The first three of the Four Quartets provide deep connections between significant geography and significant biography for T.S. Eliot. In Burnt Norton, the site of a ruined manor house became the locus for a meditation on what might have been. His visit there with an old college flame, Emily Hale, prompted a poem of nostalgia and regret. East Coker, the Somerset village from which Eliot’s ancestor emigrated to the New World sparked the second poem’s more complex pondering on the nature of time and redemption, and Dry Salvages connected Eliot back to his boyhood on the Mississippi and the surges of the sea in Boston Harbor where he vacationed in his youth. Looking back, and looking forward, Dry Salvages is a bleak, yet hopeful meditation on the vanity of worldly pursuits and the hope of redemption.
Little Gidding completes the cycle. The tiny hamlet in Huntingdonshire that bears the name comprises no more than an old farm house, some outbuildings, and an ancient church. Like Burnt Norton, Eliot had no personal links with Little Gidding except a fascination for its history and a visit there in 1936. Like Burnt Norton, Little Gidding nurtures a brave but tragic history. The village was the home of a small Anglican religious community established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, two of his siblings, and their extended families. They lived together in the countryside following a round of prayer, work, and worship.
The community lived within the High Church tradition of the Church of England that developed after the reign of James I. His successor, the Catholic-minded King Charles I, visited the community three times, and his royal presence is referenced in Eliot’s poem. Putting the community into context, this was during the time of the “Caroline Divines” the theologians who sought to refresh the Catholic roots of Anglicanism. On the literary scene, George Herbert retired around this time to live as a country priest in Bemerton, Henry Vaughan was active as a metaphysical poet in Wales, and, just before, Thomas Traherne recorded his delightful insights.
Eliot’s own Anglo-Catholicism was formed by seventeenth-century Anglicanism, his thought inspired by the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, and poetry deeply influenced by the metaphysical poets. Consequently, Little Gidding as a location holds deep reserves of meaning for Eliot’s life and work. Although he had no personal family connection with the place, it held great significance for his life and spirituality.
Begun in 1941 when Eliot was sharing in the horrors of the blitz and serving as a fire warden in London, the poem remained unpublished until October 1942. During the intervening months, Eliot reshaped the poem, working on five drafts until he was satisfied.
The opening section recounts a pilgrimage to the church in Little Gidding where time seems suspended. “This is the nearest in place and time, Now and in England… here is the intersection of the timeless moment.” It is contemplation that makes the moment eternal for “you are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.” The second section of the poem is thought by many to be one of Eliot’s greatest poetic achievements. Mirroring Dante’s terza rima, the poet meets “a familiar compound ghost” as he walks the streets during the blitz. The meditation on time and the vanity of ambition echoes through the section before moving on to a Buddhist-like reflection on detachment from desire to mortal and ephemeral things. In the final sections, Eliot summarizes his thoughts from the earlier poems and concludes with both a challenge to continue spiritual exploration while resting in hopeful confidence that in the end “all shall be well.”
The Four Quartets is marked out now as the greatest Christian poem of the twentieth century. The intricate interweaving of the poet’s own biography, the tragic history of the twentieth century, Christian thought and spirituality combine to create a beautiful poetic tapestry that offers a poignant commentary on a tragic century. The Four Quartets can be read as Eliot’s extended sermon not only on all that is wrong with our society, but also on all that can be done about it.
Faced with the encroaching dark, Eliot despairs of solutions that are merely political, economic, or cultural. He witnessed through two world wars the results of empty ideologies, the vanity of human ambitions, and the violence at the heart of man. Instead of political solutions, Eliot offers a renewal of the Spirit. Little Gidding begins and ends with the imagery of pentecostal fire. Western society can only be renewed through a renewal of spirituality. It is not so much that our brains have calcified, but that our hearts are hardened. Eliot contends that only through prayer and penance can a doomed society be saved, that redemption occurs first on the individual level, and that then, as individuals are transformed and renewed, that same fire of life might spread like a wildfire and reclaim the world.
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