Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (IV)

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29 May 1940 was a frightening day for the men awaiting evacuation at Malo-les-Bains beach. Hundreds were killed while waiting for evacuation. Multiple rescue ships were destroyed by the Luftwaffe. “The destroyers pumped shells into the air, and disappeared behind 80ft high walls of spray thrown up by near misses,” Lieutenant Elliman recounted. “While these attacks were in progress, the Stukas were diving, zooming, screeching and wheeling over our heads like a flock of huge infernal seagulls.” The Junkers Ju-87, popularly known as the Stuka, was the most famous dive bomber of World War II. Descending at a 60-90° angle, at an excess of 350 mph, the Stuka was an exceptionally accurate weapon of destruction; but it was its chilling scream, the Jericho Trumpet, that people particularly remembered. The siren has been memorialized in countless World War II movies. Two months later the Luftwaffe would begin its aerial bombardment of England, the Battle of Britain. The Stuka did not participate very long in the eight-month long campaign—it was too vulnerable to attack from Hurricanes and Spitfires—yet it remained imprinted on British consciousness. Perhaps T. S. Eliot witnessed a Stuka attack and heard its banshee wail of death. More likely, he saw it in action in a newsreel.

Fourth Movement

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 or pyre— / To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Eliot surprisingly invokes the German dive bomber as an image of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Earlier in the poem he refers to “the dark dove with the flickering tongue” disappearing into the horizon after a night of devastation. In the fourth movement the reference to the Stuka becomes clear. As the Stuka swept down upon its victims as the bearer of death, so the Spirit comes down upon the disciples as the bearer of life. A dove is hardly a bird to be feared. We do not hear not the piercing screech of a predator but only the sound of the beating of wings (note the hard consonants in the first verse). The light is blinding, the flame terrifying. Eliot envisions a Pentecost we do not find explicitly described in the book of Acts. Here is theophany and confla­gration. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). The Spirit envelops the Apostles, confronting them and us with an inescapable choice: to be either purified or destroyed by the divine Fire. We are created by God for deifying union with God. To this end Christ has poured out his Holy Spirit. To reject this destiny leads only to despair and misery.

St Gregory the Theologian speaks of two fires in his Homily on Baptism—the purgative fire that is Christ himself and the infernal fire reserved for those imprisoned in self:

One light alone let us flee, the offspring of the cruel fire. Let us not walk in the light of our fire and by the flame which we have kindled. For I know also a purifying fire, which Christ came to cast upon the earth. For he is himself called a fire in an anagogical sense. This consumes matter and evil habits, and Christ wants to kindle it swiftly, for he desires that we do good quickly, since he even gives us burning coals as a help. I know also a fire that does not purify but indeed punishes: either the fire of Sodom, which the Lord rains down on all sinners mixed with brimstone and tempest; or that prepared for the devil and his angels; or that which goes forth before the face of the Lord and burns up his enemies all around; and what is even more fearful than these, that which does not rest and is deployed with the worm, which is not extinguished but remains forever for the wicked. For all these fires belong to the destroying power, unless some prefer even here to understand this fire as showing more love to humankind, in a way worthy of the punisher. (Or. 40.36)

Two different fires or one fire, differently received and experienced? The Theologian is circum­spect. His last sentence undoubtedly refers to the universalist views of St Gregory of Nyssa. Punishment that does not redeem, that does not convert and purify and liberate, that does not make all things well, is unworthy of the God declared by the gospel. Recall the poet’s invocation of Julian of Norwich in the third movement: “All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.”

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.

Each of us is cloaked in a shirt of flame. We may debate why and how this is so, but all that is important is the fiery garment we cannot remove. We may anesthetize ourselves to the pain but we cannot extinguish it. It is a given of our existence. Humanity suffers, the widows who lose their husbands to the sea suffer, the soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk suffer, our loved ones suffer, we suffer. We have encountered this torment throughout the Quartets. Finally the poet names its author—the divine Creator, he whom St John of the Cross addresses as “the living flame of love.” Love–the confession appears to contradict the evil and horrors that we endure, the evils and horrors that we ourselves commit. 20,000 civilians were killed in London during the Blitz, 40,000 across England. Tens of thousands were seriously injured. Hundreds of thousands left homeless. The poet knew this massive suffering first-hand, yet still he names Love as the fundamental reality of our lives. How do we move through the torment to know this God of Love?

The fourth movement is profitably read in conjunction with George MacDonald’s unspoken sermon “The Consuming Fire,” not because it informed Eliot’s own experience (as far as I know, he never read MacDonald), but because it illuminates the poem’s confession “all shall be well.” Pyre or pyre, fire or fire—if Love is the author of these fires, how do we understand the work of Love in both?

For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected–not in itself, but in the object. As it was love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring. There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.

Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.

And our God is a consuming fire.

Love wills the good of the beloved and cannot be satisfied with any less than her perfection in Love, even if it entails the suffering of the beloved.

He will have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.

But what if we defy the purifying fire? Does Love cease to be Love. Surely not! But perhaps our resistance to God may become within us an inferno of hatred and animosity. How then can hell be made well?

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning. But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it. Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable. Our God is a consuming fire. He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.

If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him–making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end–for the soul has no weapons wherewith to destroy herself–with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing to make life good;–then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope.

MacDonald denies the possibility that Love can be defeated. The Stuka does not have the last word. Even in the depths of perdition, there is the Spirit poured out for our salvation. We may not presume upon rescue, for the presumption only reinforces the damnation that we choose. Yet Love remains Love. It will have its way with us, one way or another.

T. S. Eliot is not interested in providing a theodicy of evil. Theodicies do not help. They do not assuage our torment, whether inflicted by the evil of man or the dark passions we cultivate within our souls. There can be only repentance for Love, “to be redeemed from fire by fire.”

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5 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (IV)

  1. pvcann says:

    The best, love Eliot’s work

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The way Eliot’s exploration of fire develops in Little Gidding is, for me, probably the most interesting part of the Quartets as a whole. Though his imagery is constantly oscillating, I see a profound connection building from Julian of Norwich’s ‘all shall be well’ in III, ‘redeemed from fire by fire’ in IV, into the culmination that echoes the eschatological/cosmic burning bush imagery ‘when the fire and the rose are one’ V.

    His use of Bergson’s notions of duration and eternity give shape to what I think is one of the most profound poetic meditations on the scope and meaning of history and its soteriological and eschatological endpoint.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    I wouldn’t be so certain that TSE hadn’t read MacDonald. In fact, I think it rather likely that he had. Anyway there is some literary scholarship that supposes Eliot might have and tries to uncover MacDonald’s influence in Eliot’s later poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

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