The Opening of 'Little Gidding'

’Little Gidding’ by T. S. Eliot is a long poem which merits detailed study. It is the culmination of Eliot’s poetry in many ways: a crowning culmination, in which many strands come together.

The poem opens in midwinter, at the winter solstice in Huntingdonshire; the sun is preparing to set over the water near the rebuilt chapel of Little Gidding, a seventeenth-century Anglican community. From the beginning, we have an oxymoronic approach in that opposing ideas are juxtaposed:

Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

‘Midwinter spring’, made up of an odd conjunction of terms, is set aside to be something separate; the unusual word ‘Sempiternal’, from Old French sempiternel or late Latin sempiternalis, from semper ‘always’ and aeternus ‘eternal’ is ‘sodden towards sundown’ - in other words, something eternal is somehow subjected to the weather in time. Time, though, is here ‘suspended’ between the opposites of ‘pole and tropic’.

Our expectations of the short day are challenged: it is not dark but ‘brightest, with frost and fire’; the sun is not subdued, but ‘flames the ice, on pond and ditches’. ‘Windless cold’ doesn’t produce a chilling effect but is rather ‘the heart’s heat’. The ‘watery mirror’ of puddles reflects the opposite element, a ‘glare that is blindness’.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold