T. S. Eliot, 'Four quartets' and the mediaeval mind
The subject of this study is the tradition which gives meaning to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Eliot insisted that the significance of a literary work is determined by its relationship with the works which have preceded it. Before it can be said to present a credible vision of its contemporary world, a new work of literature must be defined and shaped by the order formed by the literature of the past. Having submitted to this discipline, the new work can then, in turn, redefine and reshape its governing tradition. The successful operation of this process, Eliot stressed, demanded of the poet a constant refinement of technique and a constant search for the most instructive literary models. The development of Eliot's own work from the early poems to Four Quartets involved just such a search for the tradition within Western literature which best expressed the quintessence of the 'mind' of Europe. A major feature of this development was a growing appreciation, both literary and intellectual, for the mediaeval era, and especially for its premier literary artist, Dante Alighieri. In Four Quartets Eliot attempted to appropriate for his own poetry something of the maturity of Dante's poetic art and of the literary, philosophical, social and theological traditions which informed it. A major characteristic of Eliot's poetry had always been its use of images and allusions to isolate specific traditions of thought and expression and import into a modem setting the connotations and resonances previously associated with them. The allusive texture of the Quartets makes frequent reference to Dante and to other mediaeval writings, either directly, by borrowing images and phrases and by adopting or imitating conventions of thought and literary form, or indirectly, by invoking traditions which themselves look to the example of mediaeval Christendom or which, in departing from it, contributed to the decay of the European mind which Eliot saw in the advance of the Renaissance. Many of these allusions have been noted and discussed in isolation by previous commentators. However, there has been no attempt to collate Eliot's mediaeval sources or to explore this aspect of his work as the conscious evocation of an axis-age in European culture. Eliot's constant recourse to the literature of the Middle Ages in Four Quartets will be illustrated by the consideration of his handling of five major themes or conventions which-perhaps not unintentionally-bear a striking resemblance to the major 'topoi' of Dante's Commedia. The first to be studied will be Eliot's use of four specific landscapes whose personal associations combine with their innate symbolic resonances to form the matrices for the wider speculations of each of the four poems. What this investigation will show is that Eliot consciously seeks and then locates value in the past. The progression from the landscape of Burnt Norton to that of Little Gidding reveals a development in the poet's mind from a consideration of personal experience to a meditation upon that of a community which sought to live out the mediaeval Christian ideal upon English soil. The second theme which will be studied is that which is introduced in the opening passage of Burnt Norton and to which the Quartets return repeatedly: the consideration of the nature of time. My account of this theme will show that, although various conceptions of time are entertained within the sequence, the approach which is finally espoused bears a close affinity to Augustine's attempt-which remained the most influential for more than a millenium-to explain time in its relation both to mankind's temporal experience and to the Christian notion of the eternity of God. The emotional centre of Four Quartets - the poet's account of his experience in the rosegarden at Burnt Norton -will be considered next. The full significance of the rose-garden is to be discerned only in its relationship to the tradition of garden-imagery to which it makes allusion, and especially to Dante's use of the conventions of courtly love in La VitaNuova and the Divina Commedia. By linking the personal core of feelings which were associated with the experience at Burnt Norton to Dante's account of his own love nostalgia Eliot is invoking not only a rich literary tradition but also the philosophical traditions which enabled Dante to explain and assign meaning to his personal feelings within the context of universal and theological truths. The wider ramifications of this philosophical background will be shown to have an increasing importance for Eliot's exploration in the remainder of the Quartets of the significance of the rose-garden experience. An important aspect of this expansion of the meaning of the personal core of the Quartets is Eliot's treatment of it as a spiritual and ultimately a theophanic experience. This theme will be taken up next. Eliot's debt to works of mystical literature in Four Quartets is wellknown, but has generally been treated in isolation from the larger patterns of imagery and allusion. It will be argued that the mystical sources used in the Quartets form an order which evokes the religious sensibility of the Middle Ages. This is immediately apparent in Eliot's allusions to Dante, StJohn of the Cross, and the English mystics of the fourteenth century; but even in his inclusion of mystical sources from other periods and other religious traditions - the Bhagavad-Gita is the obvious example Eliot is seeking to highlight aspects of religious sensibility which found their fullest expression in Christendom. The debt to the mediaeval era extends even to the cosmological metaphors which Eliot adopted to describe the physical aspect of the 'world' of the Quartets. Although not as systematic as Dante's Ptolemaic system, the universe of Eliot's sequence of poems is nevertheless described in spatial metaphors which, though ancient in origin, point once more to the all-embracing universal order envisaged by mediaeval philosophy. This study will be supplemented with a lengthy appendix which notes the other sources and allusions in the Quartets and explores their contribution to the larger schemes which determine the order of the poem and point to the tradition which gives it meaning.
Advisor: Ackerley, Chris
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: English
Publisher: University of Otago
Research Type: Thesis