The Musical Structure of Four Quartets

By Pariksith Singh, MD

The Four Quartets is a masterpiece. It is Eliot at his maturest, though perhaps not necessarily best with each line. The great achievement of this poem, if one may call it one poem, is its verse structure made to look or sound like a quartet.  While it is impossible for a poem to sound like a quartet, Eliot has used different ‘instrumental voices’ in his ensemble to project a similar interplay of sounds.

In this essay, I have restricted myself to the versification in each quartet as opposed to the substance. Eliot has also very adroitly created an interaction of various themes and images to run parallel to his musical structure. But that is a subject that would invite another exposition beyond the parameters of this essay.

What is a quartet? Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines it as a musical composition or movement in four parts each performed by a single voice or instrument. Usually, a quartet comprises of two violins along with a viola and a cello. The violins touch the highest frequencies of sound, the cello the lowest, while the viola employs the middle range of frequencies. Usually, the instruments play at the same time though one instrument may dominate at one time or another. It is important to understand the musical composition of a quartet to better appreciate what Eliot accomplished as a poet.

The only way Eliot could create another voice poetically was by employing a different line-length and verse-form to represent each different instrument. He used blank verse and lyrical structures, narrative and dramatic forms, at times resorting to Dantesque terza rima, at times breaking into Chaucerian diction. He broke each quartet into different segments, varying the sound-texture of each segment. Some of the segments could stand as separate lyrics of their own. Some are more like verse essays, where he thought slowly, deliberately.

Throughout Eliot has retained a classical approach—just as one would expect a quartet to be— though at times he breaks off into free verse. He does not try to split the page into two vertical poems running parallel to another, like Mallarme did—an experiment which failed, incidentally, even in Mallarme’s masterly hands.

If we take ‘Burnt Norton’, for instance, the meditation in the beginning of the poem is a hidden iambic pentameter:

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 second segment begins with an intricate and dense versification, that is lyrical, rhymed and in tetrameter.

Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Clot the bedded axle-tree.

The trilling wire in the blood

Sings below inveterate scars

Appeasing long forgotten wars.

 

He then employs the famous Upanishadic line ‘at the still point of the moving world’ in a heptametric section that, to me, is the epitome of meditative poetry:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards…

 

He then moves again to pentameter, continuing the meditation, yet changing the color of the sound:

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit, understood…

 

He begins the third segment switching back and forth between tetrametric and pentametric lines, then startlingly moves to a trochaic line that is a heptameter:

…Time before and time after,

Eructation of unhealthy souls

Into the faded air, the torpid

Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London…

 

He reverts to a pentametric line immediately after and again alternates between four and five syllables in each line.

 

The fourth segment is short, the first five lines lyrical and rhymed:

Time and the bell have buried the day,

The black cloud carries the sun away.

Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis

Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray

Clutch and cling?

 

The next five lines vary in length with each line, still rhymed, lyrical and involved, the first line only a word, like a note floating in air.

Chill

Fingers of yew be curled

Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing

Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still

At the still point of the turning world.

 

The fifth segment begins with a tetrametric tone, slow and deliberate, bringing to a synthesis the various voices that played through the entire piece. However, he quickly moves to the pentameter with the next line:

Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die.  Words, after speech, reach…

He again alternates between four and five syllables to each line and ends the poem with a burst of tetrameter:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Even while the dust moves

There rises the hidden laughter

Of children in the foliage

Quick now, here, now, always—

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after.

The other three quartets employ a similar—though not same—interaction of voices, each comprising of five segments. Each quartet has a distinct flavor to it, and together, all four reach another new synthesis in musical composition.

The Four Quartets are truly Eliot’s magnum opus. He attempted to create a new interaction of verse forms and tones in his work like a quartet and succeeded brilliantly. His quartets are not quartets musically speaking but are more in the nature of verse artifacts, curiosities, something truly novel and a remarkable addition to the vast repository of English poetry.

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