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There will be time: Eliot’s temporal theory from “Prufrock” to the Four Quartets

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Ashley B.
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  1. Introduction
  2. About Eliot
  3. Prufrock
  4. Four Quartets
  5. There will be time: Eliot's temporal theory from ?Prufrock? to the Four Quartets
  6. Analysis
  7. Conclusion

The poetry of T.S. Eliot contains a temporal theory that evolves and transforms from Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) to the Four Quartets (1943). His theory shows that ?all time is unredeemable? (BN I, 5), however, the cause of its inability to be redeemed changes from the Eliot's early poetry to his later works. Time in his earlier works is merely transitory and therefore cannot be redeemed because in its passing it causes change, and, in the case of many of Eliot's characters, decay and destruction. In his later works time cannot be redeemed because it is eternal, which by its very nature represents an ineffable perfection, known in the Four Quartets as ?the still point of the turning world? (BN II, 62), a timeless center of creation where ?the dance is? (BN II, 63). These two ways in which time is unredeemable describes Eliot's two contrasting theories of time. Essentially, Eliot's early poetry experiences the temporal whereas his late poetry transcends it.

?The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock? traces the thoughts of a man who, like Eliot, is in ?the middle of the way? (EC V, 172) and expresses a sense of anxiety when recalling the past as he explains what he should have been. He is too timid to ask an ?overwhelming question? (10), a romantic proposition to a lady. Like many of Eliot's early poems, this poem deals with the apprehension that is often characteristic of love. Prufrock's problem is that he has lead a life of indecision and wonders if he is running out of time. Instead of finding the still point where the past and the future are reconciled, Prufrock fears the past and the future by maintaining the present moment.

[...] Gerontion is much like Prufrock twenty years in the future. Time has passed and all that is left is emptiness and regret: Gerontion reflects on an uneventful life and is finds meaningless ways to fill the rest of his time. A young boy is reading stories to the old man, demonstrating a reversal of normal behavior. Gerontion, if his life had been interesting, would tell stories to the boy. However, he is unable to do so, having wasted away his younger days with ambivalence and contemplation. [...]


[...] On the contrary, there is little ambiguity concerning Eliot's direct role in the Four Quartets. It is likely, almost inevitable, that Eliot's personal religious journey affected his perception of time. The younger, atheistic Eliot believed that time was a limiting factor and that as each day passed time was lost as one moved forward to death. The theory of time is demonstrated by the ?deception of the thrush? at the beginning of ?Burnt Norton.? The thrush takes the reader on a temporary journey that is much like a dream or a mirage. [...]

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