From the archives: Alec Guinness reads Eliot’s Four Quartets

Originally posted in January 2016 under the title “Not here the darkness, in this twittering world”:

eliot_microphoneA little present came our way yesterday from the good people at the Open Culture Web site. In 1971, Sir Alec Guinness recorded T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and they were pleased to post that recording there. In his introduction, writer and musician Josh Jones wrote:

Those who only know T.S. Eliot from such early poems as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land may be surprised to encounter what many critics consider his greatest work, the Four Quartets. The Eliot of the earlier, better-known poems alternates between mocking dissection and tragic lamentation for the supposed cultural decay of the West; in The Waste Land especially, Eliot draws upon his considerable erudition to collapse centuries of poetic and religious text into shards of modernist ingenuity and sharp fragments of despairing irony. The Four Quartets, on the other hand — first published in 1943, though written separately over a period of six years — attempts to unify traditions, in ways both more earnest and more oblique than readers of Eliot had seen before. …

[Much] of the appeal of the Four Quartets to those of a mystical bent comes from the poems’ enacting of a meditative faith, however tenuous, held amidst tumults of meaningless activity and a chilling sense of cultural enervation. (One pregnant phrase from “Burnt Norton” inspired the title of a book on Zen and Christian mysticism.) Eliot’s conservatism may prevent him from imagining any sort of worldly human progress, but generations of readers have seen in the Four Quartets the profoundest meditation on a spiritual journey, and it is perhaps in those late poems, written in the poet’s middle age, that Eliot comes closest to his personal literary hero, Dante, who entered the dark wood in the Canto I of The Inferno while “halfway along life’s path.”

Below, Guinness’s reading of the Four Quartets, in its entirety. If you like, as you listen you can follow the bouncing ball.