Listen to T.S. Eliot Recite His Late Masterpiece, the Four Quartets

Here is a com­plete record­ing of T.S. Eliot read­ing the mas­ter­piece of his lat­er years, the cycle of poems called Four Quar­tets.

Eliot con­sid­ered the Four Quar­tets his great­est work. “I’d like to feel that they get bet­ter as they go on,” he told Don­ald Hall in a 1959 inter­view for the Paris Review. “The sec­ond is bet­ter than the first, the third is bet­ter than the sec­ond, and the fourth is the best of all. At any rate, that’s the way I flat­ter myself.”

The Four Quar­tets are per­haps the most mys­ti­cal and reli­gious of Eliot’s poems. Each one is a med­i­ta­tion on time, mix­ing Chris­t­ian and Hin­du imagery with per­son­al and his­tor­i­cal events. “In The Waste Land the waste was place, the ‘Unre­al City,’ ” writes Eliot’s biog­ra­ph­er, Lyn­dall Gor­don; “here, the waste is time–time unre­deemed by a sense of the time­less.”

As in The Waste Land, Eliot uses the four clas­si­cal ele­ments as a struc­tur­al device in the Four Quar­tets. The first poem, “Burnt Nor­ton,” is asso­ci­at­ed with the ele­ment of air. It is named for an Eng­lish manor house Eliot vis­it­ed in the 1930s. The poem was first pub­lished in 1936. “East Cok­er” (which begins above at 10:46) is asso­ci­at­ed with Earth, and takes its name from the vil­lage in Som­er­set, Eng­land, from which the poet­’s ances­tor, Andrew Eliot, set out for Amer­i­ca in 1669. The third poem, “The Dry Sal­vages,” (begin­ning at 24:17) is asso­ci­at­ed with Water and is named for a treach­er­ous clus­ter of rocks off Cape Ann that was among the haz­ards Andrew Eliot’s ship need­ed to avoid in order to safe­ly reach the coast of Mass­a­chu­setts. The final poem, “Lit­tle Gid­ding,” (39:08) was pub­lished in 1942. Its under­ly­ing theme is one of pur­ga­to­r­i­al Fire. The poem is named for a vil­lage in Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, which was the site of a 17th cen­tu­ry Angli­can com­mune that based its dai­ly life around the Book of Com­mon Prayer.

The Four Quar­tets were first pub­lished as a uni­fied whole in 1943. Despite their ini­tial appear­ance as four sep­a­rate poems, the themes are tight­ly inter­wo­ven and each poem is com­posed of five par­al­lel parts. You can hear Eliot read­ing the Four Quar­tets above. To fol­low along as you lis­ten, click here to open the full text in a new win­dow. The first poem begins:

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.
What might have been is an abstrac­tion
Remain­ing a per­pet­u­al pos­si­bil­i­ty
Only in a world of spec­u­la­tion.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Foot­falls echo in the mem­o­ry
Down the pas­sage which we did not take
Towards the door we nev­er opened
Into the rose-gar­den. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

T.S. Eliot Reads His Mod­ernist Mas­ter­pieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Rare 1959 Audio: Flan­nery O’Connor Reads ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’

Rare Record­ing: Leo Tol­stoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Lan­guages, 1909

Nabokov Reads Loli­ta, Names the Great Books of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

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Comments (6)
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  • Said says:

    Each instance when a poem is framed to cap­ture that pas­sion of lan­guage it seems that Eliot is called upon and turns in his soul­ful language.nHere it is instilled with the voice of Eliot in this masterwork.nWhen seek­ing lan­guage to ignite the soul lis­ten and begin and dis­cov­er cre­ative imag­i­na­tion that flash­es the 4 ele­ments in his 4 quar­tets.

  • Betsy Fifield says:

    You are so nec­es­sary. Thank you . Bet­sy

  • Eric says:

    thanks for post­ing. the links to the poems seem to be dead.

  • Gregory P Smith says:

    I’ve been search­ing for a place to pur­chase a record­ing of this in one form or anoth­er. (My old reel-to-reel tape recorder gave up the ghost many years ago.) Any sug­ges­tions?

  • David Exham says:

    The title is Four Quar­tets, sure­ly, not The Four Quar­tets.

  • Ellie Kesselman says:

    Yes, the title is Four Quar­tets. This post gets it cor­rect once, but incor­rect­ly adds the arti­cle “the” through­out.

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