T. S. Eliot's Poetics of Self: Reopening Four Quartets

By Melaney, William D. | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

T. S. Eliot's Poetics of Self: Reopening Four Quartets


Melaney, William D., Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


This article discusses how T. S. Eliot's long poem, Four Quartets, employs the thematics of time, self, and history in an autobiographical work of literature. The article approaches autobiography primarily as an intellectual concern, rather than as a factual account of the author's life, in examining a work that is difficult to subsume under available interpretive paradigms. The first part of the article emphasizes how Augustine's Confessions, when considered as a meditation on time and religious experience, illuminates the hermeneutics of Four Quartets. The second and central part of the article provides close readings of key passages in this poem, which inscribes Greek cosmology and medieval epic in a narrative of literary development and spiritual change. The third and concluding part of the article explores how the author's later poetry and criticism highlight major tendencies in twentieth-century literature and anticipate the postmodern interpretation of history.

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T. S. Eliot's contribution to a poetics of self is often difficult to appraise due to his daunting reputation as a modernist poet as well as his initiatory role in the founding of New Criticism. As the representative poet-critic of his age, Eliot emphasized impersonality and aesthetic formalism at the expense of subjectivity and life-experience. His canonization as a literary icon has prevented his readers from considering his poetry as a record of personal change. In Four Quartets, however, Eliot explores his poetic development as an autobiographical concern that challenges the way that his work has been persistently read in modern criticism. In this short essay, I indicate how Eliot addresses the question of the self in religious terms, just as he allows us to resituate his life in a new conception of the self in time. In conclusion, I contend that Eliot's Four Quartets could be called "postmodern" in suggesting new approaches to his poetry and criticism that engage the reader in the spiritual adventure itself.

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Eliot's theological interests, as they emerge in Four Quartets from beginning to end, often frustrate the attentive reader from considering literature apart from the matter of personal belief. But the poetry itself, rather than the poet's own life as an independent source of value, can be read as a sign of increasing commitment and/or as a narrative that places those same commitments in temporal perspective. Criticism, properly considered, can suggest how the poet's own words emerge in time, not necessarily as an obscure beginning that was later articulated theologically, but as a clear response to a contemporary situation. The mediation between language and the world that occurs in Fours Quartets is a matter of discourse, which might be read as the verbal effort to provide communal significance to the self's journey through time. The self that emerges as the theme of a discursive elaboration enables the poet to return to the past as both personal and historical. R. A. York suggests that Eliot may be "the greatest master of discursiveness in modern poetry," but also that "he practices discursiveness to show its limits; to hint at what is private, immediate, incommensurate with speech" (144). In Eliot's case, discourse opens up rifts in the being of language, showing us that the poem as such is neither a timeless artifact nor simply the result of impersonal reflection.

Hence, if considered in terms of the difference between a complete theology and a phenomenology of experience, Four Quartets calls attention to rifts in time which animate the speaker's account of his own journey from doubt to religious certainty. Furthermore, this journey, which involves the reader in an experience of disillusionment that prevents the poem from becoming merely a retrospective survey, cannot be assessed unless the movement from past to present can be appreciated as a temporal process.

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