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Tradition and Eternity in Little Gidding

Keep in mind Eliot's Neo-Platonic/Mystical Christian/Vaguely Hindu notion of time as a world of disorder, confusion, and death that is in constant cycle and without purpose or direction vs. his notion of eternity as the still point of God who is above and past change and offers a transcendent answer to this world.  Also keep in mind his notion of the incarnation of Christ as the in-breaking of eternity into time, an answer which would seem to bring together time and eternity, which would seem to both redeem and transcend history.  In Little Gidding he draws more directly on tradition as a positive power.  Tradition is something larger than yourself which you must obtain by hard-work.  You are not born per se into tradition. 

Tradition/history is also that which imparts to you those symbols necessary to obtain intimations of eternity and the incarnation in our ordinary lives. It, too, offers us poetic symbols which offer the inbreaking of eternity into time, thus, redeeming time via something outside it. History is, therefore, both absolutely necessary to our redemption, and yet, is to be absorbed into the timeless.

Eliot's Definition of Tradition

"Tradition is matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the temporal and timeless together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead."

--"Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919)


Overlapping Frames of Reference

Eliot also structures the poem around overlapping sets of historical references. Because of his defintion of tradition, it follows that he must write a poem where historical figures overlap with the present.  Note these three important categories:




The War of the Roses--The House of York (White Rose) & the House of Lancaster (Red Rose) resolve their war for the English throne in the House of Tudor (an enfolded rose of both colors).

The English Civil War--Milton, who represents the Puritan cause ("of one who died blind and quiet") vs. Charles I, the Royal side ("came at night like a broken king").

World War II--Eliot is working as an air warden during the bombing of England.

Dante--References to the Rose; also, the "Dead Master" episode is modeled after Dante's meeting of a former master in Hell.

Herbert--The 17th century poet is associated with community at Little Gidding.

The Dead Master (Shelley, Yeats, etc.)


Julian of Norwich--"And all shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well."

The Cloud of Unknowing--"the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling."

The Present--the need for a love beyond desire (agape).

The Overall Pattern

Just as it would be a mistake to reduce a string quartet to its main patterns, it would be a mistake to reduce Little Gidding to the overarching pattern alone; however, the following gives a place to begin understanding its five movements:

I. Opens as the light of the winter solstice reminds the reader of the way of negation--the suffering that one most undergo, the loss, and the discipline of wordless prayer.

II. The first three stanzas invoke the death of the elements while the remaining stanzas record a fictional meeting of Eliot with a poetic dead master, who speaks to Eliot of past poetic theory, as well as the "gifts" that old age offers unless one is refined by fire.

III. The first stanza looks closer at the conditions necessary for selfless love while the next two stanzas discuss (among other things) past division in English history and the symbols those conflicts have imparted to the present.

IV. An invocation of the Holy Spirit; This section looks at the power and cost of sanctifying love.

V. The first stanza looks at the limits and uses of language, suggesting that language can finally serve its limited purpose, for it can find the humble, exact word.  It also addresses again the importance of history and tradition. Ironically, one cannot obtain eternity without what tradition has to offer you. The final stanza returns to the themes of fire and love and what those offer the present.   He pulls together references to Burnt Norton and Dry Salvages to suggest again the relationship between time and eternity. The final lines bring together the historical, poetic, and mystical.

Eliot's Conclusions/Final Symbol

"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."

Little Gidding is often called Eliot's swan song or his pinnacle point for his writing of poetry. In many ways, he seeks to gather up his career's insights into this one poem. The ending, likewise, functions as a kind of gathering place for the music of the first three Quartets. Notice how he brings together all his major themes by invoking the rose. Likewise, notice how he marries them with his invocation of suffering and the work of the Holy Spirit:

the fire/ the tongues of flame

  • the violence of the world of time, especially as experienced in wartime

  • the necessary suffering that sanctifies us

  • the possibility of Hell

  • the annointing of the Holy Spirit

  • the prayers of the people of God (the Church both livng and dead)

the rose

BN 1 -- the rose-garden--the world of might-have been; the possible other direction in time; the world of perception considered

BN 2 -- "the moment in the rose-garden"--past and future are located in time and serve as memory and expectation

EC 2 -- "Late roses filled with early snow"--the old poetic language that is worn out; the past understanding that no longer quite serves us now; the sense of an unnatural mixture

EC 4 -- "the flame is roses"--the need for purgatorial suffering; its blessing and pain

DS 1--"The salt is on the briar rose"--the pain of this world that encrusts its beauty

DS 3--"That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray/ Of wistful regret"--the entrapment of the world of time, future regret already expected; the fading of the good even before it is conceived and kept

LG 2 -- "Ash on an old man's sleeve/ Is all the ash the burnt roses leave"--loss and death; perhaps a foreshadowing of the bomb

LG 3 -- the enfolding Rose--the War of the Roses (past conflicts that have healed or been passed over); the symbol of a larger pattern of redemption which is only perfect in death

The rose also is often a symbol of Mary and/or the Church Universal and Triumphant. In Dante's Paradisio, the Church in Heaven dwells in a great cosmic rose where all the people of God dwell in perfect harmony adoring God.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What, then, does it mean for the fire (suffering, violence, annointing, prayer and/or Hell) to be "one" with the rose (the might-have been, fading expectation, loss and death, the larger pattern, Mary's intercession, and the Church Triumphant)?
  2. Is Eliot justified in making such claims, offering such poetic intuitions, believing such mystical hopes? Explain your answer.

"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