Eliot, "Little Gidding"
(Commentary and Questions)
The poem opens in midwinter, at the winter solstice, as the sun is
preparing to set over the water near the (remains?) of Little Gidding, a
seventeenth-century Anglican community. Midwinter suggests the coldness and deadness of
nature, yet also hints at the possibility of spring and renewal of life. The hedgerow
would be white with flowers in the spring; here it is in bloom with snow. The ice
and snow glare with the early afternoon light. The possibility is one of "pentecostal
fire," a renewal that is "not in times covenant." Thus, while
the natural world is emblematic of this spiritual possibility, they are not the same
In Spring, one would approach Gidding surrounded by natural growth
and flowers, but the end result would be the same to come like the broken king,
Charles I did in 1645 after his defeat to come spiritually empty without a clear
sense of what it all means. Indeed, the purpose is beyond words or our attempts at
conceptualizing it. Nor is Gidding the only place such an emptiness is possible, but this
is the closest in England (21-40).
To come this way always requires the same acts a putting off
of ones worldly senses and impressions to prepare to pray, a truly humbling prayer
beyond words. And it is the intersection of the living and the dead, the present with the
past, an order of reality beyond this world, one that like memory is always present in the
mind, but of course never present in the same sense as being there (41-55).
[Eliot is walking in the midst of a fire patrol during the WW II
bombing of England.] The following three stanzas deal with the death of the four elements
air, earth, water, and fire and how they participate in the havoc of the
bombing. A house and its occupants are destroyed; the soil is destroyed; even the very
town and its fields are destroyed. Perhaps Gidding is destroyed. Yet this state suggests
something about Englands own spiritual amnesia, its willingness to overlook
"sanctuary and choir" (56-79).
Not unlike the medieval poet Dante meets the ancient Roman poet
Virgil at the doorway to Hell, Eliot meets a mysterious stranger in the midst of this
devastation wrecked by the "dark dove" of the bomb. Eliot (imagines he) speaks
with the "dead master" [who is a composite of several past poets, including
Dante, Shelley, and Yeats]. The dead master insists that he has not come to recount old
poetic theories. Instead, he finds he has come to speak in new words that disclose the
"gifts reserved for age": 1) the loss of the five senses, 2) the powerlessness
of an old persons rage, and 3) the shame of past motives and past wrongs. Yet these
gifts, these lessons in our mistaken values, offer the possibility of restoration "by
the refining fire/ Where you must move in measure, like a dancer" (80-151).
Spiritual growth moves through three stages: 1) an involvement with
the self and the things of this life, 2) a detachment from these same things, 3) a divine
indifference that promises expanding "love beyond desire" [agape love]. In the
same way, nationalism and patriotic history are stages that prepare one for a higher
possibility, a newer, more comprehensive pattern (152-166).
He quotes the words of the medieval English mystic Julian of
Norwich: "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." The past of
England is divided by the good intentions of divided forcesthe high church
Anglicanism of Charles I versus the Puritan strand of Milton, the differing forces in the
War of Roses. We cannot bring back these divisions, for even they accepted a synthesis
as can be seen in the symbols they leave us, ones purified of personal motive
World War II ironically offers a spiritual lesson: we can only be
redeemed from the fires of Hell by the fires of Pentecost. Only painful, costly
sanctifying Love can free us. (202-215)
Beginnings and endings penetrate one another in cycles of meaning;
time intersects eternity. Poetry, as well, in its precise choices of words also reflects
beginnings and endings. We are deeply tied to the dead, to our past traditions and
ancestors. We are not redeemed from history but in history. And that history is
present in Gidding at this moment (216-239).
We journey into the mystic unknown of God, "the Cloud of
Unknowing." Symbols and intuited meanings offer meaning understood in a realm not
entirely cognitive. Mystic simplicity offers the possibility of unlooked for discernment
and unifying synthesis, when "the fire and the rose are one" (240-260).
1. How is Eliots view of tradition reflected in the
"Little Gidding"? In the past of England? In the dead master/Yeats? In his
choice of quotes from the medieval mystics?
2. In what ways does Eliots poem represent a new association
of sensibility like John Donne had? (Hint: consider how Eliot brings together various
eras, objects, poeple, etc.)
3. Do the poetic language and symbols of "Little Gidding"
offer possibilities of mystical experience? How would Eliot view the relationship between
his poem and spiritual experience? Consider some of the mystical notions in the
poem--wordless prayer, agape love, etc.
4. In what way is Eliots vision of history analogous to his
notions of the classic and Christian culture?
5. Is "Little Gidding" representative of the way
indigenous peoples and the Christian Fathers view the world? Why or why not?
(Consider what he says about politics, for example, in the poem.)