A summary of a classic Eliot poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Little Gidding’ is the last of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, but it is also his last significant poem. What’s more, there is a sense in this poem of Eliot seeking to join the threads of his work together, to ‘set a crown upon a lifetime’s effort’, as he puts it in ‘Little Gidding’ itself. But this remains a puzzlingly abstract poem in some ways, resisting any straightforward explication or analysis. There is nothing little about ‘Little Gidding’. You can read the poem here.
Whereas the first three poems that comprise Four Quartets centre on places which held personal significance for Eliot (Burnt Norton was the house he visited with Emily Hale in 1934, East Coker was the village home of his ancestors, The Dry Salvages were known to him from his youth in America), ‘Little Gidding’ is slightly different: it was the name of a small religious community formed in Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire) shortly before the English Civil War of the 1640s. Like the other three poems in Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’ loosely uses one of the four classical elements to suggest its imagery: here, fire with all of its suggestions of destruction, purgation, and renewal.
As soon as ‘Little Gidding’ begins, we find ourselves being wrong-footed. Take those first two words: ‘Midwinter spring’. We are in the middle of winter, yet there is a sense of spring even during the depth of this cold season. If you came to the small village and church of Little Gidding in the spring, you may find yourself surrounded by hedges in bloom – but you would still end up at the same place. So what does it really matter if it is winter or spring? If you were like King Charles I, who fled to Little Gidding in May 1646 (note that Eliot has just mentioned May specifically), following his defeat at the Battle of Naseby the year before, it would be the same – winter or spring, now or then, past or present. There is a suggestion that, whilst the world around it has changed, Little Gidding has remained much the same. You come to Little Gidding to pray, to present yourself before God. And note that ‘you’ is very much the word here: Eliot stays true to his theory of impersonality (espoused over twenty years earlier in his influential essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’), eschewing the lyric ‘I’ and instead suggesting that the need to come to Little Gidding, or somewhere like it, is a universal human impulse.
The second section opens with a short piece with a regular metre and rhyme scheme, as is usual for the first half of the second section of a poem from Four Quartets. Here, though, there is a sense that Eliot is harking back to the previous three poems and combining imagery from them into this final, crowning poem. The ostensible subject is the destruction of English houses and other buildings (including the churches, those ‘marred foundations’ of ‘sanctuary and choir’) during the aerial bombing raids by the Germans during the Second World War. ‘Little Gidding’ was first published in 1942, by which time many areas of England had seen houses and shops and even whole streets destroyed by bombs; it is as if the very elements that make up the world are being obliterated. But given that the three previous poems in Four Quartets had taken, respectively, air, earth, and water as their ‘subjects’, with ‘Little Gidding’ taking fire, the order of the elements’ presentation here is significant, as are the allusions back to the ‘wall, the wainscot, and the mouse’ (summoning the ‘wainscot where the field-mouse trots’ from ‘East Coker’) and the fact that water and fire are conjoined in one single stanza, furthering the links between this final poem and the three which preceded it. Like Dante, there was a sense that Eliot wanted his work to be a coherent whole which expressed a unified worldview – which is perhaps ironic given that The Waste Land is the great English poem of fragmentation. But we digress …
The second half of this second section then moves into an Anglicised version of the Italian terza rima form, in three-line units – as perfected by Dante (oddly enough) in his Divine Comedy. Here, Eliot stages a modern-day encounter between him and a mysterious other in the early hours of the morning during an air-raid patrol (Eliot himself used to stand on the roof of his employer, the publishers Faber and Faber, with his bucket of sand ready to put out any fires that resulted from bomb attacks). Eliot’s model for this section is an episode from Dante’s Inferno when the poet meets Brunetto Latini. But whom does Eliot meet? This other figure has been variously interpreted as Eliot’s earlier self, as the spirit of some past poet (Shelley, Yeats, perhaps even Dante himself), and even – in Christopher Ricks’s suggestion – Ezra Pound, given the potential pun in ‘familiar compound ghost’ and the fact that this speaker goes on to talk about ‘things ill done and done to others’ harm’. Eliot’s earlier alleged anti-Semitic remarks, and Pound’s own fervent anti-Semitism (which he would only renounce much later in life), certainly qualify as things ‘done to others’ harm’, especially in the wake of the Holocaust.
The third section of ‘Little Gidding’ opens with a discussion of three stages of spiritual development: attachment to people and things; detachment from people and things; and, finally, indifference to such temporal and material things, and a devotion to the spiritual and eternal. The allusion to the fourteenth-century English mystic and devotional writer, Julian of Norwich (‘Sin is Behovely, but all shall be well’), suggests that although sin is commonplace among mankind, there is a way to overcome one’s failings and attain spiritual wholeness.
In the fourth section, the dove with its ‘flame of incandescent terror’ is both the Holy Spirit and the German planes terrorising London with bombing raids. (‘The dove descending’ also suggests an overturning of the Victorian poet George Meredith’s ‘The Lark Ascending’, which had been turned into the celebrated piece of music by Vaughan Williams which bears that title.) The fires of hell can only be overcome by the fires of religious fervour or Pentecost. Pentecost was the occasion in the Bible when the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ and his Apostles, as told in Acts 2:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
Only by embracing such Pentecostal faith can we be redeemed from the fires of hell – which have newly come to Earth in the form of the bombers.
The fifth and final section of ‘Little Gidding’ ends by contemplating and analysing the role of endings themselves – and beginnings. Ezra Pound coined the word ‘periplum’ to describe a journey where the traveller ends up back where he started, and this, in what are probably the most famous lines from ‘Little Gidding’, is what Eliot expresses when he talks of ‘arriv[ing] where we started’ and ‘know[ing] the place for the first time’. Once again we get a nod to medieval mysticism, with not only a further allusion to Julian of Norwich but also a line from the anonymous fourteenth-century work The Cloud of Unknowing: ‘With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling’. The living and the dead, in a motif now familiar to us from the other poems in Four Quartets, are closely interlinked.
History does not reside solely in the past, but in the present, at a place like Little Gidding where the traditions of seventeenth-century high Anglicanism are kept alive. This is close to what Eliot argued about poetic tradition in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: the modern poet and the poets of ages past coexist, in the here and now. So it is with ‘Little Gidding’ itself, in the last analysis: it is a poem about traditions in the present, and a present-day poem that absorbs past traditions. The poem did, as Eliot said, set a crown upon his lifetime’s effort. After this, he would never write another great poem.
If you found this analysis of ‘Little Gidding’ useful, you might also enjoy our pick of the best poems about churches.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: St John’s Church at Little Gidding (picture credit: John Sutton), via geograph.org.uk.