Eliot, "Little Gidding" (Commentary and Questions)

I.

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 time’s covenant."  Thus, while the natural world is emblematic of this spiritual possibility, they are not the same (1-20).

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 one’s 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).

II.

[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 England’s 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 person’s 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).

III.

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 forces–the 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 (167-201).

IV.

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)

V.

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).

Discussion Questions

1. How is Eliot’s 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 Eliot’s 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 Eliot’s 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.)

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding