The depth of religious reference in Four Quartets gives a clear indication that its subject matter is being viewed from a religious viewpoint. The themes of death and of questioning whether life can have any definable meaning, as discussed in Eliot's earlier poetry, re-emerge here but they are viewed in the light of Eliot's conversion to the Anglican faith. Therefore, their treatments are discernibly different. In his essay Religion and Literature, Eliot argues that it is necessary for a religious reader to 'scrutinise their reading, especially of works of imagination, with explicit ethical and theological standards'. Therefore, it's not surprising that to find in Four Quartets, started in 1935 the same year Eliot's essay was written, an ethical and theological standard.
The religious belief evident in Four Quartets cannot by its presence alone be said to make the poem an effective religious one. There are many factors that serve to weaken the ability of Four Quartets to convey meaning well. The basic idea of religious truths is that they should be open to all. As with the earlier composition The Waste Land, the depth of allusion and the complexity of the meaning the reader is supposed to derive from these allusions can make the poem impenetrable to readers without the required level of erudition. Obviously this presents the reader with great problems which are almost insurmountable. George Orwell also attacked the first three parts of Four Quartets for putting forward a world view that is entirely pessimistic and so far divorced from the decadent intelligence of Eliot's earlier works, that this one inevitably suffers by comparison.
If there is a clearly visible message in Four Quartets then this would be a good place to start any consideration of the poem's efficiency as a religious work. The task of finding a unified message in the poem is not an easy one. For a start the long opening of the poem means that Eliot would have necessarily gone through some changes of mind during its creation, which may or may not find their way into the poem. Also the splitting up of the work into four individual sections makes regarding the whole of the poem difficult. Although it's difficult to view such a large poem as a whole, there are shared themes that are clearly visible in all the sections which allow the reader to find continuity. A revealing comment is that of Donoghue who in T.S. Eliot's Quartets: A New Reading states that:
The poems indicate not positions reached but the reaching of positions, the struggle toward an object not promised not in the contract.
Essentially we are warned not to look for a final moment of revelation in the poem, for the meaning of the poem is revealed gradually over a series of developing ideas.
The first poem within Four Quartets, 'Burnt Norton', doesn't begin as an overtly religious poem. Its opening lines are a meditation on time from a philosophical perspective that does not include any moral judgement.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
The almost nihilistic conclusion of this opening word game is at odds with Eliot's later thoughts on the redeemable elements of existence. He argues later in The Dry Salvages that the aim of our earthly lives is never to be achieved; there is the sense in this poem that there are greater truths that are beyond our comprehension. The mere existence of these truths we can only believe through a necessary faith, which should give us contentment, even though the basic purpose of our lives - to understand - will forever remain unaccomplished.
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
Eliot has come to the conclusion that there are no fragments to be 'shored against my ruins' and this view is why a great deal of adverse criticism against Four Quartets has been against its overwhelming pessimism. The accusation of pessimism is only justifiable if levelled along side the criticism of its Christianity. The poem is not pessimistic if its view is that weighed against all earthly trials is the promise of eternal redemption. If this view itself is criticised as it is by many atheist critics, then the poem becomes both pessimistic and fallacious in that it peddles an unacceptable world view in which wasted lives can be excused with the promise of Christian rebirth in heaven.
The distaste of materialism that Eliot shows in this first poem is visible, particularly in the second section of Burnt Norton:
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering,
release from the inner And outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving
The association of action with suffering in an explicit statement is where the justifiable claim for Eliot's pessimism in this poem comes from. Even though it's acceptable for an atheist critic to question the validity of Eliot's taking a Christian viewpoint, the fact that it's Eliot's poem and thus his message to be put across does seem to make criticism of Eliot's beliefs seem churlish. Even if Eliot's new found Christianity does run through this poem to the point of dogmatism, that cannot be a fundamental weakness in the poem unless Eliot's aim was to be undogmatic. It seems from the quantity of autobiographical elements in the poem, starting with the naming of the four sections after geographical areas familiar in Eliot's childhood, that this claims to be a personal poem, not one to be seen as having a universal message that has to apply and be understandable to every reader. Since one of the first duties of the Christian is to preach the word of God, it is likely that Eliot regarded the poem as something more than just 'rhythmical grumbling'. He is perhaps addressing the problem he described in the essay Religion and Literature:
For the great majority of people who love poetry 'religious poetry' is a variety of minor poetry: the religious poet is not a poet who is treating the whole subject matter of poetry in a religious spirit, but a poet who is dealing with a confined part of this subject matter: who is leaving out what men consider their major passions, and thereby confessing his ignorance of them.
Thereby Four Quartets becomes not just a religious poem, but an exposition of the place of religion in the lives of men.
If this is Eliot's aim, it doesn't necessarily mean that he achieves it, regardless of petty criticisms over the basic validity of his delivering a Christian message.
These religious themes are developed further in the other three sections of Four Quartets. The images of flux given at the beginning of 'East Coker' are similar to those of The Waste Land. The idea in 'East Coker' of there being some kind of constant that survives the rising and falling of man's achievements is a development not to be found in the earlier poem. Although both poems have some explicitly Christian imagery such as the line in 'What the Thunder Said':
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
The Waste Land also has a breadth of religious and folkloric reference beyond Christianity. That the references to the dead Christ come in a section of the poem named after a passage from The Upanishads1 says much about Eliot's religious beliefs at this time. Eliot's conversion to Anglicanism rules out such broad references in later passages. In this way we get a re-creation of the fertility rites alluded to in The Waste Land and described in Weston's From Ritual to Romance but now these dances that keep:
The time of the seasons and constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts.
become no more than 'Dung and death'.
The old ways which Eliot mourned the passing of in The Waste Land are no longer the ideal to which mankind should aspire. Rather they are just another symptom of the hopelessness of existence where the most spiritual acts of man and woman can amount to no more than 'Dung and death'.
'East Coker' also brings into question the validity of poetry to adequately express the ideas of religion, since it too is a creation of man.
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
Eliot goes on to assert the centrality of Christianity to human existence:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
stating that the Eucharist is the only sustenance for living and that otherwise our 'years are largely wasted'.
The Dry Salvages
The Dry Salvages contains in its fourth section a prayer to the Virgin Mary, that seems initially to be quite prosaic and banal:
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business is to do with fish,
This short section has much in common in its images with the 'Death by Water' section of The Waste Land as it equates drowning with a death away from salvation 'Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell‚ 'Perpetual angelus'. It also asks of the mother of God that she intercede on behalf of all those women who have seen their husbands and sons leave and not return, an idea that has great resonance with the memory of war still fresh.
The conclusion of the final part of The Dry Salvages argues that it is beyond the devices of ordinary men to see anything other than the realities of past and future, which Eliot regards as being just part of the necessarily flawed course of existence and that the only people capable of comprehending the important 'intersection' are 'saints'. What Eliot's definition of 'saint' is, is not precisely explained although they are associated with 'selflessness and self-surrender'. Eliot also suggests what he hopes to be the power of his own poem in the assertion that in some art we can gain 'hints and guesses' of these nobler truths ordinarily accessible only to 'saints'.
The final poem, 'Little Gidding', doesn't contain any great moment of explanation. There is no final triumphant revelation of Eliot's meaning. Like Christianity, so much is left to faith, there is no great explanation of the doctrines of Christianity just as Eliot does not justify or clarify any of what has gone before. 'Little Gidding' evokes again the ideas of fruitlessness, seeing in spring the remaining ice and not the coming fruitfulness.
The ideas of 'Dead water and dead sand' reinforce the idea of sterility, but more than the human sterility of The Waste Land Eliot seems to be invoking a deliberate asceticism hinted at the end of 'The Fire Sermon':
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord thou pluckest me out
O Lord thou pluckest
The death of 'water and fire', two elements more often seen as being constant and above mortality, demonstrates the power that Eliot ascribes to his beliefs and even more than this the power that commands these beliefs. The bleakness of the picture described in this section is completed by Eliot's description of old age. The 'crown upon your lifetime's effort' that age bestows is not a crown of wisdom or of grace, but rather of decaying flesh and 'expiring sense'. Also mixed with this degradation is an increased knowledge of mankind's folly, that his time on earth is inevitably wasted. This pessimism is perhaps justified in Eliot's theology, but within the language of the poem, which describes it so elegantly, it looks quite incongruous. That Eliot is describing the hopelessness of man's efforts in life demonstrates a high and almost transcendent achievement intrinsically weakens Eliot's claims in the eyes of those readers who are neither party to his theology nor disposed against it.
Again the theme of asceticism appears in this final section. The gruesome image of the 'intolerable shirt of flame' that is woven by love is typical of the Christian attitude to suffering, that sees it as a necessary part of religious devotion and thus of gaining acceptance in to the afterworld. 'The only discharge from sin and error' suggests that even that act of being mistaken is an act that needs atonement. Eliot's view that all life is flawed necessitates that all human endeavours be failures and that the very acts of living be acts that require penance. This idea is also expressed in the essay 'Religion and Literature' where Eliot complains in his conclusion that modern literature does not encourage individuals to 'sacrifice themselves, or if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits'. Therefore Four Quartets perhaps reacts to this absence in modern literature and tries to address it.
Although this idea of suffering and penance are accepted ideas of Christianity, in much Church belief they are weighed against more positive images such as that of the perfection of heaven. However, Eliot does not seem as concerned with providing a reassuring vision of heaven as he does with providing a bleak picture of earth. Therefore there is a question over whether Eliot had created a truly effective religious poem, or whether his own extremes of belief vitiate its effectiveness and its acceptability as a religious piece. The singular lack of earthly hope for understanding in the poem is also not entirely orthodox as Christianity does not teach that life on earth is to be spent in resignation at our limitation, but rather that all our abilities and understandings should be put towards the praising of God.
To judge the effectiveness of Eliot's poem on a religious level would be to regard it as purely a religious work, rather than a work of Literature. The distinctions Eliot makes in his essay on Religion and Literature are such that in order to achieve Eliot's self proclaimed goal, Four Quartets would have to be a convincing call to renounce material interests that overcomes any lack of religious belief on the part of the reader. Although the poem is powerful and contains many arresting images and ideas, it is not enough to convince the sceptical reader, and it might not even convince the devout reader who may feel at odds with its fierce asceticism. With a less rigorous definition of religious literature in place, it is entirely possible to regard Eliot's poem as effective. Unlike much of his earlier work including The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and The Waste Land, Four Quartets cannot be mistaken for something other than a religious poem. Other ideas come into its field of vision, but they never distract the reader from the religious core of the poem.
The criticisms levelled at the poem by the likes of Orwell and others, that it's too pessimistic and that it doesn't forward their own fairly blinkered ideology are not really important here. They ask of Eliot something he was never prepared to give, something he openly repudiated. That a commitment to social change cannot be found in Four Quartets is not a reason for a modern reader to deride it, even though in the more politically charged climate in which Orwell was writing his comments may have made more sense. In fact, the only one of Orwell's criticisms that perhaps does need to be briefly answered is his claim that Eliot is no longer writing memorable verse by the time of Four Quartets. Although in his essay Orwell does acknowledge the essential vulgarity of this type of criticism, it is also possible to question whether it is even true. Although the density of Eliot's language, more like prose here than it ever appeared so in The Waste Land admittedly makes the task of remembering individual lines more difficult, the unity of ideas that this allows means that Eliot's themes are far more striking and sustained.
The success of Four Quartets as both a piece of religious literature and a poem is mixed. It demonstrates a definitely Christian set of themes and leaves the reader in no doubt as to its convictions. However, it does stray occasionally from the conventional orthodox Christian path which does weaken its claims to be an exponent of basic truths. Also on a poetic level its occasionally complex language and obscure vocabulary containing words such as 'chthonic'2 mean that occasionally the poem slips beyond the grasp of ordinary readers for whom surely any religious revelation must be accessible. In this way, Four Quartets is perhaps best described as a successful poem if its intended readership is the erudite and informed. However, if its readership is intended to be wider than this group then there are elements within it that create serious barriers to understanding and interpretation.