Study Guide

Four Quartets Little Gidding, Section 1

By Eliot, T.S.

Little Gidding, Section 1

Lines 626-633

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

  • The speaker opens "Little Gidding" with a discussion of "Midwinter spring," which sounds like a strange concept, mixing spring and winter. He claims that it's "Sempiternal," which means timeless, though it gets wet and muddy toward the end of the day.
  • Drawing on the speaker's fusion of opposites throughout this poem, this moment is "Suspended in time." 
  • The moment is also caught between "pole" and "tropic." The poles of the Earth are the two tips (north and south) and the tropics are horizontal lines that go around the Earth both above and below the equator. If something's caught between pole and tropic, it basically means that these are the regions where the change of the seasons is felt most dramatically. If it's suspended in time, though, it seems to go beyond the logic of changing seasons. This points to the speaker's desire to talk about something in our lives that stays constant even as other things change. 
  • When he talks about a "windless cold" being the heart's heat, he might be gesturing back to his earlier idea that it's only when you hit rock-bottom that you start to discover your spirit. It's only when your world is spiritually cold that you feel the warmth of your heart. (We know, that sort of sounds like cheesy slow jam lyrics, but hey.)

Lines 634-638

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing.

  • At this metaphorical moment, the speaker says that, amidst all the cold in our spirits, there's a heat that warms us, threatens to thaw us out. Here, he's really getting optimistic about our ability to come out of spiritual winter and to thaw until our "soul's sap quivers." In this case, the flowing of the sap in spring shows the restoration of the "flow" of life to the natural world. There might be "no earth smell / Or smell of living thing" yet, but we can feel the very, very beginnings of spring even in the middle of winter. 
  • With this line, Eliot's come a long way from saying (as he did in "The Waste Land") that April is the cruelest month. Now it seems like the coming of spring is back to its more traditional meaning, which is one of rebirth.

Lines 638-645

This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

  • The speaker throws us another image, saying that the hedgerow suddenly has a blossom that's "neither budding nor fading." He reminds us here that we can't be totally sure that our spiritual world is coming back to life just yet. In our minds, we might actually wish that it was always summer in our souls, and that things were always "blooming." For this reason, the speaker anticipates our desires when he asks, "Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?" In other words, where's a summer that's neverending? Where can we find happiness that never ends? (Seriously, if you have an idea, please email us pronto, folks.)

Lines 646-650

              If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.

  • The speaker lets us know that if we "came this way," meaning the spiritual path he's outlining for us, we'd find the entire world all lit up with life. (Interestingly, this is in May, just after Eliot's famous "cruelest month" of April.) Further, he's saying that we can find a little glimpse of this ideal world even in the "Mid-winter spring," which gives us a glimpse of the ideal without really handing it to us. But that's usually the best you're going to do in this poem. There might be a world of total fulfillment that exists somewhere, but a glimpse of it is the best you're going to get.

Lines 651-656

It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
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 façade
And the tombstone.

  • The speaker says that, no matter how we come to it, our ideal existence will always be the same ideal. Even if we come to it like Jesus, "a broken king," even if we come by it "not knowing what [we] came for," this spiritual ideal (represented by hedgerow blossoms) will still be the same. Even when we leave the path we're on and see the dirty aspects of life (the pig-sty) or our own death ("the tombstone"), nothing changes the ideal that we're supposed to be seeking.

Lines 656-665

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

  • Suddenly, the speaker's tone shifts, and he tells us that the meaning we thought we were after "Is only a shell, a husk of meaning." Well… um, that's not good. We only get a husk because the second we actually grasp the meaning of something, the true meaning slips away and we're left only with a husk. This is because meaning is always changing, and by the time we reach what we're after, it's like a mirage in a desert and it disappears. This is how the purpose of our journey always shoots "beyond the end" or goal we wanted, and because of time our goal is always "altered in fulfillment." In other words, our goal really isn't our goal anymore once we've fulfilled it. Rather, once we get what we want, we tend to go "meh" and then move on to the next thing we want. 
  • There are other places in the world that show us this absence of meaning, this abyss that lurks beneath our goals. But the nearest, says the speaker, is "Now and in England." 
  • History note: when Eliot was writing "Little Gidding," England was still being bombarded by the Nazis, and he was no doubt beginning to wonder how much longer the country would last. He'd been living through this stuff for a few years, and it's not surprising that his hopefulness is always tinged with a bit of despair. Also, he's T.S. Eliot, the Debbie Downer of the poetry world.

Lines 666-672

                If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and motion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.

  • It doesn't matter what your starting point is; the speaker's ideal will still be the same thing. It's not something you can prove ("verify"), or learn from a textbook ("instruct yourself"), or tell other people about in clear terms ("carry report"). It's just something that's inexpressible, something we can only talk about through metaphors like blossoms and hedgerows.

Lines 672-678

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.

  • We are here on Earth, says the speaker, to pray at the same spiritual place where other people have prayed before us ("where prayer has been valid"). Further, prayer is more than just a bunch of words we say ("an order of words"). There's a substance to it, and it's more than just thinking about the stuff we're praying for, or the "sound of [our own] voice praying." 
  • Prayer connects us to a space of mystical silence that "the dead had no speech for, when living," but which the dead can now silently tell us about, "being dead." We pray so we can communicate with the dead, and the only way we can do that is by contemplating our own deaths, and our own relationship to nothingness. Sound familiar? Yeah, the speaker's been getting at this point for some time now.

Lines 679-680

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

  • In this closing image, the speaker merges the opposites of a specific place (England) and "nowhere," while also merging "Never and always." Again, he's trying to slowly but surely wear down our rational, self-interested minds and to get us to think about a place beyond contradictions. Is your brain bent yet?