'Little Gidding' and History


Eliot continues the theme of reconciliation or transcendence of opposites introduced in the first two sections of Little Gidding in the poem’s third section. But whereas we have in the beginning only observed the oxymoronic juxtapositions of images, and then, in the following section, been told where they point by the ‘ghost’ of a ‘master’, in this section Eliot takes a didactic tone and is more explicit, guiding us through an argument:

There are three conditions which often look alike

Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:

Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment

From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference

Which resembles the others as death resembles life,

Being between two lives - unflowering, between

The live and the dead nettle.

If the ordinary and accepted pattern of human society is a ‘hedgerow’, then in it these three stages of spiritual development ‘flourish’ together: attachment to material and social existence, detachment from them, and an in-between state. This in-between condition is something which the earlier sections of the poem has primed us to be watchful for, a condition ‘not in time's covenant’. Repeated oxymorons lead the reader to seek for the reconciliation of opposites, a third level which somehow transcends each: ‘neither budding nor fading,/Not in the scheme of generation.’ For Eliot, at least in this poem, this was one of the functions of memory, freeing us from the present moment and from the past and future:

This is the use of memory:

For liberation - not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

From the future as well as the past.

Being at the time an Air Raid Warden in the middle of Britain’s battle for survival during the Second World War, Eliot understandably uses ‘love of a country' as an example:

Thus, love of a country

Begins as an attachment to our own field of action

And comes to find that action of little importance

Though never indifferent.

This love proceeds through the attachment phase, to the detachment which follows, but doesn’t reach the indifferent level. What then are we to make of this ‘indifferent’ stage, ‘Which resembles the others as death resembles life,/Being between two lives’? Is it something Eliot is suggesting that we try to attain?

If so, he does not as yet make clear how this is to be done, only that the whole of History seems subject to the same sequence whereby attachment leads to detachment and then some kind of transfiguration:

History may be servitude,

History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

This leads to one of the biggest theological assertions in the poem: that Sin is somehow a duty or responsibility or has the characteristics of being inevitable. This statement, though, is immediately followed by the phrase from the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, which conversely asserts that, despite the prevalence of Sin, all will work out for the best:

Sin is Behovely, but

All shall be well, and

All manner of thing shall be well.

This is the master sentence of the poem, in a way: it is another oxymoron, positioning the apparent natural inevitability of Sin with the apparent inexorable resolution of everything, but with no explanation as to how. Taking us forward, Eliot thinks of the community of Little Gidding, which held together a form of ‘High Church’ worship based on the Book of Common Prayer in the 17th century. Eliot repeats the word ‘genius’ in its specific original sense of a spirit attendant on a person (which gave rise to a sense ‘a person's characteristic disposition’ and then ‘a person's natural ability’, and ‘exceptional natural ability’) to describe that unified belief:

If I think, again, of this place,

And of people, not wholly commendable,

Of not immediate kin or kindness,

But of some peculiar genius,

All touched by a common genius,

United in the strife which divided them;

Eliot, like us, is seeking that unification of opposites - a group not joined together by family ties, who nevertheless remained of a common purpose, ‘United in the strife which divided them’. His mind then journeys through several different images, each to do with things that were opposed at the time:

If I think of a king at nightfall,

Of three men, and more, on the scaffold

And a few who died forgotten

In other places, here and abroad,

And of one who died blind and quiet,

Why should we celebrate

These dead men more than the dying?

The High Church Anglicanism of Charles I (‘the king at nightfall’) is contrasted with the Puritan strand of Milton (‘one who died blind and quiet’), but the thought seems incomplete before Eliot, perhaps stirred by the imagery of war he is seeing around him at the time of the poem’s writing, questions it: ‘Why should we celebrate/These dead men more than the dying?’ An examination of history, apparently, does not lead to the reconciliation of opposites that we are looking for, which was symbolised in the joining of the White Rose of York with the Red Rose of Lancaster in the Tudor Rose:

It is not to ring the bell backward

Nor is it an incantation

To summon the spectre of a Rose.

We cannot revive old factions

We cannot restore old policies

Or follow an antique drum.

These men, and those who opposed them

And those whom they opposed

Accept the constitution of silence

And are folded in a single party.

The ‘constitution of silence’ in this case being death, which is itself a perfect kind of reconciliation:

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate

We have taken from the defeated

What they had to leave us - a symbol:

A symbol perfected in death.

And yet Eliot wants to go beyond the symbol. He again asserts the Julian of Norwich mystical statement, but this time suggests the mechanism through which that ‘wellness’ is achieved:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching.

How that ‘purification of the motive’ will be achieved will have to wait for the final two sections of the poem.

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