Little Gidding is structured like music:
Gidding is one of Eliot's Four Quartets. A musical quartet has a number of
movements; each movement has its own keys, meters, rhythms, tempos, themes, and colors.
Quartets build their effect through repetition, variation, point, and counterpoint,
and as their instruments imitate and answer each other, they develop previous themes in
new directions, add new or different harmonies, change tones, as well as reverse melody
lines and chord changes. Note in the following two quotations how Eliot conceives of
poetry as resembling music.
"There are possibilities for verse which bear some
analogy to the development of a theme by different groups of instruments; there are
possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the different movements of a symphony
or a quartet; there are possibilities of contrapuntal arrangement of subject-matter."
-- T.S. Eliot, "The Music of Poetry"
"The music of a word is, so to speak, at a point of
intersection: it arises from its relation first to the words immediately preceding and
following it, and indefinitely to the rest of its context; and from another relation, that
of its immediate meaning in that context to all the other meanings which it has had in
other contexts, to its greater or less wealth of association."
-- "On Poetry and Poets"
Eliot's poem is best understood as a kind of music that weaves
differing themes, symbols, and ideas in and out of one another. Try reading section
II of the poem aloud. Don't worry about the ideas; just listen to the way words and
themes repeat and expand.
Little Gidding's Themes and Symbols
Certain themes or symbols are also repeated in differing ways, with
differing tones, and differing (if overlapping) meanings. Consider some of the following:
Light and Dark: sec
I -- the sempiternal light, sec II -- the night of the bombing. For
Eliot these represent fundamental elements of life, as well as ways that God expresses
himself to us.
Fire: the frost and
fire of the winter solstice, Pentecostal fire, the bomb, Purgatory, the flaming hairshirt,
the roses as a kind of fire. Here we see a number of different uses, including that
of warfare and spiritual suffering.
The Past/ The Present, History: the whole poem is based on the way past symbols and conflicts
are resolved in the present: "A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time,
for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments." Eliot's notions
of tradition and culture apply here.
Way of Negation: sec. I -- "And what you thought you came for/ Is only a
shell, a husk of meaning," sec. III -- "For liberation -- not less of
love but expanding/ Of love beyond desire." Pay particular attention to lines
30-40 and 153-167. In each case, Eliot focuses on those times when God takes away
all joy, happiness, even all emotion to see if we love for love's sake and not for our own
selfish desires. This process was named by John of the Cross, a Renaissance Spanish
mystic, "The Dark Night of the Soul."
Prayer: sec. I -- "And prayer is more/ Than an order of words, the
conscious occupation/ Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying."
The poem is also structured in a more general way through thesis and
antithesis (often in the same stanzas):
Overlapping Frames of Reference
Eliot also structures the poem around overlapping sets of historical
references. Eliot claims that "tradition is matter of much wider significance.
It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor" and
that "historical sense, [. . .] is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal
and of the temporal and timeless together." If this is so, then it follows that he
must write a poem where historical figures overlap with the present. Note these
three important categories: