We’ve finally gotten to the end of a journey begun back in April (the cruelest month)—the long and winding path through T. S. Eliot‘s gorgeous and evocative poem collection, Four Quartets. For those of you who missed earlier posts, or who need to refresh your memory, this link will take you to all of my posts on the four poems. The final piece in Four Quartets, a poem called “Little Gidding”, is so rich with material that I’ve actually decided to divide it up into two PF posts. This first one will deal with most of the poem, and the second post, next week, will tackle Eliot’s grand finale, which will give me a chance to reflect just a little on how all the poem’s themes weave together.
So, we’ve arrived at “Little Gidding”—just as a reminder, this is the end of a project begun well before the war, in 1936, but by 1942, Eliot is writing amidst the chaos of the war’s peak. He and his adopted country, England, have endured the London Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and the nearly-constant threat of invasion and conquest. The fact that we know the outcome of the war shouldn’t blind us to how inevitable surrender must have seemed in 1940-1941, when England stood more or less alone, having seen the nations of Europe fall one by one under the jackboots of the Wehrmacht. This final poem, then, is written as the tide has just begun to turn—allies have joined the United Kingdom in this fight, the worst of the bombings are over, and the prospect of victory and peace (while still distant) begins to seem not entirely unrealistic. I’m going to tackle a huge piece of the first section of the poem—remember, each of the quartets is divided into five sections, all of them with distinctive patterns that echo and resonate between poems, as well as between sections within each poem. Here it is, then, an excerpt from the first section of “Little Gidding” by T. S. Eliot:
“If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. 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.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
Eliot takes advantage of our deep investment in these poems (by this point) and makes our journey as readers a part of the poem’s text—we began this series of poems by hearing voices in a nameless garden, and we followed them through the door we never opened, “into our first world”. Where, then, have we come? To a place that is not yet green with springtime, not yet blossoming with May-flowers, but we sense that will come. Eliot, the master of the resonant phrase, ties our journey into journeys from another age: wherever we are arriving, we do so at night “like a broken king”, and that phrase is at once specific (Charles I fled to the tiny village of Little Gidding after the Battle of Naseby, in which his army was destroyed—he’d go on to be captured and executed at the end of that war) and universal (who can’t, on some level, identify with the feeling of a nightfall that found us broken and cast down from some position we once identified with?). This arrived-at place is still hard for me to fully imagine: we have left the road, but I do not know what this “dull façade” is, nor whose tombstone I am seeing. Like Scrooge, I think I worry on some level it’s supposed to be mine—the end of a journey in a very mortal sense. Whatever we think we came for, Eliot tells us we more or less have to leave that behind. The goal is less important to him than something else—is this like Cavafy’s “Ithaca”, where the journey is its own reward? I don’t quite think so. Eliot is just acknowledging a truth about journeys—that on some level we cannot possibly anticipate or understand what we were really traveling for. Either our real purpose is hidden from us by the distance we feel from our own selves—whatever moves us to get on the road is buried too deep to make sense of—or else the purpose has become something else in being reached. I like the way he talks so matter-of-factly about being here at “the world’s end”. This is not the only place where the world ends—it ends in many other places, some perhaps more exciting or alluring than here, some perhaps less. This is different from them in only one key way, but perhaps it’s the only one that counts: this is the “nearest” place. It is the place closer to us than any other. That very mundane fact strikes me as weirdly significant.
And then Eliot starts to push us about this whole journey we’ve been on, and what it means that we are arriving somewhere. It doesn’t matter, he tells us, where we came from. Not how hard the journey was, how slow the going, or how carefully we planned our path. It is time for us to set down “sense and notion”. We think we have come here—where are we? doesn’t the importance of that rise as we read? and yet I feel certain he wants to delay that reveal for good reason—to act in various sensible ways. He anticipates our desire to start cataloging things and organizing them, to document the world around us, perhaps, or to walk away nodding meaningfully at how important this all has been. And he tells us to give up something instead—that composure of the student and the critic that holds us at a distance from what we are observing. Instead, Eliot asks us to humble ourselves. He does not ask us to pray, but he insists that we kneel in acknowledgement that we have come to a place where prayers are answered, where prayer is not the rote mumblings of the pious or the careful supplications of the needy. Whatever these prayers are, he suggests that they are wordless, unconscious, the wild soundless expressions of something in us that is neither mind nor order. And in this place, by some means Eliot does not bother to explain (perhaps he cannot), we hear the voices of the dead who will tell us what we cannot know in, to use Eliot’s chilling phrase that sets my hair on end, “the communication of the dead [that] is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”. We have met them in a moment that is outside of time. We are here in England—in Little Gidding itself, perhaps, a tiny village in Cambridgeshire—and yet we are also nowhere. We have stepped outside of the world into somewhere that never existed, and always will.
What is Eliot after? You really ought to read the whole poem to reach for it, but here are a few musings from me, based on having read and re-read this poem with real fascination for many years now—it was the first of the Quartets to catch my eye, and is still my favorite. The poem is, I think, rich with images of death and resurrection—this is a work that is fascinated by what it means for life to end, and what hope we can draw from the idea of stepping beyond it. I imagine that seeing England drawing itself back from the brink is a part of this, although this is also a topic that fascinated Eliot in general. As “Little Gidding” unfolds, Eliot narrates the collapse of the four elements of medieval science—earth, air, water and fire all “die”—and confronts his own mortality in a dialogue with an unnamed “master” who pronounces an end to his “lifetime’s effort”. Eliot begins to play with time, memory and history: he overlays scenes and images in what I’d call a “montage” if he were a film-maker, and deals at some length with what it would mean to literally turn back time (to unring a bell, at one point) and what it means that we cannot. The world Eliot sees in the poem’s brief but haunting fourth section is a world aflame. We cannot escape the fire, he tells us—we can only go through it, either the fire that will unmake us into ash or the fire that refines and cures us until we emerge from it as something new. If this isn’t a man trying to do for the world via poetry what Stephen Hawking wants to do for it via physics, explaining our experience and our condition in something like a Grand Theory of Everything, I think it feels very like it at times. And the genius of Eliot (for me) is that I think he gets awfully close: certainly large portions of “Little Gidding” feel deeply perceptive and incredibly important to me, even (and perhaps especially) those images that I can’t entirely understand.
He goes on to weave together a lot of these images into the staggering fifth and final section of the poem, and I’ll deal with that next Friday. In the meantime, I hope you’ll look for a copy of it—just Googling “Little Gidding” will turn up copies aplenty, if you don’t have it in print handy—and give the poem a read. I’d love to talk it over with some of you in the comments, both here and on next Friday’s post. It’s one of my favorite passages of poetry, and one that I think yields a lot of messages depending on what symbols you choose to deal with, and how you tackle them, so the more voices that can chime on on any part of this, the merrier I will be.