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 that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
The next few lines of the poem take this oxymoronic strand in a new direction:
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year.
The purely physical reflection of light carries over into a ‘glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier’, a glow capable of arousing the ‘dumb spirit’. This is not an ordinary, earthly warmth but a ‘pentecostal fire’ which evokes the Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus after his Ascension. This fire comes ‘In the dark time of the year’. Just as we are caught between ‘pole and tropic’ in a strange ‘Midwinter spring’, so now is our spirit in some kind of interval between states: ‘Between melting and freezing/The soul's sap quivers'.
Eliot suggests that the winter is not dead -though there is no evidence to suggest that life is present- but is pregnant with life:
There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant.
The use of the Biblical word ‘covenant’ is quite conscious: Eliot is summoning up a host of Christian imagery deliberately. The zone which we inhabit in the poem is outside ‘ordinary’ time, not subject to worldly seasons but to a rhythm of life all its own:
Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Snow becomes not merely water vapour frozen into crystals but something much more deeply symbolic, a kind of blossom which isn’t ‘alive’ in the expected sense, ‘neither budding nor fading’, but which is a bloom nevertheless, outside ‘the scheme of generation’. This prompts the poet to ask where is the summer that must follow from this non-generational spring?
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in May time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
If the reader was to walk that way in a very ordinary and down-to-earth manner, ‘Taking the route you would be likely to take/From the place you would be likely to come from’, the standard or customary phenomenon of spring blossom would undoubtedly be seen at the correct time, with ‘voluptuary sweetness’ - in other words in a simple and expected abundance which no one could question. But Eliot’s poem is designed to make us question ordinary assumptions, the movements of observable nature, the expectations of our habitual lives. We expect to live a life in which we scarcely know ‘what we came for’, and similarly expect to be greeted at its end by death - but all is not what it seems:
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone.
Charles I came to the region in 1645 after his defeat, but the image of the broken king is more universal. Life leads us ‘behind the pig-sty to the dull façade/And the tombstone’. Often lives are empty of purpose or what we thought was a purpose turns out to be something quite different:
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
This meeting with an expected destiny can occur anywhere:
There are 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--
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.
Using the ringing tone of the word ‘England’, though, Eliot begins to twist the poem not into mere description of the approach of death for any mortal, but towards something more unexpected:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.
Now the poet is telling us what we ‘would have to’ do: he is not merely observing or even drawing together opposites, but hinting where these conjunctions take us. Returning to the image of fire, Eliot leaps into an explicitly religious framework:
You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
Our expectation or habit is to suppose or to assume that prayer is simply ‘an order of words, the conscious occupation/Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying’ but Eliot forcefully tells us this is not so using stark imagery:
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
How can these things be? We return to the impossibility of opposites juxtaposed:
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Thus Eliot ends the first section of ‘Little Gidding’ in the same suspended state in which he began it. Following sections seek to elucidate the meaning of it all and perhaps open up this strange supernatural state, ‘Not in the scheme of generation’, to others.