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Little Gidding -- T S Eliot

An excerpt from
(Poem #532) Little Gidding
 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.

 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.

 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 uncertain hour before the morning
   Near the ending of interminable night
   At the recurrent end of the unending
 After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
   Had passed below the horizon of his homing
   While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
 Over the asphalt where no other sound was
   Between three districts whence the smoke arose
   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
 Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
   Both one and many; in the brown baked features
   The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
 Both intimate and unidentifiable.
   So I assumed a double part, and cried
   And heard another's voice cry: "What! are you here?"
 Although we were not. I was still the same,
   Knowing myself yet being someone other-
   And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
 To compel the recognition they preceded.
   And so, compliant to the common wind,
   Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
 In concord at this intersection time
   Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
   We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
 I said: "The wonder that I feel is easy,
   Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
   I may not comprehend, may not remember."
 And he: "I am not eager to rehearse
   My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
   These things have served their purpose: let them be.
 So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
   By others, as I pray you to forgive
   Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
 And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
   For last year's words belong to last year's language
   And next year's words await another voice.
 But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
   To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
   Between two worlds become much like each other,
 So I find words I never thought to speak
   In streets I never thought I should revisit
   When I left my body on a distant shore.
 Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
   To purify the dialect of the tribe
   And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
 Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
   To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
   First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
 Without enchantment, offering no promise
   But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
   As body and sould begin to fall asunder.
 Second, the conscious impotence of rage
   At human folly, and the laceration
   Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
 And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
   Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
 Of things ill done and done to others' harm
   Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
   Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
 From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
   Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
   Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."
 The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
   He left me, with a kind of valediction,
   And faded on the blowing of the horn.
-- T S Eliot
(Little Gidding: a village in south England, important historically to both
Royalists and Anglicans; Eliot was a member of both groups).

Eliot and Milton are, I think, the two poets most short-changed by the format
we've chosen for this mailing list; although both of them have written some very
good shorter poems, their true genius shines through only in their more major
endeavours. Unfortunately, works such as Lycidas and The Waste Land are simply
too long to be included in our daily emails... more's the pity, since they're
among my favourite poems.

Little Gidding is the final poem in Eliot's masterpiece, Four Quartets; it is
also the last major poem he wrote. In it, Eliot comes to the end of a long and
often tortuous spiritual journey, the entirety of which is chronicled in his
verse - from the pain of conversion evident in Ash Wednesday, through the
asceticism and mental discipline of the early quartets, up to the resolution
(not entirely peaceful, it must be said) that occurs in today's poem.

The Quartets are equally an investigation of the nature of Time and its
relationship to Eternity; in Burnt Norton, (the first, and along with Little
Gidding, the most celebrated of the Quartets) Eliot poses the problem of Time
and its influence on human affairs; in East Coker and the Dry Salvages he
expands the range of his meditation, and in Little Gidding he approaches a

So, what is this solution? Well, a complete explication of the poem is beyond
the scope of this forum, and _way_ beyond the capabilities of this reviewer
<grin>; still, here's my stab at it.

The poem opens with a harsh description of the passage of Time. A regular
alternation of trimeter and tetrameter, along with a strict aabbcc rhyme scheme
and an absence of enjambment [1], means that the lines are bound into tight
couplets. The effect is to convey an impression of a ritual litany; the final
line of each stanza acts as a sort of refrain, a chanted "Amen" that lends the
process of decay a feeling of inevitability.

The lines themselves are predominantly iambic, but with frequently inverted
feet; this pattern continues into the second section, which is in an almost (but
not quite) uniform iambic pentameter.

The second section is actually quite staggering in its achievement. Eliot
manages the astonishing feat of describing a scene set in wartime England in
word patterns that seem to be straight out of medieval Europe; indeed,
Britannica informs me that "the diction is as near to that of Dante as is
possible in English" [2]. The section is written in a sort of modified
(unrhymed) terza rima [3]; through it, Eliot manages to link present and past in
a manner that's perfectly natural and utterly wonderful.

The action is as follows: in the grim aftermath of an air-raid ("the dark dove
with the flickering tongue" is a German bomber [4]), the poet meets a 'familiar
compound ghost', whom he recognizes as being an amalgam of 'dead masters', great
poets of the past. The ghost describes to the poet the seeming futility of his
  "For last year's words belong to last year's language
   And next year's words await another voice. "
and goes on to catalogue the agonies that old age brings.

Yet all is not dark. For the ghost also holds out the promise of redemption: the
poet can be restored by entering
  "that refining fire
   Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."

In other words, the key to redemption is spiritual discipline; Eliot thus paints
a contrast between the dark fire of the bomber and the refining fire of
religion. Through the latter, the destructive power of the former is negated.


[1] enjambment, 'the running over of a sentence from one verse or couplet into
another so that closely related words fall in different lines'.
        -- Merriam-Webster,

[2] Of course, my Italian is about as good as my Klingon, which is to say, it's
non-existent. Could some kind member of the list who actually speaks the
language comment on the truth of this statement? Cristina?

[3] the same form used in the Divine Comedy; see

[4] By way of comparison, in Burnt Norton, Eliot likens the descent into a
bombed-out subway shelter to Dante's descent into the Inferno. It's links like
this which make the Quartets such a wonderfully unified whole.


My comments above notwithstanding, we have, as a matter of fact, run a fair bit
of both Milton and Eliot in the past; see
[broken link] for a complete listing.

The entire text of Little Gidding can be found, for example, at

I've barely touched the surface of the meanings to be found in this poem (and in
the Quartets as a whole); uncommented are the analogies with music, the
symbolism of the flame and the rose, the many allusions to literature and to
Eliot's personal experience... For a good introductory analysis, check out


Eliot's masterpiece is The Four Quartets, which was issued as a book in 1943,
though each "quartet" is a complete poem. The first of the quartets, "Burnt
Norton," had appeared in the Collected Poems of 1936. It is a subtle meditation
on the nature of time and its relation to eternity. On the model of this Eliot
wrote three more poems, "East Coker" (1940), "The Dry Salvages" (1941), and
"Little Gidding" (1942), in which he explored through images of great beauty and
haunting power his own past, the past of the human race, and the meaning of
human history. Each of the poems was self-subsistent; but when published
together they were seen to make up a single work, in which themes and images
recurred and were developed in a musical manner and brought to a final
resolution. This work made a deep impression on the reading public, and even
those who were unable to accept the poems' Christian beliefs recognized the
intellectual integrity with which Eliot pursued his high theme, the originality
of the form he had devised, and the technical mastery of his verse. This work
led to the award to Eliot, in 1948, of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

An outstanding example of Eliot's verse in The Four Quartets is the passage in
"Little Gidding" in which the poet meets a "compound ghost," a figure composite
of two of his masters: William Butler Yeats and Stéphane Mallarmé. The scene
takes place at dawn in London after a night on duty at an air-raid post during
an air-attack; the master speaks in conclusion:

      From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
      Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
      Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
      The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
      He left me, with a kind of valediction,
      And faded on the blowing of the horn.

The passage is 72 lines, in modified terza rima; the diction is as near to that
of Dante as is possible in English; and it is a fine example of Eliot's belief
that a poet can be entirely original when he is closest to his models.

        -- EB

[On Eliot as a critic]

Eliot said that the poet-critic must write "programmatic criticism"--that is,
criticism that expresses the poet's own interests as a poet, quite different
from historical scholarship, which stops at placing the poet in his background.
Consciously intended or not, Eliot's criticism created an atmosphere in which
his own poetry could be better understood and appreciated than if it had to
appear in a literary milieu dominated by the standards of the preceding age. In
the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," appearing in his first critical
volume, The Sacred Wood (1920), Eliot asserts that tradition, as used by the
poet, is not a mere repetition of the work of the immediate past ("novelty is
better than repetition," he said); rather, it comprises the whole of European
literature from Homer to the present. The poet writing in English may therefore
make his own tradition by using materials from any past period, in any language.
This point of view is "programmatic" in the sense that it disposes the reader to
accept the revolutionary novelty of Eliot's polyglot quotations and serious
parodies of other poets' styles in The Waste Land.

Also in The Sacred Wood, "Hamlet and His Problems" sets forth Eliot's theory of
the objective correlative:

   The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding
   an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a
   situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that
   particular emotion; such that, when the external facts, which must
   terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately

Eliot used the phrase "objective correlative" in the context of his own
impersonal theory of poetry; it thus had an immense influence toward correcting
the vagueness of late Victorian rhetoric by insisting on a correspondence of
word and object. Two other essays, first published the year after The Sacred
Wood, almost complete the Eliot critical canon: "The Metaphysical Poets" and
"Andrew Marvell," published in Selected Essays, 1917-32 (1932). In these essays
he effects a new historical perspective on the hierarchy of English poetry,
putting at the top Donne and other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century and
lowering poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. Eliot's second famous phrase
appears here--"dissociation of sensibility," invented to explain the change that
came over English poetry after Donne and Andrew Marvell. This change seems to
him to consist in a loss of the union of thought and feeling. The phrase has
been attacked, yet the historical fact that gave rise to it cannot be denied,
and with the poetry of Eliot and Pound it had a strong influence in reviving
interest in certain 17th-century poets.

The first, or programmatic, phase of Eliot's criticism ended with The Use of
Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)--his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at
Harvard. Shortly before this his interests had broadened into theology and
sociology; three short books, or long essays, were the result: Thoughts After
Lambeth (1931), The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), and Notes Towards the
Definition of Culture (1948). These book-essays, along with his Dante (1929), an
indubitable masterpiece, broadened the base of literature into theology and
philosophy: whether a work is poetry must be decided by literary standards;
whether it is great poetry must be decided by standards higher than the

        -- EB


Hmm. Brittanica says that 'the familiar compound ghost' is an amalgam of Yeats
and Mallarmé. Alternative theories as to his identity abound, however; Swift,
Shakespeare and Shelley have all been proposed as candidates. The homage to
Dante, though, is unquestionable; compare the following passage from the
Inferno, Canto XV:
    "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?""
And just as Brunetto proceeds to warn Dante of his fate, the 'dead master' warns
Eliot of the fate of his poetry.

Incidentally, the lines I quoted at the end of the Silk Road theme,
    "We shall not cease from exploration
     And the end of all our exploring
     Will be to arrive where we started
     And know the place for the first time."
are also from Little Gidding, from the final section. (Today's poem is the
second of five). Thanks to all the readers who wrote in to appraise me of the
fact, thus providing me with my choice of poem for today.

The analogies with music in the Four Quartets are legion; the overall structure,
the repetition of themes and images, the verbal counterpoint... The immediate
comparison, of course, is with Beethoven's final quartets, which form an equally
profound statement of redemption in the midst of chaos.

I've just found out that each of the Quartets is centred on one of the medieval
elements - air, earth, water, and (in the case of today's poem) fire. Neat.


27 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

gianfranco zuccolo said...

>[2] Of course, my Italian is about as good as my Klingon, which is to say,
>non-existent. Could some kind member of the list who actually speaks the
>language comment on the truth of this statement? Cristina?

I like this poem enormously, and thank you for running it. I think the
influence of Dante in the second section is not only in the scanned fluency
of the terzina, but also in the narrative tone, something between
surprised ingenuity, intellectual honesty, and mythical unreality.

Why not running something from the "Waste Land" the very last section of
"What the Thunder said for example"?

Ana Olinto said...

dear gianfranco
i liked your site and i'd like to join the group. i'm an eliot fan.
what should i do?

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