Language and Religion in T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”

The poem “The Four Quartets” by T. S. Eliot illustrates an intricate link between the various problems and limitations of language and those of religious thought. This direct relationship is expressed through the poem’s first two quartets, “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker,” which see the poet struggling with both the meanings and perceptions of language and of religious beliefs. In order to fully understand the various problems of language, it is first necessary to examine the variety of linguistic styles used in this poem. The first, most striking feature of the poem is its title, “Four Quartets,” which invokes a sense of musicality. Indeed, we find an orchestration of a variety of styles and voices throughout the poem. The first movement of “Burnt Norton” introduces us to the voice of a philosopher in deep meditation about the past, the future, and what might have been as the poet begins with the rather enigmatic lines, “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future…” (“Burnt Norton,” I, ll. 1-2) The second stanza appears to break completely from the previous style and voice as we see the experience in the rose-garden described with emotive words and repetitions to show excitement. The many adjectives such as “vibrant” and “dignified” indicate the rather descriptive language in this passage, which may be contrasted with the thoughtful and abstract language used in the opening stanza. The poem also uses several lines of old English such as “daunsinge, signifying matrimonie” (“East Coker,” I, line 30). This continues for the next four lines to show not only the great variety in language, but also to depict its significant evolution. The idea of the evolution of language introduces the theme of time, which concerns the cyclical nature of language, life, and death. Eliot, at the beginning of “East Coker,” states, “In my beginning is my end,” which suggests that life and death are two sides of the same idea of existence. The life cycle of societies is also constantly giving birth to change, as Eliot claims that the old is always made new. This implies that human life is both finite and eternal: when we die, we are survived by our relatives and succeeded by the next generation. While Eliot’s description of change refers directly to life, it can also easily be seen as a metaphor for the evolution and ever-changing temperament of language. This is particularly evident as the poem states that old things are “removed, destroyed, restored or in their place/ Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass” (“East Coker,” I, ll. 3-4). Thus, the meanings and implications of words constantly change over time, creating problems of interpretation. This is displayed through the passage’s juxtaposition of religious and secular ideas to create the same image. We are first introduced to the image of a Christian burial scene as the poem states, “Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth” (“East Coker,” I, l. 6). This is soon contrasted with the pragmatic view that there is a time for everything–everything finds its true form and significance in time. However, this practical view is somewhat unclear because it appears that even in a non-religious universe, there is a higher being controlling human life in the form of time. Eliot’s struggle against and his attempts to harness this higher being leave him distressed as he protests that words, “will not stay in place/ Will not say still” (“Burnt Norton,” V, l. 17). The disrupting impact of time is again mentioned as Eliot explains that to write is to start afresh each time. This is a problem because while one learns the proper uses of a word, it either ceases to exist or the transforming effect of time has changed its context and meaning completely. The first two quartets also bring forth the issue of interpretation, and the problems of language, religion, and knowledge appear connected due to religious distrust of language. The particular religious belief adopted by Eliot is that of apophaic or negative theology, which states that we must acknowledge our own powerlessness in order to reach the higher ground. Eliot first mentions this belief in the first movement of “Burnt Norton,” where he speaks of transcendence through suffering. The third movement of “East Coker” sees Eliot tell his soul to be calm and “Let the dark come upon you/ Which shall be the darkness of god” (“East Coker,” III, ll. 12-13). This juxtaposition of ideas implies that in order to reach higher, we must first reach downwards. The positive and the negative do not merely coexist, but are the same. This form of belief creates problems of interpretation, as we are offered two contrasting yet complementary arguments. The danger in such coexistence was perhaps best described by poet W. B. Yeats, who warned of a “distinct wavering between radically different points of view.” The juxtaposition of the two different paths to transcendence portrayed in apophaic theology may also describe the problems of language. Eliot constantly refers to both old and new language, which suggests that he believes that the only way to achieve literary transcendence is to combine the old and new forms of language to form a whole. Thus, due to the coexisting religious and literary views, we are faced with not only an ambiguity of meanings but also a murky argument on how to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Eliot’s attitude toward language also appears to have been affected by his religious beliefs. Negative theologians view words as having a tendency to favor positive affirmations, not developing negative perspectives with equal depth. The poet, from the very beginning, appears skeptical and even cynical about whether we can ever extract concrete meaning from words. This uncertainty is seen first in “Burnt Norton” as Eliot states, “What might have been is an abstraction/ Remaining a perpetual possibility” (“Burnt Norton,” I, ll. 6-7). While this refers to missed chances, it may also be regarded as a meditation on the interpretation of language. Each person can extract a different meaning from words, which makes communicating a particular view or idea problematic. The limitations of our knowledge are also reflected through the restrictions of language. The poem displays genuine doubt about whether any experience may be trusted. This is expressed in the depiction of the events at the rose-garden. While it is presented as the strongest example of true experience in the two quartets, its various mythical allusions, such as the bird in the garden, make it somewhat heightened and therefore imaginary. The language used to describe the scenery, which contained many repetitions to show excitement and a wide variety of adjectives, may be described as lacking “the poignancy of a definite individual experience.” The problems of language, knowledge, and religion are further intertwined due to their reliance on some sort of form to give them meaning and significance. At the beginning of the fifth movement of “Burnt Norton,” Eliot states that “Only by the form, the pattern,/ Can words or music reach/ The stillness as a Chinese jar” (“Burnt Norton,” V, ll. 4-6). This suggests that words may only have meaning and importance when placed into some context or structure. This dependence on context only adds to the problems of interpretation, since with the change of time and therefore context, the meanings of words are altered at times beyond recognition. Thus, Eliot gives the example of how the word of God, which is meant to be respected, can be shifted by the noise and extroverted shows of emotion in the wrong context. The contextual problem facing language may also be applied to knowledge and, ultimately, divine knowledge. This is expressed through Eliot’s continued meditation on the effects of time in “Burnt Norton,” where he states that any experience or instance such as that in the rose-garden requires context and time in order to “Be remembered; involved with past and future” (Burnt Norton, I, l. 92). Therefore, all knowledge and understanding must be placed in time in order to examine its value and truth. However, this notion itself is rather cyclical: the poet claims, after many attempts to make a particular moment timeless, that time is the only thing that can control itself. Thus Eliot’s meditations on time show the fundamental confines of our knowledge and the language that we use to convey that knowledge. Eliot, in his preoccupation with the problems of language, views the changes in meaning and use of words as both distracting and frustrating. The interweaving of the seasons depicted in “East Coker” reveals this confusion and chaos as the poet views this scenery as “a sign not of peace and order…but of disorder and anarchy.” Eliot’s dissatisfaction at the fickle behavior of language is further developed as he complains that a poem rarely remains as it was intended because the changing meanings of words alter the entire value of the work. The constant transformation of language creates problems of duplicity of words seen through Eliot’s description of the “place of disaffection” in the third movement of “Burnt Norton.” This passage illustrates a world between the two extremes of day and night. Eliot suggests that descending to this level is the beginning of transcendence: the dim light has the ability to transform “shadow into transient beauty” (“Burnt Norton,” III, l. 5). Thus the limitations of language are used to convey a religious message that encourages us to reach into the darkest parts of our soul in order to ultimately reach divine transcendence. Eliot also uses this duplicity of language to his advantage in the fourth movement of “East Coker” with an extended metaphor likening the sacrifice of Jesus to the work of surgeons. The poet uses a wide range of opposing words, as exemplified in the sentence “Our only health is the disease,” to show the two faces of language and the extraction of their meanings. He also uses two very different images, one religious and one temporal, to put forth the idea that to descend is to transcend. Therefore the problems of language and religion appear to weigh equally in Eliot’s thoughts, and the two issues are dependent on one another. Language requires context and time to render it meaningful, while religion relies on the often flawed language system to convey its messages. Thus, the imperfection of language only seems to make religious thought more unpredictable and ambiguous, creating a rather confused world where the truth is ever elusive.