Over two millennia ago, a Hebrew philosopher known anonymously as the Qoheleth offered this observation:
[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV)
You could consider Eliot’s Four Quartets his own wrestling on this ancient theme. Despite the Byrds’ zen-like refrain, the Qoheleth was troubled by this dark truth. We are creatures of time without the capacity to understand beginning and ending (let alone eternity!)
Eliot’s meditations are correspondingly dark. He begins, like the Qoheleth:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. (“Burnt Norton” 1-5)
Time is a mystery. We can’t grasp it. We can’t somehow view it from the fixed point of a wheel—we can only participate in the dance that circuits around the “still point” (“Burnt Norton” 66).
Four Quartets are not something to be read lightly. They are incredibly dense and pregnant with meaning. This is language distilled to its essence.
For the Christian, these poems hold something extra. Eliot’s high-church Anglican worldview infused his writing. Consider these verses about the death of Christ:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. (“East Coker” 67-71)
Indeed, the incarnation of Christ is the only real solution to our problem with time. In Jesus, the eternal entered time. If we have a hope of grasping the mystery, it will be found in him.
More than Eliot’s day, ours is full of people “Distraction from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning” (“Burnt Norton” 101). It is a helpful antidote to slow down and meditate deeply on something. Aside from scripture, I can think of no better work of art than Eliot’s Four Quartets.
(For a helpful entry point to understanding the Four Quartets, watch this lecture by Professor Thomas Howard.)
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1944).