Time and Faith within the Urban and the Rural, Part 2

After last week looking at the importance of the city in T. S. Eliot’s poetry, we now turn to the rural context. Eliot’s final masterpiece, Four Quartets, takes place in four distinct rural settings, each demonstrating how Eliot engaged with his faith in his later years. In Four Quartets, Eliot’s place-names derive from a greater purpose than they did in his better-known poem The Waste Land: Rather than transporting the reader to that global and familiar city, London, where even the most foreign reader can envision Eliot’s references to its streets and landmarks, Eliot brings them instead to places likely remote and unknown to the modern reader. Burnt Norton, East Coker, the Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding are quaint, rural settings that help Eliot engage at a physical and metaphysical level with elements of existence. By making these places the focal points of his meditations, they become muses for Eliot’s larger philosophical project in Four Quartets, as a study of the progression of time and the role of faith. The first part, ‘Burnt Norton’, introduces once again the element of time, where Eliot notes that ‘only through time time is conquered’ (92). [1] However, whereas Eliot did not understand time in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and there questioned its order, in Four Quartets he has learned the importance of permanence and history to explain time.

For Eliot, existence complexly combines states of presence, permanence, and transcendence. Eliot nonetheless sees a coherence between these in their convergence at a common physical place. The ‘place’, then, becomes simultaneously pinned to and extended from its geographical location: rooted in, and uprooted from, its place in time. As it was produced by Eliot’s personal interaction with each location, the end result of Four Quartets is a larger conclusion about the relationship between place and time for the contemplation of faith.

Eliot’s visits to and use of each of these locations demonstrates that he was not simply a tourist visiting these sites but was going to them in a form of pilgrimage.

But before discussing Eliot’s view of faith in Four Quartets, it is first important to analyse Eliot’s relationship with the specific locations of Burnt Norton, East Coker, the Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding. Each place was a part of Eliot’s past, either because he visited it in his youth or because his ancestors lived there. [2] Eliot’s visits to and use of each of these locations demonstrates that he was not simply a tourist visiting these sites but was going to them in a form of pilgrimage. Eliot felt the need to undertake these journeys for a more personal, introspective purpose, and, as the term pilgrimage implies, it was a type of sacrifice that he believed would result in a spiritual renewal that could reconnect him with his past.

In his poems, Eliot notably does not limit his existence to that which is experienced by him alone; the rural place acts like a robe that was inherited, worn by different people through the ages, thus transforming the place into a gateway into previous lives that permits Eliot to engage with elements of presence, permanence, and transcendence. These places engage with presence because Eliot needed to physically be at each location in order to interact with it; permanence since each place has strong historical roots either with England or with Eliot himself that withstood the test of time; and transcendence since Eliot experienced each place in a spiritual way that contributed to his understanding of transcendence in time, eventually leading him to write about his Christian faith in the last parts of the poem. By using these particular places as connections to elements of existence, Eliot established Four Quartets as a work that is universal in its concepts but also intimate to his personal life.

As I discussed in the previous instalment, Eliot’s portrayal of the city demonstrates how the city becomes a foreign place to even its most loyal and constant inhabitant because a city, by nature, is constantly renewing and revamping itself, warping the natural progression of time and aging and turning it on its head. It’s no wonder, then, that a character like Prufrock—and Eliot himself—felt inadequate within his familiar urban setting, even though the decay they were both experiencing from old age was actually the more natural course of life. Eliot similarly discusses this natural course and cycle of life in the first part of Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’, by introducing an old home that was burnt down a long time ago. The vestiges of the place Burnt Norton used to replicate the progression of man. But, in the modern day, Eliot argues that man has created places of ‘disaffection’ (93) that turn shadows into ‘transient beauty’ (96) and cleanse ‘affection from the temporal’ (101).

The second part of the poem, ‘East Coker’, contains some lines describing country life that can be directly juxtaposed with the city life that he described in The Love Song. Excerpts from both stanzas are worth quoting side-by-side:

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
(‘East Coker’, 202-225)


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
(Love Song, 1-9, 13-14, 75-80)

The entirety of The Love Song can be juxtaposed to the description of rural life in lines 202-225 of ‘East Coker’, where he envisions and expresses an old, simpler way of life. Romantic as this description of rural life may be, the contrast between a summer’s midnight in the country and an evening in the city both offer realistic explanations of a way of life that once existed. Even the way that Eliot describes romance between two people is different in these two poems. In ‘East Coker’, the association of man and woman is a dignified and commodious sacrament, while in The Love Song, Prufrock’s relationships are characterized by cheap hotels and lavish parties (The Waste Land depicts an even cruder picture of romance). In lines 212-219 of ‘East Coker’, Eliot also mentions how, in their union, man and woman create mirth and concord as they dance around a fire, and such a mirth replicates that of ‘those long since under earth’ (217). Eliot notes that in his vision of people dancing around a fire, man and woman are ‘keeping time’ (218), which can be interpreted in two ways: as a keeping time to the music and dancing in rhythm, or as a keeping of time in the sense of sustaining a way of life that works in harmony with the past. I’ve always taken this excerpt to be Eliot’s nostalgia for a time of living in love and communion with the earth.

But those days are long gone, and Eliot understands this reality. Now that Eliot has come to terms with the natural cycle of the stages of mankind throughout history, he is able to contemplate the stages of man as they push towards an end, death, and how that end is dependent on faith in order to sustain hope—the only element that remained in Pandora’s box after she unleashed havoc unto the world. ‘O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark’ (280)—Eliot sees life as a course that must come to an end for people, for places, for ways of life. Whereas Eliot in The Love Song only related his death to what he knew about himself and his youthful days, now in Four Quartets he is able to relate death to a cycle of life that does not represent a final end. Eliot realizes that death is a new beginning:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away.
(‘East Coker’, 291-296)

It might appear strange, even disparaging, for Eliot to describe death as ‘the darkness of God’, but he means to express death as a mystery that, while bleak, is only a momentary darkness that can be compared to a rural landscape at night: the ‘darkness on darkness’ of hills and trees that are steadily changing for a new landscape. Part IV of ‘East Coker’ displays Eliot’s verse becoming more overtly religious in its explanation of death. All five stanzas in this section are replete with Christian imagery as Eliot begins to introduce a societal ‘disease’ (332) that can only be reversed through faith. There is a ‘wounded surgeon’ whose ‘bleeding hands’ allow us to feel the ‘sharp compassion of the healer’s art’ (327-330). Mankind, moreover, must obey a ‘dying nurse’ who cares about us by reminding us ‘of our, and Adam’s curse’, and concluding that ‘to be restored, our sickness must grow worse’ (332-336). Adam’s curse, moreover, could be a reference to the poem by W. B. Yeats with the same title, which reminds readers that all good things require labour since the Fall—echoing the same message in Hesiod’s Works and Days that Eliot cited in The Love Song.

It appears, then, that mankind finds itself ill and in a state of perpetual labour. This road is one we must all endure, a sickness that must grow worse in order to improve. But Eliot believes that there is another, more immediate source of salvation that Christ himself provides. The last stanza of section IV says the following:

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’, 347-351)

The ritual of taking Holy Communion is what can truly fulfil man’s spiritual void. Eliot notices that as men we are likely to think that ‘we are sound’ and substantial on our own; despite our  own arrogance, though, we still know Friday as Good Friday—which is to say that we have the tools for our own redemption embedded in our Christian heritage: If man would only seek to replicate Christ’s humility when he gave himself for us, then we would be able to rediscover the reality and truth of Christ to truly repair our desolate state. Such an overt manifestation of religion that directly cites Christian liturgical terminology is an acknowledgment of faith that Eliot is only able to affirm after exploring these rural places that instilled in him the importance and weight of Christianity.

Eliot complemented his spiritual experiences with the rural places of his past in order to create a comprehensive understanding of the past in general, so as to reasonably engage with the moral problems of his contemporary society.

The fact that Eliot came to Christianity while living in London—after experiencing glimmers of faith that were only fully formed once he immersed himself in Christian tradition—testifies to the importance of history and of time to carry on such history. Eliot complemented his spiritual experiences with the rural places of his past in order to create a comprehensive understanding of the past in general, so as to reasonably engage with the moral problems of his contemporary society. His gradual exploration of faith eventually led him to visit places of his ancestral path, drawing him outside of the city and into the rural landscape where vestiges of ancient buildings are best preserved precisely because they remain untouched and unaltered, aging naturally with the earth. The visitor to these remote and ancient places, like Eliot, is able to interact with these settings through his own imagination of what, and who, used to be there.

Eliot continues into the third section of Four Quartets,‘The Dry Salvages’, by traveling back to the city, explaining what he perceives to be the problem of this gargantuan creation. Eliot admits that he ‘does not know much about gods’ (390), but he calls the river a ‘strong brown god’ that is ‘sullen, untamed and intractable’ (391). Eliot often uses rivers as a metaphor for time, and he explains that the river was useful at first ‘as a conveyor of commerce’ (393) but eventually became a problem for man, ‘the builder of bridges’ (394), once he became unsatisfied with the river. Man solved the problem of the river, of time, and of gods by building a bridge over it that made the brown god ‘almost forgotten / By the dwellers in cities’ (395-396), an act which Eliot deemed ungrateful considering that the river, the carrier of history and of the past, had given so much to mankind. Man can continue to build cities over rivers all he wants, he says. The river, however, will keep his ‘seasons and rages’ (397), reminding us ‘worshippers of the machine’ (399) of what we choose to forget. Even though this god that Eliot mentions is powerful, he still paints him as a caring and benevolent figure, like a father: ‘His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom’ (400), and he is ‘within us’ (404). The rest of ‘The Dry Salvages’ becomes increasingly Christian, eventually invoking a prayer to the Virgin Mary, the ‘Queen of Heaven’, for all men who are lost.

The final quartet of Eliot’s work, ‘Little Gidding’, summarizes the most important reason for sustaining the rural over the city: It is the only way of keeping history and the past alive. The past needs to be kept alive, moreover, because it is our only connection to the holy and sacred. Traveling to remote, quaint locations is a rewarding experience, Eliot attests, because in these places the lack of external sensory experience (like the type we’d encounter in a vast city) allows us to develop our own, internal sense that creates a metaphysical connection with an elder place. This experience of traveling to rural settings is all the more enhanced when the lost pilgrim places himself in a reverential mode, combining his personal prayer with the prayers of men before him:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
(‘Little Gidding’, 666-680)

I read Eliot’s Four Quartets for the first time the spring before moving to St Andrews, and excerpts from his verses echoed in my mind day after day when I walked the town’s short, cobbled streets. It might have been my personal experience, but living in this setting for a year connected me to my faith in a way that I had never experienced in my years living in Philadelphia. Eliot’s ancestry, his intrigue with Christianity, and his deep knowledge of history drew him to England. People of faith, and/or lovers of history and tradition, will find the same commonality with Albion, since it bears more history for our spirituality than we can fathom; it contains a combination of pagan myths, Celtic folklore, and Christianity (readers of the Inklings, Yeats, and Chesterton will be familiar with this concept). But this is not the kind of history that we will see or read about in an Edinburgh or London museum. Some history is buried only in time, and no amount of archaeology can excavate its traces. Eliot emphasized the need for humility and respect in order to truly connect with the rural setting, with old, stacked stones, because he knew this fact all too well—a humble place requires a humble attitude to truly be understood, but, more importantly, felt.


[1] All quotations from Eliot’s poetry come from T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1963). Line numbers for Four Quartets continue consecutively through all four poems.

[2] Russell E. Murphy, Critical Companion to T. S. Eliot: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (New York: Facts on File, 2007), 187.

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