Book of a Lifetime: Four Quartets, By T S Eliot

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The Independent Culture

Some books, like some pieces of music, works of art, conversations, people, change everything: once experienced, nothing is ever the same again. From many such before-and-after books I have chosen Four Quartets by T S Eliot (1943). I had read The Waste Land at school, but it wasn't until my first term at Cambridge that I discovered the Quartets in G David, a legendary second-hand bookstore. Pulling out an elegant Faber edition, I skimmed the first few lines of "Burnt Norton", felt the instant clamour in my head and heart and promptly threw down my paltry two quid. Rushing back to college, I gobbled up all four poems in one breathless, astonished sitting.

Four Quartets comprises "Burnt Norton", "East Coker", "The Dry Salvages" and "Little Gidding", all published separately before 1943. The poems are hardly "quartets" in a musical sense. Each is named after a place; they also ruminate, if obliquely, with references as sweeping as the Baghavad-Gita, Dante and Mary Queen of Scots, on one of the four natural elements. Some other common themes recur, but beyond that they resist convenient comparison. To me the poems are essentially abstract meditations on time, faith, war, nature, love, beauty, life, death, redemption. It does not matter who you are; what religion; what creed. Nothing is not there. Everything we might think or feel or question or experience as human beings is somehow evoked and explored.

That first reading, on a grey November afternoon aged 19, was a little like falling in love for the first time. I was giddily aware of being altered, even as I didn't quite know how, or why. The poems were on one level impossible to understand. But on another, I realised they were almost beyond "understanding" in a purely intellectual sense. Eliot's language, like love, or music, snatches at your soul before you realise what is happening; it is this ineffable power that so enthralled me.

The unassuming little book also had a more practical impact on my life. That same Michaelmas term I met a boy who happened to mention at a party that he liked Eliot; I cycled like the wind back to G David the next day to buy the last remaining copy; we went out for the next five years. My thesis on Four Quartets and music initiated a continuing fascination with the nature of language and music, and has shaped much of my work in those disciplines. As an actress, I always speak the poetry to warm up. And I have never yet found poetry to surpass this in its mind-reeling beauty.

Four Quartets is my book of a lifetime because it both changed my life and will, I know, forever be in my life. I return to it constantly, and it is always new. To paraphrase from "Little Gidding": I shall not cease from exploration, and the end of my explorings will be to arrive where I started and know it for the first time.

Clemency Burton-Hill's novel 'The Other Side of the Stars' is published by Headline Review

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