T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets can be considered amongst the greatest English poetry of the20th century, and arguably amongst the greatest English poetry ever. The four poems meditate repetitively and brilliantly on man’s relationship to time and eternity, and posit a religious solution to the problem of man’s need for meaning in the face of death.
Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British subject in 1927. With this double conversion Eliot seemed to find access to a deeper and more rooted sense of spiritual identity. This provides the key to understanding the lines from Little Gidding, the last poem in the sequence: “So, while the light fails/ On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel/ History is now and England.” The Four Quartets can be read as a sort of metaphysical statement or better still as a sacred text. The great achievement of these poems is to crystallize difficult metaphysical concepts, particularly the intersection of the eternal with the temporal, in memorable and lasting images. Thus, the poems are themselves an intersection of the eternal into language, and a validation of their own theme.
The first poem of the sequence, Burnt Norton, begins by articulating the doubt that vexes the religious mind: “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.” This is the conundrum: if we escape from the narrow prison of egoic consciousness and intuit a higher sense of interconnection that transcends linear temporality then we begin to worry that everything has, in some sense, already happened, that everything is predetermined, and that free will counts for nothing. We see ourselves as, “Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind/ That blows before and after time.” A larger perspective shrinks man and makes him seem like nothing more than a dead leaf blowing in the breeze. When man adopts this cosmic perspective he seems to lose all volition and meaning, the vastness of time reduces him to an unimportant and impotent detail, unworthy of note. This sense of diminishment undermines the religious imperative. Why worship God (eternity) when that very vastness itself makes us feel meaningless?
At a vulgar level religion provides simple answers and comfort for people. But Eliot is concerned here with a much higher level of understanding. It is an important issue because if religion cannot provide meaning at a serious intellectual level then it really is no more than a noble lie, fed to the masses to keep them supine. Eliot clearly senses that it is far more than this and he struggles with the question of how to read meaning into a perspective wherein “time is unredeemable.” By the final poem of the sequence, Little Gidding, he achieves a sense of resolution.
Little Gidding is a real place in Huntingdonshire and is closely associated with the English theologian Nicholas Farrar. Farrar was born in 1592 into a wealthy merchant family and he was intellectually precocious from an early age. After a short career in business and Parliament he left London and in 1625 moved to Little Gidding. At that time Little Gidding consisted of a run-down house and a chapel in a field. Farrar moved there with his mother, brother and sister, their children, and a few other people. About 30 people lived there and formed a close-knit religious community.
I was unaware of the association between Eliot’s Little Gidding and Nicholas Farrar until I read the chapter on Farrar in Colin Wilson’s Religion and the Rebel. Religion and the Rebel was Wilson’s successor to his debut book, The Outsider. Whereas the publication of The Outsider drew unbelievably glowing reviews, Religion and the Rebel was completely trashed and marked a decisive end to Wilson’s very brief moment in the critical sun. Reading the book now it is possible to understand why the critics hated it, although that is no excuse for their antipathy.
Wilson is influenced by both Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee in elaborating a cyclic view of history. In The Outsider he had demonstrated how certain literary and philosophical figures from the 19th and 20th centuries had seen deeper into the problem of human existence than most artists. The “outsider” was the man who intuited a limitless sea of potential within the human psyche but who felt thwarted by the pettiness and contingency of existence.
In Religion and the Rebel, Wilson extrapolated his thesis to encompass aeonic stretches of civilizational time. This allowed him to argue that certain visionary figures who lived at a time of high civilizational health could integrate their higher sensibility into a more vigorous theological structure. Only with the decline of the civilization, and the attendant decline in religious vigor, did such men become alienated from the mainstream of spiritual life and acquire their outsider status.
Such a thesis strikes me as being not just sensible but ultimately compelling. Presumably the critics caught a sniff of metaphysical obscurantism; or perhaps they couldn’t stomach a cyclic view of history wherein Marx’s materialistic prophecies had no place. In any case, Wilson was soon suspected of some sort of ill-defined fascism, and his subsequent obsession with serial killers and the occult did nothing to return him to critical favor.
Of course, the popular backlash against Wilson’s thesis is exactly the sort of response you would expect if his thesis was correct. If Wilson and Spengler were correct, and the mid-20th century marked a period of spiritual poverty (the decline of the west), then you would expect a book like Religion and the Rebel to be met with incomprehension. Marxists would have balked at the importance given to visions and the powers of the human mind (or spirit), whilst Christians could not have accepted the ready conflation of their faith with other systems of philosophical enquiry. Wilson was falling between the cracks of 20th-century English thought and ensuring his own exile to outsider status.
Wilson’s interest in Nicholas Ferrar stems from the type of devotional community that Ferrar set up at Little Gidding. The entire community would cross the field to the chapel for worship three times a day: matins at 6 a.m., litany at 10 a.m., and evensong at 4 p.m. In addition, Ferrar set up a system of Gospel readings taking place every hour, so that the four Gospels would be read in their entirety each month. On top of all this, on a couple of nights each week after a four hour Psalter recital finishing at 1 a.m., Ferrar would spend the rest of the night in meditation and prayer.
Wilson notes, “It is true that the monastic temper is not a familiar one in the modern world and that, although millions of people may detest the routine of modern life and wish they could escape from it, they would hardly be willing to exchange it for the life of a monk.” But nonetheless, Ferrar had found one particular answer to the outsider’s problem: “he had set his own little corner of the world in order, and lived in that corner as if the rest of the world did not exist.”
For Eliot, Little Gidding represented more than this. At the end of The Dry Salvages, the third poem in the sequence, he presents the solution to the problem of being in time:
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement-
Driven by dæmonic, chthonic
Through the Incarnation of Christ, “the impossible union of spheres,” time is redeemed. The eternal is no longer an incomprehensibly vast expanse of predetermined actions but a condition of freedom and redemption that can be actualized within time:
But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–
So, for some few holy men it is possible to actualize the eternal in time. It is with this resolution that Eliot concludes The Dry Salvages and moves on to Little Gidding.
Little Gidding begins with a description of a bright winter’s day when the hedgerow is covered in snow. The image creates a paradoxical impression of flowering in winter:
This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
It is a momentary glimpse of temporal paradox. It serves merely as a poetic foreword to the real intention of the poem. We then approach the chapel at Little Gidding itself:
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.
The tombstone is that of Nicholas Ferrar, blank, uninscribed, a sacred precursor to Abstract Expressionist painting. But this is not the sort of interpretation that Eliot would countenance. The value of Little Gidding the place derives from the holiness of the lives lived there and the disciplined, ordered urge to transcend the contingencies of time and place. Ferrar instituted a way of life at Little Gidding that was able to actualize the eruption of the eternal into time. And the only reason for pilgrimage to Little Gidding is to try to participate in some way in this practice of worship:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Here, Eliot is suggesting that this small and insignificant chapel is one place where the Holy Spirit descended. The language echoes Acts of the Apostles, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” In Eliot’s poem the dead speak with Pentecostal fire and actualize the timeless moment. The holy fire is the symbol of the eternal and is opposed to the fire of hell which is the destructive fire of temporality, the distracted, egoic consciousness that cannot begin to intuit the notion that there might be something more to life than material manifestation. This destructive fire devours time because it is the manifestation of a mind that can only perceive a linear progression moving towards death, each second consuming reality in an endless cremation. The fire of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is the voice of the dead, the triumph over mundane time and the redemption of all time in the timeless moment.
And the possibility of this intrusion of the eternal into time is predicated on the Incarnation. So, for Eliot, escape from the temporal prison is only possible because the eternal (God) manifested in history and created the possibility for actualizing this “impossible union” between distinct “spheres of existence.” Nicholas Ferrar’s solution can only be achieved through the disciplined pursuit of holiness, and even then it must take the divine Incarnation as its precondition.
At the conclusion of his chapter on Nicholas Ferrar, Wilson is critical of Ferrar’s solution: “We may feel that there is much to find fault with in the Little Gidding way of life. The objection to it is the same as the objection to Mr. Eliot’s embracing of Anglicanism: that the Outsider must not surrender his reason to some ‘historical’ fact. For ultimately, history does not matter.” This objection is one with which I both agree and disagree. To insist that the possibility of redemption from time is dependent upon the Incarnation of Christ seems to me to belong to the sphere of the noble lie. In other words, whilst I have no problem with the Incarnation being an article of faith for Christian believers it cannot be an absolute and universal requirement for the possibility of transcending mundane time.
However, in stating that, “history does not matter,” Wilson overstates his case. He evidently does so because he believes so strongly that the human individual has the potential to overcome his limitations regardless of the phase of the civilizational cycle he happens to be living in. But his error is to focus too closely on the individual at the expense of the culture as a whole. This is entirely typical of Wilson’s existentialism and his interest in the potential powers of human consciousness. He is interested in what the intellectual and artistic elite are capable of achieving at the highest level and his hope seems to be for a future state of global transformation of individuals into Nietzschean overmen. As he puts it elsewhere in Religion and the Rebel the problem is, “how to make our whole civilization think like the Outsider.” But this is not the problem. Trying to make all members of society think like outsiders is an inorganic solution to an organic problem. It is also teleologically similar to Christian Messianism and Marxist utopianism and, in the hope for a future state of super-empowered men, Wilson has forgotten one of Spengler’s crucial lessons: we are tied to our own particular culture or civilization.
So, history does matter in a crucial sense. As the example of Little Gidding shows, particular acts of worship in a particular place can achieve intimations of immortality. But this sense of the eternal is not a sort of free floating universalist spirit. It emerges through the sanctification of place through particular acts of worship. History is important in this sense because the discipline of religious worship creates its own special accumulation of sanctity. It is what makes certain places holy. And one thing that all religious people agree on is that certain places are holy places. But the importance of history in this sense is very different from the insistence that Christ existed historically as an intersection of different dimensions.
There is, in fact, a certain paradox for many of us here. Those who do not accept the Incarnation of Christ as a point of historical singularity have to face the fact that it was a deep article of faith for most (almost all) of our ancestors for many centuries. If we then wish to venerate the past we have to admit that a great deal of it was predicated on this belief in the Incarnation. If we choose to simply overlook this fact we are slighting the sincere beliefs of the dead whom we profess to respect, and implementing a degree of discontinuity with the past. It is not a trivial problem.
Regardless, it is useful to bear in mind the example of Little Gidding when thinking about spiritual practice. Few of us would wish to go to the extremes that Nicholas Ferrar went to and some of us in any case would not want to emulate his Christianity. But for most of us we can still, with Eliot, meditate on those intimations of the eternal that sometimes fall upon us, those,
hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.