“Little Gidding,” Movement V: “The Fire and the Rose Are One”

So. Here we are, the final section of one of history’s richest poems, one of humanity’s finest explorations of the spiritual, and one of our most powerful, most open-hearted (strange to say that of T.S. Eliot, famous for his apparently straightlaced reserve … but remember, this is the man who wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats!) embraces of the mystery of the divine.

If Four Quartets is a lifetime journey, and if each Quartet is a lifetime in and of itself (and it is!), Movement V of Four Quartets is a life journey.

That’s what Eliot is talking about as the movement opens. It is hard for me to write about these last lines in this beautiful artwork, written in the knowledge they are the last, written as the bombs were falling, as all was in jeopardy, as flame fell from the skies … written, in fact, against that jeopardy, against hatred and violence, against the chance that all was lost. These last lines hold up belief in God against the darkness. They turn the worst to the best, the most painful to the most mystical.

And they start with these lines:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

By now, we are familiar with this theme, that echo of Herakleitos running through the Quartets. It seems like a paradox, but it’s only an apparent paradox. Eliot has been urging us to accept that the linear, one-direction-only kind of time in which we live is but an illusion, just the condition in which we live, and that, if we were only equipped to realize it, past, present, and future are all embedded in one another, in the Timeless existing in each moment.

There are also mundane, practical aspects to the paradox of ends-in-beginnings. Eliot is literally beginning the end of his poem with the beginning of it (that quote from Herakleitos, “The way there is the way back”).

It also – it breaks my heart to write this – I keep wondering whether Eliot may have suspected that these were the last lines of serious poetry he would write in his career. That’s what they proved to be, and they are written as if they were a farewell.

As any poet knows, a poem really begins only after the reader first reads it – because now the song is in our heads, and we can go back, re-read (as I’ve been doing my whole life with the Quartets), and let the poem begin to expand in us and in our worlds. If this was your first tour of the Quartets, you have not finished them: you have only begun them.

So writing is paradoxical. To write a sentence, you must finish it. But that sentence has only begun – if someone reads it, its life begins anew and, if the sentence is worth it, may keep being reborn and extending throughout the universe. Creation has a beginning, but that beginning only begins when it ends, when it is passed into the universe through people who experience creation.

So, in these beautiful, prosy but elegant lines, we’re talking about, of all things, Eliot’s job, writing:

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise by not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

That’s the way Eliot wanted to write: not in show-offy language, but in the right language that does the job. And if you, at “The complete consort dancing together,” went back to his lovely vision of his ancient forbears dancing around the fire in “East Coker,” he wants you to: for Eliot, good words beautifully arranged embody beauty itself, indeed, the divine itself. In the beginning, as somebody once wrote, was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” The word catapults us into the perfect present, into timelessness; in the use of words there harbors the divine itself. It matters to write well.

Endings are endings, no doubt about it. Every sentence you finish is a tiny death: of the act of writing that sentence, and of you, since you now have a little tiny bit less time on this earth. “And any action/ Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat/ Or to an illegible stone: And that is where we start.” Note all the echoes of “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” and “Dry Salvages.” This last Movement is a Beethoven-like final summation, a coda, a braid of echoes, of themes and images from the rest of the Quartets, ends in beginnings.

It is also a reminder that death is real. It’s real, all right, a mirror of our fallenness, a constant that calls us to humility. As it did for Jesus, so for most of us it will involve the worst of fear, pain, and degradation. I once heard a wise man say: “Nothing good about it; the only good thing is that once you’re dead, you can’t die a second time.”

We’re going every moment and in truth are already gone. And every act has within it the seeds of our death. Unto dust shall we return. Thoughts for any Lent.

But look:

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.

If the way there is the way back, then the dead and the living are intertwined in timelessness, and those who have died before us bring us back into the present with them. At this point, I feel the poem picking up speed in some fashion, not that it’s sprinting, but that its power is rising and becoming more compact. We are in a slowly accelerating chain of fragments and echoes from before, much as in the end of the Waste Land, but here it’s in the service of ecstasy, of union with the divine.

Since we’re in timelessness, let’s remember that

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

My, the echoes from before, in the rose, the yew-tree, the chapel! And the exalted reminder that what seems to move (history) is in fact “a pattern of timeless moments.” Eliot is moving us little by little into the mindset of being in that Eternal Present that has been his object in this whole poem.

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

This moment is a timeless moment. It is a “now and England.” The light is failing, so we experience natural time, a time of waning daylight in winter (which I would like to end soon, please). That secluded chapel is a chapel we’ve seen before, a quiet place of meditation, evoking timelessness.

And it’s almost as if a switch is thrown, and the great final coda is joined, because we get, unpunctuated, floating in poetic space:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

from Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), a great medieval mystic, and incidently the first woman whom we know to have written a book in English. Julian was part of the same wave of intensely personal mysticism seen in the work of Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) and the author of the English treatise known as The Cloud of Unknowing (latter half of the 1300s). In these mystical writers, as in Eliot, there is a hunger, almost a famine, for direct union with the divine, and a blissful sureness of the way there. Julian writes of “the drawing of this Love,” the action of God intrinsic in the universe, which is Love, and which attracts us, calls us and all things to itself, in “the voice of this Calling,” the way God calls to all creation through Love.

Perhaps you may remember The Color Purple, Alex Walker’s classic novel. The title, in a word, refers to God. “The color purple – where that come from?” asks a character, and answers that wonders such as purple, all the beauties of life, are in effect God trying to get our attention. Our problem is that we are only intermittently (and a few of us very seldom) able to recognize it. In that book as in all these mystics, the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling draw us toward the timeless, placeless home of the Incarnation, the place of Jesus. The whole universe, all of its glories, all its mysteries, all its fearsomeness, is a beckoning toward the heart of the divine.

Lent is a time to seek quiet and peace, to be alone with the color purple. To let it work on us. To feel the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling.

Remember, earlier in the Quartets, we were talking about humility? Lent, as I don’t need to tell you, is a time of humility. On the dark side, it’s realizing that we are dust. (Not-fun fact: The Latin word humilitas, from which we get the English humility, derives from the word humus, or “earth.” Humility is literally being aware that you are dirt.) We ain’t much, and we mess up. And what we should do, we do not do.

There is, however, a way, to see humility as joyful, indeed ecstatic. Humility really, when you get down to it, means seeing ourselves, seeing everything, just as we are, scales off the eyes, seeing clearly, no fooling ourselves.

That’s going to hurt, no doubt about it: we’re dirt. Bye.

Yet to see ourselves amid the big picture, the timeless still point, to see ourselves arrayed with all the works of creation, drawn by the beckoning of God in the voice of Love … if we see ourselves with the color purple, with Beethoven’s music, the poetry of Eliot and Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare, the paintings of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh … all things that are the best and beautiful … isn’t that to feel the very joy of being here, being this?

To feel the drawing power of Love, to hear that voice in all things, harbored in time itself, isn’t that the very definition of loving bliss?

And that phrase just floats out there!

… I don’t want this poem to end, do you? I want to keep being in its presence, let that voice teach me, even when I don’t understand. But we can’t resist. There is a sober inevitability to its last 21 lines, both quiet and raised in ineffable song, again braided with echoes from throughout the Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The first two lines are among Eliot’s most quoted. “You must never give up,” writes the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, whoever s/he was, and Eliot declares that “we shall not cease” our journey. Throughout the Quartets, we’ve been told it’s a long, rough ride, so prepare and set out. Fare well, voyagers.

And we are whelmed in glimpses from throughout the poem: the “unknown, remembered gate,” “the longest river,” “the children in the apple-tree,” all these metaphors for what is impossible to say: where God intersects with our world. It’s there, we can feel it, and sometimes it seems too obvious to mention – and yet it eludes us. In our condition, it is

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.

In this it is like time itself, as Augustine says: “If you ask me what it is, I cannot tell you; but if you don’t ask, I know perfectly well.” It is like consciousness, which is a powerful fact for all of us, maybe the most familiar, ever-present fact of our physical lives, and yet also elusive. Metaphor lets us get past the silence of language – the fact that it’s good but can’t get to everything – past the silence of physics – which is also wondrous, miraculous, perpetually fascinating and enlightening, but notoriously mum on many of the things we’d like to know most. Metaphor brings us … where Eliot has wanted to go all along, to the end that is a beginning.

And that keeps popping up in different ways, too.

Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

These three lines are just tree-top poetry. He’s been using long lines a lot like prose, but here we have four short words, pop pop pop pop, startling … calling us with love to pay attention to the now, to the here, to what is always here, now. Quick: there it is. And what is it? “A condition of complete simplicity” … and none of us are there, we’re too messed up, too mixed up, too complicated. Besides, we have to all but immolate ourselves in the effort to embrace it, an effort “(Costing not less than everything).”

The Cloud of Unknowing exhorts us to a “naked blind feeling of being” because God “may be loved but cannot be thought.” Silence, simple, humble. And then, in poetry so full of kindness I can hardly stand to read it, he echoes Julian, her beautiful, joyful words:

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well

And we fall headlong into startling poetry:

When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Instead of saying what these lines “mean,” I’ll just say goodbye. This a vision of unity, of reconcilement, images from down the long history of desire, war, belief. Unity explodes out of the union with the timeless, the still point, promised and evoked throughout The Four Quartets. We are told all manner of thing shall be well, and that these things shall become one. It is the height of mystical poetry of any age, held up to counter the darkness of war, and the forgetting of God in the world. These are the bravest lines I ever read.

Fare well, voyager, on your Lenten journey. Forgive these paltry attempts to read this great group of poems. We have come through darkness and light together. We have been told our journey is hard and will always be hard, and we are always going there. Thoughts for Lent. Let’s go,

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s