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Martin Warner PHILOSOPHICAL POETRY: THE CASE OF FOUR QUARTETS I FOR plato the quarrel between philosophy and poetry was already an ancient one. Since his day strenuous efforts have been made to eliminate it by circumscribing each widiin carefully specified boundaries, on die principle that strong fences make good neighbors, and allowing die one to venture onto the territory of the other only as licensed. Thus until recently assessments of the literary quality of a philosopher's writing have commonly been treated as extraneous to its value as philosophy, and philosophical probing of die thought of a poem as irrelevant to a literary critic's final assessment ofit. For some works, however, such compromises seem forced; Four Quartets is a case in point. Here we have a sustained effort to explore issues of a philosophical and theological nature in poetic terms — in a manner that challenges our understanding and lays claim to our assent. The poetry does not merely encapsulate a theoretical position, but enacts a process ofthought perceived as bearing on diese topics at least as significandy as do those processes commonly termed "philosophical," and diereby raises by implication more general issues concerning die status of those "philosophical" modes themselves. F. R. Leavis is well known both for his engagement with the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and for his insistence on a clear separation between literary criticism and philosophy; dius his raising of philosophical questions as an integral and decisive element in his final and most extensive analysis ofthe Quartets is particularly striking: That Four Quartets offers us thought, searching, basic and rigorous, we have our assurance in the first ten lines of"Burnt Norton" .... As thought, it aspires to a general validity. . . . 222 Martin Warner223 The questions, how must reality be conceived, and what is the nature of the human situation, have been raised in a way diat compels one to determine and verify one's own ultimate beliefs.1 Of course, Leavis is clear that the manner in which die poem raises these questions is not that traditionally associated with philosophy: "The 'music' of Four Quartets challenges a criterion that is not logic, but something equivalent in the field of total meaning. We can only tell what it is by intelligent self-exposure to the poetry" (p. 159). Similarly his mode of"determining " and "verifying" his own beliefs in response is that proper to literary criticism. But the questions are plainly philosophical ones, and one does not need the authority of Leavis to see that the poem raises them. From a philosophical point ofview, the interesting questions are the status of the manner in which it does so and the nature of the "criterion that is not logic" which is said to have an internal relation to that "intelligent selfexposure to the poetry" which Leavis in his critical practice seeks to exemplify . Unfortunately, this late commentary on Eliot's poetry is among the weakest in the Leavis corpus, precisely lacking "intelligent self-exposure to the poetry";2 but this should not lead us to dismiss its more general claims. In earlier and far stronger criticism Leavis had already argued that "Burnt Norton" does "by strictly poetical means the business ofan epistemological and metaphysical inquiry" ("Eliot's Later Poetry," p. 65). Further, die most distinguished recent criticism of Eliot's poetry is probably that of A. D. Moody,3 and he too finds himself driven to place his own "ultimate beliefs" in relation to it. On the one hand, "There is likely to be at least some degree of essential conformity between the way we live now and die way in which the poem would order life; and to that extent the poem can be said to express, and to give a form to, the sensibUity ofits age" (p. 264). But on the other, "It is a neurotic vision, one arising from some disorder or disease of the personality — or of his culture. ... It is not easy to attain a detached view of die neurosis which is like a dominant gene in our culture. It is a matter . . . of the alienation ofman from mat to which he properly, of his nature, belongs — his being cut off from...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 222-245
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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