This begins a series where I intend to go through the entirety of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and offer a section-by-section interpretation of the poem, as well as an overall interpretation of each section and the poem as a whole. We shall begin with a few short comments on the overall structure of the work.
The Four Quartets is divided into four main divisions, each bearing its own unique title and being further divided into five sections. Each quartet has its own distinctive character, though common thematic elements run throughout the course of the whole composition. Quartets are musical pieces for four instruments, and there certainly are some similarities between Eliot's quartets and the classical form; as it is appropriate we will discuss these similarities. However, it should be noted that the musical form itself most likely is derived from the natural divisions of human singing into four different voices (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass); thus in some ways creating a poetic work in quartet form can be seen as a more original sort of quartet than the musical variety.
The general theme of the work is a reflection on the nature of relation. Some of the key relationships pondered in the poem are form and matter, time and eternity, beginning and end, human and divine, silence and speech, motion and rest, separation and communion, and lamentation and exaltation. This is not an exhaustive list; but it should give us an idea of the monumental scope of the poem. It also should clue us in to the fact that the poem can be highly tricky to read; much like Eliot's Wasteland the poem's form and content are so superbly fused that trying to make a division between the two is neither useful nor correct. The poem is written in this fashion for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that interpreting the poem creates the possibility of a transformation in the character of the one interpreting it. While this is not principally why Eliot wrote the poem, it may be (at least initially) why we should want to read it.
The poem begins with two quotations from the enigmatic Heraclitus. Eliot gives them in the original Greek; we shall translate them as "Although logos is common to all, most people live as if they had a their own private logos" and "The way and the way down are the same." Logos is of course the Greek word we will translate as "language" (and the root of the word logic). Interpreting this quote separately from the rest of the poem would be fruitless; I will now only remark that the poem is profoundly concerned with the nature of language and the relation between humans and language. The second quote introduces the concept that opposition (in this case the "up" and the "down") is primally rooted in a fundamental sameness, without which opposition would be impossible. This concept will be explored at great length in the poem.
We shall begin next time to consider the first section of the first quartet, "Burnt Norton." Each quartet is associated (among many other things) with one of the four classical elements; the element that characterizes this quartet is earth.