Inter-textual Allusion to Gita in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets
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.
The Dry Salvages
Full text of poem can be read at
Poem starts with
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…
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,
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.
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 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
…the past experience revived in meaning
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 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
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
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,
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
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.
Complete text of Little Gidding can be
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 , 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
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
Narrator also gives a verdict on nature of prayer
…… And prayer is more
Second section starts with famous line of Eliot
And narrator meets someone
I met someone walking, loitering and hurried…
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.
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 …
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
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 also the poem “East Coker”
starts with similar idea
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.
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