Listening to "Little Gidding"
It would seem with the opening of “Little Gidding” that Eliot has relapsed once again into his habit of opaque language, obscure references and downright inexplicable turns of phrase.
What on earth is a “midwinter Spring” that is “sempiternal though sodden towards sundown”? What is this “hedgerow blanched for an hour with transitory blossom”? What is the “glow more intense than blaze of branch or brazier” and what could he possibly mean by “summer, the unimaginable zero summer”?
As in “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker,” Eliot grounds the lines in a visit to a specific geographical location in England. He did the same with “Dry Salvages,” but the location was a triad of rocks off the coast of Massachusetts.
This time the visit is to the obscure hamlet of Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire. Little Gidding was the home of a small Anglican religious community founded in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar—a friend of the poet George Herbert.
The community’s way of life and devotion were part of the high church movement of the mid seventeenth century when England was going through the political and religious upheaval of the reign of Charles Stuart.
The hamlet was never large, and now it is no more than a small country church next to a farmhouse. When we know this, the opening lines become clear. Eliot is describing his own visits there—once in mid-winter and again in May of 1936. England in February has its own, austere beauty. A warm day will suddenly unfreeze the ground turning it to mud. Than all will re-freeze in frozen earth and a still, sharp frost. A light dusting of snow from the night before will fade in the sunlight. Because of its Northern latitudes, a winter afternoon in England is outlined with a sharp, bright, and slanting blaze of light.
Read the opening lines again, and all the mystery falls away into a beautiful poetic description of the poet’s visit to a country church in the English countryside. Charles I fled for refuge here in May 1646 after his defeat at the Battle of Naseby. Now you understand the line about “the broken king.” The church indeed has a “dull facade” and a large table tomb stands prominently before the only door into the darkened sanctuary.
The lines capture the experience that lodges you into Eliot’s recurring theme of time and memory, history and destiny. Contemplative prayer is the connecting action. “You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” Silent contemplation and communion with the wordless realm is prayer and it is the crossing point of time and the timeless. Thus, “Here the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
The second section of the poem opens with three rhyming stanzas meditating on the abandoned church and religious community. Then Eliot moves into what is the finest section of the entire Four Quartets. Written in a style that mimics Dante’s terza rima, Eliot uses rhythm rather than rhyme in the repeated three line formal structure.
This section echoes Dante’s pilgrimage through hell and purgatory, and is based in Eliot’s experiences as a fire watcher on the rooftops of London during the blitz. The German bombers and fighters become the “dark dove with flickering tongue.” As he wanders home through the hellish war-ravaged streets of London in the wee hours of the morning he seems to be accompanied by the shade of Dante, Yeats, and other apocalyptic poets. He shares with the “dead master”—the “familiar compound ghost” a conversation about pain and purgation that echoes Dante’s relationship with his guide through the netherworld—the poet Virgil.
In the third section Eliot speaks again in mysterious terms about detachment from the ambitions and attractions of this world. Quoting from the fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, he suggests that “Sin is behovely.” “Behovely” is an archaic term meaning “necessary, advantageous or useful.” This is a quaint allusion to the doctrine O Felix culpa—O happy fault: the idea that sin was necessary for the completion of the mystery of both our creation and the fullness of our redemption.
In other words, the perfection of mankind redeemed is better than the perfection of our first creation. In particular, God uses even our sin to bring us home. C.S. Lewis points out that at the very end, for the redeemed even their sin will have been used for their redemption and for the damned even their good deeds will be used for their damnation. Thus Julian of Norwich re-assures us of the pre-eminence of providence. “All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
After a short, rhyming fourth section in which Eliot reminds us of the need for purgation by fire, he moves into the lyrical final section which, along with the Dantean lines of the second section, are among the finest and most moving lines in Eliot’s oeuvre. Here he gathers together allusions to the earlier poems and interweaves his themes of memory and destiny, the intersection of time and the timeless and the importance of contemplative prayer.
Here there is motion and emotion, intention and commitment. Here one is drawn by an inexorable but gentle power of purgation. All is driven and motivated by Love—the divine energy that Dante said “moved the sun and all the other stars.”
From Reluctant Allies
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A graduate of Oxford University, he is the Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, in Greenville, SC, and author of twenty books, including Immortal Combat, The Romance of Religion, The Quest for the Creed, and Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. He contributes to many magazines, papers, and journals, including National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and The Stream. His latest book, Beheading Hydra- A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, is published by Sophia Institute Press. Visit his blog, listen to his podcasts, join his online courses, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.