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A Guide to Finally Understanding T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets (Audio Lecture)

Andy Patton is on staff with the Rabbit Room and is a former staff member of L'Abri Fellowship in England. He holds an M.A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes at The Darking Psalter (creative rewordings of the Psalms paired with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Pattern Bible (reflections on biblical images in the Bible).


There are no two ways around it, Four Quartets is a dense and difficult poem. If you Google “I thought about getting into poetry and then decided not to because it was too complicated, obscure, and opaque”, you might see a picture of T. S. Eliot’s smiling face high in the search results. And this is coming from a guy who named his firstborn son “Eliot” because I couldn’t name him Four Quartets.

Eliot can be downright inscrutable. He lapses into other languages without translation. He changes scene and tone without transition. He alludes to other works constantly without attribution. His poems need footnotes - which he sometimes supplies and sometimes doesn’t. Four Quartets is a labyrinth, and sometimes when you enter the labyrinth, you get lost.

Despite that, it also might be one of the greatest Christian poems ever written.

Though there is joy in wandering on your own through the beautiful labyrinth of the Four Quartets, if you bring along a guide in your initial forays into this masterpiece, you may save yourself discomfort and confusion. In preparing for the lecture below, I sought the counsel of many guides who had gone before me and written to tell about it. I collected their advice in the form of the lecture below. May it guide you safely in your wanderings inside this immortal and important poem.

[Note: This lecture was given at English L’Abri, a Christian study center in Southern England that offers hospitality and shelter for people all over the world.]


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