We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire
Allegro, andante, scherzo, adagio, allegro vivace – the movements of a string quartet unfold over time, sharing themes, juxtaposing moods, pulling the players and listeners out of time through a medium that only exists in time’s relentless sequence. The quartets of Eliot function in something of the same way, each poem advancing an argument, pulling the reader out of time through time, juxtaposing images of yew and rose, ascent and descent, generation and decay. The quartets themselves become four large movements of the Four Quartets on the scale of a symphony: first movement – air and revelation; second movement – earth and Jesus’ suffering; third movement – water and incarnation; and Little Gidding, the fourth movement – fire and Pentecost.
The fourth poem of each of these four quartets is equivalent to an adagio in a string quartet where a single sustained theme provides the listener respite from the involved thematic development of an opening allegro or the drive of a relentless scherzo. Each fourth poem is a form of meditation or prayer that suspends the working out of an argument; each one is in itself a moment of insight like that first glimpsed in the garden in Burnt Norton.
“Time and bell have buried the day, / The black cloud carries the sun away.”
“The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part”
“Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory, / Pray for all those who are in ships”
“The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror”
Each adagio movement of the prior three quartets has led us to this power-filled moment with the potential of liberation or destruction. From revelation behind the screen of time, to the way of negation and detachment, to recognition of the incarnation of eternity, we arrive at the potential for our transformation or demise in light of that unbearable reality which is behind the things we can quantify, touch, and understand. In the midst of Lent, we encounter Pentecost. As the opening lines of Little Gidding forewarn, “Midwinter spring is its own season… When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, / The brief sun flames the ice.” I often experience a surprise encounter with the Spirit in worship during the prayer of confession:
our sins are too heavy to carry,
too real to hide,
and too deep to undo.
Forgive what our lips tremble to name,
what our hearts can no longer bear,
and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.
How can it be that “We only live, only suspire” through this choice between “pyre and pyre?” I have often fled from this encounter, only to wake in the small hours of the morning to recount with despair the people I have hurt, the words that can’t be revoked, the past that can’t be changed. Eliot stands firmly in Christian tradition when he declares the weaver of “The intolerable shirt of flame” to be none other than Love. Could it be Love calling to me in those small hours, calling to this soul pinned down by the past and an inevitable future, unable to escape, wearing my sin and mortality like a shirt “Which human power cannot remove?” What if I were to awaken at such times and, instead of despairing, realize that this may actually be a word of hope from the heart of Love? The prayer of confession concludes:
Set us free from a past that we cannot change;
open us to a future in which we can be changed,
and grant us grace
to grow more and more in your likeness and image;
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.*
If any movement in the symphony of the Four Quartets could be said to be the climax of the music or the crux of the argument, it may very well be this fourth poem in Little Gidding. At this point in the Four Quartets, one might anticipate Eliot championing a philosophical disregard for our corporeal existence. However, he derides this attitude as “indifference…unflowering, / Between the live and the dead nettle.” Instead, we are led out of philosophical speculation into the heart of faith, saved from the consuming fire of judgement through the anointing fire of the Spirit; we are “redeemed from fire by fire.”
In the late 14th century, an Italian monk, Bianco da Siena, penned numerous laude spirituale, or vernacular sacred songs, several of which were translated in the 19th century by Richard Frederick Littledale. The most popular of these poems among English speakers is “Come Down, O Love Divine,” placed in most hymnals in the section for Pentecost. However, after reading Eliot and experiencing a sort of “Midwinter spring” in Lent, I’m convinced that this hymn is also appropriate for this season of repentance and renewal. It is a word of Love in the short days of the year and in the early hours of the morning. “Love is the unfamiliar Name” at the end of our searching.
Come down, O Love divine; seek out this soul of mine,
and visit it with your own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near; within my heart appear,
and kindle it, your holy name bestowing.
O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust
and ashes in its heat consuming.
And let your glorious light shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
shall far out-pass the power of human telling.
For none can guess God’s grace, till Love creates a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.+
*The Worship Sourcebook ©2004 CRC Publications, pg. 91
+Bianco da Siena, c.1367; trans. Richard Frederick Littledale, 1867, alt.; hymn 282 in Glory to God ©2013 Westminster John Knox Press