A single theme, three stanzas, each containing four couplets, mildly irregular meter. The irregular meter must be intentional. A poet as accomplished as T. S. Eliot could easily have conformed the lyrics to the traditional form. Perhaps his choice tells us something about his chosen theme—death. The rhyme scheme conveys predictability (aabbccdd), but the rhythmical deviations disrupt our expectations. Death is certain, yet it always surprises and disturbs.
The lyrics examine death under a different aspect—the dissolution of life into the foundational constituents of the cosmos. The Presocratic philosophers analyzed reality in terms of the elements of air, earth, water, and fire. The interplay of these elements constitute the world and explain multiplicity and change. “Fire lives in the death of earth, air in the death of fire, water in the death of air, and earth in the death of water,” states Heraclitus. Heck if I know what this means, but note the constant of death. Eliot was undoubtedly acquainted with this text (see “Heraclitean Elements“). Commentators on The Four Quartets observe that each poem is devoted to one of the four elements. Helen Gardner sketches it out this way:
The ‘thematic material’ of the poem is not an idea or a myth, but partly certain common symbols. The basic symbols are the four elements, taken as the material of mortal life, and another way of describing Four Quarters and a less misleading one, would be to say that ‘Burnt Norton’ is a poem about air, on which whispers are borne, intangible itself, but the medium of communication; ‘East Coker’ is a poem about earth, the dust of which we are made and into which we shall return; it tells of ‘dung and death’, and the sickness of the flesh; ‘The Dry Salvages’ is a poem about water, which some Greek thinkers thought was the primitive material out of which the world arose, and which man has always thought of as surrounding and embracing the land, limiting the land and encroaching on it, itself illimitable; ‘Little Gidding’ is a poem about fire, the purest of the elements, by which some have thought the world would end, fire which consumes and purifies. We could say that the whole poem is about the four elements whose mysterious union makes life, pointing out that in each of the separate poems all four are present; and perhaps adding that some have thought that there is a fifth element, unnamed but latent in all things: the quintessence, the true principle of life, and that this unnamed principle is the subject of the whole poem. (The Art of T. S. Eliot, pp. 44-45)
In the Second Movement of “Little Gidding,” the poet explicitly comments upon the four elements.
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. / Dust inbreathed was a house— / The walls, the wainscot and the mouse. / The death of hope and despair, / This is the death of air.
I’m sure this stanza is open to different readings, but knowing that Eliot served as an air raid warden in London during the Blitz encourages me to envision the poet walking through his assigned district after a bombing raid. The air is filled with the ash and dust of destroyed buildings. He looks around and sees the wreckage of English culture. We are what we build. The structures we construct not only protect us from the elements but embody our wisdom and dreams. “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” remarked Winston Churchill. Who are we, what will become of us, when we have no homes in which to dwell?
In “Burnt Norton” we visited an Edenic rose garden. Now all that is left of the roses are the ashes that have settled on an old man’s sleeve. In “East Coker” the poet spoke of the rising and falling of houses and of the need for the wind to “shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots”; but now he finds himself breathing in “the death of hope and despair.” Kenneth Tanner suggests that this first stanza bespeaks the emotional death of the human being—“cognitive impotence, emotional dissonance, volitional habitude, and intuitive paralysis” (Redeeming Time, p. 151).
There are flood and drouth / Over the eyes and in the mouth, / Dead water and dead sand / Contending for the upper hand. / The parched eviscerate soil / Gapes at the vanity of toil, / Laughs without mirth. / This is the death of earth.
The poet gazes further and sees twin calamities, both rendering the world uninhabitable. In “Dry Salvages” Eliot recalled the flooding power of the Mississippi River, the brown god, a “reminder / Of what men choose to forget.” But here, perhaps, he is thinking of the primaeval flood in which God unleashed the forces of chaos—“on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Gen 7:11)—destroying wicked humanity and all its works. But even more terrifying, though, is the threat of a world deprived completely of water and thus unable to sustain life in any form, “dead water and dead sand,” a desert planet—physical death.
In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis tells the story of Digory and Polly, who by the power of magic rings transport themselves to a dead world under a dying red sun. The city is in ruins. The river is dried up. There are no signs of life, not even the sounds of birds or insects. “A dead, cold, empty silence” fills the air. “You couldn’t imagine anything growing in it.” They later learn that the name of the city is Charn. Two sisters once fought a long and bloody civil war for the crown. The loser of this war, Jadis, refused to surrender and instead cast a terrible spell, the Deplorable Word. By it all life on the planet was extinguished, spell-caster excepted. Jadis later blamed her sister for forcing her to invoke the Deplorable Word: “Her greed has destroyed the whole world!”
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.
In the First Movement we knelt down in prayer in the chapel of Little Gidding, hoping to enter into the silence that is God. But now the poet foresees eschatological judgment upon Western civilization’s abandonment of the divine sacrifice that created it, judgment upon our refusal to embrace the ascetical sacrifice and detachment necessary for union with the Eternal. We have brought upon ourselves our spiritual death. Seventy-five years later, Eliot’s prophecy appears to be right on schedule. Perhaps apocalyptic prophesies are always on schedule.
But why are water and fire here coupled? Why not devote a stanza to each? I have wrestled with this question for a week. None of my commentaries proved helpful. But once Noah’s flood came to mind, a passage from the Second Epistle of Peter soon followed:
They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. (2 Peter 3:4-7)
As water was an instrument of divine judgment in the prehistory of mankind, so fire will be an instrument of judgment at the end of history. Yet this judgment by fire may also hint of eschatological rebirth. Recall these lines from “East Coker”:
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
As the waters of baptism effect death and resurrection, so the fire of grace may purge, purify, and make new. “I baptize you with water,” declared St John the Baptist; “but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).