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Time, Eternity, and Immortality in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

By Prof Terry Fairchild, PhD
Chair, Department of English
Maharishi University of Managemnt


Thomas Stearns Eliot was a set of contradictions. An American from St. Louis, he moved to England and took British citizenship. A man who had always wanted to be a poet, he studied philosophy at Harvard. A writer who filled his poetry with Eastern philosophy, he converted to Anglicanism. One of the world’s great intellectuals, Eliot read detective fiction and wrote limericks about cats in his spare time. The most revolutionary poet of his age (who literally changed the direction of poetry), he is now seen by post-structuralists as a crypto-fascist. These same kinds of opposing characteristics exist everywhere in Eliot’s poetry and nowhere more than in his masterpiece Four Quartets.

Often called a “negative poet” for his unrelenting attack on modern life in his earlier works, in the Four Quartets he sees things differently. The life of time and change that he had previously depicted as the “wasteland” is in the Four Quartets found to be supported by an underlying, spiritual absolute, a level of life where the two extremes of time and timeless are indistinguishable. Moreover, Eliot espouses the experience of this transcendental field as the spiritually transforming value of all life both for the individual and the world. Therefore, in Eliot’s last and greatest poetic effort we find not a negative or dualistic view of life after all, but rather the vision of a man who passionately believed in a spiritual unity.

What particularly satisfies about the Four Quartets is that they complete Eliot’s broad spiritual landscape begun with “Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” and The Wasteland, poems about failure in a bankrupt universe, but with the words from the Upanishads, “Datta . . . Dayadhvam . . . Damyata1” spoken by the thunder at The Wasteland’s conclusion, Eliot anticipates a revitalized world that he fully conceives in the Four Quartets. In this later poem, Eliot once again includes the world of desire, fear, and death that haunted The Wasteland and other earlier efforts; but in the Quartets the importance of this darker world has been diminished, relegated to the sphere of time to form a mere backdrop to Eliot’s expanded vision of life as unblemished eternity.

Tradition has it that Eliot had long wanted to write a poem imitating music, an intention confirmed in his essay “The Music of Poetry.” The structure of his Quartets, with the introduction of an initial theme and an elaboration and variation on that theme, and a series of movements repeated in each quartet, suggests that he was not only indebted thematically and structurally to music, he was also indebted to the famous quartets of Mozart or Beethoven (Matthiessen 182) for the poem’s name. Eliot’s primary theme-time and the timeless-consistent with the temporal qualities of music, is presented in the Four Quartets’ opening lines:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past . . .
all time is eternally present.

Time more than anything defines the contrasting dimensions of relative existence: an apparent snare with no escape, a continuum of change ever wearing away the fabric of existence, a flow and beauty in constant renewal, a series of exquisite moments that bind life together. Time defines the human condition-the constant reminder that our days are numbered, that our “too, too solid flesh” will too soon melt. The fatal image of time symbolizes the Modern Age-the grave digger delivering the newborn child, the conflation of womb and tomb. Over the span of English literature, poets as diverse as Spenser, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Yeats, and Dylan Thomas (“Time held me green and dying”) have vilified time as an assassin without conscience, a long-held view of time in cultures much older than our own:

All the hopes of man in this world are consistently destroyed by Time. Time alone, O sage, wears everything out in this world; there is nothing in creation which is beyond its reach. Time alone creates innumerable universes, and in a very short time Time destroys everything. (Venkatesananda 16)

When we make “time run,” suggests Andrew Marvell, when we allow our lives to be dictated by deadlines, when we compress too much activity into too few hours, time catapults us towards our end. But if we could reverse Marvell’s dictum, slow time down, make time stop, transcend time, peacefully settle into the silence of eternity, we would have “world enough, and time” for everything. In such a state, we would exchange roles with time and we would become its gentle annihilator. Hence, timelessness or eternity is the second element in Eliot’s equation for the Four Quartets:

Time + eternity = entirety (everything, wholeness)

The Four Quartets’ opening four lines demonstrate Eliot’s grasp of time, its spiritual significance, and its philosophically exasperating nature which the poet contemplates in the line: “time is eternally present,” an assertion that lends to time both relative and absolute properties while conflating its various, fluctuating forms-the past forever disappearing, the future forever being born, and the present forever being renewed into a single moment. Pointedly juxtaposing time and eternity, Eliot calls attention to the close relationship between them. By merging past, present, and future he creates the eternal present, absolute and relative, never changing and always fleeting, captured in time like the lovers on Keats’ urn for future unborn generations.

Because time and eternity are fundamental to the Four Quartets, this subject has been mined again and again by Eliot critics. Nevertheless, it is a topic that needs to be sifted once more. Previous excavations have yet to examine time and eternity in a fully systematic way. Both proponents of eastern and western thought have made invaluable commentaries on the significance of time in the Quartets, but they miss the poem’s most vital element, Eliot’s sincere conviction that eternity can and must be incorporated into the life of time as the sole means to revitalize the wasteland of modern life. Read with greatest profundity, the Four Quartets present the triumph of life over time. With the Bhagavad-Gita as his primary inspiration, Eliot moves forward in a continuous ebb and flow of time and eternity until he reaches the end of the poem, which is its true beginning, life lived forever in the timeless, no longer touched by the binding influence of time. This state Maharishi Vedic ScienceSM calls Brahmi Chetna, unity consciousness: individual life raised to the level of the universal, the temporal raised to the level of the eternal. Simply stated, the Four Quartets present a progression, a non-linear evolution of human consciousness, away from the wasteland suffering of time-locked existence and towards the full beatitude of spiritual life in the eternal freedom lived beyond time.

Maharishi Vedic Science, which includes Maharishi’s extensive commentaries on Vedic Literature, an impressive videotape collection on the relationship between relativity and the varieties of timeless existence, a weighty library of texts on the Transcendental Meditation® technique and its application to every conceivable field, and a collection of scientific papers on over twenty-five years of research,2 exists as an enormous intellectual resource on the nature of life lived in and out of time. Because of Eliot’s background in eastern philosophy, and because he routinely draws upon the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, and other Vedic texts, Maharishi’s Vedic Science is not only an appropriate critical light by which to view Eliot’s poetry, it illuminates it to a degree not previously attained in other critical commentaries, including such studies as P. S. Shri’s T.S. Eliot: Vedanta and Buddhism and A. N. Dwivedi’s T.S. Eliot’s Major Poems: An Indian Interpretation, which indiscriminately rather than systematically draw from the huge body of Vedic Literature. Maharishi Vedic Science treats time and its opposite counterpart, transcendent eternity, as complimentary components in an ongoing cycle of evolution. More importantly, it provides the means of accelerating this process of evolution through its applied element-the Transcendental Meditation® technique and the Transcendental Meditation SidhiSM program-for experiencing the field of eternity, pure consciousness, which has enormous benefits for every individual, society, and all of life.

The Four Quartets also considers the possibility of immortality-the logical fusing of time and eternity, more or less ignored by previous Eliot criticism. Immortality, to the western scholar, lies either in the field beyond this life or in the metaphorical realm of poetry, inspiring but impractical. But as we shall see, immortality had greater substance for Eliot than simply as a poetic concept, and for Vedic Science it is both the starting point and the natural conclusion of Maharishi’s programs mentioned above. Therefore, in this paper I will employ Maharishi Vedic Science, especially as it relates to time, eternity, and immortality, as a hermeneutical aid to unveil the deepest values of Eliot’s masterpiece.

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