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/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
|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
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
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
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
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
the possibility of Hell
the annointing of the Holy Spirit
the prayers of the people of God (the
Church both livng and dead)
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.
- 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
- Is Eliot justified in making such claims, offering such poetic
intuitions, believing such mystical hopes? Explain your answer.