Across the fields from the A1, nine miles from Huntingdon, is the isolated Church of St John the Evangelist, Little Gidding. TS Eliot visited it in 1936 and named the last poem in his Four Quartets after the church.
A tiny place, capable of holding only 30 people, it was where the Anglo-Catholic Nicholas Ferrar and a few family and friends established a small contemplative community in 1626. Ferrar had just been ordained deacon by William Laud, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury and a strong supporter of Charles I. The king visited Little Gidding three times, and on the last occasion took refuge there from Cromwell’s men after the Battle of Naseby in 1646.
Eliot was a devoted member of the King Charles the Martyr Society, and Charles is the man referred to in Little Gidding as “the broken king” – although, Eliot being never less than subtle and voluminous, there may be an additional reference there to King Jesus, who was broken for our salvation. I think Ferrar’s community must have been doing worthwhile things, for the Puritans went to the trouble of scorning it as “that Protestant nunnery”.
So why is Little Gidding regarded as one of our most powerful Christian poems – and what is it about? The notion that poetry is about something was anathema to Eliot. For him poetry is not about anything. Rather, it is the act of turning words into things. Deeply Christian: the Word made Flesh. “Poetry” does, after all, derive from an old Greek word which means to make or create. Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound said that “poetry is language charged with meaning to the greatest possible extent”. At its best, that is. And in this poem it is at its best.
Little Gidding is full of evocative landscapes: the countryside, the rose garden and “The hedges white again in May with voluptuary sweetness”. Eliot intends these various landscapes to express and embody our range of emotions. They are what he called “the objective-correlative” – which prevents the poem from becoming discursive by ensuring that whenever a particular landscape is mentioned, it calls forth in the reader a correspondingly particular emotion.
That said, there is powerful poetic symbolism in Little Gidding. There are themes, and these are historical, philosophical and theological. There is throughout Four Quartets the problem of time. What is time and what is time’s purpose in the divine economy? Eliot’s view is that “Time past, time future” are one and indivisible: “We die with the dying and we are born with the dead.”
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