“Little Gidding” was the last of the Quartets to
be written. It appeared in print in
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.