Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (V/3)

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

The rose and the yew tree—they appear in Burnt Norton and reappear in the subsequent poems. I need to go back through the Quartets to better understand their significance, but that must wait for another year or perhaps another lifetime. We may recall, though, that Eliot always begins with concrete realities—with a kingfisher and a Chinese jar; with old houses, a tolling buoy, and the London Underground; with roses and yew trees. They are not free-floating, ahistorical symbols, though they may acquire symbolic significance in literary, cultural, and political history (and Eliot is happy to exploit this symbolism). Symbols, though, can too often become flat and two-dimensional. The particulars of Eliotean imagination (what Thomas Howard calls “cases-in-point”) are dense with meaning, as they must be if they are to be theophanic revelations of the God who is Love.

The rose blossoms in the Spring for a brief moment (though greenhouses now make blossomed roses available throughout the year). It is celebrated for its beauty, sensuality, and intoxicating fragrance. It is the “queen of flowers.” Lovers gives roses (or a single rose!) to their inamoratas. Children give roses to their mothers. Cleopatra filled her living quarters with roses to impress Marc Antony. In Elizabethan times rose petals were scattered along the path between the home of the bride and the church. In ancient Greek mythology the creation of the rose is attributed to Chloris, the goddess of flowers, and to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Christian tradition relates that roses originally grew in the Garden of Eden, acquiring their thorns only after the Fall. The Blessed Virgin Mary is commonly called “rose without thorns,” due to her purity. The Litany of Loreto bestows upon her the title “Rosa Mystica.” In the Paradiso of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice leads Dante to the Empyrean, where he beholds the company of the Blessed gathered in the figure of a snow-white rose. “There are really three roses in the set of poem,” Eliot wrote to Bonamy Dobrée; “the sensuous rose, the social-political rose (always spelled with a capital letter), and the spiritual rose; and the three have got to be in some way identified as one” (quoted by Kenneth Kramer, Redeeming Time, p. 42).

The yew tree is an evergreen that can live hundreds, even thousands, of years, its roots sinking deep into the earth. It was revered as sacred by the Druids. “They no doubt observed,” one writer explains, “the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration (drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground), and the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture.” British Christians baptized the yew into their faith. Its shoots were buried with the deceased and boughs displayed in church at Easter. The yew is commonly found today in England in churchyards and cemeteries.

Here at the conclusion of the Quartets, Eliot tells us that the rose and the yew enjoy “equal duration,” despite their marked difference in duration. The statement does not surprise, at least not for anyone who has read the preceding poems. Whether short- or long-lived, when apprehended within the still point of eternity rose and yew live but a moment yet may illumine all moments. With Nazi bombs falling daily, their independence and very existence threatened, the British were no doubt tempted to seek safe harbor in another place, another history, a mythological past or a heaven beyond tears and travail. But redemption must happen in time, if time is to redeemed. “Only through time time is conquered” (BN II). Our lives become meaningful when they are brought into dramatic coordination with the past and final future. In my beginning is my end; in my end, my beginning. We spend the entirety of our lives searching for that unity that will make sense of the whole and thus make whole. Detachment and purification of the most radical kind is necessary, yet in the mystery of grace, the deifying wholeness may only be given and received. We are epicletic beings. “Lord Jesus Christ,” we pray, “have mercy upon us.”

Meaningless events, enervating banality, horrific sufferings–is this not the experience of modernity? If happenings are to become history, we must seek the pattern, be comprehended in the “pattern of timeless moments.” Such is the occupation of the saint, Eliot told us in The Dry Salvages: “to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time.” Glenn Hughes elaborates:

Early in Burnt Norton we hear that “To be conscious is not to be in time” (BN II, 84), because each moment of conscious awareness is a moment in which mere time, mere duration, is transcended through the simultaneous participation of consciousness in the being of timelessness. Then in The Dry Salvages we find the phrase Voegelin has extracted, the concentrated formulation of conscious existence as “The point of intersection of the timeless / With time” (DS V 201-202), a formulation echoed later, in Little Gidding, where “intersection” is used in such a way as to emphasize that the timeless and spaceless divine presence is always experienced concretely by a personal consciousness in a specific time and place: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere. Never and always.” (LG I, 52-53). In other words, our home is the metaxy, and to realize that fact is to live in awareness of the fundamental paradoxes that characterize existence in the metaxy: the participation of consciousness in divine presence means that we are always both somewhere and nowhere; both situated in the flux of duration and in some way beyond time’s covenant, a “beyond” that can be represented, as the poet indicates, either by the word “never” or by the word “always.”

The Four Quartets are permeated by Eliot’s explorations of what we might call the logical paradoxes of existence in the metaxy, not merely as pertaining to the nature of consciousness, but to our vision of reality as a whole. Our experiences of divine transcendence, especially in rare moments of graced ecstasy or religious discipline, allows us to apprehend the divine stillness that grounds the patterned movement of all things–what Eliot calls “the dance”–which is also the divine emptiness that grounds all temporal and spatial substantiality. In such moments, which can then inform our lives through remembrance, we apprehend both the unity and the distinctness of the immanent and transcendent, their paradoxical interpenetration, along with our paradoxical involvement in that interpenetration, which language must strain to evoke. (“A Pattern of Timeless Moments,” II)

And so we find ourselves back in the out-of-the-way chapel of Little Gidding, drawn by the summons of Love. “History is now and England.” Why England? Because England has become Eliot’s home, and “home is where one starts from” (EC V). There is no need to journey to a different place. We begin where we are. In each place and every place the still point may grasp and transfigure us. Thus John Booty:

We cannot understand or redeem time unless we are conscious of the kairoi, or significant times, through history. Chronological time, ordinary history, is but a string of meaningless events unless transformed into saving history. And such holy history is perceived first at the still point where eternity intersects time, the timeless moments, annunciations born of the one Annunciation. This holy history is history: the rest is illusion, enchained in time and doomed to oblivion. Thus in the chapel at Little Gidding, where the poet prays on his knees and through prayer participates in the meaningful kairos born of the one Kairos, Jesus Christ, all significant history is present and potent. Indeed, at any moment in time in the Christian life, all significant history is present as the combination of all moments. Potentially, then, every moment is an annunciation after the pattern of the one Annunciation, hidden from us by our lack of consciousness. There is here a sense of holiness concentrated beyond imagination into holy love. (Meditating on Four Quartets, p. 56)

In Christ we indwell the metaxis of rose and yew.

We come to the final verse of the stanza: “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling.” But is it the final verse? The Collected Poems and Plays locates it at the end of the first stanza of the fifth movement, yet my paperback copy of Four Quartets typographically sets it between the two. Both versions seem to be equally authoritative. Notably, the line lacks punctuation in both. It may thus be read as simultaneously concluding the first stanza and beginning the second. In the end is the beginning.

Earlier in the poem Eliot invoked the decisive hope of the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich. He now draws on the anonymous 14th century work on contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing: “A weary and wretched heart, indeed, is one fast asleep in sloth, which is not awakened by the drawing power of his love and the voice of his calling!” Hopefully all who have reached this point in their meditation upon the Quartets have been awakened from the tupor of worldy existence and become aware of the transcendent presence and the “pattern of timeless moments.” Maybe just a little?

I write this present meditation at the beginning of Holy Week of the Orthodox Church. Why does the Church annually celebrate the last hours of our Lord’s life? How would T. S. Eliot answer?

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1 Response to Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (V/3)

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    In honor of Brian Moore, I threw in the word “metaxis.” Been waiting for ages to use it. 🙂


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