Little Gidding ranks with Burnt Norton as the best of the Four Quartets. It has a wider philosophical scope than East Coker and The Dry Salvages, and is more personal and concrete than Burnt Norton. Written primarily in the first half of 1941, the poem was both aided and hindered by the German air raids on London. The ubiquitous sight of fire and ash, the nightly terror of sirens and explosions, the constant presence of death and demolition, creates a visceral immediacy in Little Gidding missing in the other Quartets even though such horrors are presented indirectly and symbolically. The air raids, on the other hand, were less beneficial for Eliot’s work habits, causing him to write the poem’s first draft quickly and superficially. Writing about the timeless, he constantly felt the pressure of time, the futureless future: “Like everyone else in this period, his life became one of monotony and anxiety, caught in a middle period when pre-war life seemed unreal and post-war life unimaginable” (Ackroyd, 1984, p. 264).
In spite of his personal anguish, or any doubt he originally had about the quality of Little Gidding, the poem begins with amazing surety and affirmation. Burnt Norton had posed the problem of time; East Coker and The Dry Salvages elaborated on time’s character; but Little Gidding redeems it and in so doing presents Eliot’s most definitive spiritual vision. The poem’s first two words, “Midwinter spring,” metaphorically suggest its vitality and direction. The phrase is not only the kind of mind-challenging paradox that Eliot relished; but in context it envisions an end to the air raids, a peace in the heart of war, heaven amidst the inferno, an interruption to what had become life’s status quo-suffering as usual. This unlooked-for spring “is its own season / Sempiternal . . . Suspended in time.” Not a common annual season, it is a new eternal season of its own making, existing in a time that never existed, reconciling and unifying sets of opposites, “pole and tropic . . . When the short day is brightest.”
The opposing forces “frost and fire” literally represent the seasons winter and summer and characterize the harsh weather that defines them. Metaphorically they are the polarized means by which the eternal spring comes into being. The fire of war is calmed by the frost of winter, and the holy fire “that is the heart’s heat,” in contrast to the fire of desire (symbolized by leaping through the flames in East Coker), melts the congealed emotions and awakens the dormant inner life. The sun shining on the pond on the shortest day of the year generates a blinding light that “Stirs the dumb spirit.” The “[s]oul’s sap” that had long been frozen “quivers” and begins to flow. This is a celestial spring “not in time’s covenant,” devoid of the taint of earthly existence.
The opening stanza concludes with the question answered in the rest of the poem: “Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?” Summer is fullness, more than spring, and the zero summer is brought about by a fusion of winter and summer-the hedgerow blooming more suddenly from a temporary snowfall-a summer that is “neither budding nor fading.” It is an “unimaginable” summer because suffering and the horrors of war have made it so, but also a zero summer because it transcends human imagination. It is the full ripeness of spiritual awakening that the poet longs for, a summer that exceeds the still point and the midwinter spring, embracing all life and all things in the warmth of eternity.
The zero summer is for Eliot analogous to the ancient concept of paradise on earth, a period of peace and abundance, a period that has long been chronicled in the history of literature as Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Shakespeare’s Arden Forest, the many versions of Camelot, and Morris’s The Earthly Paradise to name a few. But with the cynicism and doubt of the twentieth century, the dystopia replaced the utopia in such cautionary tales as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and in such plays as Brecht’s Baal, Beckett’s Endgame, and Sartre’s No Exit. However, as science comes close to proving Einstein’s unified field, and its discovery of the Maharishi Effect (See Endnote 8)-that only .1% of a population practicing the Transcendental Meditation-Sidhi program is needed to reduce the negative effects of a society such as hunger, disease, crime, and pollution-this worldwide myth of earthly perfection and harmony no longer need be a fantasy. Hence, in 1989 Maharishi was able to predict based upon the increased order in the world the coming of a literal Heaven on Earth.
With individuals who could fully develop their consciousness through the Tran-scendental Meditation technique and the Transcendental Meditation-Sidhi program functioning as the units of society, permanently established in and operating from the source of Natural Law, a society made up of such individuals must know immense growth and creativity. A society based upon the enlivenment of Natural Law through the growth of consciousness of its individuals would be a balanced society in which the highest values of every area of life would blossom, because every area in life is founded in pure consciousness-the source of Natural Law. In such a Heaven on Earth, such a zero summer, Nature and humanity will harmoniously interact in a perfect symbiotic relationship. Maharishi Vedic Science describes the means of achieving Heaven on Earth for each major area of life as well as a vision of what we might expect for each area. Here Maharishi comments on the future transition of two essential areas of society, crime and agriculture:
Heaven on Earth will be characterized by the absence of the need to rehabilitate, because everyone set on the path of evolution will not create problems either for himself or for his surroundings. Everyone will enjoy perfect freedom in a crime-free society. (1991, p. 92)
The creativity of man, of the soil, of the clouds, of the sun, of the sea-the creativity of everything is involved in agriculture. When all of these natural processes are evolutionary, life-supporting, the farmer’s task is easy and nobody has to suffer from lack of food. Unfolding the full creative potential of the individual is vital for the success of agriculture. (1991, p. 86)
Little Gidding describes the path to the zero summer in language reminiscent of East Coker (“To arrive where you are, to get where you are not, / You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy”):
If you came this way
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same.
A spiritual pilgrim traveling this route to the midwinter spring would find the “voluptuary sweetness” of May, “the same at the end of the journey,” and a meaning that fulfills and exceeds the original purpose. The journey begins at any time and from any place that is the “world’s end,” for Eliot “Now and England.” It is the end of the world because the war has made it so, but every place is the end just as every place is the beginning. That is what distinguishes the still point from the point in time. To get there one must “leave the rough road,” and “put off / Sense and notion.” The coarseness of ordinary desires must be abandoned, and the route taken cannot be one of ideas or even rational thinking. Eliot says the route to the zero summer is through prayer, but for him “prayer is more / Than an order of words,” more than the act or sound of praying; it is a means of transcendence to “the intersection of the timeless moment [that] / Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
Eliot, the converted Anglican, no doubt sincerely believes in the efficacy of prayer, but on this issue he is also the Harvard graduate in Eastern philosophy. To get to the “timeless moment,” he knows one must transcend all thought. Prayer, a form of contemplation, depends on thought and exists in time; thus prayer as it is normally apprehended is an activity whose ideals may transcend the field of time, but whose method does not. Eliot realizes as much when he adds to the word prayer such qualifications as “more / Than an order of words, the conscious occupation / Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” He also makes it clear that the prayer he advocates is not an intellectual process, which prayer is generally taken to be: “You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report.” If what Eliot calls prayer is not an exercise of the intellect nor what usually passes for prayer, what then is it? It is a non-intellectual practice uninvolved in activity, sound, or thought that settles the mind and brings brings it to “the still point.” Unfortunately, Eliot doesn’t explain how his concept of prayer is to accomplish this movement, and history has not proven prayer of any sort to be a reliable method for transcending.
Little Gidding’s second section opens with a long contemplation of death, which from one perspective is the cessation of life, but the subject of death like the subject of time is a Hydra with many heads. To the nihilist, death is annihilation; to the reprobate, Eliot’s citizen of the wasteland, life is a living death; to the Christian, death is a prelude to heaven; to the seeker of enlightenment, death is the death of change; and to the Veda, death is an illusion because life is finally immortal. In the Four Quartets, Eliot plays with all of these forms of death, and nowhere more than in Little Gidding.
The section opens with three short lyrics organized around the deaths of air, earth, water, and fire. The first, which visualizes the choked air of London’s fire bombings, is the most impressive. In this lyric, the “death of air” is the suffocating ash and dust that had formerly been the walls of homes, the structures of former lives. Through a single minimalist image, which conveys the remnants of what had been life, Eliot quietly captures elderly despair in the “Ash on an old man’s sleeve.” Ash is also what “the burnt roses leave,” the roses of Burnt Norton’s eternal garden. In the one word ash, then, Eliot manages to conflate the entire range of human existence. Ash is the sobering destiny of all life lived in time; it is also all that remains of the yogi’s spiritual fire which burns away the dross of non-existence.8 These two images-the rose and the fire-come together again in an ecstatic, visionary union at the end of Little Gidding, marking the end and the beginning of the Four Quartet’s spiritual journey.
Caused in this poem by the unimaginable destruction of war, “the death of earth” is Eliot’s human wasteland that “Gapes at the vanity of toil, / Laughs without mirth,” like the pitiless sphinx in Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Deaths by water and fire, like those of air and earth, are the means of change, the end of time. They “succeed / The town, the pasture and the weed . . . deride / The sacrifice that we denied . . . rot / The marred foundations we forgot.”
Eliot’s choice of the preposition of (as in “the death of fire”) in associating death with each of the four elements instead of by (as in death by water) is significant because of makes the primal elements, air, earth, water, and fire, both the destroyers and the destroyed. Humanity, for Eliot as for Gerard Manley Hopkins, fouls the air and water and reduces life to ash and dust through wars and other thoughtless acts, and the elements, in turn, the subalterns of change, wear away all that exists including the “monuments of time,” human structures created out of naivete and arrogance.
In Burnt Norton Eliot had fashioned a mock Inferno from a descent into the London subway; in Little Gidding he outdoes his earlier effort by calling upon his experiences as a Kensington fire-spotter (Smith, 1950, p. 287). Walking his “dead patrol” through the eerie ruins and rubble that had become London, Eliot’s persona encounters the ghost of a former poetic master. Whom this master might have been has inspired many speculative candidates: Yeats (Kenner, 1959, p. 320), Swift (Gish), Shakespeare, Mallarm� (Traversi, 1976, p. 190), and Shelley (Smith, 1950, p. 285) among them, and yet from the final phrase in the passage, “I caught the sudden look of some dead master / Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled / Both one and many;” [my italics] we may easily deduce that the ghost is a composite rather than a single individual. This not withstanding, Eliot is undoubtedly paying special homage to Dante, the poet whom he admired most, by closely modeling his own Hades after a passage from the Inferno’s Canto XV:
The Inferno: a company of shades came into sight
walking beside the bank. They stared at us
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stared at us so closely by the ghostly crew,
I was recognized by one who seized the hem
of my skirt and said: “Wonder of Wonders! You?”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I answered: “Sir Brunetto, are you here?”
Little Gidding: I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And heard another’s voice cry: “What! are you here?”
Eliot’s night journey takes place in that familiar hour when the fiendish activity of night fall is almost over, “After the dark dove with the flickering tongue” has dropped its fire bombs, just prior to the rebirth of day, “Near the ending of interminable night / At the recurrent end of the unending,” at the crack-in-the-world between what isn’t and what is, when time seems nonexistent. In a renewal of conversation that has the ring of an endless debate, the old master asserts a strong desire to avoid old poetic theories. Reibetanz takes this statement to mean a refusal to discuss poetry at all (1983, p. 155), but this is not the case. The passage is in fact Eliot’s consummate statement on the best use of poetry, a central issue considered in each of the Four Quartets. The dead master is the voice of poetic heritage, the link to the past that in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot states cannot be avoided. Eliot represents poetry’s present and also its connection to the future; together the two poets form an eternal continuum of poetry.
The dead master cautions that “last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” Although the poet of his age, Eliot understands, and stated as much in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that each age speaks in its own language and its own forms. Maharishi has said that the world’s greatest sages, such as Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Moses, and Mohammed have extolled the virtues of eternity in languages indigenous to their own times and places. As ages pass, the universal in their statements become lost with the changes in language and custom, and it can only be revived by intellects like theirown that rise above the constraints of time.
In this vein, as Brunetto had warned Dante, the dead master warns Eliot of the fate of his poetry:
and pray they [your words] be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both Bad and good. Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fulfilled beast shall kick the empty pail.
And in a pointed reference to Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” the dead master states that both he and his listener had tried to improve the language of their respective ages, had been “impelled . . . to purify the dialect of the tribe.”10 But in spite of their good intentions, such “shadow fruit” will come to folly, mistake followed by mistake, unless the younger poet becomes “restored by that refining fire.” This is Little Gidding’s primary theme. In opposition to the destructive fire of the “dark dove,” the fire of knowledge-the holy fire of the still point-purifies poetry and all existence.
Life can either be purified by the transcendent, “Pentecostal fire” or be consumed by the coarse fires of ignorance and desire. Cleansed by the spiritual flame, the poet’s consciousness and subsequent poetry will “move in measure, like a dancer,” in the cosmic dance of perfection. The master, having given this sage advice, departs like Hamlet’s ghostly father at the cock’s crow, or like the German bomber before the sounding of the all clear, bringing another day of hope and peace to war-torn Londoners. Later in Section IV, Eliot will reprise the opposing meanings of fire and fire:
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
The dead master teaches Eliot about his life’s poetic work, detachment, which is the primary lesson of Section III. Attachment, detachment, and indifference, Eliot says, all “flourish in the same hedgerow,” that is they spring from the same source. Indifference resembles the “others as death resembles life”; it comes between attachment and detachment, each of which has the capacity for love, but detachment is superior because it fosters “love beyond desire.” Detachment, according to Eliot, is created out of a sense of the past; “This is the use of memory: / For liberation.” He says that detachment replaces attachment over time: “love of a country / Begins as attachment to our own field of action / And comes to find that action of little importance.” This loss of importance, he states, is not indifference, because memories still evoke meaning for us even though they no longer have the power over our actions:
History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Eliot’s explanation of detachment and its place in the development of liberation is admirable, but like his earlier discussion of desires it is misleading. Maharishi explains that detachment evolves not as a change in attitude, as Eliot would have it, but rather as a matter of fulfillment. The mind remains attached to the objects of the senses as long as it remains unfulfilled, but as soon as it becomes contented, attachments to lesser experiences lose their charm and the mind becomes detached from them. A person becomes detached from a hut, for example, when moving into a mansion. Maharishi actually prefers to speak of this movement on to fulfillment as gaining equanimity rather than detachment which possesses the negative connotation of aloofness (1967, pp. 155-158). Eliot’s detachment is based on remoteness that occurs over time, and in spite of his disclaimers, it is difficult not to see this experience as indifference. Eliot is correct, however, in pointing out the vital role of memory in the growth of detachment, but according to Maharishi Vedic Science, not in the way he understands it.
The value of memory (Smriti) is to remember one’s original, unbounded status, one’s deepest elemental Self that is transcendental pure consciousness, forgotten in the fragmentation of temporal life. Having gained this state of full liberation, detachment from the fruits of action is the result. New desires arise, but because fulfillment-the raison d’etre of all desires-has already been obtained, they are no longer binding. Detachment from the things of this world, however, as Eliot’s rendering of detachment suggests, does not translate into aloofness; one still cares deeply about things. Firmly established in the state of fulfillment, life is lived in the stability and security of bliss consciousness as the things of the temporal world continuously change. Maharishi describes life in this state of consciousness:
Such a carefree state of life in freedom is only possible when a man is contented. And contentment is possible only when the mind is established in bliss-consciousness, the state of the transcendental Absolute, because in the relative field there is no happiness so intense that it could finally satisfy the thirst of the mind for joy. . . . This is the state of perfect detachment. (1967, pp. 333-334)
Section V, the final rumination of time, ties together the Four Quartets’ various strands. It is the end of the poem, the final blossoming of Eliot’s themes and symbolic patterns, his philosophy, and his metaphysics; “And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.” Everything in the last two stanzas are by now familiar, but their familiarity is intentional, for it is through the “remembered gate” that freedom is to be found.
The movement in this final section is a gathering of diversity into unity. Once more Eliot calls for modesty, precision, and flexibility to produce in poetry a “complete consort,” just as fire and water will produce from death an eternal rebirth, and out of the incidents of history comes “a pattern of timeless moments.” To achieve this unity, this image of the great and final reality, everything, even war, death, and the dark “descending dove,” time as well as the timeless, must be included. This Eliot brings about with immense grace and affirmation in the final quatrain, once more through the images of fire and rose and their vacillating qualities relative and absolute, destructive and purifying, mutable and perfect, that merge together at the eternal still point, at the beginning and the end, when all existence,
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
The expansiveness of Eliot’s vision lies in that one phrase, “the fire and the rose are one,” the fire of destruction and the rose of perfection. Maharishi calls such opposites that define duality-life in time-opposing forces on the battlefield of life. Under what conditions could these antithetical poles be understood to be one? Only in Unity Consciousness, the beginning and ending of the long journey, that, for the fully enlightened who perceive all change as an illusion, never takes place. Only in Unity Consciousness are opposites entirely reconciled. In Unity Consciousness eternity is lived and time is redeemed. It is the greatness of Eliot’s vision and poetic powers that he could imagine such a state. It is the immensely greater vision of Maharishi to make the possibility of living such a state universally available.