Wrestling with Words and Meaning: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Scholarly Writing about Literature

By Corrigan, Paul T. | Yeats Eliot Review, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Wrestling with Words and Meaning: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Scholarly Writing about Literature


Corrigan, Paul T., Yeats Eliot Review


The poetry does not matter.

--T. S. Eliot, "East Coker" II

So much scholarly work about literature has little to do with the human impulses that are the primary reasons people read literature. This is particularly ironic, even sad, with texts like Four Quartets which have been so personally meaningful for so many readers. Though what is "personally meaningful" certainly differs from person to person, the question of personal meaningfulness ought to be explicitly addressed at the least. Doing academic research in the humanities should not mean not talking about things that humans care about but rather talking about those things with a sense of rigor. Literary scholars ought not to abandon the traditional purposes of literature ("to delight and instruct") to the casual reader but rather ought to be far ahead of the casual reader in those very things.

On the whole, recent scholarly writing about literature falls short of the reasons that people read literature and falls short of the description of writing in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. This is particularly ironic when it comes to scholarship written about Four Quartets. However, if we read those passages in Four Quartets that deal with language and writing in light of this disconnect, we may find some ways to move forward in our scholarly practice. In particular, we can read the poem as inspiration and exhortation to wrestle more deeply with words and meanings in our scholarly work, with the craft of writing and with the implications of what we write and what we write about.

Why People Read Four Quartets

Obviously, no single answer can do justice to all of the different purposes and motivations people have for reading literature. But certain reasons come up again and again--people read to develop empathy, cultivate imagination, gain wisdom, find enjoyment, and so on. In other words, people read because they find that reading matters for their lives. These reasons have been particularly so for many readers of Four Quartets which is undoubtedly an artistic masterpiece and for some a spiritual masterpiece as well.

I first read Four Quartets as an undergraduate because a respected professor told me that it had been spiritually important to him for many years. When he and his wife adopted an infant girl who turned out to be severely autistic, their lives became incredibly difficult and they entered an intense period of personal darkness and isolation. Reading Four Quartets, he told me, played an important part in bringing him out of that darkness.

His story imbued Four Quartets with deep personal meaning for me even before I read it. When I read it for the first time, though I did not understand a single thing it said, I knew I was doing something important. So I reread it. Then I listened to a recording of T. S. Eliot reading it. And I reread parts of it again and again until I finally found a way into the poem. Almost by chance, I noticed a parallel between some of the passages in the poem and something else I was reading about the via negativa. From there, I slowly built my own framework for understanding the poem. I spent several days at my desk mapping out charts and graphs of the structure of the poem as I saw it, something like a sine wave with increasing high and low points. For about a year afterwards, I went around quoting the poem as if it were a gospel. What I came to understand the text to say, to do, and to be spoke to me at a deep level. It expressed some things I deeply believed, and at the same time it challenged what I believed. And it was beautiful.

David Finn's journey with the poem is similar to mine, but more intense and over a longer period of time. In the introduction to Evocations of Four Quartets, his book of paintings in response to the poem, he relates that he happened upon a book of commentary on Four Quartets on a friend's coffee table. Reading that book led to reading the poem which led to rereading and rereading it. …

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