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How Four Quartets works, and other shorts

November 18, 2011

This is, in a way, a followup to my recent series about Greek Mythology. These exercises aren’t meant entirely seriously, but I do think they get at something interesting. Contents:

  • How Literature Works
  • How Four Quartets Works
  • How Dialectical Trilogies Work
  • How The Lord of the Rings Works
  • How Authorial Careers Progress

* * *

How Literature Works

  • Begin with A
  • Modulate it in various ways so that it becomes ¬¬A, something not obviously not A but also horrible

What’s interesting, of course, is how you get from A to ¬¬A. But the point is, if the ending is too different to the beginning, the work is too fragmentary, and if it’s too similar, it’s boring. This may seem trivial, but it provides a starting point for thinking about how non-narrative literature works, and thinking in this way can offer some interesting insights.

* * *

How Four Quartets Works

For example, the argument of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is as follows:

  • Clearly A
  • Clearly B
  • But A=¬B, and B=¬A; yet also I am told A&B; so I must seek to reconcile them
    • (prayer)
  • I conclude that ¬¬A&¬¬B, though it seems paradoxical; here is a poetic image with which to understand the paradox

Where A=”we can conceive of eternity” and B=”we are corporeal” (there are probably better ways to define them). The final image is that “the fire and the rose are one.”

Of course the brilliance of the poem comes from how it plays this pattern off of itself (each of the four quartets follows this pattern and the four quartets taken as a whole follow this pattern). But the pattern itself is quite interesting. Cf. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #5.

* * *

How Dialectical Trilogies Work

The above is how non-narrative literature often works. What of literature that both has a narrative and tries to make a philosophical point? What, in particular, of works in three parts? A narrative trilogy goes “Beginning, Middle, End,” while a three-part philosophical reflection goes “A, ¬A, ¬¬A.” It would seem these are not in tension. But consider:

  • …come to SEE A …come to SEE ¬A …come to SEE ¬¬A

These don’t have the same emotional outline. This produces interesting tensions. For example, in William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, whose three books follow a dialectic of abstraction and actuality, but which tries to shape its narrative so it feels somewhat like beginning-middle-end. The tensions there are exacerbated by the fact that he didn’t initially plan it as a trilogy.

* * *

How The Lord of the Rings Works

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is not, as commonly thought, a trilogy; it’s really a book in six parts, and its basic structure is as follows:

  • The Hero begins his Quest
  • The Hero is joined by numerous Companions but is forced to separate from them
  • The Companions try to buy the Hero time, and make some progress
  • The Hero continues on his Quest and
  • The Companions continue to buy the Hero time but are about to be overrun
  • The Hero completes his Quest, which also saves his Companions, and all return home

Obviously this simplifies. A lot. But there are two things worth noting about it. First, this is the only six-part narrative that I know of. Second, this is the first epic-style narrative I know of that follows two storylines at the same time. These two facts are not unrelated. Three would be beginning-middle-end; two would be event-complications. So six is these two combined. It could be rewritten:

  • Beginning of Plot
  • Complications
  • Complications Diverge from Plot
  • Middle of Plot
  • Complications Resolve Tragically
  • Plot Resolves Comically and thus Redeems Complications

I’m actually somewhat impressed by this playing with formal structure.

* * *

How Authorial Careers Progress

Think of all the great writers you know who have written two decently long works (i.e. no lyric poems) on similar themes. Note that:

  • Milton : Paradise Lost : Paradise Regained
  • :: Melville : Moby-Dick : Billy Budd
  • :: McCarthy : Blood Meridian : The Road


  • Dante : Vita Nuova : Divine Comedy
  • :: Dostoevsky : Crime and Punishment : The Brothers Karamazov
  • :: Eliot : The Waste Land : Four Quartets

It’s interesting to note which writers come out with an astonishing work in the middle of their career and then write something simpler with similar themes at the end, and which come out with an astonishing work in the middle and then elaborate on it for something even more complex at the end. Conclusion: writers whose names begin with “M” write their best work early.

(Obviously everyone on this list wrote much more than the two works given here, but I think in most of these cases these two works are considered by at least some to be their best.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2011 9:30 am

    For some reason, your recent comment over at Findings reminded me of these posts which you (hopefully) will find interesting:


  1. Three Euthyphros, and other shorts | Ironical Coincidings

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