I am preparing a literature class for my eldest daughter's upcoming high school year. Planning to call the class "T.S. Eliot and Christian Literature." So we're starting with Eliot, and I have been making notes. I just finished re-reading The Four Quartets today with "Little Gidding," and it seemed to me imperative that I should write a post to say--read this poem. Or re-read it. If you have read it before so many times that you think you have it memorized, go, pick it up, and read it again. And by the way, pick it up and read it from a physical book, not merely on-line. If you have never read it read it for the first time. In fact, read it again and again, until you have it nearly memorized. Then put it away for a while and come back and read it again years later. It will repay you, every single time.
I was nearly overwhelmed this time through by the power of this particular poem, beyond even the power of any of the other three in the group.
Eliot specializes in the way of negation, and in "The Dry Salvages" (for example), itself a very great poem, there is that sense of negation almost to the point of depressing the spirits. In "Little Gidding" he transcends anything remotely akin to depression and turns negation into hope.
If you read this poem repeatedly, certain phrases in it will, like phrases of Shakespeare, become part of the furniture of your mind. Like the liturgy or the Bible (in the King James English, of course), they will be part of you--a gift from the past to the present and, if you teach the poem to others, from the present to the future. "Midwinter spring is its own season." "What the dead had no speech for, when living,/They can tell you, being dead. The communication/Of the dead is tongued with fire..." "...things ill done and done to others' harm//Which once you took for exercise of virtue." "...the purification of the motive in the ground of our beseeching." "We only live, only suspire/Consumeed by either fire or fire."
But the greatest comes at the end. And let me leave you with this, as lovers of your country and, some of you, lovers from afar of the England that once was. And then go, sit somewhere quietly, and read the poem all the way through.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.