Not since the impacted savageries of the late 8th century, when Viking raiding parties ravaged the coast of England, can anything compare to the protracted destruction wrought by the German Air Force during the Battle of Britain. Between September of 1940 and May of 1941, countless incendiary bombs fell upon that brave island race. A dozen or more cities went up in flames, night after night, including the great city of London, whole sections of which were reduced to rubble. Fifty-seven consecutive nights, no less, during which horror and havoc rained from the sky. It was, without question, the darkest moment in the history of England.
Meanwhile, her greatest living poet, the American-born T.S. Eliot, volunteering as an air raid warden, watched it all unfold from a London rooftop where, amid the lethal devastations of the Luftwaffe, an image of Pentecostal fire took hold that would shape the penultimate movement of “Little Gidding,” the fourth and final poem that became Four Quartets, the unquestioned masterpiece of Eliot’s career.
How did he do it? For here was poetry so profound and stirring that not since that 17th century spellbinder John Donne had anyone written lines as powerful as these. Two stanzas of seven lines each, together they provide a lyric medley of incomparable wisdom, grace, and beauty. To read Four Quartets is to fall in love with the English language all over again. It is to witness first hand, “the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings,” which he described as the defining office of the poet, of one whose “concern was speech, and speech impelled us / To purify the dialect of the tribe.” Eliot’s own speech, so memorably set forth in Four Quartets, became one of the great purifying forces of the age. So clearly does he loom above the current literary scene that, like Mt. Kilimanjaro, he dwarfs all the surrounding trees and bushes. It is no wonder that Tom Howard, in his superb commentary on the poem, should describe it as “Eliot’s valedictory to the modern world,” placing it, “along with Chartres Cathedral, the Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,’ and the Mozart Requiem, as a major edifice in the history of the Christian West.” Or that his friend and fellow poet, Alan Tate, should describe him as “the uncommon man committed to the common reality of the human condition.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Here then is that salient text, taken from the 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.
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.
Once again, how does he do it? And having done it, what does it mean? Does it still resonate? With us, that is, who, living so long after the age of Eliot (he died in 1965), inhabit a culture almost unrecognizable to the one he knew. In other words, is there anything left of that Christian world which, in however attenuated a state, is still identifiable, still worth defending?
Begin with the imagery of the two stanzas, i.e., fire, which Eliot then fuses into a single figure, i.e., the dove, applying it to two disparate events in the history of the Christian West. Consider first the immediate setting of the poem, an historical moment in which the skies over England are filled with the terrors of the Blitz. What was Hitler’s aim? Was it annihilation? Perhaps not of England herself, whose determination to survive, thanks in no small part to the courage of men like Churchill, would in any case prove a nut too tough to crack. In fact, the very tenacity of the British people amid the barbarities of Herman Goering’s bombing campaign, demonstrate the folly of attempting to mount an actual invasion of the Island. It was rather England’s stubborn refusal to go along with Hitler’s overall designs on the whole of the European continent, in exchange for a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany, that kept the bombs falling long after their usefulness as an instrument of demoralization had been shown.
Nevertheless, it is the Pentecostal point, set within a larger and eschatological context that really drives the engine of the poem. For who is this mysterious bird, the event of whose fiery descent, we are told, “breaks the air with flame of incandescent terror”? Certainly in the most stark and literal sense it cannot help but remind the reader of the scale and ferocity of the air assault itself, inflicting flame upon flame of sheer “incandescent terror.” But that immediate datum drawn from recent history, from those darkened skies discharging death and destruction, points to something else, to an event entirely revelatory of a light and mystery not of this world, and therefore transcendent to those nightly terrors of the sky. It is at this level, Eliot seems to be saying, the anagogical level, which is the deepest and highest signification of all, that he intends us to join issue with the poem. Here the words succeed in confecting an encounter with the Holy Spirit himself, who comes down from heaven in order to cast a purifying fire upon the world. And were we to refuse the Spirit’s summons to face that refining fire, which alone makes us whole, there would be no relief from either sin or error.
“The only hope or else despair,” in other words, hangs perilously on a choice between two forms of fire. There is that human conflagration fueled by pride and deceit, injustice and lust, which have laid waste to so much of the world. Then there is that other fire, both mysterious and redeeming, which is yet more destructive (that is, of sin and all its structures and pomps) even as it is set by the Love we call the Holy Spirit. “Who then devised the torment?” the poet asks. What follows upon the question is the reader’s astonished discovery that it can only be the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, whose work is everlastingly to weave “the intolerable shirt of flame / Which human power cannot remove.”
Here is a reference that carries the reader imaginatively back to Dante, a poet greater even than Eliot, to the setting of the final canto of his Paradiso where, before the startled gaze of the pilgrim-poet as he peers into the very heart of the Trinitarian mystery, is suddenly and startlingly shown the human face of God.
Like a geometer who sets himself
To square the circle, and is unable to think
Of the formula to solve the problem,
So was I faced with this new vision:
I wanted to see how the image could fit the circle
And how it could be that that was where it was;
But that, Dante tells us, was a vision to which his mind simply was not equal (“not a flight for my wings”). Who, nevertheless, finds himself, all at once “struck by a flash / In which what he desired came to him.” And so, never mind the failure of high imagination (the Italian is lovely: “alta fantasia”), both his desire and will find themselves, “turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
By the love which moves the sun and the other stars.
The modern world, said Eliot, was simply not capable of the “high dream.” It belonged rather to the medieval world, where men and women were nourished by delight, not doubt, and whose lives evinced a unified faith and sensibility that we have lost. “The modern world,” he told us, “is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide.”
To do that it will be necessary, more than ever, to summon the Spirit, that Pentecostal fire whose descent, renewable in every age and circumstance, will enable us once more to set the world on fire.