The Footfalls of Memory: T.S. Eliot Reads His Four Quartets

These two posts – featuring Flannery O’Connor and A.A. Milne reading their own material — are a few of my favorite things. So is this post, wherein Jeremy Irons performs T.S. Eliot’s bewildering masterpiece, “The Waste Land.”

So you can just imagine how this recording makes me feel:

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.

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Try pulling up this pdf version of the text and reading along as you listen. It definitely adds to the experience …though I’m sorry to say it didn’t help with my comprehension. The poem is opaque to me, even though I love every confusing, vividly-captured image. (So I cheated by listening to this Gordon College lecture from Dr. Thomas Howard – acclaimed writer, scholar, and author of “Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.”)

After all of your years of studying and reading it, what brings you back to Four Quartets?
What brings me back to Eliot?  The same thing that brings me back to Sacred Scripture (although I do not suppose that Eliot is inspired in the same way).  He speaks of “the permanent things,” which we all ignore to our everlasting peril.

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Manny

    I never really cared for Eliot’s reading of his own poetry. The very best reading I have heard of The Four Quartets is the BBC verson by Paul Schofield. This:
    If you love to hear poetry in audio and you love TS Eliot, that recording is a must get. I listen to it frequenty. And to fully appreciate The Four Quartets, Howard’s Dove Descending is worth having.

    • Joseph Susanka

      My affection for this recording is not so much connected to Eliot’s interpretation, Manny — there’s something a bit flat about it, no? — as it is connected to my fascination for artists performing/interpreting their own works. (Rachmaninoff performing his own Second Piano Concerto, for example, is mesmerizing to me. But it’s not my favorite performance.)

      I’ll definitely hunt down the Scofield version you mention, though. That man should read just about everything, as far as I’m concerned.

      • Manny

        Yes, i do have the same fascination of a poet reading their own works because it lends insight on how he envisions the articulation, and that in turn could effect the interpretation, or at least in theory. I have several editions of poets reading their own works and I’m not sure I’ve ever found where their articulation altered the meaning. Yes, I think Eliot’s voice is flat. Still I think it does get me to better connect with him that the words on a page don’t or can’t fully do.

  • Manny

    OMG, the Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins reading of The Waste Land was absolutely brilliant! That was the best I have ever heard. I wonder if I can download that and save it. If someone can tell me how it would be very much appreciated.