Little Gidding--

An Introduction

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"After the dark dove with the flickering tongue/ Had passed below the horizon of his homing" (83-84).

Little Gidding
is structured like music:

Little 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.

Time, 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.

The 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."

Wordless 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):

  • Birth-Death
  • Rising-Falling
  • Stillness-Movement
  • Desire-Love
  • Beginning-End
  • Affirmation-Negation
  • Time-Eternity
  • Silence-Speech

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:




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 (also see the commentary page linked here).

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. The final stanza returns to the themes of fire and love and what those offer the present.   The final lines bring together the historical, poetic, and mystical.

"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