Eliot started writing 'Little Gidding' while recovering from an illness, completing the first draft in July 1941. But he was unhappy with it, considering that the pressure of the air raids on London, had made him write it too quickly, and he set the poem aside, not returning to it until August 1942. He finished it in September and published it in October’s New English Weekly, in which he had also first published the second and third of the Four Quartets, which 'Little Gidding' was intended to conclude.
In the poem’s second section, Eliot switches the emphasis from purgation and Pentecostal fire, using some more personal imagery from his time as an Air Raid Warden during the London Blitz. The short lines and simple rhythm attempt to drum in a fact seldom confronted by many, which is that Life lacks any distinct meaning:
Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
But the oxymoronic flavour of the first section soon returns:
Dust inbreathed was a house-
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.
There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.
Both hope and despair ‘die’; the images of flood and ‘drouth’ as well as the dead water and sand are all ‘Contending for the upper hand’. Seemingly dead things are personified only to die ‘without mirth’:
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.
Is there any real trace of hope in this scenario in which the four traditional elements of earth, air, wind and fire all apparently perishing? In the next line, Eliot uses the word ‘succeed’ which gives a brief flash of positivity before we realise that he means the other definition of the word - ’ following after’:
Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire.
Are the water and fire deriding the sacrifice or the fact that we ‘denied’ it? Whatever their personified intention, it seems that they are merely concluding a process of ‘rot’ and forgetting which we began. The foundations are already ‘marred’ before their rotting of them begins; the overview is grim.
But again using the juxtaposition of opposites, mixed with religious imagery, Eliot tells us of a meeting he has had:
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
This stranger is both ‘loitering and hurried’; his progress toward the narrator is guided by the wind but also ‘unresisting’. By now, as readers, we have been surrounded by vast emptiness and crave for some kind of fulfilment - our hopes are placed in this mysterious new arrival. And indeed, we do find in this newcomer the kind of figure that appears in many places in fiction: the old man who will enlighten us as to truth and its purposes:
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
For Eliot,this figure is a ‘compound’ of many teachers, 'intimate and unidentifiable'. Eliot, as the narrator in the poem, takes on the form of a character within a piece of fiction, there and not there, and greets the ‘master’:
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another's voice cry: "What! are you here?"
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other--
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
The oxymoron reappears: whereas strangeness might be expected to produce misunderstanding, here it is the opposite:
And so, compliant to the common wind,
Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
Standardly, we should expect such a figure to provide us with answers, or at least point us in the right direction. Such archetypal characters, even in poetry, exist to direct our attention to the key point, away from distractions which might trap us in endlessly recurring cycles which lack meaning. And so it is here: Eliot’s conglomerate ‘master’ indicates to him the folly of looking at Life in various conventional and expected ways, and gets to the heart of the matter:
I am not eager to rehearse
My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
The ghost, having appeared ‘Between two worlds’, finds himself free to communicate to Eliot the final purpose and effort of poetry and thus enable his pupil to achieve the culmination of his life’s work:
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
He points out the extremes of reaction which any human being, approaching an end to life may feel in response to what seems to be an inevitable meaninglesness, as well as an impotence, and finally a pointless re-living of what a person has said and done in life:
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
But the impact of his final words turns us at last to where truth lies:
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
Having fulfilled his function, and in common with figures of his kind, he disappears. His going is both dark and yet accompanied by a vestige of something beyond darkness:
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.
So the second section of ‘Little Giddings’ comes to a close: the old ghost has done his job. To reach truth, we are to travel through a ‘refining fire’ in which we ‘must move in measure, like a dancer’.
Will the third part of the poem introduce us to this fiery dance?
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