T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

–From ‘Burnt Norton’

T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ is often described as the best long poem of the 20th century. Eliot’s vast final work attempted to order and understand the movement of time, the dissatisfaction of worldly experience, the nature of purgation and the struggle towards artistic wholeness and spiritual health(modified from C.K. Stead). In the poem, Eliot weaves belief systems and diverse influences including Dante, The Bhagavad Gita, The Eightfold Path of Buddhism, the New Testament, medieval mystics, Greek myths and the Grail Legend: so our study will also involve comparing wisdom traditions.

I will provide each participant with pages of annotations and reference reading (gratefully donated by Mike McGarry, fellow educator and philosopher)—but as always with the Salon work, the focus is on the text itself. In previous Salons, we have found our way to thoughtful considerations of various belief systems in a respectful atmosphere; this study will open up space for such considerations using the poem as a spring board. What we believe—as individuals, as cultures—addresses how we live and how we try to invest our lives with meaning. Eliot is taking on these elemental questions through his Anglo-Catholic faith but drawing into this perspective wisdom across time and beliefs.

Christopher Guerin, writing in the on-line magazine ‘When Falls the Coliseum’, describes his pleasure in the poem:

“Though I first studied the poem in college — emphasis on “studied”, which doesn’t always mean “experience” or “appreciate” — my firstencounter with Four Quartets took place while being chased by fierce thunderstorms across Interstate 70 in Kansas in the early evening. (I learned the next day that I had been surrounded by tornados!) I had put in a cassette recording I’d made off an LP of Four Quartets being read by Sir Alec Guinness.
No, the incredible impression the poem made on me at the time had nothing to do with Obi Wan Kenobi. Guinness’ delivery, though, seems the perfect voice for this poem, much more earnest and spiritually aware than Eliot’s own weary, almost defeated delivery. (The recording is hard to find, but well worth the search. Highly recommended.)
From the beginning, I was captivated by the cadence, the imagery, and the playful, seeking nature of the words. It’s impossible to quote anything less than the whole of the first section…”
Which he does—and you can read the rest of his commentary and selections of the poem here.

The Salon Intensive offers a wonderfully dynamic five-hour study (with a necessary pot-luck meal break half way through). Although this format may feel intimidating, those who have participated find the conversation gallops along and we take the book in one big and satisfying gulp. The study is a rich weave of participant questions and responses, readings of significant passages and consideration of the themes and genres that the book illuminates.

The facilitated discussion will use the text of the poem as a springboard for our conversation; participant questions, responses and ideas are welcomed to help navigate the challenges of the work. There is no expectation of previous study or work with the poem nor in the academic tradition: this study will challenge and invigorate the first time reader as well as the life-long lover of T.S. Eliot’s extraordinary vision.

The poem can be found in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-62 (Faber & Faber; ISBN-13: 978-0571105489).

If you would like to request this study or have any questions about it, please contact us.



Posted on

March 15, 2019