I admit that “Little Gidding” – the poem that Eliot regarded as his most accomplished work, and the work that the poet ultimately rested on – has always been a mystery to me. I attended the T.S. Eliot Summer School with the hope that I would be able to gain a deeper understanding of the Four Quartets, and particularly of “Little Gidding.” Appropriately, this poem opened and closed the week. We made a trip to Little Gidding on our first full day together. Seamus Heaney and Robert Crawford gave an astounding reading of the poem, followed by a lecture from Ronald Schuchard and an evensong service in the church. The final lecture on the final day of seminars -- Professor Jewel Spears Brooker’s “The Fire and the Rose: Theodicy in T.S. Eliot and Julian of Norwich” -- was also about "Little Gidding."
Professor Schuchard’s lecture examined the poem within the context of the history of the religious community of Little Gidding – established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, an ordained deacon of the Church of England who withdrew to rural Huntingdonshire with his family. George Herbert, a fellow Anglican deacon (and one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite poets), followed Ferrar’s example. The community community also drew royalty: King Charles I sought refuge there from Puritans during the English Civil War. A few hundred years later, T.S. Eliot visited Little Gidding in May 1936. A few years after that, he used the church (and its history) as a symbol of time past and time future contained in time present.
Professor Brooker notes that Eliot composed “Little Gidding” during the toughest period of World War II, when defeat by the Germans seemed immanent in England. Eliot, responding to fears of surrender and fears of defeat in “The Dry Salvages," sat down to write a poem revealing the “darkness of God” beyond faith, hope and love (see “East Coker”). He agonized over this poem more than any other, unsure of whether or not he would could achieve what he desperately wanted to achieve.
As Brooker’s essay reveals, he might not have… if he hadn’t wholeheartedly embraced the revelations of Julian of Norwich. I can’t effectively sum up Dr. Brooker’s essay anymore than I can effectively sum up the poem itself, so I’m going to simply point interested readers to that essay – due to be published in Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception (Palgrave, 2010). For me personally, this insightful essay was the academic highlight of the T.S. Eliot Summer School – it left me pondering the possibility that a true understanding of this poem requires a personal surrender to the poem. Critical analysis can only take us so far – the rest is the religion of art.
The evensong service at Little Gidding was equally moving. I love the way that this religious community utilizes stillness and silence in their service. As explained by their prayer book:
“Silence in worship is as important as words, and these services give ample opportunity for times of quiet. Yet it is easy to let the silence be eroded, especially if the group does not know how long to expect the silences to last. For this reason it can be helpful to agree on their approximate length – for example, two minutes after the readings in the Daily Prayer, three minutes for the confession during Communion, and so on. Also during the free prayer we should not be afraid of periods of quiet between the spoken prayers, and we should try to be quite brief in the prayers we say aloud. Rather than feeling that the times of silence interrupt the flow of words, we should regard the words of service as rising out of our silent awareness of God’s presence among us.”
Silence was hard to come by during our visit, amidst the hoopla of the annual T.S. Eliot Festival. But one particular call for silence - the final prayer of the day, at the beginning of our week - might just as easily have come from Eliot himself. It was a reminder that we should let language take us as far as it can, then surrender to silence, and wait: “We thank you for words. We thank you for all the places words have taken us. We thank you for places beyond words….”
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same:
... You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere.
Never and always.