time-bound and of the poet’s relation to tradition. Poetry—as something that exists “in time”[7] and yet must communicate what is outside time—is inherently paradoxical. The human poet’s “[w]ords” can “reach / Into the silence,”[8] but not “reach / The stillness”[9] because they “can only die.”[10] In “Burnt Norton” II, Eliot described Dante’s Empyrean in Paradiso as “the still point of the turning world”[11] where there is “neither arrest nor movement”[12] and “past and future are gathered.”[13] In “Burnt Norton” V, Eliot writes that man attempts to “reach”[14] into the divine, eternal “stillness”[15] with “the form” or “pattern”[16] of poetry. Eliot dramatizes poetry’s problems by attempting to describe the divine “stillness”[17] that is “co-existence”[18] of motion and stillness, and of past, present, and future: he compares it to the pattern on a “Chinese jar”[19] that looks as if it were moving “perpetually”[20] even while the jar itself remains unmoving. As Eliot struggles to describe “stillness” with words, his language recedes from concrete images an abstraction discussion of time: “Or say that the end precedes the beginning.”[21] He laments how his language inevitably fails when applied to eternity: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden.”[22] His merely human words—unlike the everlasting “Word in the desert”[23] that is “the still point”[24]—are “in time”[25] and thus “[c]an only die.”[26]

Although poetry ultimately fails to “reach / The stillness”[27] that is outside time, poets must keep struggling to communicate the eternal—if they do not, their language will “[d]ecay with imprecision.” The poet’s duty is “to preserve,” “extend,” and “improve” [28] his or her language that “[w]ill not stay still” because it exists in time.[29] In his 1950 essay “What Dante Means to Me,” Eliot writes,


[T]he poet should be the servant of his language, rather than the master of it….To pass on to one’s posterity one’s own language, more highly developed, more refined, and more precise than it was before one wrote it, that is the highest possible achievement of the poet as poet.[30]


But Eliot, a merely human poet, cannot keep his language “still.” Therefore, Eliot ends his “humble account of the limited powers of his poetic art” [31] by looking in hope to the “[t]imeless”[32] and “unmoving”[33] Word that descended into time to free humankind from time: “Only through time time is conquered.”[34] Even if the poetic project fails and his language becomes degraded, Eliot has hope in the Word remains “the still point.”[35]

Because poets and words are trapped in time, the poet must understand his proper relationship to tradition. In his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot famously wrote that the poet must cultivate the “historical sense”: “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” [36] In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the past and present have a “co-existence”[37] similar to the “stillness” of the “Chinese jar.” According to William D. Melany,  “[w]ords strain / Crack and sometimes break”[38] because there is no “one-to-one correspondence between names and meanings”; there is no “seamless unity” between Eliot and previous poets because they do not use the same words, but continually recreate them as they use them.[39] Melany, however, misinterprets the relationship between language and time in Eliot’s work: a language has a “simultaneous existence”[40] in the past, present, and future. Therefore, the tension between past and future inherent in a language—not the Saussurean disconnect between words and meanings—causes its words to “strain / Crack, and sometimes break.”[41] According to Eliot, “anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year” needs the “historical sense”[42]; only someone aware of how time can tug a language apart will urgently strengthen the language. The poet who does not understand his or her duty to the language will join the “chattering”[43] and “[s]hrieking voices”[44] that “[a]lways assail”[45] the language, and will thus contribute to its “[d]ecay.”[46]


“East Coker”


A poet in the inter-war period, however, will struggle to remain connected to past times and poetry in spite of his “historical sense,” as Eliot describes in “East Coker.”

Although Frank McConnell calls Eliot “extraordinarily out of touch with his own age,”[47]  “East Coker” proves McConnell wrong—the poem reveals Eliot’s latent doubts about poetry’s utility in modern times. A twentieth-century poet’s relationship with past poets is inherently complex, as Eliot shows by echoing Homer in “East Coker.” For Eliot, Homer is a writer “of another country and another language” from whom a young writer can “learn,” as he wrote in The Use of Poetry (1933). [48] Eliot sketches a Homeric scene of gods battling “in constellated wars,” [49] but calls his rendering of Homer’s world “not very satisfactory.”[50] The ancient scene does not sit well in a modern setting, and the modern words do not aptly describe the ancient scene.

Specifically, the poet in 1940 must write both with “Homer…in his bones”[51] and World War II on his mind. Eliot alludes to the opening line of Dante’s Divine Comedy, writing that he is “in the middle of the way” and has found himself “in a dark wood” and is “menaced by monsters.” According to William D. Melaney, Eliot’s reference to Dante “indicate[s]…that the poet is situated in a time of crisis,”[52] an interpretation the war imagery in “East Coker” V supports. Eliot has lived through the “middle way”[53]—through “the years of l’entre deux guerres[54] in which economic collapse, genocide, and totalitarianism “menaced”[55] England. Now that the world is again at war, Eliot uses military diction to align his poetic endeavors with England’s war effort: “raid,”[56] “equipment,”[57] “squads,”[58] “conquer,”[59] and “fight.”[60] For Eliot, writing poetry is as necessary to Britain’s battle to defend its culture as its soldiers, and not only because it preserves the English language. Poetry—because it strives to express the eternal—can transform into words “the general mess of imprecision of feeling”[61] and the “inarticulate”[62] horror of war. Pain and death are timeless, as Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral (1935):

But this, this is out of life, this is out of time,

            An instant eternity of evil and wrong.[63]


As only the Chorus’ speech can describe Thomas á Becket’s murder, only poetry can articulate the suffering of World War II.

Eliot is well-suited to write poetry during wartime, as writing poetry has always been a sort of war for him. In “East Coker,” Eliot describes poetry-writing as an “intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings”[64]; in his 1953 essay “The Three Voices of Poetry,” Eliot depicts his writing process as violent:

[The poet] is haunted by a demon, a demon against which he feels powerless, because in its first manifestation it has no face, no name, nothing; and the words, the poem he makes, are a kind of form of exorcism of this demon.[65]


Here—as in Eliot’s failed depiction of a Homeric battle and the lines that resonate with Dunkirk—the “intolerable wrestle”[66] with a faceless “demon”[67] that can be expelled but never conquered summons a sense of futility. Although “East Coker” ends with “In my beginning is my end”[68] reversed to “In my end is my beginning,”[69] Eliot depicts the struggle to write poetry as a stalemate between the forces of the past and the present.

Little Gidding


Eliot himself is worn down by time in “Little Gidding.” The insecurity and self-criticism he displays in “Little Gidding” echo his reflections on his career in the conclusion to his 1933 book The Use of Poetry: “No honest poet can every feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.”[70] The frustration and uncertainty Eliot expressed in 1933 increased by 1941, when Eliot intertwined in “Little Gidding” his life-long love of Dante’s Divine Comedy and his experiences as a fire-warden during the Blitz. In “What Dante Means to Me,” Eliot reveals that he had “intended” this section as an “equivalent to a canto of the Inferno or the Purgatorio, in style as well as content.”[71] Eliot’s depiction of bombed London as an “Inferno or the Pugatorio” (italics added) highlights the time when he wrote the poem: Eliot revisited the poem in autumn 1942 before its publication,[72] but he had finished writing it in July 1941,[73] shortly after two months of intense bombing climaxed on May 10. When the Luftwaffe began to attack Russian cities on May 16, theBlitz had ended;[74] nevertheless, in July 1941 Londoners would have been uncertain if their city was an “Inferno” still condemned to a future defeat, or a “Purgatory” in which they had suffered and thereby strengthened for a future victory. Hence, the London of “Little Gidding” is enduring a time of confusion and fear. Moreover, Peter Ackroyd notes that Eliot felt insecure about his poetic abilities as he wrote and edited the poem.[75] Due to public and private uncertainty, London’s “roses”—reminiscent of the rose in Paradiso—are “burnt” in “Little Gidding.”[76] As in “East Coker,” Eliot connects his struggle to articulate the eternal in poetry to the Battle of Britain—and it appears that both fights are losing.

In this context, the “compound ghost”[77] appears: the “intimate and unidentifiable”[78] character critics have continually tried to identify. The ghost is “both one and many,”[79] and countless critics have struggled to name the ghost’s “one” predominant identity. Sabine Roth argues that the ghost is “a rather explicit rapprochement” with Yeats, citing lines he believes Eliot took from Yeats’ poetry[80]; Gregory Jay[81] suggests the ghost is Shakespeare, noting the similarities between this ghost’s visit and King Hamlet’s ghost’s in Hamlet; William D. Melaney[82] and F. O. Matthiessen[83] believe the ghost is Brunetto Latini, a Florentine poet in Inferno who speaks to Dante much as this ghost does to Eliot; and Helen Gardner asserts that the ghost is Dante.[84]

Another theory identifies the ghost as a young, pre-conversion Eliot, supported by phrases such as “I assumed a double part”[85] and “[k]nowing myself and yet being someone other.”[86] Other aspects of “Little Gidding” II suggest that the ghost is specifically Eliot in 1910, the writer of “J. Alfred Prufrock”—or even a 1910-Eliot combined with his character Prufrock. Several similarities between “Prufrock” and “Little Gidding” II may support this hypothesis. For instance, “Prufrock,” like “Little Gidding” II, is an Inferno poem: the former begins with a quotation from Inferno, and the latter is written in a style similar to Dante’s terza rima.[87] “Prufrock” opens with a metaphysical conceit: the “evening” is “[l]ike a patient etherized upon a table.”[88] Although Eliot largely abandoned Donne’s favorite type of imagery in his later poems,[89] he notably opens this section of “Little Gidding” with a metaphysical conceit: he compares a Luftwaffe plane with a “dark dove” and its fire-bombs to a “flickering tongue.” [90] Moreover, as Prufrock was psychologically divided into “you and I,”[91] the ghost is “compound.”[92] As Prufrock wandered through “half-deserted streets” thus emptied by industrialization,[93] Eliot and the ghost walk through “the disfigured street” that has been routed by bombs.[94] As Prufrock groans about growing “old,”[95] so the ghost lectures Eliot about the pains of “age,” which he ironically calls “gifts.”[96] The ghost cannot be merely Prufrock, however—Prufrock is “no prophet,”[97] and the ghost prophecies to Eliot the regrets he will experience as an elderly man.

If Eliot, playing Dante’s role in a wartime London that has become an Inferno, meets a condemned shade that is his 1910-self combined with Prufrock, then this section of “Little Gidding” reveals a great deal about Eliot’s understanding of himself as a poet. The ghost quotes to Eliot his own views about the poet’s duty to preserve and expand the language: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.”[98] But instead of flattering the elder Eliot by affirming his ideas, the ghost undermines Eliot by pointing out that his time of duty as a poet is ending: “And next year’s words await another voice.”[99] Again the ghost begins to speak of poetry, a subject congenial to both the ghost and to Eliot: “Since our concern was speech…”[100] The result of the “since” contradicts all expectations, however: “Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age.”[101] Instead of speaking of Eliot’s poetic accomplishments, goals, or even his failures, the ghost ironically rhapsodizes on the frustrations of old age, implying that Eliot has failed “[t]o purify the dialect of the tribe”[102] and garnered so much “shame”[103] that his failures cannot even be mentioned. As Eliot’s early poetry—or perhaps all of it—has failed, it and its writer are condemned to Inferno. Yet when the ghost leaves, “the day” is “breaking,”[104] suggesting that London and Eliot are in Purgatory, being “restored by that refining fire”[105] that is both present wartime destruction in the present and future divine purification.




Both in the Quartets and his essays, Eliot’s preoccupation with his position as a poet in time arises in various forms: in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “The Use of Poetry,” as the poet’s need for the “historical sense” [106]; and in “The Social Function of Poetry” and “What Dante Means to Me” as the poet’s responsibility to ensure that the language develops over time. [107] Eliot attempts to fulfill the poetic ideal of his essays in his poetry, struggling to serve his time-bound language and use it to express the timeless—and discovers that he is worn down by the “co-existence”[108] of past, present, and future. In The Four Quartets, Eliot reveals his anxieties as a “traditional”[109] poet struggling to preserve his language and connection to the past during a modern time of war.


[1] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919),” Selected Essays, 3rd ed., 13-22 (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 18.


[2] Ibid.,17.


[3] Bernard Sharratt, “Eliot: Modernism, Postmodernism, and after,” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by Anthony David Moody, 223-235 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 223.


[4] William D. Melaney, “T. S. Eliot’s Poetics of Self: Reopening ‘Four Quartets,’” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 22. (2002), 148-168, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1350054 148 (accessed 1 March 2011),  148.


[5] Ibid., 149.


[6] Frank Burch Brown, “The Progress of the Intellectual Soul: Eliot, Pascal, and Four Quartets,” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 1983), 26-39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831195 (accessed 1 March 2011), 28-9.

[7] T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” The Four Quartets, 13-20 (London: Harcourt, Inc., 1971), section V, line 138.


[8] Ibid., V.139-40.


[9] Ibid., V.141-2.


[10] Ibid., V.139.


[11] Ibid., II.62.


[12] Ibid., II.64.


[13] Ibid., II.65.


[14] Ibid., V.139.


[15] Ibid., V.142.


[16] Ibid., V.140.


[17] Ibid., V.142.


[18] Ibid., V.145.


[19] Ibid., V.142.


[20] Ibid., V.143.

[21] Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” V.146.


[22] Ibid., V.149-50. 


[23] Ibid., V.155.


[24] Ibid., II.62.


[25] Ibid., V.138.


[26] Ibid., V.139.


[27] Ibid., V.141-2.


[28] T. S. Eliot, “The Social Function of Poetry (1945),” On Poetry and Poets, 15-25 (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 20.


[29] Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” V.153.


[30] T. S. Eliot, “What Dante Means to Me (1950),” To Criticize the Critic, 125-135 (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 133.

[31] Brown, 37.


[32] Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” V.165.


[33] Ibid., V.163.


[34] Ibid., II.89.


[35] Ibid., II.62.


[36] Eliot, “Tradition,” 14.


[37] Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” V.145.


[38] Ibid., V.149-50.


[39] Melany,  155.


[40] Eliot, “Tradition,” 14.


[41] Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” V.149-50.


[42] Eliot, “Tradition,” 14.


[43] Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” V.152.


[44] Ibid., V.153.


[45] Ibid., V.154.


[46] Ibid., V.151.


[47] Frank McConnell, “Meeting Mr. Eliot,” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring 1988), 152-163, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40257321 (accessed 1 March 2011), 157.


[48] T. S. Eliot, “Conclusion,” The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 143-156 (London: Faber and Faber, 1933), 156.

[49] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” The Four Quartets, 23-32 (London: Harcourt, Inc., 1971), section II, line 60.


[50] Ibid., II.68.


[51] Eliot, “Tradition,” 14.


[52] Melaney, 156.


[53] Eliot, “East Coker,” II.89, V.171.


[54] Ibid., V.172.


[55] Ibid., II.72.


[56] Ibid., V.179.


[57] Ibid., V.180.


[58] Ibid., V.182.


[59] Ibid., V.182.


[60] Ibid., V.186.

[61] Eliot, “East Coker,” V.181.


[62] Ibid., V.179.


[63] T. S. Eliot, “Murder in the Cathedral,” Collected Plays, 9-54 (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 48.


[64] Eliot, “East Coker,” II.70.


[65] T. S. Eliot, “The Three Voices of Poetry (1953),” On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 98.


[66] Eliot, “East Coker,” II.70.


[67] Eliot, “The Three Voices of Poetry,” 98.


[68] Eliot, “East Coker,” I.1.


[69] Eliot, “East Coker,” V.209.


[70]Eliot, “Conclusion,” 154.


[71] Eliot, “What Dante Means to Me,” 128.


[72] Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984),265-6.


[73] Ibid., 263-4.


[74] World War II People’s War, “Fact File: The Blitz,” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswa r/timeline/factfiles/nonflash/a1057349.shtml (accessed 7 March 2011).

[75] Ackroyd, 163-4.


[76] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets, 49-59(London: Harcourt, Inc., 1971), section II, line 60.


[77] Ibid., II.95.


[78] Ibid., II.96.


[79] Ibid., II.94.


[80] Sabine Roth, “Eliot Comforted: The Yeatsian Presence in Four Quartets,” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn 1993), 441-420,  http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831389 (accessed 1 March 2011), 411,


[81] Ibid., 165.


[82] Ibid., 158.


[83] F. O. Matthiessen, “Eliot’s Quartets,” The Kenyon Review, Vol., No. 2 (Spring 1943), 161-178, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4332395 (accessed 1 March 2011), 174.


[84] Melaney, 158.

[85] Eliot, “Little Gidding,” II.97.


[86] Ibid., II.100.


[87] Matthiessen, 164.


[88] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot: The Collected Poems, 1909-1962, 1st ed., 3-7 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), line 3.


[89] Matthiessen, 176.


[90] Eliot, “Little Gidding,” II.81.


[91] Eliot, “Prufrock,” 1.


[92] Eliot, “Little Gidding,” II.95.


[93] Eliot, Prufrock,” 4.


[94] Eliot, “Little Gidding,” II.147.


[95] Eliot, “Prufrock,” 121.

[96] Eliot, “Little Gidding,” II.130.


[97] Eliot, “Prufrock,” 83.


[98] Eliot, “Little Gidding,” II.118.


[99] Ibid., II.119.


[100] Ibid., II.126.


[101] Ibid., II.129.


[102] Ibid., II.130.


[103] Ibid., II.139.


[104] Eliot, “Little Gidding,” II.147.


[105] Ibid., II.145.


[106] Eliot, “Tradition,” 14.


[107] Eliot, “What Dante Means to Me,” 133.


[108] Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” V.145.


[109] Eliot, “Tradition,” 14.



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