When I first read Eliot, I was still at university. I fell in love with his work as soon as I read The Waste Land. T.S.Eliot haunted my college years to such an extent that I wanted to read more. Having read all his poems - my favourite being Four Quartets - I went on to read his plays and essays such as Murder in the Cathedral, The Cocktail Party and Tradition and the Individual Talent.
Almost 8 years after I had graduated from university, T.S. Eliot came to haunt me again. This time, I decided to write a book about this brilliant man concentrating on the elements of Time and the Eternal in his major poems. The book, published in February 1991, didn't sell well but it gave me the satisfaction of making a dream come true. I have incurred many debts in writing this book. My understanding of the element of Time, of the Flux and the Eternal has been largely shaped by Staffan Bergsten's Time and Eternity and by Henri Bergson's Durée et Simultanéité. I owe more personal debts to my revered instructor John G. Blair who, despite the difficulty of some issues, greatly encouraged me with his help and advice to humbly add to the already considerable bulk of commentary on Eliot's poems.
Here's an excerpt from Chapter IV - Four Quartets
T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets were written during the period of the poet's mature life, between 1934 and 1942, and reflect with his personal experience his wide and varied reading and thinking.. A complex poetic structure is the means by which the emotional and intellectual elements are incorporated into a whole. Through the complexity of the poetic structure and the symbolism, one imposing theme, which becomes almost an obsession, is emphasized by the poet from the very outset: the theme of time.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past
(Burnt Norton I)
The theme of time, which gradually developed in Burnt Norton and the other Quartets, is also brought into contrast with another theme: that of the timeless or eternity. The antithesis of time and eternity is significant for the structure of the Quartets because, as a symbol, it reflects two basic elements important to Eliot's experience as man and poet: the individual life and history in general versus the eternal and unchanging.
In Four Quartets, there are elements from Heraclitus' philosophy but these do not relate to Eliot's own positive theory of time. They represent rather the notion of the Logos in the flux, the creative and at the smae time destructive character of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Eliot's aim is not to imitate Heraclitus but to transform these ideas into his own christian philosophy. So, when he writes "The way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back", he does not mean that time is relative or that the temporal is the ultimate reality. What he really means is that within the flux, there is only one choice: either death or God. If we reject God, who is the timeless, the Eternal, all experiences are worth nothing. It is in this way that Eliot changes the Heraclitian theory of time into a christian theory of value: within the flux, if nothing else is recognised as more real, no experience is any different from any other in so far as its value is concerned. Eliot's theory of time tends to be rather neo-platonic than Heraclitian. It is essentially an immanence doctrine to which the Eternal or the Timeless is regarded as the creative force of the flux or the temporal.
This is not to say that Eliot denies the reality of the flux. For Eliot, the flux is real but its reality is sustained by the more ultimate reality of the Eternal. The flux is not an illusion, but it is an illusion to regard it as the only reality.
Excerpt from T.S. Eliot The Eternal by Anastasia Marou
Do you read or write poetry? Who's your favourite poet?