Eliot, "Little Gidding" (Commentary)


The poem opens in midwinter, at the winter solstice, as the sun is preparing to set over the water near the rebuilt chapel of Little Gidding, a seventeenth-century Anglican community in Hutingdonshire. 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)


[Eliot is walking in the midst of a fire patrol during the W.W. II bombing of England.] The burnt roses, which are fire, look back to BN. 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, which was originally dismantled by Cromwell's forces, is destroyed. The stanzas pull from the imagery of the first three Quartets: the wall, wainscot, and mouse are from BN, the flood and dead water are from DS as the parched soil is from EC.  These horrible results mock England's unwillingness to enter W.W.II earlier, yet this state also 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 Mallarme, Dante, Shelley, and Yeats]. Eliot responds to him as Dante did to his poetic master Brunetto Latino in the circle of the Sodomites: "What! are you here?" The dead master insists that he has not come to recount old poetic theories; indeed, they are to be forgiven. In light of the master's old desire to purify the language (each of the poets above said something to this effect.), he finds he has come to speak in new words that disclose the "gifts reserved for age, " ones that (ironically) come, like a poet's reward, to crown Eliot's previous work.  They are 1) the loss of the five senses, 2) the powerless 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)


Spiritual growth moves through three stages: 1) an involvement with the self and the things of this life, to 2) a detachment from these same things, to 3) a divine indifference that promises expanding "love beyond desire" [agape love]. With this stress, Eliot returns to the same theme expressed in the other Quartets, that of complete selfless submission beyond self-movement.  In the same way, nationalism and patriotic history are stages that prepare one for a higher possibility, a newer, more comprehensive pattern. You lay aside what helped prepare you for this, yet you don't lay it aside. (152-166)

He quotes the words of the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich: "Sin is Behovely, but/ 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 (the king at nightfall) versus the Puritan strand of Milton ("one who died blind and quiet"), as well as the differing forces in the War of Roses. [Charles I was executed by Puritan Commonwealth forces. The War of the Roses is called so because the House of York marched under a white rose, while the House of Lancaster marched under a red one.  The Tudor government that formed out of the two was a rose using both colors, thus "enfolded".] 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)


The Holy Spirit, the dove, brought down tongues of fire on the infant Church in Acts 2.  World War II ironically offers a similar spiritual lesson: we can only be redeemed from the fires of Hell by the fires of Pentecost. The "intolerable shirt of flame" recalls the burning, poisoned shirt given to Hercules unknowingly by his wife, Deianeira.  Only painful, costly sanctifying Love can free us. (202-215)


Here, Eliot looks back to the lines from BN and EC.   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. [It also dances like the dances of BN and EC.] 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 -- here again, Eliot recalls the symbols from BN (the gate, children in the apple-tree) and DS (the longest river, two waves of the sea). Mystic simplicity offers the possibility of unlooked for discernment and unifying synthesis, when "the fire and the rose are one." Here, Eliot brings all his symbols together -- when the spiritual and political are one, when suffering and symbol are one, when division and unity are one, when time and eternity are one, when selfless submission and the eternal perception are one, etc.  (240-260)

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"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