Four Quartets – T S Eliot

Four Quartets first editionI don’t read much poetry, but thanks for BBC Radio 4 I get small doses of poetry which make me wish I had the time to explore more poets and their work.  Every week Poetry Please with Roger McGough provides it’s listeners with 30 minutes of readers requests and occasional features on individual poets (Shirley Henderson’s reading of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market was a recent delight).

Back in January we were treated to a reading by Jeremy Irons of T S Eliots Four Quartets, a set of poems which contain so many immortal lines it would be hard to know where to stop quoting them.  In an English February for example, Eliot-s words capture the rain-soaked cold which seems never-ending despite the occasional glimpses of sunshine:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat

Eliot had the ability to paint a canvas of imagery in just a few words:

Ash on and old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

(you can almost see the scene, an elderly man in an a shabby, old arm-chair with dead-roses in a vase on a table next to him).

And who cannot gain insight about life’s journey and its ever-repeating cycles from these words? –

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Little Gidding church

Little Gidding church

Jeremy Irons first gave a reading of the Four Quartets at last year’s Hay Festival and having immersed himself in the text over many years finally felt ready to give his own performance, which gives a very different feel to the piece from earlier readings by Eliot himself, Alec Guiness, Ted Hughes and Paul Scofield. Extracts from the Eliot version can be heard on the Poetry Archive website where they have a very 1940s feel to them (how the English voice has changed in the last 70 years!).

As Horatia Harrod said in a Daily Telegraph article, Eliot himself wanted his poetry to be “so transparent that in reading it we are intent on what the poetry points at, and not on the poetry”.  Irons has deliberately read The Four Quartets in a colourless, unemotional style and I agree that this suits the poems perfectly, allowing  listeners to form their own internal pictures from these sublime words.

The BBC have now removed their Jeremy Irons recording from their website.  If anyone would like to hear it however, I may be able to help if they contact me via my contact page.

3 comments to Four Quartets – T S Eliot

  • Brian Joseph

    I believe that poetry should be read out loud at least some of the time. There is definitely an aspect to the art that can only be appreciated that way. Jeremy Irons must be a superb reader. i wish that radio stations around here played more of this type of stuff.

  • Kat

    What an amazing essay on Eliot! I am awed that you have actors reading Eliot at literary festivals. There is no overlap of the arts that I know of going on here at literatry festivals.

    Greatr quote about midwinter spring!

  • Love The Four Quartets, and was lucky enough to work at a theatre where Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack gave a reading of some poetry etc for charity. (20 years ago) I was very impressed by his determination to get it right and how he was prepared to muck in and help get the stage set up etc.

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