Inter-textual Allusion to Gita in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

Vinod Sangwan

Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of the most influential modern poet, was born in Missouri in 1888 and attended Harvard University to earn masters degree. Starting from his first major poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock his literary career is marked by some of the most daring innovations in modern poetry. He was awarded with Noble Prize for literature in 1948.
Better known for the poem The Waste Land, he considered Four Quartets his masterpiece. Four Quartets is name given to four related poems published over period 1935-1942 namely, Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding.
Each of these four poems runs several hundred lines long and is broken into five stanzas. Although it’s difficult to characterize them in one genre but reader feels a common thread running through all of them; drawn from Eliot’s vast knowledge of mysticism and philosophy, these poems mediates nature of time from religious, historical and physical view-points.
Poems are full of religious references. Abundance of Christian imagery and, overt and covert allusions to Hindu philosophy and Buddhism indicate that its subject matter should be interpreted from religious viewpoint. Complexity of allusions and meaning that reader is supposed to derive from them makes them impenetrable to readers without the required level of erudition. In some of the interpretations by western critics there is marked lack of appreciation of influence of Eastern philosophies on these poems. Those who are familiar with basic tenants of Hindu philosophy, especially Bhagavad Gita, would find striking similarities of idea expressed- mainly in The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding. This articles aims to analyze The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding and illuminate some of the allusions to Hindu philosophy.

The Dry Salvages

Full text of poem can be read at

Poem starts with
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god…

Which warns reader to take following content as pertaining to religion; then characteristics of the river are described as; sullen, untamed… useful, trustworthy… forgotten by dwellers in cities… unhonoured by worshippers of machines… waiting…
Men had been able deal with the river but now it’s forgotten. (In preface to Huckleberry Finn, Eliot once described river as reminder of the “power and terror of nature” and compared with the river in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness)

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;…

turns physical imagery of river into something in human nature and his personal life and sea – the world surrounding the individual or the idea of prehistoric time(according to Moody), is painted in strong imagery. Comeliness of river is in stark contrast with ruthlessness and aloofness of sea hinting about power above human beings

It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men.

Kearns argues that relationship of “strong brown god” “within us” and the sea, which “is all about us”, echoes the relationship of timeless reality to the true self within as explained by Krishna to Arjuna. This stanza ends with the image of “anxious worried women” who try to unweave, unwind future and past suggesting that they are emotionally attached to the time, a practice Krishna warns against.

…a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,

It also talks about how time is something that human being can’t understand completely and “The tolling bells” are rung not on the human hour, but according to the rhythm of waves of sea which is “all about us”. (Nature of Time is dealt with at many instants in Four Quartets from various viewpoints.)

Second part of poem starts with six nested stanzas of six verses with rhyme between stanzas, not in them (reader may fail to notice that at first instant). Life at sea is depicted as imagery of ordinary life and its sufferings.

There is no end, but addition:…

Time is endless and cyclic. Human beings can’t fully understand or control time as fishermen can’t control the sea

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless…
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple, and the bite in the apple.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,…

Time is not only the destroyer but it also preserves. Strong imagery is made of commonplace paraphernalia that holds reader’s attention intact. “Ragged rock” is symbolic of permanent reality unchanging in “restless waters” of the world which is sea “all about us”; the idea not unfamiliar to readers with little knowledge of Gita. Images of “soundless wailing”, “living among the breakage”, and fisherman “forever bailing” as well as the discovery the “the moments of agony… are… permanent” demonstrate the sufferings that, according to Krishna, are consequences of attachments to temporal things.
Developments –“superficial notions of evolution” are “a means of disowning the past”.
Although people experienced moments of happiness (not material but moments of “sudden illumination”) but they “missed the meaning” and

…the past experience revived in meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations-

Prehistoric time and “primitive terror” affect human lives in a way, which is not easy to understand. It can also be interpreted as; when the personal thoughts are filtered through the communal symbolism of literature, it becomes public, sharable.

Third part of poem starts with overt reference to Bhagavad Gita

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant-

Eliot’s narrator wonders if “that” is what Krishna meant, meaning the content preceding this sentence to be related to Krishna’s teaching. As though to emphasize this point narrator then observes

That time is no healer; the patient is no longer here

Which is reminiscent of Krishna’s pronouncement in the Gita that he is “all-powerful Time which destroys all things” Not only that, patient is also transient; following symbolism of individual’s personal life with travel by train suggests that individual is no longer the same person he/she was a moment before or will be a moment later. This idea is similar to one of the Buddhist tenet that life of an individual is like a river, changing its course every moment or that individual’s life is like a pearl sliding through thread.

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,

The descanting voice in this section, which is “not in any language”, makes a statement (line 149-165) and is followed by

So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

Indicates that the descanting voice’s message in those lines is the advice that Krishna gives Arjuna. The voice reminds voyagers that they only think they are voyaging without caring about destination, suggesting once again the folly of getting attached to anything in material world including the idea of making progress in voyage. Descanting voice includes

…consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: 'on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death' - that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.

The very sound of it captures readers familiar with Gita’s tenets, with profound sense of familiarity. If they can be attached to neither the future and nor the past, they are ready to hear the message, which is punctuated as quotation. Srivastava says this is “an exact translation” of Ch 8, verse 6 of the Gita, which he renders as “thinking on whatever object one leaves the body at the time of death, that and that alone he attains, being ever absorbed in its thought” which is followed by an idea of “karma” i.e. admonition against thinking of “the fruit of action”. The message clearly echoes Krishna’s advice to Arjuna, to act without the thought of consequences and this state of non-attachment is real destination.

Forth and fifth sections of poem have biblical references, like prayer to Virgin Mary and there is description of men’s efforts to understand history and divine the future by magic, horoscopes etc…

Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers;

Then captivating imagery of ordinary life is created but all these things are non-consequential and what really matters is eternal

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:……
……But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—

Which ordinary people fail to comprehend, only people capable of understanding the important “intersection” are saints, whose precise definition is not given but they are associated with “selflessness and self-surrender”. Incarnation is also mention without which actions, even right actions, have no meaning.

Little Gidding

Complete text of Little Gidding can be read at

In Little Gidding, Eliot’s reference to Gita is less overt, but strongly present. First section starts with intense description of Midwinter spring, the scenery being Little Gidding (a village in Cambridgeshire; all titles of four poems in Four Quartets are related to names of various places). According to Claudia[1] , its images of pond, ditches, flames and ice, windless cold and heart’s heat, melting and freezing suggest the neither-nor and both-and of non-attachment.

……a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,……
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

In contrast, the “Zero summer” is the absolute, total summer, not tilted towards spring or fall. Narrator longs for solid ground, absolute summer or “the intersection of the timeless moment” and warns visitor of the place that its meaning is beyond comprehension. The state of non-attachment is also accompanied by a sense of purposelessness. “only a shell…” is evidence of the folly of attachment to a purpose and even if there was any hint of “purpose” in the visit, it now has been overcome by a superior one.

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.

Narrator also gives a verdict on nature of prayer

…… And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying

Second section starts with famous line of Eliot
Ash on and old man’s sleeve-

And narrator meets someone

I met someone walking, loitering and hurried…
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of familiar compound ghost

This compound ghost represents more than one person and this point has been subject of much debate among critics. Speculations about who might comprise the ghost are Dante, Milton, Yeats, Eliot himself, Brunetto Latini etc. Ronald suggests that “the compound ghost of masterful writers… the center figure of whom we know to be Yeats”. Matthiessen suggested that ghost resembles “Brunetto Latini, whose meeting with Dante in hell is one of the passages which has impressed Eliot most” Eliot himself denied that he didn’t mean it to be as precise as Yeats and based on other arguments from John Hayward it is necessary to consider possibilities other than or in addition to Yeats and Brunetto. According to Claudia, since the figure is both “loitering and hurried”, embracing two opposites, as could be expected of a non-Westerner and he is “Both one and many” it is likely that Lord Krishna is the figure, suggested by his ability to assume many forms. When figure speaks, he says he is “not eager to rehearse” his “thought and theory” that the narrator has forgotten, indicating that he has counseled the narrator before, as Krishna had already counseled Arjuna, in Gita.
Second stanza ends with three conditions of human being
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise…
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly…
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness…

These three kinds of human natures are attachment, detachment and indifference i.e. rajva, satva and tama as described in Ch 14 and 18 of Gita and also correspond to three basic kinds in Hindu psychology. The ghost discloses “the gifts reserved for age/ To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort”. Thus follows the suffering that comes from self-knowledge, knowing one’s own imperfections, knowledge of harm done to other. But ghost doesn’t “bring” these gifts but “discloses” them meaning narrator already owns them. The real gift that ghost brings is counsel on what to do about those crowning achievements of age. He says that “the exasperated spirit” will focus on those faults unless …
‘… unless resorted by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer’

To be healed, the narrator must detach from those thoughts. He must achieve that still point beyond dualism where he acts entirely without attachment, dancing freely in neither avoidance nor attachment. The ghost gives same counsel to narrator that Krishna gave to Arjuna and after that left at day-break

He left me, with a kind of valediction
And faded on the blowing of the horn.

This poem was written during World War II, blowing of the horn is probably literal call of siren but here, according to Claudia, it implicates Krishna, who in the Gita blows a horn made from the bone of the demon Pancajana.

In the last section of Little Gidding Eliot talks about cyclic continuity of time

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

And also the poem “East Coker” starts with similar idea
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble,…

Several time elsewhere too, idea of cyclic time, incarnation, cyclic and repetitive patterns of the life and death are expressed. But Eliot is celebrating rather than lamenting the single transient contribution to the cyclic nature of existence.

Eliot and Eastern Spirituality

It helps in understanding this influence if Eliot relation to Hindu and Buddhist texts is explored. Eliot, perhaps Western literature’s most allusive poet, was well read and had immense interest in Eastern spirituality. According to Claudia, in “After Strange Gods”, Eliot says that studying Sanskrit for two years and Indic philosophy for one year left him “in a state of enlightened mystification.” He says he came to conclusion that if he were to truly understand Brahmin and Buddhist thought, or as he put it, “really [penetrate] to the heart of that mystery,” he would have to forgot “how to think and feel as an American or a European,” and he was unwilling to do that. However, we should not forget his commitment to studying Hinduism and Buddhism. According to Vinod Sena, Eliot worked closely with Shri Purohit Swami, whose English translation of several Indian texts, including Bhagawad Gita, were published by Faber while Eliot was a director there. There are also several Hindu allusions in three plays written during 1950-1959. But regardless these details, what is worth noting is the way Eliot’s interest showed in his works. Leaving over and covert allusion aside, there lies an undercurrent of non-dualism in his some works, ideas which are backbone of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.

Overall, the essence of Four Quartets lies therefore in solid sense and understanding of unity of patterns, not in the surface textual allusions. Readers should be careful lest their preoccupation with the sources can obfuscate poet’s primary purpose- the poem as a holistic form, not a series of obscure references. George Orwell also attacked some poems for putting forward a world-view that is entirely pessimistic and absence of commitment to social change. But it’s asking Eliot what he was never prepared to give. Four Quartets cannot be mistaken something other than religious poems and their literary value, abundance of arresting images, unity of ideas, diversity of allusions make Four Quartets a collection of great modern poems.

1) Milstead Claudia, English Language Notes, 0013-8282, March 03, vol 40, Iss 3

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