The Seduction of Argument and the Danger of Parody in the Four Quartets

By Bellin, Roger | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Seduction of Argument and the Danger of Parody in the Four Quartets


Bellin, Roger, Twentieth Century Literature


    It is a very good sign when the harmonious bores are at a loss about
    how they should react to this continuous self-parody, when they
    fluctuate endlessly between belief and disbelief until they get
    dizzy and take what is meant as a joke seriously and what is meant
    seriously as a joke.
    --Friedrich Schlegel (13; [section]08)

    But is T. S. Eliot recuperable?
    --Fredric Jameson (303)

How are we to take seriously the conceptual discourse that makes up so much of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets? The poem has its lyrical moments, passages rich in image and metaphor, but much of its text affords no such easy approach. It is full of asides like "There is, it seems to us, / At best, only a limited value / In the knowledge derived from experience" (EC 81-83), (1) which punctuate the poem as though summarizing a lecture and at times go on at some length. Ever since the initial appearance of "Burnt Norton" it has been a critical commonplace to regard these discursive portions as both the poem's most conceptually profound and its most formally prosaic. (2) Indeed, the discursive voice caused some among its early critics to conclude that some passages of the Quartets might not even merit the title of poetry. (3) But the discursive passages were composed just as laboriously as the rest of the poem (perhaps even more so); and it is easy to see that these apparently prosaic passages are often the same ones that carry the poem's own charge against poetry, bearing its self-critique within and among its lyrical passages. As the text of the poem itself apparently gives license to the view that its "poetry does not matter," the preponderance of critical work on the Quartets' nonlyrical portions has been devoted to philosophical and theological paraphrase of its argument, to explicating the system of belief or thought imagined to lie behind the words.

Little attention has yet been paid to the working of this conceptual poetry itself, to the textual construction of its presumed meaning. To begin to read the Four Quartets as discursive poetry requires only that we resist the initial temptation to read for an argument behind the words, discarding the assumption that the poem's discursive passages are any more direct, or less poetic, than its lyrical ones. The seductive voice of argument--which is already a voice in the poem as well as one found in its critics--invites conceptual scrutiny but repels formal analysis; it displaces the concerns of "poetry" in order to work its poetry undetected. But the seriousness of such a reading, its moral or critical sincerity, once opened to the poem's own rigorously reflexive skepticism, will unavoidably be compromised: to take the poem's own self-doubt seriously is always to risk its becoming a self-parody.

The seduction of reading the Four Quartets as a systematic, coherent exposition (whether of doctrine, thought, or faith) is both induced and resisted by the text itself. The text integrates paraphrases, near-quotations, and direct citations from disparate times and cultures (Heraclitus, Krishna, St. John of the Cross, etc.), and its citations appear thematically unified: all bear on time and renunciation, a negative theology or mysticism. Many critics have remarked that these quotations are "integrated" or "assimilated" (Traversi 89) rather than "twisted" into a "clash" with their original meanings like the allusions of The Waste Land (Gardner 30). And the formal unity of the Quartets' imagery and structure, their very apparent craft, suggests an analogous unity of content. But the poem itself--considered not merely as a fabric of themes, allusions, concepts, and images but as a text, as it must be--steadfastly resists systematization. The Four Quartets rely on paradox, contradiction, tautology, and the performance of self-doubt. And frequent, jarring shifts of tone, from evocative or witty lyric to prosaic self-doubt or mystic meditation, disrupt the poem's aspirations to formal unity.

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