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T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: A Pattern of Timeless Moments

T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: A Pattern Of Timeless Moments

First Impressions

My first encounter with T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, the poem-cycle Four Quar­tets, took place when I was twenty years old. The conditions were unusually felicitous. I was visiting family friends in southeast England, and during a pe­riod when my host family was away for a few days, I noticed a BBC program announcement in the newspaper. That evening there was to be a broadcast of Alec Guinness reading Eliot’s Four Quartets in its entirety.

At the appointed time I turned off all but one lamp, lay down on a couch, and listened. This first encounter with the Quartets was therefore appropriately audito­ry and incantatory. It was also vision-inducing, strangely moving, and deeply perplexing. Eliot has said, famously, that great poetry communicates before it is understood; this experience remains my touchstone for the truth of that remark. (The remark also reminds us that art is concerned with elemental meaning: “communication” occurs before “understanding” because a great poem conveys, through the music and imagery of poetic language, the mean­ingfulness of certain “purely experiential patterns,” prior to any careful anal­ysis of a poem’s meaning or structure.)1

Within days I had bought a cheap paperback edition of the Quartets and had begun the process of reading and rereading what I am inclined to think of as the greatest English-language poem of the twentieth century. In order to critically explicate some of the spiritual aspects of Eliot’s com­municative aims in Four Quartets, no guidance is more useful than that provided by Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness and history.

Where Voegelin’s thought was helpful for understanding the viewpoint informing Dickinson’s poetry [alluding to an earlier essay in the book–ed], it is more so, indeed seems tailor-made for understanding the design of Eliot’s thinking and artistic intentions in this work. As we shall see, Eliot’s poetic vision of existence and history in Four Quartets and Voegelin’s philo­sophical analysis of existence and history are mutually compatible and illumi­nating to an extraordinary degree, not only in overall vision but in significant detail.

Three Major Themes in the Four Quartets

Thus, we will proceed by addressing three major themes in Four Quar­tets while relying on Voegelin’s philosophical exegesis of human life as “ex­istence in the tension of the metaxy” for clarification of Eliot’s experiences, worldview, and artistic aims.

The first theme to be examined is familiar from previous chapters: the Quartets portray human being as ontologically situated in between world and transcendence, time and timelessness, and they explore the challenges, dan­gers, and hopes for fulfillment in the drama of human existence from that perspective. Second, and as a direct consequence of this fact, Eliot rejects–as does Voegelin–the typical modern assumption that history’s meaning lies fundamentally in temporal development or progress.

Instead, Eliot regards history as having a metaxic structure and meaning. That is, just as human ex­istence takes its distinctive meaning from the fact that human consciousness is the locus where mortal being and divine transcendence meet and interpen­etrate, so history is essentially created, or constituted, through the meaningfulness of human experiences, decisions, and actions in their simultaneous relationship both to the world of temporal concerns and to divine, timeless being–a view that leads Eliot to describe history, in general, as “a pattern of timeless moments.”2 Voegelin’s philosophy of history is fully harmonious with this and will help us to elucidate Eliot’s perspective on history.

Third, and fi­nally, Eliot’s poem-cycle affirms a mystically apprehended, radically transcen­dent divine ground of being which, though most adequately apprehended and expressed through Christian experiences and symbols, is presented as the one divine presence that genuinely informs symbolizations of the sacred and of human-divine encounter in every significant religious tradition, East­ern and Western, ancient and modern. Again, Voegelin holds a parallel view: the divine presence experienced in and symbolized by human consciousness is certainly one and the same across religious traditions; but, he holds, it is within the Christian tradition that divine transcendence has received its most complete differentiation.

Voegelin was, in fact, well acquainted with Four Quartets. In his essay “Im­mortality: Experience and Symbol” (1967), he employed quotes from the Quartets, explaining that Eliot had “excellently symbolized” human existence as intermediate between time and timelessness; and well before that, in 1944, the year the poem-cycle was first published in its entirety, Voegelin typed out an eleven-page incisive, compact rumination on the poem’s nature, structure, and subject matter.3 These latter are indeed “notes,” not an exercise in critical evaluation, but they indicate clearly the harmony between the vision of Four Quartets and Voegelin’s philosophical outlook, and we shall find them useful, along with the works of other critics, in what follows.

The Content and Structure of the Four Quartets

Four Quartets (1936-1942) is a sequence of four poems, altogether somewhat under 900 lines in length, that constitutes a meditation on existence, time and eternity, death, history, tradition, language, and divinity. The titles of the four poems are place-names related to the poet’s personal experiences and to his family’s past. Burnt Norton is the name of a deserted mansion with a formal garden in the countryside of Gloucestershire, which Eliot visited in the summer of 1934.  

East Coker is a village in Somerset whence Eliot’s family em­igrated to America in the seventeenth century, and also the home of a distin­guished (probable) family relation of the sixteenth century, Sir Thomas Elyot, who wrote the first English-language treatise on education (a few phrases of which are quoted in the poem).  The Dry Salvages are a small group of rocks off Cape Ann near Gloucester, Massachusetts, a locale that evokes both Eliot’s ancestors’ initial emigration to New England before their move further west to St. Louis and also Eliot’s early years in and around Boston.  

Little Gidding is a village in Huntingdonshire, visited by Eliot in 1936, where an important religious community was founded in the 1620s by the Anglican monk Nich­olas Ferrar, who is understood to have influenced the poets George Herbert and Richard Crashaw. The community was broken up under Cromwell’s rule in 1647.4 As one’s appreciation of the Quartets deepens, these geographical titles come to be understood as symbols of significant stages in the poet’s journey of spiritual self-discovery.

The Four Stages of the Poet’s Journey

Voegelin’s “Notes” describe the essential theme of each stage in this journey:  

Burnt Norton presents the individual person, the poet, meditating on the concrete present of actualities and unchosen possi­bilities, that is, on existence in the flow of time–a temporal existence that is open, however, to either unexpected or disciplined apprehensions of timeless reality;  

East Coker broadens the poet’s meditation on existence by introduc­ing its temporal layers of family and cultural heritage, social and technologi­cal change, and the depths of history;  

The Dry Salvages, the “nature poem,” deepens the existential meditation further, shifting the focus from historical community to the individual’s consciousness of both the world of nature as the human habitat and of the pervasive immediacy of death, as well as of a “beyond” of nature and history; and finally, in Little Gidding, world, history, and cultural heritage are all presented as transfigured through the poet’s in­tense consciousness of, and meditation upon, human existence as the inter­section of the timeless with time.5

The Unifying Elements

Many means are used to carefully relate the four poems to each other, and to shape them into a unified whole. First, each poem is divided into five sections–or “movements,” to follow Eliot’s use of the analogy of a musical quartet. Analogous to the development in a musical composition, in each of the poems important words and phras­es recur, as do symbols and allusions, which serves to enrich their signifi­cance while somewhat altering, retrospectively, the meaning of their use in earlier contexts. This development of words, phrases, and symbols continues throughout the poem-cycle as a whole.

And as themes are introduced, expand­ed upon, added to, repeated, and ultimately resolved, both in the individual poems and within the four-poem cycle, Eliot also employs a variety of poet­ic “voices” that resemble the many voices in musical expression–phrasings either lengthy or abrupt, passages delicately hushed or firmly declarative, me­andering exposition or formal repetition, simplicity of expression or elabo­rately dense layering of composition. As a further unifying device, each of the five movements in any poem has a structure similar to its counterpart in the other three poems, with each move­ment, and each poem as a whole, unfolding in a manner that echoes the de­velopment in a musical composition.

In the first two movements of each poem, a set of themes is introduced, which then undergoes expansion, alter­ation, or embellishment in contrasting poetic styles, the styles shifting back and forth between a sort of discursive verse employed in a variety of forms and compactly wrought lyrical passages often dense with symbols. The third, central, movement is always concerned with the turning of the soul toward the divine–that is, with conversion, “where descent becomes ascent,” as Hel­en Gardner puts it.6 The fourth movement is a brief lyric which, in each suc­cessive poem, evokes the divine in one of four aspects: as God the Creator,7 as the Redeemer Son, as the Lady, and finally as the Holy Spirit. And the fifth movement of each poem recapitulates and resolves themes, developments, counterstatements, and contradictions from the four preceding movements (while in three of the four poems it also includes a meditation on language it­self, the poet’s medium).

Symbolizing the Journey to God

Four Quartets is also unified through linking the four poems to certain groups of interrelated symbols or ideas. For example, the four poems are suc­cessively dominated by images of air, earth, water, and fire, so that together they symbolize the cosmos.8

Again, each of the Quartets appears to address a distinct approach to the consideration of time: Burnt Norton addresses time from the individual’s perspective as past, present, and future, including con­cern for what might have been and what might come to be; East Coker is con­cerned with time as history and tradition; The Dry Salvages focuses on the rhythms of time in nature and the seasons, in birth and living and dying, in preservation and destruction; and Little Gidding portrays time as the medi­um, one might say, of timeless meaning in human consciousness, and thus for human beings as the place of decision between world and God–between the unproductive burning of worldly desires and the refining fire of amor Dei.9

Further examples could be adduced, but the general point is clear: Eliot has woven the poems together, through his use of a large variety of symbols and ideas, in such a way that they may evoke as fully as possible the natural, his­torical, and cosmic context of a person’s journey toward God. The person whose journey is in question is, of course, “everyman”–while it is also, very pointedly, Eliot himself. As Voegelin states, Four Quartets is a “spiritual autobiography.”10

But since Eliot’s aim, as an artist, is to reveal the universal in the particular, and since what he has found in the particular is his existence in the in-between of time and timelessness–the metaxy–we are able to discover in Eliot’s meditative journey the basic features of our con­scious lives as perplexed, and potentially graced, wayfarers in the drama of ex­istence, seeking how best to adjust ourselves to the challenges and mysteries of human living.

Time and Timelessness

A dominating theme in Four Quartets is that human consciousness is the meeting place of time and timelessness–that human existence is lived in the tension in between immanence and transcendence. We are indeed temporal creatures, moving along the flow of time that we characterize as a line leading from the past through the present to the future. But, as Voegelin states, “we are not moving only on this [temporal] line, but in openness toward divine reality, so that every point of presence is as T. S. Eliot formulated it, a point of intersection of time with the timeless.”11

Early in Burnt Norton, the first poem in Four Quartets, we hear that “To be conscious is not to be in time” (BN, II, 84), because each moment of conscious awareness is a moment in which mere time, mere duration, is transcended through the simultaneous partici­pation of consciousness in timeless reality. Then, in The Dry Salvages, the third poem in the cycle, we find the concentrated formulation of conscious existence as “The point of intersection of the timeless / With time” (DS, V, 201-2), a formulation echoed in the last poem, Little Gidding, where “inter­section” is used in such a way as to emphasize the paradox that timeless and spaceless divine presence is still only experienced by any personal conscious­ness in some specific time and place: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere. Never and always” (LG, 1,52-53).

In other words, our home is neither time nor timelessness but the metaxy–and to re­alize that fact is to live in awareness of the fundamental paradoxes that char­acterize existence in the metaxy. The participation of consciousness in divine presence means that, spatially, we are always both somewhere and nowhere, while temporally, we exist both within the flow of duration and yet in some way beyond time’s covenant, a “beyond” of time that can be represented, as the poet indicates, either by the word never or by the word always. The Quartets are in fact permeated by Eliot’s explorations of various logical paradoxes of existence in the metaxy, not merely as pertaining to the nature of consciousness but to our vision of reality as a whole.

The Dance

Experiences of di­vine transcendence, especially in rare moments of graced ecstasy or religious discipline, allow persons to apprehend the divine stillness that grounds the patterned movement of allthings that Eliot calls “the dance.” This is also an ap­prehension of the divine emptiness that grounds all spatiotemporal substan­tiality.

In such moments of apprehension, then–which can inform our lives through our remembrance of them–we grasp the paradox of transcendence-in-immanence that is the world, and more particularly the fact that human consciousness, which is nothing less than the conscious interpenetration of transcendent and immanent reality, through its own paradoxical nature re­veals the entire cosmos of experience to be the inextricable union of transcen­dent stillness and worldly movement:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. . . .

. . . Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.   

(BN, II, 62-64,66-69)

The Quartets resonate throughout with restatements and resymbolizations of this theme, and the entire poem-cycle culminates in a lyrical affirmation (intentionally reminiscent of the conclusion of Dante’s Paradiso) of the right­ness and the mystery of the paradoxical otherness-in-unity of immanence and transcendence.

Eliot is intensely aware, of course, of the degree to which an explicit aware­ness of human life as existence in the in-between of immanence and tran­scendence is absent from modern consciousness. And when awareness of the metaxy is eclipsed–as much of modern thought shows very well–human life comes to be conceived as an existence whose meaning is completely contained within nature or immanence–within the rhythms, repetitions, and inevita­ble defeats of temporal and material being. Interpreted and self-embraced as such, this is an existence whose enjoyments tend to mask, if they don’t yield to, a despair that reflects that the course of time unredeemed by a relation to timeless meaning is finally a pointlessness of “rising and falling. / Eating and drinking. Dung and death.” (East Coker, I, 45-46).

Eliot returns repeatedly in the Quartets to the theme of modern despair in the absence of a felt sense of par­ticipation in the timelessness of the divine. He describes “the strained, time-ridden faces” of those performing their daily tasks in a disenchanted world of the merely temporal, contingent, and mortal, and of the need, in the absence of feeling the presence of transcendent meaning, to be continuously “Dis­tracted from distraction by distraction” so as to avoid facing an underlying sense of emptiness and despair (Burnt Norton, III, 100-101). He also describes those who do respond to intimations of a meaning beyond nature and its rhythms but who lack belief in the truth of divine transcendence–or, perhaps, lack sufficient courage, or humility, to embrace it–and so seek the supranatural somewhere within the universe of space and time, within the world of past and future.

Refusing to Recognize the Timeless

These are people who seek to “escape the present or the normal without proper recognition of the ‘time­less'” (as Harry Blamires puts it), a search that makes its way through a wide range of occult interests and activities.12 Eliot presents a catalog of such ac­tivities, which function psychologically as temporary anodynes to an apprehension, however inchoate, of the pointlessness of reductively temporal and material existence:

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,

To report the behaviour of the sea monster,

Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,

Observe disease in signatures, evoke

Biography from the wrinkles of the palm

And tragedy from fingers; release omens

By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable

With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams

Or barbituric acids, or dissect

The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors–

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams:all these are usual

Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

And always will be, some of them especially

When there is distress of nations and perplexity

Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.

(Dry Salvages), V, 184-98)

Understandably, people search for the supranatural, because in fact we are conscious participants in such a reality; many, however, keep looking in all the wrong places. Nevertheless most people, Eliot suggests, simply because consciousness is what it is, do have moments of genuine apprehension of the timeless di­mension of meaning, though they typically are incapable of accurately inter­preting, or incorporating into their self-understanding, the meaning of such experiences. “For most of us,” Eliot writes:

. . . 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. These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses . . .

(DS, V, 206-13)

Glimpses of the Divine and Freedom

There are indeed those rare persons–Eliot calls them saints–who manage to adjust and transform their perceptions and actions into a kind of accordance with their apprehensions of timeless meaning, to embody in the habits of their lives, in some extraordinary manner, what they have learned from their moments or visions of transcendence. But, as Hugh Kenner writes, the typical “‘moment in and out of time’ . . . is not the saint’s beatitude, but the tempo­rary translation of that beatitude into a more familiar medium, into a mode of experience available to human kind. This is what our least time-ridden moments can give us, not timelessness but a glimpse of it . . . . “13

Glimpses, hints and guesses, Eliot tells us, are what most of us receive from our con­scious participation in divine transcendence; but this is enough to go on, he asserts, if we wish to gain freedom from the lie of reductively temporal ex­istence, reductive immanentism or materialism, and recover a sense of our existence in the metaxy. We may not be able to be saints, but we can still be human beings.

Eliot indicates throughout the Quartets that there are two basic paths, two directions we can take, in the attempt to learn from our glimpses of timeless reality and to establish a remembrance of the divine ground to keep us aware of the metaxy and free us from bondage to “mere time.” We can call them the way of illumination and the way of darkness. The first way is exemplified in the first movement of the first poem, where Eliot recounts an unexpected mo­ment of illuminative vision while visiting the formal garden at Burnt Norton. He is standing looking down into the drained garden pool:

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,

The surface glittered out of heart of light . . .

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,

Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.                    

(Burnt Norton), 1,34-37, 39-43)

This is the sort of experience–of timeless grace, of joyous illumination–that can be remembered for what it has revealed, and the recollection of it can shape one’s orientation to living. In the second poem, East Coker, we are again reminded of this moment in the garden and similar types of moments, sud­den and unlooked-for occasions of illuminative joy that can promote a salu­tary remembrance of what Blamires calls “the mystery and the meaning lying beyond the temporal order”:14

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy . . .     

(EC, III, 129-31)

This is one way we can approach and recollect our relation to the divine.

The Way of Darkness

Or, again, we can go by the way of darkness, of emptiness. This is the ap­proach to remembrance of the divine by way of “Emptying the sensual with deprivation / Cleansing affection from the temporal” (BN, III, 97-98). This is the descending, rather than the ascending, way, where one must “put off / Sense and notion” (Little Gidding), I, 42-43) in order to meditatively seek the empti­ness, the divine no-thing, that grounds all things. In the middle movement of Burnt Norton, the poet advises:

Descend lower, descend only

Into the world of perpetual solitude,

World not world, but that which is not world,

Internal darkness, deprivation

And destitution of all property,

Desiccation of the world of sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

(BN, III, 114-21)

Eliot summarily recollects this path in the corresponding third movement of the following poem, East Coker: “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God.” (EC, III, 112-13).

Both approaches to the timeless–the path of illumination or ecstasy and the path of darkness or deprivation–are equally sources of a perennial re­membrance of transcendence, and thus a means of remembrance of our ex­istence in the metaxy.15 Their recurrent descriptions and juxtapositions as a central theme of the poem-cycle suggest why Eliot chose as one of his two ep­igraphs for Four Quartets the famous dictum of Heraclitus: “The way up and the way down are one and the same” (Diels, Fr. 60).

Now if, Eliot indicates, we remain sufficiently aware that existence is lived in what Voegelin calls the metaxy, then we shall come to understand in a man­ner rather different than is now typical how meaning accrues to personal ex­istence. As moderns, we tend to imagine life’s meaning as an accretion of experience and knowledge during the process of growth in time, so that the point and purpose of a life is its development in time, heading toward the ripeness of maturity and the (hoped-for) wisdom of late years.

But in remem­bering that at every point of presence in time we participate in the timeless meaning of the divine ground of being, we discover that existence is not primarily a matter of temporal fulfillments or of growing toward rounded or completed meaning in time. Remembering our involvement in divine time­lessness, we recognize that the divinely intended meaning of our existence is not, in its deepest significance, a journey through the world of time toward its mortal end, but a journey of coming to discover and respond to our par­ticipation in the timeless–a journey toward God, structured from its begin­ning as a search for God. Then we see that our special moments of glimpses and hints, our “moments in and out of time,” are, and ought to consciously remain, the crucially revealing elements concerning our life’s meaning.

Conquering Time Through Time

Understanding this, we can also recognize that we are never, at whatever stage in life, other than in “the middle” of existence–that is, in the in-between of time and timelessness, ignorance and knowledge, world and transcendence. This is a truth ever in danger of being ignored or forgotten through our being distracted by physical, egoistic, and worldly desires, and by every temptation that cultures of hedonism and immanentism can offer–a perilous situation symbolized by Eliot in declaring that we are:

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way

But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,

On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,

And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,

Risking enchantment.

(EC, II, 89-93)

Dante’s crisis moment, at the start of his Commedia, of finding himself lost in a dark wood at the midpoint of his life, is transformed by Eliot into a reminder of the difficulty and need of recollecting our life in the metaxy in our own age of distinctively modern dangers and enchantments.

Our task is to keep our balance–what Voegelin calls the “balance of con­sciousness”–where we neither allow the timeless dimension of meaning to be forgotten (the typically modern problem) nor allow an awareness of time­less reality to so fascinate us that we devalue or dismiss as insignificant our lives in time and their biographical unfolding.16 As Voegelin remarks in his “Notes” on the Quartets, a “spiritual autobiography is the history of a spirit joined to body, and the body lives in the here and now of a definite locale.”17

Eliot’s grounding of the Quartets in the geographical and biographical details of his own experiences and in his family’s history, including constant refer­ences to what are clearly authors and texts, encounters and events that hold special meaning for him, underscore the fact that the journey to God is always undertaken as the unique journey of a concrete person in concrete places and times, facing uniquely personal challenges and opportunities.

We must not succumb to the popular modern delusion that reality is the temporal realm alone; but we also mustn’t forget that it is only through our life in time, with all its sufferings and joys, its hopes and uncertainties, and its uses of memory and forethought, that we are granted access to the timeless. Life in time is the condition through which we have been graced with the opportunity to seek our true end, the timeless “ground of our beseeching” (LG, III, 199). As Eliot states in Burnt Norton:

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.                  

(BN, II, 84-89)

History as Metaxy

Though Four Quartets is described most simply as “a series of meditations upon existence in time,” it also necessarily includes meditation on the meaning and structure of history.18 Through his understanding of incarnate human consciousness as participating in the timeless meaning of divine real­ity, Eliot draws the conclusion that it is improper to conceive history as being principally a process of chronological development.

He describes how a quite different conception of history makes itself apparent through persistent med­itation on consciousness as the intersection of time and timelessness:

       It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence–

Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy

Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,

Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

(Dry Salvages, II,85-89)

When we take seriously the fact that human life is existence in the participa­tory tension between immanence and transcendence, the notion of history as essentially a sequence or development must be replaced by a more complex image.

Voegelin suggests as appropriate the image of “a web of meaning” con­stituted by many lines or patterns of meaning as these have “revealed them­selves in the self-interpretation of persons and societies in history,” the most important of which he refers to as the line of meaning “that runs from time into eternity.”19 In a similar way, Eliot gradually draws forth in the Quartets an idea of history as a process that takes its most fundamental meaning from the pattern established by human experiences of timelessness, which have re­vealed the significance of life as a journey toward God.

The Timeless Intersecting with Time

So, Eliot concludes, we may best describe history as “a pattern / Of timeless moments” (Little Gidding, V, 234-35), understanding that history is ultimately affected by every act of con­scious human participation in the divine ground.20

The essential purpose of this pattern will have been most clearly revealed by those whose response to the divine presence in consciousness has led to the fullest actualizations of personal response to and attunement with the time­less being of the divine. This is what Eliot means by saying that:

to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint–

No occupation either, but something given

And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,

Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. 

(DS, V, 200-205)

Most of us have our glimpses, our hints and guesses, but the saints, and espe­cially the saint of saints, have revealed the mystery of history’s meaning most completely:

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Here the impossible union

Of spheres of existence is actual,

Here the past and future

Are conquered, and reconciled. . .

(DS,V, 215-19)

Though Eliot nowhere mentions the name of Christ in the Quartets, the capi­talization here of “Incarnation” indicates his Christian understanding of Jesus as the person to have most fully actualized human realization of the divine presence in consciousness and thus to have most fully revealed our human relationship, as well as history’s ultimate orientation, throughout its metaxic unfolding, to divine transcendence. In this, Eliot’s poetic vision is the precise counterpart to Voegelin’s philosophy of history, with its explication of histo­ry as a complex “web of meaning” constituted by “theophanic events” or il­luminations of divine presence, within which the Christian epiphany holds a privileged place.21

The Alternatives of Progressivist or Pointless History

Eliot’s vision and poetic expression of historical structure and meaning make clear that he considers all “progressivist” conceptions of history, wheth­er liberal or utopian, that portray history as merely a sequence or line of de­velopment to be shallow and misleading.22 If we were to think of history as “mere temporal succession,” and to do so in a realistic way, we would see life in mere time for what it is: an endless rhythm of birth and aging and death, worldly success and failure, rising and falling, pleasure and suffering, without end, without point. We would recognize not only the past but also the future as “a faded song”; and we would accept that “time is no healer” (DS, III, 126, 131).

Such recognition is the basis of the great lament, in sestina form, that makes up the first section of the second movement of The Dry Salvages, where the poet proclaims the futility of seeking a telos for human striving and hu­man destiny in the world of time alone:

Where is there an end of it, the soundless

wailing, The silent withering of autumn flowers

Dropping their petals and remaining

motionless; Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage . . .


      There is no end, but addition: the trailing

Consequence of further days and hours,

While emotion takes to itself the emotionless

Years of living among the breakage

Of what was believed in as the most reliable . . .


We cannot think of a time that is oceanless

Or of an ocean not littered with wastage

Or of a future that is not liable

Like the past, to have no destination.

(DS, II, 49-52, 55-59, 69-72)23

The true telos of history, as of the individual, concerns the orientation of indi­viduals and peoples in time toward the mystery of fulfillment in the timeless.

“Fare Forward” in a Loving Response

As Helen Gardner succinctly states: “The only end [purpose, telos] to the flux of history is man’s response to the eternal manifesting itself in time.”24 Thus we are misguided if we consider our ultimate aim, as persons, in terms of progress toward temporal well-being. Our elemental purpose is to contin­ue to strive more fully to realize our participation in timeless reality. This is why Eliot (elaborating on a theme from the Bhagavadgita) urges the reader to “consider the future / And the past with an equal mind,” and to “not think of the fruit of action” in this world, but rather to “Fare forward”: “Not fare well, I But fare forward, voyagers.” (DS, III, 153-54,161-62, 167-68).25

As Voegelin comments in his “Notes”: this imperative of “emigration” is a “symbol for a beyond of history.”26 However old we may be, whatever our state of satisfac­tion or suffering, we can “fare forward” in loving response to the divine being revealed in our apprehensions of, and disciplined attention to, timeless mean­ing. Not just the enthusiastic young, not just those of middle years, but even:

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion . . .

(East Coker, V, 202-206)


This is the voyage that counts,

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

(Little Gidding, V, 240-42)

Existence in the metaxy is a journey that, properly fulfilled, ends in the discov­ery that the essence of all human selves in history is the divine love that has created and drawn every seeking soul toward itself from the beginning.

A Christian Foundation for Ecumenism

In accord with Christian teaching, the Quartets affirm the ground of being to be transcendent divine love, itself beyond time and desiring, that nonetheless suffers manifestation as desire in the divinely caused movement of creaturely longing and 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.  

(Burnt Norton, V, 163-68)

Human consciousness is where finite reality participates knowingly in this di­vine love, the place where immanent being is directly permeable, given human openness and response, by divine love in action. Thus “Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter” (EC, V, 200-201); that is, as hu­man perception, intention, and action is increasingly self-transcending and unrestricted in its loving, it is increasingly transparent for the absolutely un­restricted act of love that Christianity identifies as “God.”

But the vision of timeless, divine reality in the Quartets is not at all one of Christian exclusivism. It is a vision, rather, that is profoundly ecumenic and universalist. The mature Eliot is usually identified as a Christian writer in the narrow sense, and some of his poetry and a good deal of his prose reinforce that identification. But although Christian vision and tradition are central to Four Quartets–especially in its reliance on the symbol of Incarnation, in its lyrical evocations in its respective fourth movements of the divine persons of Creator, Son, Virgin, and Spirit, and in its explicit use of the symbols and sayings of such Christian predecessors as Dante, St. John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich–this most profound of Eliot’s expressions as a spiritual poet nevertheless opens onto a horizon of universal religious experience just as fully as does Voegelin’s philosophical account of human existence in the metaxy.

Transcending Christian Symbolism

Beyond their Christian dimension of symbolization, the poems of the Quartets draw explicitly from Buddhist, Hindu, and Platonic or Neoplatonist traditions and language, and their evocations of mystical and meditative ex­periences are clearly intended to suggest a global range of references. What seems obvious is that Eliot wanted to speak in the Quartets to the universal experience of human existence as situated in the in-between of time and timeless meaning and knew that he could do so only through a poetic language that both avoided a deliberately liturgical use of Christian language and employed a universal range of symbolic articulations of human-divine encounter.

He is writing of every person’s existence and participation in his­tory. Therefore he must establish the poem on the basis of experiences rec­ognizable to any open mind and then show, through the employment and correlation of symbols and phrases from a multitude of religious traditions, how these speak to and illuminate such experiences. Thus, as Helen Gardner states, throughout the poem-cycle Eliot’s “use of specifically religious words and symbols shows a scrupulous care.”27 Whether Buddhist (“lotos,” “detach­ment”), Hindu (“I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant–”), Christian (“the Word in the desert,” “Adam’s curse”), or mystical-philosophical (“the still point of the turning world”), the religious language is always illus­trative of universally available experiences.

And beyond this, Eliot in certain passages–especially in the beginning of The Dry Salvages–shows sensitiv­ity to Cosmological experiences of divine presence in the world (“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god,” . . . “The sea has many voices, / Many gods and many voices”) (DS, I, 1-2, 24-25). The religious language of the Quartets can be said to be an attempt at es­tablishing, for modernity, a sense of the ultimate unity of individual, world, society, and history through their participation in the one divine ground, a participatory sense that has evoked articulations throughout the world’s re­gions and religions of reality as grounded in a timeless unity.28

Eliot’s Ecumenical Spiritual Vision

David Tracy has recently emphasized such a view of the Quartets, un­derscoring Eliot’s intention to create a modern (indeed modernist) poem of spiritual truth with full ecumenical reach. Tracy judges both that Eliot ac­complished his aim and that few readers grasp just how radically ecumenic is Eliot’s spiritual vision in the Quartets:

“Eliot, as both poet and religious thinker, went as far as any twentieth-century poet in the English-speaking world has ever done to evoke and provoke both ancient and new, both Eastern and Western religious spiritual thinking . . . . Thus does Eliot of the Quartets leave the Eliot of the controversial essays on Christianity far behind to join himself to the tradition of marginal Christian Platonist thinkers from Dionysius through Eckhart. This Platonic legacy is in­tensified rather than lessened when Eliot turns to the more explicitly Christian images of the later Quartets, for all the Quartets are pervaded by moments dis­playing [a religion] of manifestation and meditation . . . .”

In the later Quartets (“Little Gidding” V) Eliot’s religious thought, in its now explicitly Christian form, sometimes transforms itself into some vision just as puzzling and radi­cal as that pervading the central images of “Burnt Norton” (the Buddhist im­agery of the lotus and the pool and the Heraclitean-Platonist imagery of the still point). In Four Quartets, Tracy firmly concludes, “[m]ultiplicity of the religious vi­sion, not exclusivity, reigns.”29 This does not mean that Voegelin is wrong when, in his “Notes” on the Quartets, he calls them “the spiritual autobiog­raphy of a Christian poet.” But it would be equally true to call Four Quartets the work of “a poet of divine presence,” in a manner similar to what is meant when Voegelin is described as “a philosopher of divine presence.”30

In the end, the “Christian” character of the Quartets, and the way in which it presumes Christian symbolisms of human-divine encounter to have their equivalents in other religious and philosophical traditions, is helpfully illu­minated by the approach to Christianity in Voegelin’s philosophical work. In his work as a whole there is an insistence on divine presence as co-constitutive of humanity universally; an emphasis on spiritual meditation and mystical apprehension as necessary experiential conditions for attaining a sound un­derstanding and vision of existence and history; and an agreement that the fullest differentiation of human understanding of divine transcendence, and its implications for the meaning of personal existence and of human history, is to be found in the realm of Christian experience and symbolization and their historical unfolding and explication.

A Poetic Rendering of Voegelinian Analysis

Indeed, we may be aided in under­standing Eliot’s mystic Christian ecumenism in the Quartets by grasping the point of Voegelin’s following remarks on Christ and Christianity with refer­ence to his own philosophical work:

“I am indeed attempting to ‘identify’ . . . the God who reveals himself, not only in the prophets, in Christ, and in the apostles, but wherever his reality is expe­rienced as present in the cosmos and in the soul of man . . . . The modern en­largement of the ecumenic horizon to globality, and of the temporal horizon by the archeological millennia, has made a revision of the traditional “common language” indeed ineluctable . . . .”

“[My expansion of the Anselmian faith seeking understanding] to all of the experiences of divine reality in which history con­stitutes itself, cannot be said to go beyond ‘Christianity.’ For it is the Christ of the Gospel of John who says of himself: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (8:58); and it is Thomas Aquinas who considers the Christ to be the head of the corpus mys­ticum that embraces, not only Christians, but all mankind from the creation of the world to its end.”

In practice this means that one has to recognize, and make intelligible, the presence of Christ in a Babylonian hymn, or a Taoist specula­tion, or a Platonic dialogue, just as much as in a Gospel.31

And finally, Eliot’s expression in the Quartets of his awareness that his own lifetime’s search for meaningful existence was from the start a response to the initiatory, loving appeal of the divine ground–approaching the end of the fi­nal poem, we are presented with the isolated line and summarizing utterance, “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling” (LG, V, 238)32– may be recognized as a symbolically condensed, poetic expression of a truth at the center of Voegelin’s analysis of universal existence in the in-between: that anyone’s search after meaning and purpose is from the first, and always, a simultaneous being drawn by the one divine reality.

For Eliot, restless human questioning and striving is a participatory response to the one divine ground of our being, which draws us toward truth and goodness and love–however faithful to the normative orientation and unrestricted reach of this question­ing we may prove to be. Eliot’s spiritual vision in Four Quartets is not only a reminder of the human situation in the metaxy; it is also a poetic act of resistance to those elements of modernity that, in denying and eclipsing the truth of timeless reality, have assisted both in provoking the ennui and angst for which the twentieth cen­tury is so famous and in giving birth to recent political nightmares founded on the illusion of radically immanentist existence.

Though consciousness is in truth the point of the intersection of the timeless with time, far too many people in the modern world, in Eliot’s words, have “had the experience but missed the meaning” (DS, II, 93). Eliot wants to recover the meaning in the experience of the metaxy by evoking it through his poetry as eloquently and convincingly as possible. And he makes clear that this recovery can be achieved only on the basis of two interconnected efforts.

The first of these is personal engagement in meditative and spiritual disciplines that enable the soul to explore its own depths with sufficient humility, courage, and faith to overcome the fear”[o]f belonging . . . to God,” and so to find at the center of oneself that which is, paradoxically, both not-self and yet the essential self: “the still point of the turning world”(EC, II,96; BN, IV, 136). The second is to study with loving at­tention the great thinkers and writers of the past, the prophets and saints and poets and philosophers, and to struggle to restore and restate their insights and wisdom in a way that speaks to the present.

Eliot’s own achievement with regard to both efforts is strikingly manifest in Four Quartets, where, in David Tracy’s words, we find how a “twentieth-century poetics of the spirit informed  . . . by an enormous range of Western and non-Western religious and philosophical ideas can be rendered plausible for any honest and open mind.”33 The spiritual autobiography of Four Quartets, then, can be viewed as a bulwark against the disorders and distractions of our time, as it recovers for us with sublime articulateness the truth of our lives in the in-between of tem­poral and timeless meaning.34

Art, religion, and philosophy, as Hegel explained, are the three fields of hu­man concern whose purpose is to directly explore the spiritual meaning of human existence. But the first has a perennial advantage over the latter two in that it does not take the form of a pretension to wisdom, or a search for wis­dom. Art does not preach, teach, reason, explain, or analyze: it always and only concretely shows. So even in an era when many people’s “hints and guesses” about the truth of transcendent mystery find little or no resonance in the doc­trines and dogmas of religion or in the abstruse investigations of philosophy, great works of art and literature may light up for questing consciousness, mo­mentarily or more enduringly, its metaxic situation in the cosmos.

At least it may do so if such works are repeatedly engaged in a persistent, open, and lov­ing way.



1. See chapter three, pp. 39-42.

2. T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, V, II. 234-35, in Eliot, Four Quartets, 58. All further refer­ences in this chapter to specific poems, poem sections, and line numbers in Four Quartets will be given parenthetically in the text.

3. Voegelin, “Immortality,” 77 see also 71, 79-80. The 1944 manuscript did not appear in print until 2004, under the title “Notes on T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets” in Voegelin, The Drama of Humanity, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol 33, 33-40.

4. Harry Blamires, Word Unheard: A Guide through Eliot’s Four Quartets, 41, 82-83, 123-24; C. A. Bodelsen, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:A Commentary, 2nd ed., 60, 83, 102; Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, 247, 263; Voegelin, “Notes,” 36-39.

5. Voegelin, “Notes,” 36-40.

6. Helen Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot, 105; on the musical analogy of, and the elements of verbal music in, Four Quartets, see 1-56.

7. Blamires, Word Unheard, 35; Voegelin, “Notes,” 35.

8. Kenner, The Invisible Poet, 262.

9. “The only hope, or else despair / Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre– / To be redeemed from fire by fire” (LG, IV, 11. 204-6).

10. Voegelin, “Notes,” 34.

11. Voegelin, “The Drama of Humanity,” 181 (emphasis added).

12. Blamires, Word Unheard, 116.

13. Kenner, The Invisible Poet, 270.

14. Blamires, Word Unheard, 13-14.

15. Eliot alludes in Four Quartets to numerous religious and philosophical authors and traditions, and employs direct quotations from the mystics St. John of the Cross and Ju­lian of Norwich, as he poetically elaborates these two approaches to the timelessness of divine being.

16. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 291-302.

17. Voegelin, “Notes,” 36.

18. Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot, 44.

19. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 47, 106.

20. Regarding this point, Voegelin comments: “On this conception of a divine presence, which is the presence in every present point on the [temporal] line, depends every concep­tion of history that makes sense  . . . “Voegelin, “The Drama of Humanity,” 181 (emphasis added).

21. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 317.

22. Voegelin, in one of his late writings, approvingly refers to Eliot’s “postspeculative, mystical meditation on history” in the Quartets; see Voegelin, “On Henry James’s Turn of the Screw” 155.

23. In line 56, the as-printed “consequence” has been given a capital “C,” correcting an error in this edition.

24. Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot, 172. Thus in Little Gidding, Eliot writes: “History may be servitude, / History may be freedom” (LG, III, 162-63). It is servitude to those whose participation in temporal duration is constrained by their sense of existence as restricted to, and bound within, the forces of nature and the inheritance, impact, and future of so­ciety; it is freedom for those who experience existence as life in the metaxy, and who are thus liberated from the intrinsic pointlessness of natural and social processes conceived as purely immanent through their recognition of timeless divine being.

25. Emphasis added (line 167).

26. Voegelin, “Notes,” 38.

27. Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot, 62. Eugene Webb addresses well Eliot’s religious lan­guage in the Quartets: “The poems of Four Quartets . . . besides developing to full maturity [Eliot’s] religious vision, were also an important step forward for him in the development of a poetic language with which to communicate his vision to a large audience on the ba­sis of a common culture. Instead of employing allusions to relatively unfamiliar parts of the Bible, the quartets draw on biblical imagery that would be recognizable to almost any educated reader . . . . And when he alludes to relatively less familiar material, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the writings of Saint John of the Cross, it is not necessary to know his sources because their meaning is made clear in the poem” (Eugene Webb, The Dark Dove: The Sacred and Secular in Modern Literature, 220-21).

28. Regarding this sense of participatory unity, it is tempting to identify the sequence of poems in the Quartets, thematically, with the four constitutive elements in what Voege­lin calls the “primordial community of being”–God, man, world, and society–which he discusses at the beginning of his magnum opus, the five-volume Order and History. Burnt Norton focuses on the individual, the poet Eliot, reflecting on specific actions pertaining to his concrete presence in a concrete place in England (“man”); East Coker reflects the so­cial world of community and heritage (“society”); The Dry Salvages relies on evocations of the world of nature, its rhythms and powers, and worldly cycles (“world”); Little Gidding, the hallowed place of religious community, of monks and contemplation of an ultimate reconciliation of history in a beyond of history, is most distinctively the poem of “God.” On the “primordial community of being” with its “quaternarian structure,” see Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, 39ff.

29. See David Tracy, “T. S. Eliot as Religious Thinker: Four Quartets” in Todd Breyfogle, ed., Literary Imagination, Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of David Grene, 272, 275, 283.

30. Voegelin, “Notes,” 34. On this characterization of Voegelin, see Paul Caringella, “Voegelin: Philosopher of Divine Presence,” in Ellis Sandoz, ed, Eric Voegelin’s Signifi­cance for the Modern Mind, 174-205.

31. Eric Voegelin, “Response to Professor Altizer’s ‘A New History and a New but An­cient God'” 293-94.

32. The line is a quotation from the anonymous medieval work of mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing.

33. Tracy, “T. S. Eliot as Religious Thinker,” 270.

34. The following chapter will focus on the second element in personally ap­propriating and safeguarding the truth of the metaxy described above–the careful and loving study of past testimonies to the in-between character of human existence. Specifically, it will address such testimonies as offered by art (especially by poetic and literary art), which has a unique cultural function in the protection of spiritual insights and the promotion of spiritual growth.


Also available is “Emily Dickinson and the Unknown God.”

This excerpt is from A Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art (University of Missouri Press, 2011)

Glenn HughesGlenn Hughes

Glenn Hughes

Glenn Hughes is Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Texas. He is author of several books, including Transcendence and History (Missouri, 2003); A More Beautiful Question (Missouri, 2011); and co-editor, with Charles Embry, of The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness (Missouri, 2017).

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