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'All Shall Be Well' - the Conclusion of 'Little Gidding'

As previously discussed, poetry lies at one end of a spectrum: poems are by definition highly precise, usually much shorter, concentrations of meanings and sounds, regulated and shaped by the gaps, holes, absences or vacuums both in sound and in meaning which create the pulse we know as rhythm. Whereas a writer can safely use prose to transmit broad meanings, exact and intense experiences tend to move towards poetry by their nature.

In Eliot’s case with Little Gidding, given his broad sweep of philosophy and his attempt to approach a meaning which embraces all of Life, it might be considered that prose would have been the better medium - but Eliot wants not only to communicate an idea but the experience of transcendence itself, and so uses poetry with its tiny vacuums or gaps which draw in our attention more completely and more deeply. Taking more care in selecting words with their differences in meaning is only part of it: the poet uses rhythm to bring on a conclusion forcefully. In the fourth section of Little Gidding, the rhythm grows more intense, even breathless, just as the religious imagery becomes more explicit and Pentecostal:

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Oxymoronic juxtaposition of opposites has become a charge towards one extreme or the other, Hellfire or Pentecostal flame, which resemble each other in their burning. But the source of both pains is again an unexpected opposite:

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

‘Suspire’ echoes ‘pyre’ and 'fire' but means breath rather than death: it is this cohesion of sound and meaning which form the ‘glue-like’ nature of poetry: a prose statement could say much the same thing, and even use images with beauty, but Eliot wants to do more than convey, he wants to re-create.

After this climactic crushing of religious images, sound, rhythm and meaning, in the denouement of the poem’s story Eliot slows things down again and elucidates what he has tried to do: we have come to the end of this poem (and indeed of the Four Quartets of which it is the final piece) and for us it is the beginning of a life beyond or outside the poem and its experience: ‘What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make and end is to make a beginning./The end is where we start from.’

Eliot points out the careful and considered poetic construction through which he has brought us to this end:

And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph.

‘Epitaph’ is, like all the words in the poem, selected with care: apart from meaning something by which a person, time, or event will be remembered, it has overtones of the final inscription on a tomb. We are warned that what we do next is important, in an echo of the ‘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’ which were mentioned earlier:

And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

Not that we are finished with juxtaposing opposites: Eliot hopes that he has sprung us out of the habitual way in which we think of Time and Life and Death as linear in nature:

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.

The ‘light’ brought by the poem is fading, but Eliot draws our attention back to the present moment of the specific physical location in which he began, with an expectation or a longing that what we will be left with (and he has used the collective ‘we’ throughout, but more particularly here at the end) is a renewed vision of where we began:

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.

Becoming more explicit still with Christian imagery, Eliot takes us back to the Garden of Eden:

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.

We are far removed in Time from the mythic state of that place, but, in an echo of the earlier phraseology of the Four Quartets, we should have learned by now that Time isn’t like that at all - ‘Quick now, here, now, always—‘ and that our primal innocence both can and will be restored in a union of opposites which we can scarcely imagine but which, it is to be hoped, the poem itself has permitted us to glimpse:

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 flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

Prose can attempt the direct transmission of a mystical experience occasionally, though in practice it is rare; poetry, by its nature, strives to do so more often. Eliot is, in Little Gidding, undertaking to reproduce a personal revelation using the tools of poetry and the images of conventional Christianity; it transformed his life and he desires it to do the same for us.

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