"Now and in England": Four Quartets, Place, and Martin Heidegger's Concept of Dwelling

By Griffiths, Dominic | Yeats Eliot Review, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

"Now and in England": Four Quartets, Place, and Martin Heidegger's Concept of Dwelling


Griffiths, Dominic, Yeats Eliot Review


Introduction (1)

I had my existence. I was there.

Me in place and the place in me.

"A Herbal"--Seamus Heaney (43) (2)

T.S. Eliot's poem, Four Quartets, is foremost a meditation on place, a psychological narration of its significance. Each quartet is named for a place which, because of either historical or personal memory, holds importance for Eliot. "Burnt Norton" was published in April 1936, "East Coker" in March 1940, "The Dry Savages" in February 1941, and "Little Gidding" in October 1942. The quartets appeared in a collected volume in May 1943, forming a single poem. Eliot's engagement with place in Four Quartets is unusual, for though the quartets are named after places, three of which are in England and one in the United States, for the most part the content of the quartets do not offer a poetic description of the places. Rather, Eliot evokes "place" as an ontological topology by describing it in psychological and existential terms of belonging and home. This sense of belonging is established and maintained through the complex poetic narrative which the poem weaves. This paper argues that the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, particularly his notion of dwelling, helps us explore how Eliot, in his last and greatest work, comes to understand the role the four places celebrated in Four Quartets have in shaping and confirming his identity. Interpreted through Heidegger's later philosophy, Eliot's poem offers us a sense of what it truly means to dwell, to be "at home" in the world. Four "Quartets does this by illuminating the profound ontological relationship we can have with place. As the paper will show, the evocation of the four landscapes that make up the Quartets confirms that "poetically man / Dwells on this earth" (PLT 214), (3) in the words of Friederich Hrlderlin (1770-1843), a German Romantic poet much loved by Heidegger.

This paper draws on Heidegger's later work, particularly the concept of dwelling, as a philosophical bridge to support the claims of Eliot's poem. I begin by considering the meaning of dwelling itself and its relation to what Heidegger calls "enframing," then discuss the relationship of place with narrative, and finally briefly demonstrate how these ideas can be brought into dialogue with Four Quartets.

Dwelling, Technology and Poetry

Dwelling, Martin Heidegger writes, is the proper relationship of humankind to Being (LH 227-228). (4) Being is the central concept in Heidegger's philosophy. The term points to the very fabric of existence itself, the mysterious fact that there is something rather than nothing and that we are able to behold it and are, in our very existence, ineluctably open to the possibilities it offers. Thus we have the potential to have a "proper" relationship to Being, a relationship characterized fundamentally as "freedom," meaning that our essential nature, as the "site of openness" or "clearing of Being" (LH 229) is one of freeing potential. A simple example of this potential is a carpenter, who through various materials and techniques, responds to both his craftsmanship and the raw materials the earth provides, and creates something new, something which did not previously materially exist--say, a table. In Heidegger's terms, this table is literally "unconcealed," through the freeing process he calls poiesis, or "bringing-forth" (QCT 317). (5) However, the revealing of the table, as table conceals other things that could have been revealed in the wood; thus revealing and concealing occur simultaneously, enabled by human beings who are the site of openness in which Being can freely be brought to presence. A similar example, more fitting for our purposes, is a poet and the blank page. The act of writing and creating a poem distils a particular experience of reality, while at the same time covering over other possibilities which are not expressed.

These two examples illustrate the general and genuine way of conceiving of human existence, characterized as "openness" to the world, essentially free. …

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