TS Eliot: Four Quartets

The great poet TS Eliot uses Ailanthus altissima in his poem “Four Quartets”.  Here is the opening stanza of the third Quartet, The Dry Salvages:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Here is the full poem.  The English student G. Michael Palmer writes about the garden and nature imagery in Four Quartets:

It is through flowers, and especially the rose, that Eliot is most connected in Four Quartets to his own poetry (as it is through fruit and gardens that he is connected with Milton).  Through the growth and withering of flowers Eliot allows us to experience both pain and resurrection, as the poem contains both the endless “withering of withered flowers” (DS 80) and the rising “lotos” “in the pool” “of light” BN (36; 38; 37).  The generic flowers of the poem, and the flowers such as the ailanthus and the sunflower serve, much like the specific fruits in the poem, to introduce a sense of duality, and in a more overt way, a strong sense of decay.  The ailanthus is “rank” (DS 12), and “the dahlias sleep in the empty silence” (EC 22).  The “hollyhocks…aim too high” (EC 55) and die, and there is always “the silent withering of  autumn flowers” (DS 50).  This flowery withering is explicitly Eliotic, and a common image in his poetry for conveying spiritual decay.

This is great stuff; Ailanthus as metaphor for “spiritual decay”!  Palmer’s not a good botanist though; Ailanthus is not a flower but a tree.  And the whole thing stinks, but especially the leaves.


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