Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (III/2)

Sin is Behovely, but / All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.

When I read these lines last May, I knew that I had to stop blogging on Little Gidding and read the Showings of Julian of Norwich. It took me a few months to get started on it, but I finally made my way through Julian’s famous work in mystical theology and blogged on it last October. My reading confirmed what the sentence seems to say: Julian is convinced God will accomplish his good purposes for his creation, whatever the obstacles (“All Shall be Well …“). I am now ready to return to T. S. Eliot’s concluding poem of The Four Quartets.

In the lines preceding the quotation from Julian, Eliot analyzes the theme of attachment and detachment: if we are to become persons capable of “love beyond desire,” then we must practice an ascetical detachment “from self and from things and from persons.” The sudden invocation of Julian’s words of eschatological hope therefore comes as a surprise. Why introduce the Anchoress at this point? Perhaps because his visit to Little Gidding has brought to mind  the men and women who lived, prayed, suffered, and died during the English Civil War.

If I think, again, of this place, / And of people, not wholly commendable, / Of no immediate kin or kindness, / But of some peculiar genius, / All touched by a common genius, / United in the strife which divided them; / 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? / 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. / 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 all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.

If Eliot had lived during the English Civil War of the 17th century, he no doubt would have sided with the Royalist cause. He certainly had little sympathy for Puritanism as a religious and political movement. He remembers the history of this tragic period, not to re-fight the war nor rehearse old grievances nor advocate revolution–that would only deepen the nation’s slavery to violence and hatred. He remembers, rather, in order to purify memory and “become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.” In the measure of detachment that he has achieved, the poet reviews the past and sees that in their loyalty to their respective causes, Cavalier and Roundhead have been “folded in a single party.” We may now receive from them “a symbol perfected in death.” The poet’s act of recollection is bracketed by Julian’s invocation of the redemptive providence of God. John Booty elaborates:

Eliot, detached from servitude to past or future, perceives the underlying unity among those who have been in opposition in the civil wars of the seventeenth century and always. Opposites are united by the harmony of underlying intentions, the pursuit of holiness, the quest for love, the endless struggle for spiritual values—such idealistic goals as always seem to end in defeat. Laudians and Puritans in the seventeenth century, both pursuing holiness although otherwise opposed, labored, as those like them labor now, with the conviction eloquently expressed by Dame Julian of Norwich in her fourteenth century Showings, “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” (Meditating on Four Quartets, pp. 52-53)

Neither Julian nor Eliot are sentimentalists. Julian witnessed the plague that took the lives of thousands; Eliot the devastation wreaked by the German Luftwaffe. Their faith in the omnipotent Love of God is hard-won, flowing from the painful struggle of repentance and prayer, “By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.”

(Go to next meditation)

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17 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (III/2)

  1. I got around to reading Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson last week. The one that the Pope keeps advising people to read. Your post reminds me of the end of the book. As all of the enemies of Christ fire upon the Church at the end of the book, the priest keeps praying the liturgy and says “Come, Lord Jesus, come”.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    I wonder how that quotation from Booty would look transposed into the key of Twentieth Century Europe. I find it platitudinous, at best. I don’t think he understands — at least not that I can see in that quotation — what TSE was up to or what Julian said about evil, sin, and suffering.

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    • I haven’t read Booty on Eliot, so I am not inclined to say whether or not he understands Eliot or Julian here, but I don’t think he is spinning platitudes in the quote Fr. Kimel has supplied so much as what he is arguing is picking up on something that I think Eliot is deliberately softening through the scope of memory. Memory is the scope that moves us through the event and its passions toward a detached love where the violence and vicissitudes of history are, in Julian’s words ‘behovely’.

      Eliot, aside from his explicit reference to l’entre deux guerres in East Coker IV’ there is nothing of either the First or Second World Wars. The First lingers so large in Eliot’s early poetry, but here in Little Gidding he picks up on the ghastly realities wars in the more distant past can begin with attachment (which is at the root of violence) but drives to detachment (which is the telos and justification of violence). In this sense I see Eliot, and Julian employing a pedagogy of all sin and violence and history that can only be defended in light of an eschaton where all will be well. Eliot’s historical perspective might take on a liminal appearance, but I think it is to attain the versimilitude of the kind of detachment that he might not have been able to achieve in works like The Hollow Men or The Wasteland where he was dealing with the jarring proximity of the wars of his own time.

      The more I think about how Eliot is using Julian here, the more scandalous I think it is. The eschatological vision he gives can only be perfected in death and our experience of the catastrophic warp and woof of history.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I’m really just wondering how that quotation would look if you swapped out “Laudians and Puritans” for “National Socialism and Stalinism.” I think Booty invites us to do just that with “and always” and “as those like them labor now.” The whole passage is somewhat obscure to me.

        Eliot is clearly appropriating Julian in some way, but he can’t be ascribing to her the kind of detachment-through-memory or distance that I think you’re suggesting. That is not at all what she says, and she wouldn’t say such a thing, because such a long view of history and such a conception of memory is a very modern sentiment and idea, and not something I would say was available to Julian.

        I’m a little confused, but I’ll await further meditations.

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        • Jonathan, if it helps at all. The Quartets were composed from 1939-41, so Eliot might not have been aware of the magnitude of German or Russian evils.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          There’s a great deal in this long stanza I simply do not yet understand. What is the “constitution of silence”? Death? What is the “symbol perfected by death”? The Cross, which both sides in the conflict proclaimed? I was tempted to delay publication of this short meditation until I had achieved a bit more insight regarding the third movement, but that might have delayed me for weeks or months. So I hit the “publish” button and tossed it into your court. 🙂

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, I found this long stanza difficult to write about. I could not find the link between the 17th century Civil War and the war Eliot himself was experiencing. The two wars seem so different as to make the imaginative move from the former to the latter impossible, at least for me. Booty seems to have had the same problem. The more I tried to understand the stanza in light of WWII, the more artificial it felt.

      How do you read this stanza?

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      • Jonathan says:

        It’s tough. The whole poem is immeasurably complex. I’ve been thinking about the Quartets for fifteen years and there’s still so much I don’t understand about them. But I have some thoughts that I’ll share later today if I get a chance.

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  3. Pingback: Four Quartets over at Eclectic Orthodoxy – ST. JUDE'S TAVERN

  4. Jonathan,

    Eliot is clearly appropriating Julian in some way, but he can’t be ascribing to her the kind of detachment-through-memory or distance that I think you’re suggesting. That is not at all what she says, and she wouldn’t say such a thing, because such a long view of history and such a conception of memory is a very modern sentiment and idea, and not something I would say was available to Julian.

    I think your point is well taken. However, I am not so sure that Eliot is ascribing anything to Julian, so much as he is taking up her ‘all shall be well’ and weaving it into his own schematic of memory, attachment/detachment, and (in IV) fiery purgation. I can’t remember where (maybe youtube) I was listening to a lecture on Four Quartets, where the lecturer brought up an interesting point that Eliot is not using metaphors, but uninterpreted images for the sake of allusion not so much as an indication of what he means as the author, but as an invitation for the reader to do the hard work of interpretation. So, in a sense I think that the labyrinthine nature of the poem opens up the possibility for a participatory reading that is polyvalent. This might rule out some readings that clearly run contrary to the thrust of the poem itself, but in general I think that there are probably several ways in which his images and references (historical/contemporary/literary/religious) can be reasonably interpreted.

    So, I think that he is using time in an oscillating, non-linear fashion where he can view both the event (in this case the English Civil War) and the eschatological end where all is well in the same timeless moment. All wars and sin are behovely because they, like the image of the rose he unfolds throughout the poem are transfigured (III) by fire (IV) so that the in the end the fire and the rose are one (V). This brings us back to the first movement in Burnt Norton I where the thrush speaks of the roses of our first world (perhaps Eden). One of the major threads of the poem, I believe, is woven through with the threads of memory, where all time – past and future are dwell in an eternal present and are accessible by memory (even the future is a product of memory in the eternal moment). Along with this the first line in East Coker I says , ‘in my beginning is my end’, and here I see the echoes of the first and the last Eden where the fire and rose are united in a vindication of all of history’s catastrophes.

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  5. Jonathan says:

    “History is now and England”

    So the poet will say at the end of the first stanza of the last part of this Quartet. I wonder if this statement does not transcend historical consciousness entirely, and if such transcendence is not what the poet is working towards in Little Gidding. TSE spent his life haunted by history, you could say. It completely dominated his youthful period, so that when he felt the history of Western civilization washing away in a torrent of blood, it drove him almost insane. But by the time TSE was working on the culmination of his poetic career (he knew that is what the Quartets would be as he wrote them), in the early stages of the Second World War (which would prove, though TSE couldn’t know this yet, vastly more destructive than the Great War), was TSE still haunted by history in the same way as when he wrote that greatest of pastiche poems, The Waste Land? I do not think he was. Or he wouldn’t be, after the Quartets. These poems are the poet’s farewell to a historical burden that made less and less sense, I would imagine, as his Christian faith deepened, as I believe it did over the course of the latter part of his life. In the last of the Quartets, TSE summons the shades and echoes of all his literary masters, from Dante to Milton to Mallarmé, to pay them homage and bid them adieu.

    The second stanza of the third movement of Little Gidding turns on a question: “Why should we celebrate / These dead men more than the dying?” It is the only interrogative in the stanza, and it comes almost exactly in the middle. What kind of question is it? Who is the subject (we), and what are the implications of, and answers to, the question?

    The first thing I note is the modal verb, “should.” He does not say that “we” do in fact celebrate the dead more than the dying (which latter group I take to mean the casualties of the current war). So I don’t think this is a rhetorical question, but a genuine inquiry whether we ought, in fact, to celebrate some loss over some other. But supposing the implication is that we do, in fact, celebrate the long dead over the contemporary dying, those who appear to have died for some nobler or holier cause than the apparently causeless hatred and competition of the moment. Who, then, is “we”? I doubt this “we” could be a collective, societal “we,” because few people in England in 1941 really did venerate, say, Milton (who is alluded to in the stanza, the one who died “blind and quiet”) more than they honored and mourned the British soldiers and civilians who were dying in the fight against Hitler. The “we” here is the poet speaking to himself, which is a common and essential feature of the meditative, lyric tradition. TSE, on this reading of the “we,” is arraigning himself for his own idolization of history. It is a way of viewing the world which he feels a need to transcend, or he will not be able to meet the evil of the present. “History is now and England.”

    The poet supplies two answers to his question, but they are both negations. If he, or we, really were to celebrate the dead more than the dying, we can only say what that celebration would not be. From here, the stanza moves into a series of statements about death, the great leveler and, it seems, the only path to salvation, to some sort of transcendence of the endless sin and suffering that history adds up to. I take “the ground of our beseeching” to be the ground in which we are buried. It is only there that our “motive” is purified. One implication of these statements is that the causes and concerns of the dead at Little Gidding are quite definitively obsolete. Now, this next part goes unspoken in the poem, but it seems to be part of the logic of the poet’s thought, as far as I can discern it or reduplicate it for myself: If their causes are obsolete, were they in fact meaningless, and meaningless the deaths of those historically distant men? To this implied second interrogative, I think there is an explicit answer, by way of quotation: All shall be well. It is an unsettling answer, as we’ve noted. In a sense, yes, their deaths, or their struggle, is meaningless, because they add up to one ultimate end. That historical loss and suffering and struggle is, in any case, meaningless to the poet. But this is a good thing, or at least potentially, because it will allow him to see that “History is now and England,” or in other words to come again to present reality and know it for the first time.

    People describe TSE as a sort of reactionary arch-conservative, but I don’t think this makes much sense. Few people have been more aware of just how lost the past is to us. The question is how, on the far side of the loss, there is paradoxically and against all reasonable expectation, recovery, restoration. I think the Quartets end as a poem of hope, of expectation — expecto resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi — and they state paradoxically and elegiacally that expectation or hope is the “the use of memory.”

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    • I love your reflection here Jonathan, there’s plenty to interact with for days. But, I’ll limit this remark to one point you raise:

      To this implied second interrogative, I think there is an explicit answer, by way of quotation: All shall be well. It is an unsettling answer, as we’ve noted. In a sense, yes, their deaths, or their struggle, is meaningless, because they add up to one ultimate end. That historical loss and suffering and struggle is, in any case, meaningless to the poet. But this is a good thing, or at least potentially, because it will allow him to see that “History is now and England,” or in other words to come again to present reality and know it for the first time.

      This is a jarring analysis and it makes me wonder about the nature of detachment and the degree to which it might be a negative posture in the present. How can we remain empathetic to the architecture of pain that this world is built upon if we are removed from it? This isn’t to say that the final hope that ‘all shall be well’ is mawkish sentiment in se, but it might be if we cannot enter into the death and struggle of the English Civil War (or any for that matter) with some amount of sympathy. It makes me think of Donne:

      Any man’s death diminishes me,
      Because I am involved in mankind,
      And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
      It tolls for thee.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I know, it’s a concern. But I think we have to be attentive to the goals and motivations of the poem in question, and not take it as a universal prescription for detachment or “the use of memory.” I read the Quartets as the poet’s extended argument, and at last rapprochement, with himself and the personal and philosophical concerns that have taken up his life. This is one of the venerable uses of poetry. I don’t think we would be just in demanding of a poem or any other art that it serve to further empathy. Sometimes art might do that, but it’s far from the only or the highest purpose of art.

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        • My question was more of a reflection outside the poem itself. But, I would argue that Eliot’s appropriation of Henri Bergson’s metaphysics (especially of time) requires us to deal with the question of empathy, because this undergirds so much of Bergson’s and I would argue Eliot’s epistemology. What puzzles me, after so many readings is how he manages to move so effortlessly between attachment and detachment, the visceral and the eternal. But to your point – alongside maybe Keats no other poet (that I have read at least) offers such a sweeping scope of what it means to be a poet.

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          • Jonathan says:

            I think he’s trying to see eternity in a grain of sand — to steal from another poet. I don’t think the visceral/tangible/present is opposed to the eternal in the Quartets. Anyway he’s trying to bring them together — History is now and England. So, yeah, exactly, there’s this really powerful commingling of attachment and detachment, of detail and abstraction.

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  6. Jonathan says:

    And by the way, folks, there is a very interesting comparison to be made between TSE in the Quartets, the modern poet of All Shall Be Well, and his contemporary Tolkien, the modern poet of The Long Defeat.

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