“Little Gidding” was the last of the Quartets to be written. It appeared in print in 1942; in 1943, the four pieces were collected and published together. “Little Gidding,” named after a 17th-century Anglican monastery renowned for its devotion, is the place where the problems of time and human fallibility are more or less resolved. The first section describes a sunny winter’s day, where everything is dead yet blazing with the sun’s fire. The poem considers those who have come to the monastery, who come only “to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.” It is here that man can encounter the “intersection of the timeless” with the present moment, often by heeding the words of the dead, whose speech is given a vitality by a burning fire. The second section opens with a lyric on the death of the four elements (air, earth, water, and fire) that have figured so prominently in the previous quartets. The scene then shifts to the poet walking at dawn. He meets the ghost of some former master, whom he does not quite recognize. The two speak, and the ghost gives the poet the burdens of wisdom: awareness of folly, a loss of perception of beauty, and shame at one’s past deeds. The spirit tells him that only if he is “restored by ...refining fire” will he escape these curses. The spirit then leaves him with a benediction, and a horn blows, which may be an air-raid siren. The third section is more propositional in nature. The poet declares that attachment, detachment, and indifference are all related; all three look alike but indifference comes only through the exercise of memory to create abstractions. The second part of this section asserts that, despite this, “all shall be well.” As the poet thinks on the people who have come to Little Gidding seeking spiritual renewal and peace, he realizes that the dead have left us only “a symbol,” one that has been perfected but is nevertheless still only a representation or an abstraction. The fourth section is a formal two-stanza piece describing first a dove with a tongue of fire, which both purifies and destroys; the second stanza then considers love as the chief torment of man, which can redeem as well as torture. Either way, we are caught between two kinds of fire. The final section of the poem, and of the whole of the Quartets, brings the spiritual and the aesthetic together in a final reconciliation. Perfect language results in poetry in which every word and every phrase is “an end and a beginning.” The timeless and the time-bound are interchangeable and in the moment, if one is in the right place, like the chapel at Little Gidding. All will be well when the fires that both destroy and redeem come together to form a knot and “the fire and the rose”—divine wrath and mercy—become one.
This is the most dramatic of the Four Quartets, in that it is here that the language most closely approaches the rhythms of everyday speech. The diction is measured, intellectual, but always self-conscious in its repetitiveness and in the palpable presence of the speaker. Certain sections of “Little Gidding” (“And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well”) borrow from liturgical language to create the effect of attending an ideal religious service. The fourth section, like the fourth sections of the other quartets, is a sustained formal piece that serves as a sort of contrapuntal melody to the rest of the poem. Although not as elegant as “Burnt Norton” or as musical as “East Coker,” “Little Gidding” is perhaps the most balanced of the quartets in its attention to imagery and language.
Fire and roses are the main images of this poem. Both have a double meaning. Roses, a traditional symbol of English royalty, represent all of England, but they also are made to stand for divine love, mercy, and the garden where the children in “Burnt Norton” hide (they reappear at the end of this poem). Fire is both the flame of divine harshness and the spiritual ether capable of purifying the human soul and bringing understanding. The series of double images creates a strong sense of paradox: Just as one seemingly cannot exist both in and out of time, one cannot be simultaneously both purified and destroyed.
This sense of paradox leads to the creation of an alternative world, rendered through spiritual retreat and supernatural figures. The dead, with their words “tongued with fire,” offer an alternative set of possibilities for the poet seeking to escape the fetters of reality. By going to a place “where prayer has been valid,” Eliot proposes that imagination and a little faith can conquer the strictures placed upon man by time and history; as the ghost in the third section reminds the poet, escape is always possible. This is particularly significant when we notice that the ghost’s words are actually generated by the speaker (who “assumed a double part”), actually engaged in a dialogue with himself. While the dead can offer us only a “symbol,” symbols nevertheless give us an opportunity for interpretation and exercise of the imagination. By allowing us a way to bypass the realities of our world, they open up a spiritual freedom.
This poem, finally, celebrates the ability of human vision to transcend the apparent limitations of human mortality. In a place set away from the world, one can hear, if one chooses, the children laughing in the garden. War, suffering, and the modern condition have provided Eliot with an opportunity for spiritual reflection that ultimately transcends external events and the burden of history. While not an overtly optimistic work, “Little Gidding” and Four Quartets as a whole offer a reasoned sense of hope. Poetry may suffer from language’s inherent lack of precision, but it provides the aesthetic faculty with an opportunity to disregard human limitations, if only for a moment.
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