Four Quartets is a great book of poems to read when you’re traveling, or moving from one place to the next (when aren’t we?):
A summary from an episode of The Diane Rehm Show dedicated to the poems:
By the late 1920s, poet T.S. Eliot was regarded as one of the great literary figures of the day. His “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” were widely read and admired. But Eliot’s personal life was in turmoil. His marriage to a depressed woman was unraveling and he began a spiritual journey that led to religious conversion. As Europe moved toward war, Eliot wrote the first poem of what would later become “Four Quartets.” Inspired by Beethoven, every poem contained imagery of four seasons and four elements. Each was a complex meditation on time, redemption and eternity.
Eliot said he thought they were his best work, and that each one was better than the other. (I like numbers two and four, “East Coker” and “Little Gidding,” the best.) Each poem is named after a place with personal meaning to Eliot:
“Burnt Norton” (1935) was named after a house and garden on the edge of the Cotswold Hills in southwest England that the poet had once visited, the extraordinary beauty of which had left a lasting impression on him; “East Coker” (1940), after a Somerset village in which the poet’s family could trace its lineage to the late 1400s; “The Dry Salvages” (1941), after a group of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Mass., that the poet had navigated by as a young sailor summering in the Northeast; and “Little Gidding” (1942), after a humble chapel steeped in history to which the poet, a convert to Anglicanism in 1927, had made a pilgrimage.
Eliot said that the poet’s “direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve,” and good portions of the quartets are him writing about writing:
The man who said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” was obsessed with taking old ideas and old thoughts and bringing them alive by saying them in a new way: