There are certain moments in every book lover's life that feel like milestones: times you can sit back and feel truly bookish. For me, that moment was finally reading and discussing The Waste Land in my American Literature class last semester. I was a bit daunted by the poem's size and reputation, but once I read it and discussed it with my class, I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Intrigued by what I had experienced, and prompted by a recommendation from my boyfriend, I recently decided to read Eliot's The Four Quartets. I didn't feel up to writing a formal review of either of the two pieces (how on earth does one review The Waste Land?) but I do have things I want to share about Eliot's work. So instead of a review with ratings and summaries, I decided to write a reflection as a way to share my thoughts and feelings about these two poems.
It's disjointed, difficult, long, and brilliant. Parts of it are confusing and grotesque (I'm looking at you, carbuncular young man) while other parts are strikingly painfully beautiful. It is laden with symbolism and references to everything under the sun, many of which are explained and elaborated upon in Eliot's own footnotes. Now, to what extent these footnotes are serious or a mockery of academic texts full of allusions is a matter of debate, as is pretty much everything else about this poem. There are numerous instances, including the scene in the bar, the carbunkular young man, and madame Sosostris, where an expectation is set up and then shown to be hollow or broken. The relationships are falling apart, the clairvoyant has a cold, and the tarot cards aren't actually real cards. Everything in the poem is disjointed and fragmented, which echoes the structure of the poem itself. It is, to quote the poem, "A heap of broken images," or "fragments I have shored against my ruins." And while the poem seems to say that there is some distinct problem, it fails to specifically state the cause of the crumbling or give a concrete solution. In the end I think that this lack of definitive answers, aside from the absolutely stunning language, is what makes The Waste Land so compelling. Eliot manages to avoid being pedantic and instead comes across as honest and contemplative.
Now, while I had a class to help me work through all the symbolism in The Waste Land, I tackled The Four Quartets by myself. While The Waste Land was inaccessible at first, and became more accessible with time, I enjoyed The Four Quartets right away. That is not to say that I understood all of the symbolism immediately. I'm not even going to pretend that I have explored all the subtleties that this poem has to offer. Still, The Four Quartets absolutely stunned me with its beautiful and virtuosic use of language. While I can argue with some of his ideas, I cannot deny that Eliot is an absolutely masterful craftsman. I absolutely loved the way that images and phrases kept returning and changing across the work, adding meanings and taking on new connotations with each repetition. I feel like that varied repetition gave the poem a very organic feel, like Eliot was thinking through things and trying to figure out the very things he was explaining. That conversational, stream-of-consciousness style really keeps The Four Quartets from feeling too pedantic or weighed down with Anglican symbolism, and preserves a sense of integrity throughout by connecting the different sections of the poem. The Four Quartets moved me with their beauty and honesty, and that is, in the end, what I value most in a work of art.
I think that something I learned from reading these poems, as well as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (an absolutely incredible poem, you should really read it), is the value of becoming "part of the conversation." That is, I realized the importance and use of discussing works of this complexity with other people and with experts, either through actual conversation or through reading criticism. How else would I have understood the references to Dante's Inferno or Philomela or The Fisher King? And trust me, these understandings help to make the poem more rich and complex by giving the poem its proper context. I read The Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, which included excerpts from everything that Eliot referenced, as well as critical essays from various times and viewpoints. This kind of context helped to give me a place to start exploring this poem, which can otherwise be rather daunting. My edition of The Four Quartets did not have those kinds of notes, and I sometimes found myself wishing for an explanation of certain symbols. I could tell Eliot was referring to something, but I didn't know what it was, so I felt like I was missing out on something. I am looking forward to finding a good critical edition when I get back home. These poems are so deep and multifaceted that I feel like I could research them and re-read them for a lifetime and still not get tired of them. I think that one sign of great art is that it withstands multiple readings and continues to provide both aesthetic pleasure and intellectual enjoyment. In this regard, I can assure you that the poetry of T.S. Eliot is definitely worthy of your attention.