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Dissonance and Harmony: T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"

Updated on October 7, 2011

Thomas Stearns Eliot’s book Four Quartets, published in 1943 and considered by Eliot to be his masterpiece, collects four poems that were originally published separately: “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets is a cornerstone of Eliot’s entire body of work, as it stands as both a departure and a new beginning for the poet. Using mystical and religious language, Eliot eloquently examines the nature of suffering and reconciliation. In many ways Four Quartets departs from Eliot’s previous works, such as The Waste Land, and breaks into new territory with its unique and elegant style.

It is difficult to read Four Quartets without comparing it to Eliot’s well-known poem The Waste Land. Eugenia Delamotte argues that Four Quartets lacks the tension and discord found in The Waste Land:

In The Waste Land, what Yeats called “those things that feed the soul” appear in one instant and in the next collide violently with the banalities of modern life. In contrast to this dazzlingly discordant style, the style of Four Quarters seems smooth, polished, even disconcertingly polite. (343)

Indeed, Four Quartets does create a sense of harmony and consonance compared to The Waste Land’s discord and conflict, but it also contains a unique dissonance that highlights one of the themes, human suffering.

Use of paradox

Four Quartets achieves this simultaneous dissonance and harmony through its excessive use of paradox. Statements such as “Only through time time is conquered” and “Distracted from distraction by distraction” seem both absurd and shrewd at the same time (“Burnt Norton” II, III). “Burnt Norton” itself discusses the nature of time—past, present, and future. The first section opens with a sort of puzzle about time past, present, and future. The speaker states: “If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable” (“Burnt Norton” I). Indeed, past, present, and future merge into one another, illustrated by the speaker switching between present and past tenses:

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. (“Burnt Norton” I)

The use of such contradictory language seems paradoxical and dissonant, creating an almost dream-like quality in this passage. The all-encompassing nature of time is brought to life through Eliot’s cinematic imagery. The speaker draws the reader into the poem through the use of “we;” the reader can understand the message of the scene as if it were his own memory. Thus, Eliot creates a harmonious blend of past, present, and future; the dissonant language still seems agreeable and pleasant.

One of Four Quartets’ themes is human suffering, which is often indicated in the poem by the pain of being in between two opposites. Again, paradox comes into play and creates discord and confusion; thus, the “discordant conjunctions of opposites throughout the poem are an especially appropriate manifestation of the torment it describes” (Delamotte 343). The speaker describes being “[a]t 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” (“Burnt Norton” II). Belonging to both but neither of the opposites at the same time, the speaker remains in between. He speaks of “a Royal Rose or a lavender spray / Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret” (“Dry Salvages” III). Something striking about Four Quartets is “the incantatory evocation of time at its beginning, yet throughout the poem time is so powerfully associated with loss and suffering that even the future is imagined as a sad memory” (Delamotte 344).


Religious allusions, East and West

In Section III of “The Dry Salvages,” Eliot also includes allusions to Hinduism and the Bhagavad Gita, directly mentioning how Krishna instructed Arjuna on the battlefield. He again returns to the theme of time, describing passengers on a train. He says: “Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past / Into different lives, or into any future; / You are not the same people who left that station” (“Dry Salvages” III). The passengers do not move from the past to the future on the train, yet they still change. They remain in a state of motion and change, in between two points; they will neither see the past completed nor the future before them. Indeed, Four Quartets is “replete with descriptions of being between, in the middle, in motion from one point to the next. Again and again it depicts the helpless anxiety of being neither here nor there” (Delamotte 346). The speaker wonders what Krishna meant when he spoke to Arjuna, whether “the future is a faded song,” neither here nor there (“Dry Salvages III).

Eliot’s Four Quartets contains Christian allusions as well. Describing how words move and can crack and break under tension, he states that:

            Shrieking voices

            Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,

            Always assail them. The Word in the desert

            Is most attacked by voices of temptation. (“Burnt Norton V)

Eliot deliberately switches from “words” to “the Word,” which calls to mind the opening of the Gospel of John, in which Christ is described as the Word of Life. Christ was tempted by Satan in the desert, much as it is described in the poem. The opening of “East Coker” contains a parallel to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. The speaker reflects that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane” (“East Coker” I).

"Temptation of Christ" by Rubens
"Temptation of Christ" by Rubens

Church holy days

James P. Sexton analyses how each section of Four Quartets alludes to holy days of the Church. “Burnt Norton” suggests Ascension Day, as the “black cloud carries the sun away” (“Burnt Norton IV). The “sun” becomes a pun for “Son.” The first section of “Burnt Norton” also states that “a cloud passed, and the pool was empty;” Eliot alludes to “the loss of water (with its baptismal associations) through the agency of a cloud [which] parallels the seeming loss of Christ through a similar agent” (Sexton 279).

Good Friday
Good Friday

“East Coker” alludes to Good Friday, the day Christ was crucified. Eliot also describes the Eucharist when he states:

The dripping blood our only drink,

The bloody flesh our only food:

In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—

Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. (“East Coker” IV)

Eliot also refers to the “wounded surgeon,” again alluding to Christ (“East Coker” IV).

“The Dry Salvages” becomes a suggestion of the Annunciation, the day that Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God. Section IV of “The Dry Salvages” makes an address to “Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory” and “Queen of Heaven,” asking her to pray for various people. This section echoes the “Hail Mary” with the repetitive requests to the Virgin Mary for intercession.

Finally, “Little Gidding” refers to Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Section IV of “Little Gidding” begins:

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

These are “unmistakable references to the Pentecost as described in Acts 2:1-4” (Sexton 280). With this Christ centric interpretation of Four Quarters, the four sections “respectively concern ‘the way up,’ ‘the way back,’ ‘the way forward,’ and ‘the way down,’ as spoken of by Eliot in ‘Dry Salvages’ III” (Sexton 280). The use of religious imagery, both Eastern and Western, ties in with the theme of reconciliation and the hope of peace.

Layers of symbolism

Besides Church holy days, “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding” are also meant to represent the four elements: air, earth, water, and fire, respectively. Thus, Eliot speaks of “[m]en and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind / That blows before and after time, / Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs” in “Burnt Norton” III, describing images of air. “East Coker” I opens with a scene in an open field: “Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth / Mirth of those long since under earth / Nourishing the corn.” “The Dry Salvages” is filled with images of water, such as: “The river is within us, the sea is all about us” in sectionI. “Little Gidding” IV contains the lines: “We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire.” The layers of symbolism in Four Quartets add to the richness of the poem and illustrate how it represented a major milestone for Eliot.

"Four Elements" by May Ann Licudine
"Four Elements" by May Ann Licudine

How to ease the suffering?

Eliot asks some important questions in his Four Quartets, including his own opinions and doubts about the nature of poetry itself. He bluntly declares, “The poetry does not matter;” he then describes poetry as an “intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings” (“East Coker” II). Where is the wisdom and the peace that should come from poetry? Can it somehow ease the suffering in the world?

Eliot asks, “Had they deceived us / Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders, / Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?” (“East Coker” II). Eliot suffers from some disillusionment in this section, doubting the value or power of poetry. He describes a descent into darkness and despair. In one chilling passage,

            …an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations

            And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence

            And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen

            Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about. (“East Coker” III)

This widespread paralysis prompts Eliot to instruct the reader: “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought” (“East Coker” III). Again, Eliot draws the reader into the problem, just as he does in The Waste Land.

As the speaker describes “the isolating state of being between, he looks for its origins and end. One reason for being ‘in the middle way’ is, as always in Eliot’s poetry, the inertia of fear, despair, or anesthetized imagination” (Delamotte 350). This idea fits with the passage about the passengers stuck on the underground train, terrified by their inability to think.

Eliot further describes this condition as “when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing” (“East Coker” III). The image of an etherized patient also calls to mind Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot frequently comments on people’s numbness and spiritual lifelessness. According to Delamotte, Four Quartets describes the “life in time as a state of endless sequence in which every point is between two other points and the perpetual transit from one to the next is experienced as a terrible stasis” (345).

Each ending a new beginning

Just as Four Quartets represents a departure and a new beginning for Eliot, the poem itself focuses on beginnings and endings. “East Coker” begins with the line “In my beginning is my end” and ends with the chiastic “In my end is my beginning,” (I, V). In section V of “Little Gidding,” the last section of Four Quartets, the line becomes: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.” By the end of the poem, the speaker extends this truth to include everyone, again drawing the reader in with the use of “we.”

Eliot recognizes that life is a series of endings and new beginnings, just as the past turns into the present and the future becomes the new present. At the end of “Burnt Norton” I, a bird guides the speaker on his journey:

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

            Cannot bear very much reality.

            Time past and time future

            What might have been and what has been

            Point to one end, which is always present.

The speaker begins a sort of quest to find the hidden truth, just as “the leaves were full of children, / hidden excitedly, containing laughter” (“Burnt Norton” I). The promise of happiness and harmony is hidden just below the surface, present in the speaker’s mind but somehow just out of reach.

As was discussed above, Four Quartets contains its own dissonance, in a different way than The Waste Land; the instances of discord in Four Quartets “do not disrupt the smooth flow of well-wrought line and pattern, although they strain against it” (Delamotte 345). The dissonance occurs mainly in the paradoxes that pervade the poem and add disguised truths to the work.

Delamotte finds the dissonance in Four Quartets thematically appropriate, because the “suffering is presented, not as a series of dramatic conflicts, but as an all-pervasive undercurrent, straining against the deceptively smooth surface of time-bound existence” (345). Thus, Eliot says: “If to be warmed, then I must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars” (“East Coker” IV).

He depicts suffering in paradoxical and religious terms, with the tension still achieving a sense of peace. The concepts of reconciliation and resolution appear in the end of the poem, as when Eliot states: “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments” (“Little Gidding” V). Four Quartets stands as a departure from Eliot’s previous work, as it uses a deceptive sort of discord. There is the hope of redemption, which marks a new beginning for Eliot. The poem is an important cornerstone of Eliot’s entire body of work, treasured for its richness and eloquence.

An excerpt of Eliot's reading

Works cited

Delamotte, Eugenia. “Dissonance and Resolution in Four Quartets.Modern Language Quarterly 49 (1988): 342-361. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec. 2006.

Eliot, T. S. "Four Quartets." T. S. Eliot: the Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1952. 117-145.

Sexton, James P. "Four Quartets and the Christian Calendar." American Literature 43 (1971): 279-281. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2006.


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