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Little Gidding: symbol of resistance

Sunday, 11 Jan 2015

Little Gidding on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn (All quotes are from Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, unless otherwise indicated by footnote.)

In his two books of cultural criticism, T. S. Eliot explicitly acknowledged the importance of Christopher Dawson’s work to his own ideas. The Preface to The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), singled out ‘Mr. Christopher Dawson’s Beyond Politics’ as a book to which ‘I owe a great deal’. In the Preface to Notes Toward the Definition of Culture ten years later (1949), Eliot wrote, ‘Throughout this study, I recognise a particular debt to... Mr. Christopher Dawson’. Not surprisingly, given these acknowledgments, Eliot’s thinking in these major works of cultural criticism was indeed very close to Dawson’s.

As much as Christopher Dawson was a historian, he was even more a cultural critic searching for historical answers to the crises of modern times. He remained a relentless critic of industrialism, urbanism, and acquisitive capitalism - all the forms of materialism which he believed were at the root of modern disorders. To these he opposed the Catholic idea of a universal spiritual society (reflecting cosmic harmony) and, without idealising the Middle Ages, believed that this universal society had come closest to realisation during the thirteenth century, its agonised death prolonged over four hundred years. Understanding this of Dawson helps in the understanding of why Eliot ended his serious poetic career with Little Gidding as his subject.

Little Gidding (1) was completed by Eliot in 1942, arguably the turning point in the Second World War. Unlike his mentor Ezra Pound, Eliot had seen no future in the Axis powers. Faith would always provide the basis for social cohesion in Eliot’s view; substitutes would prove dangerous. ‘If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God)’ he wrote on the eve of the war, ‘you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin’. (2) The choice was that simple; whether it was the hard dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler or the soft despotism of Western liberalism, the result was such that freedom would be lost or compromised and human dignity eclipsed. And what Eliot saw on the horizon in 1942 was the victory of modernity, secular liberalism and the Americanism from which he had fled to the false sanctuary of Europe.

In his works of social criticism, Eliot argued that culture must be grounded in religion, but he also claimed that culture must be grounded in nature, and that nature and religion are intimately related. ‘We may say’, Eliot wrote, ‘that religion, as distinguished from modern paganism, implies a life in conformity with nature. It may be observed that the natural life and the supernatural life have a conformity with each other which neither has with the mechanistic life’. (3) By ‘modern paganism he meant secularism. The claim that the natural and supernatural are in conformity may seem surprising but was based on the connection of religion to physical objects and their symbolic meaning. The opening lines of Little Gidding express exactly that interrelationship -the ‘pentecostal fire’ bringing together time and eternity, which both redeems and transcends history, in the ‘zero summer’, where there is ‘neither budding nor fading’.


The symbolism and Eliot’s cultural theory intersect in the next stanza. The ‘mechanistic life’ of the modern world was seen by Eliot as a result of the Cartesian split and scientific revolution which have stripped nature of its sanctity and significance, allowing us to manipulate it without limit for our purposes. In The Idea of a Christian Society he wrote that ‘a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God,’ and added, ‘it would be well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet’. (4)

One does not visit a place like Little Gidding ‘to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report’. For Eliot this was the Cartesian outlook of the modern world, one in which ‘people act upon the assumption that the mere accumulation of “experiences”, as well as amorous and picaresque ones, is - like the accumulation of money - valuable in itself’. (5) This would be the way of the modern - to swan around Little Gidding, popping one’s head in at the small chapel, sniffing at the damp and the gloom: oh, look, there’s the tombstone, and there’s the pig-sty! In other words, the way of fragmentation, not harmony. Here is the enemy within Eliot’s wartime poem - acquisitive materialism, modernity and their political counterpart, liberalism.

No,you do not visit Little Gidding to collect experiences, but rather ‘You are here to kneel’. You are here to submit to another order of things,beyond the temporal, - ‘here’, at ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’; an order better understood by those here before you, ‘where prayer has been valid’. Eliot was referring to the Little Gidding community of Nicholas Ferrar’s day, a social organism founded on faith and centred on prayer. Ferrar, the former man of business, had escaped to this place from the world of commerce that was burgeoning in the Calvinistic aftermath of the Reformation. Little Gidding was the first religious house to be formed after the traumatic suppression of the monasteries during the Reformation. The devotional adherence to older forms of piety, such as round-the-clock prayer vigils, and to relics of the old religion such as crucifixes or madonnas, attracted the unwelcome attention of the Puritans, who branded Little Gidding an ‘Armenian nunnery’ and levelled it to the ground in 1647. This history rendered Little Gidding symbolic of the religious, cultural and political convictions held by Eliot and influenced by Dawson.

The rose, a symbol of Mary and the Church Universal and Triumphant, appears repeatedly in the poem. It represents the harmony in heaven that was once reflected on earth in Little Gidding, being an integral connection between culture and religion. In the poem’s Battle of Britain scene, the rose is burnt to become little more than ‘ash on an old man’s sleeve’. There are no heroics here, no stoic resistance to the German invader. For Eliot, the rooftop fire-watcher observing a burning London, the war meant defeat, loss and a godless future. The ‘dust in the air suspended / Marks the place where a story ended’. Marking the final separation of culture and religion, the poem elegises for ‘The sacrifice that we denied’, the ‘sanctuary and choir’ that ‘we forgot’.

Itis in the context of the symbolism of Little Gidding, a place redolent of an earlier age of faith, and Eliot’s expressions of wartime defeat and sense of loss, that we can appreciate the words of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ in the second movement of the poem, who may have represented aspects of W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, but was also an idealisation of the wisdom that Eliot himself had attained. The ghost speaks:


I am not eager to rehearse

My thought and theory which you have forgotten.

What was this ‘thought and theory’? Under Dawson’s influence, Eliot sought are turn to a rural society, the organic society that had existed prior to industrialism and urbanisation. In 1931 Eliot wrote in The Criterion that agriculture ought to be ‘saved’ because it was ‘the foundation for the good life in society; it is, in fact, the normal life’. It was a rejection of cosmopolitanism, urbanisation and liberalism: the symptoms of the modern epoch of decay.

The alternative to the dissolutive impact of liberalism would be the basic social unit that Eliot identified in England as the parish, a ‘unitary community’ of a ‘religious-social’ character, which has been undermined by industrialism and urbanisation.

The parish is:

a small and mostly self-contained group attached to the soil and having its interests centred in a particular place, with a kind of unity which may be designed, but which also has to grow through generations. It is the idea, or ideal, of a community small enough to consist of a nexus of direct personal relationships, in which all iniquities and turpitudes will take the simple and easily appreciable form of wrong relations between one persona and another. (6)

Eliot could have been describing Little Gidding here. Yet, what he recognised in the ash on his sleeve was the death of any hope of reviving this Christian ideal. Eliot’s vision of Europe, like Pound’s and Yeats’s, was dealt the finishing death blows by World War II, after it had been dealt a lethal blow by World War I from which it had been unable to recover. The Eliot watching fires at the heart of the Battle of Britain, was the same one watching the ‘thought and theory’ of his religious, political and social ideals literally go up in smoke. There was little to salvage from the ashes.

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.


And what of those old opposing factions? They are all ‘folded into a single party’ of the dead, leaving us but symbols to which we might cling, symbols like Little Gidding, symbols necessary to obtain intimations of eternity and the incarnation in our ordinary lives, poetic symbols which offer the inbreaking of eternity into time. History is, therefore, both absolutely necessary to our redemption, and yet, is to be absorbed into the timeless where, in Eliot’s echo of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well’.

Eliot’s image of the dove descending in tongues of flame surely implies the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, but is also a frightful, despairing version of Christianity as the Battle of Britain rages in the skies. Amidst such an apocalypse, how shall ‘all manner of things be well’?

Little Gidding is not about an unconditional surrender to the transcendent, an abandonment of this world to modernity’s callous disregard for the past. Eliot made history and symbolism integral to a people’s redemption. The place of Little Gidding is after all at the heart of the poem.

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.


Eliot repeats Julian’s declaration that ‘all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well’ and responds to these words with a finale to the poem, which is a great unifying synthesis of symbols. ‘In-folded’ within the crescendo is an allusion to Dante's Paradisio, in which the Church in Heaven dwells in a great cosmic rose where all the people of God dwell in perfect harmony. In Dawson’s history, mediaeval Christendom had been a reflection of this heavenly harmony, whereas for Eliot the cosmic rose was reflected in microcosm by Ferrar’s post-Reformation enclave of prayer.

Little Gidding remained, for Eliot, ‘now and in England’, a ‘thin place’ (7) through ‘which the purpose breaks’ - the transcendent purpose of God. In the Dawson-influenced mind of Eliot, it was these religious connotations that left Little Gidding also highly charged symbolically with political and cultural significance. The poem is thus one of resistance in which Eliot sought to plant a lasting legacy of ideas and symbols for revival by future generations. Whilst his social and political ideas were dealt a death-blow by the war, he still saw fit to smuggle something of the redemptive history and symbolism of Little Gidding into the post-war world of victorious modernity: a ‘midwinter spring’ in the ‘dark time’ of liberalism and continued decline.


1 The poem Little Gidding will be distinguished from the place by italics throughout.

2 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 1939.

3 ibid.

4 ibid.

5 T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: a Primer of Modern Heresy, 1934.

6 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 1939

7 The wonderful expression coined by George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community.


© John Dunn.







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