Hear Alec Guinness (The Legend Behind Obi-Wan Kenobi) Read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets & The Waste Land

Those who only know T.S. Eliot from such ear­ly poems as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land may be sur­prised to encounter what many crit­ics con­sid­er his great­est work, the Four Quar­tets. The Eliot of the ear­li­er, bet­ter-known poems alter­nates between mock­ing dis­sec­tion and trag­ic lamen­ta­tion for the sup­posed cul­tur­al decay of the West; in The Waste Land espe­cial­ly, Eliot draws upon his con­sid­er­able eru­di­tion to col­lapse cen­turies of poet­ic and reli­gious text into shards of mod­ernist inge­nu­ity and sharp frag­ments of despair­ing irony. The Four Quar­tetson the oth­er hand—first pub­lished in 1943, though writ­ten sep­a­rate­ly over a peri­od of six years—-attempts to uni­fy tra­di­tions, in ways both more earnest and more oblique than read­ers of Eliot had seen before.

The cen­tral theme tying togeth­er the four poems—“Burnt Nor­ton,” “East Cok­er,” “The Dry Sal­vages,” and “Lit­tle Gidding”—is time: as eter­ni­ty, as empti­ness, as a waste­land of words and ges­tures with­out mean­ing or pur­pose. “If all time is eter­nal­ly present / All time is unre­deemable,” the poet argues in “Burnt Nor­ton,” and he goes on to illus­trate ideas drawn from St. Augus­tine, the Chris­t­ian mys­tics, and the Upan­ishads. Although, as George Orwell wrote in a review, the poems “appear on the sur­face to be about… cer­tain local­i­ties in Eng­land and Amer­i­ca with which Mr. Eliot has ances­tral con­nex­ions,” they also serve as a philo­soph­i­cal apolo­gia for his deep­en­ing Anglo-Catholi­cism. Orwell, how­ev­er, doubt­ed Eliot’s reli­gious sin­cer­i­ty; “there is faith” in the poems, he wrote, “but not much hope, and cer­tain­ly no enthu­si­asm.”

Yet much of the appeal of the Four Quar­tets to those of a mys­ti­cal bent comes from the poems’ enact­ing of a med­i­ta­tive faith, how­ev­er ten­u­ous, held amidst tumults of mean­ing­less activ­i­ty and a chill­ing sense of cul­tur­al ener­va­tion. (One preg­nant phrase from “Burnt Nor­ton” inspired the title of a book on Zen and Chris­t­ian mys­ti­cism.) Eliot’s con­ser­vatism may pre­vent him from imag­in­ing any sort of world­ly human progress, but gen­er­a­tions of read­ers have seen in the Four Quar­tets the pro­found­est med­i­ta­tion on a spir­i­tu­al jour­ney, and it is per­haps in those late poems, writ­ten in the poet’s mid­dle age, that Eliot comes clos­est to his per­son­al lit­er­ary hero, Dante, who entered the dark wood in the Can­to I of The Infer­no while “halfway along life’s path.”

In a pre­vi­ous post on the Four Quar­tets, we fea­tured Eliot him­self read­ing the poems, and Mike Springer offered some help­ful con­text on their set­tings. Above, we have the rare treat of a read­ing by Sir Alec Guin­ness. Record­ed in 1971—six years before Guin­ness donned Obi-Wan Kenobi’s robes—we hear in his read­ing the grav­i­tas that made his Star Wars Jedi guru seem so wise and weary (though appar­ent­ly he did not rel­ish that role). As an added bonus, below, hear an audio pro­duc­tion of The Waste Land with clips of read­ings by Guin­ness, Ted Hugh­es, Fiona Shaw, Eliot him­self, and more.

It’s inter­est­ing to hear these audio ren­di­tions of the late and ear­ly poems side-by-side: Four Quar­tets held togeth­er by the sin­gu­lar sooth­ing voice of Guin­ness, The Waste Land split apart into the mul­ti­ple voic­es of its var­i­ous char­ac­ters. (Eliot orig­i­nal­ly titled the poem “He Do the Police in Dif­fer­ent Voic­es.”) Click here to hear Eliot him­self read The Waste Land, his high mod­ernist mas­ter­work of despair and epic ennui.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Read the Entire Com­ic Book Adap­ta­tion of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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