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Parallel Structures and Repeated Motifs in Eliot's "Four Quartets" (Burnt Norton/East Coker)

Parallel Structures and Repeated Motifs in Eliot's "Four Quartets" (Burnt Norton/East Coker)

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Published by Adam Fieled
This was originally presented by Adam Fieled as a seminar paper at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. It has been revised and is now being re-published in 2013.
This was originally presented by Adam Fieled as a seminar paper at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. It has been revised and is now being re-published in 2013.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Adam Fieled on Aug 04, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Parallel Structures and Repeate
d Motifs in Eliot’s
Four Quartets (Burnt Norton/East Coker
T.S. Eliot uses repeated motifs and parallel structures in his extended poem,
 Four Quartets
, to express an overriding concern with the nature of time and temporality.Repetitions become a kind of echo, and Eliot deliberately leads our thoughts in circular  patterns. This intention is made explicit in the first lines of the poem, which assert that
“Time present and time past/ are both perhaps present in time future/ and time futurecontained in time past.”
Eliot wants to create a new kind of non-linear poetic form, whichwill mimic what he sees as the circular, indeterminate nature of time. His aim is asmetaphysical and philosophical as it is poetic, recalling both the idealist theories of Kant
and the prose of Marcel Proust. Eliot’s motifs and parallel structures become a way of 
enhancing his “remembrance of things past,” as well as creating
 poetic rhythms whichmirror a heightened state of consciousness. The radical impersonality of much of this textcould easily be construed as cold and/or arid, another reason it made sense for Eliot touse the devices of repeated motifs and parallel structures. Repetitions create, if notgenuine human warmth, at least a semblance of warmth and kinetic movement.
The first repeated motif in this poem is the phrase “what might have been.”
 Eliot does not employ this phrase as a lyric poet would, to rue a personal loss or fondregret, but instead treats it as a philosopher would, looking for a metaphysical root.
“What might
have been is an abstraction/ remaining a perpetual possibility/ only in a
world of 
speculation.” The
hint Eliot gives us that this is prosodic is the brevity of thelines and the musical near-
rhyme of “abstraction” and “speculation.”
The second
repetition, or “echo” of “what might have been” presents the phrase in a new light, as a
 problem solved by the absolving “one end, which is always present.” This
is later referred
 back to by Eliot as the “still point of the turning world,”
and, since it becomes a repeated motif, it would seem necessary to attempt definition. For a Kabbalist,the still point is Kether, the crown, the ultimate root of all things. For a Taoist, the still
 point might be the Tao itself. For Eliot, the “still point,”
the “one end” is simply the
eternal presence of the present moment in the human world, a
n analogue to Heidegger’s“Dasein
It is as if time present, time past, and time future create a circle, and the still
 point is the circle’s center, which has inherent “Being
 A motif which has resonance for the entire poem, as well as in the limited context
of this section, is “echo.”
Eliot first deconstructs the process by which a work of art is
ingested; “my words echo/ thus, in your mind.” The use of the personal pronoun “your”
 adds a personal touch to an often impersonal context. However, we are not necessarilyreassured
the direct effect of these lines is to make us self-conscious. Also, it isimportant (and revealing) to note that Eliot imagines his words echoing in our minds,rather than our hearts or souls. This is cerebral poetry, and meant to be appreciated assuch; and poetry which addresses cognition in the Modernistic, rather than Romantic,objective manner, past the necessity for cohesion and fluidity.
The next “echo” brings in another key motif to the poem— 
that of place.
“Other echoes/ inhabit the garden.” We are reminded that Burnt Norton is an actual
  place, existing in the world. For the first time in the poem, we get a substantial visualimage, of a garden. It is an image of the Natural, unlike the artificial settings which Eliot perfected in
The Waste Land 
. What kind of 
inhabit a garden?The most obvious answer is that, as we take in the garden, natural images remind usof the frailty and transient beauty of nature itself. It also reminds us of the roots of things, the ultimate source of being
, where we all come from, what Eliot calls “our 
 first world
; but the primordial is thought, rather than felt.
The motif of the “first world,”
and the fact that Eliot is referring to agarden, echoes both the Biblic
al story of the garden of Eden, the “first world”
 of mankind, and the retelling of this story by Milton in
 Paradise Lost 
. Rather 
than a deceptive snake, Eliot refers to “the deception of the thrush.”
Many meaningsmay be inferred from this; it seems most likely that the flight of the thrush is ametaphor for an impossible metaphysical transcendence, possibly a leap in time, andthat this imaginary flight deceives us into believing that transcendence is more accessiblethan it actually is; all of which ampl
ifies Eliot’s by now wonted impersonality and the
objective distance he builds into a trans-temporal landscape.
“Into our first world” is also a textual milieu
of natural possibility, of the pliant physical, the organic. Interestingly, Eliot emphasizes that this garden we are visiting,which can be perceived both as an actual place and a metaphysical realm, does not exist,
as we would expect our first world to, in perpetual springtime. Eliot notes the “deadleaves” and the “autumn heat,”
and we are roughly brought down, in the rush of a run-on poetic sentence with short, staccato phrases, out of the metaphysical, the realm of  possibility, into the bounded, season-governed, finite world. Even our first world is
subject to the law of cycles, which Eliot mirrors textually by carving circular structuresinto his traditional prosodic reliance on the left-hand margin.The bird as symbol of transcendence is repeated several lines down. Now the
 bird acts as both symbol and instructor; “go, said the bird,”
and one line down, more
expansively, “go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/ cannot bear very much reality.”
This is no analogue to Shelley listening to his skylark, representing its harmoniousthoughts. Eliot does not attempt to forge a subjective meta-link to the bird, as Shelleydoes; the bird is a thing-in-itself, an objective (and thus, sober and sobering) reality, notintentionally instructing, but an example to the philosophic mind attuned to the Natural.What disturbs is that the bird is telling Eliot (and, by implication, us) to get out of thegarden, away from Eden, our first world, the Natural. Original Sin is not mentionedexplicitly, but knowledge of human impurity, of our unfitness for the garden, hangsover this passage; clearly meant to underscore two World Wars as a subtext.If we are unfit for the garden, we still partake of the grace and motion of life,what Eliot (and Yeats, elsewhere)
calls “the dance.”
The repeated motif of the dancesuggests man as artist, creator, crafter of forms. It also suggests that Eliot perceives,against his objectivism, beauty and harmony in the physical body. The first dance
mentioned is “the dance along the artery.”
Eliot apprehends perfection in the physicalmechanism; the hand of an artist lies behind its delicate symbiotic processes. Eliot thenemploys
“dance” to explain the preponderance of the ever 
 present moment; “except for 
the point, the still/ point/ there would be no dance, and there
is only the dance.”
Dance implies interaction. We do not exist independently; every breath we take, every motion of our body, every thought posits us as a thing amongthings, a being surrounded by beings, a tiny part of an immense whole. What allows usthe luxury of our existence is time, that which is always present, which envelopes us. Our dance with other beings is contingent on our participation in the dance of eachinfinitesimal moment as it passes. Each moment which passes seems different to us, yet isessentially the same
a point, a still point. The world turns, but the point subsists.To lead us to the resolution of the dance, Eliot uses the parallel structure of 
contradictory phrases, each beginning with the word “neither,”
each broken off abruptly by a semi-
colon. These opposites: “flesh/fleshless, from/towards, arr 
are used to delineate the metaphysical sensation of Being, what amountsto a perfect stasis. Stasis is achieved at a median, a balancing point, which we can onlycomprehend abstractly. Yet, the poem tells us we are still at Burnt Norton. Thissection conveys a feeling of limbo, of being hung between two worlds, physicaland metaphysical, temporal and timeless. A final contradiction is that the dance is bothwithin this stasis and beyond it, emerging from and back into evanescence like thethemes of the poem itself, in its dance with linearity and circularity.The dance of life plays itself out in moments. In a miniaturized parallel structure
towards the end of this section, Eliot presents three moments, “in the rose garden/ i
n thearbor where the rain beat/ in the draughty church at smoke-fall
as memories throughwhich time is conquered. The garden we have seen before, and the arbor is not asignificant departure in theme from the garden. The inclusion of the church as aremembered, momentous image, is new to the poem, and significant. It demonstratesthat the protagonist of the poem is engaged with the world, is a real person like other  people, rather than an impersonal Modernist cipher. (As a side note, it is also helpful

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