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R. M. Peterson
- Published on Amazon.com
Of all of T.S. Eliot's poems (which, in retrospect, are relatively few, at least in view of his stature as a poet), "Four Quartets" is my favorite. If you, too, profoundly appreciate it, I strongly recommend THE COMPOSITION OF FOUR QUARTETS by Dame Helen Gardner.
As a poet, Eliot - not surprisingly - was a painstaking craftsman, producing numerous drafts and then subjecting them to meticulous word-by-word scrutiny and revision. He also liked to solicit feedback from a few close friends. As a result of these practices, and the fact that so many of the drafts and associated correspondence were saved, there is an abundance of documentary materials relating to the composition of "Four Quartets". Gardner drew on these, as well as her independent Eliot scholarship and her connections (including what had been a friendship with Eliot himself and then a closer one with his widow), to produce a fascinating and very instructive account of the creation of what many regard to be Eliot's finest work. (Eliot, too, thought the Quartets his "best work".)
The book is divided into two Parts. The first Part, comprising about one third of the volume, is superb. In it Gardner discusses generally the composition of the four poems (from 1935 through 1942), Eliot's methods and practices in writing them, and - of especial interest - many of his sources and inspirations. Along the way, she provides many insights into interpretation of the poems.
Among other things, Gardner discusses Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding as geographical places, as well as their personal significance for Eliot. We learn that the opening of "Burnt Norton" consisted of, with minor revision, a passage that had been excised from an early version of "Murder in the Cathedral". Regarding the memorable opening lines of "The Dry Salvages" ("I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god * * *"), Gardner refers us to the Mississippi River and a preface Eliot later wrote for an edition of "Huckleberry Finn", in which he asserted that for Mark Twain "the River God is his God", and further, that "without some kind of God, Man is not even very interesting" (a fertile thought, that).
Gardner also discusses how the poems were not originally conceived of as a group, and it was only in the final stages of writing the second, "East Coker", that Eliot resolved or realized that there would be a set of four. And, indeed, the four poems initially were published separately, as each was completed. When Eliot decided to issue them together, as a set, his first impulse was to call it "Kensington Quartets". His good friend and, for a decade, flat-mate James Hayward talked him out of it. Eliot also considered as an epigraph for the collected "Four Quartets" the observation, from "The Pickwick Papers", of Mr. Roker of the Fleet prison: "What a rum thing time is, ain't it, Neddy?" (I for one wish that he had followed through with that notion.)
Part II of the book consists of a scrupulously detailed presentation of the revisions made to the poems in the course of their composition, together with (frequently) commentary on the thinking behind those revisions, which usually is gleaned from correspondence between Eliot and his sounding boards. The presentation is more accessible and graceful than I would have expected, but the fact remains that this Part contains much arcane minutia that is of interest primarily to the Eliot scholar.
As a physical artifact, THE COMPOSITION OF FOUR QUARTETS is a model of book production. As conceived, it required -- and it received -- very careful typesetting (done manually). All in all, it is an exceedingly handsome book, with the sort of gratifying heft that signifies gravitas. Unfortunately, it is now out of print and not readily available on the secondary market. (The prices charged by resellers through Amazon as of the date of this review are unconscionable; the book can be obtained elsewhere on the Internet for considerably less money, though still what a fine bottle of wine might cost you.) Then again, there always are libraries.