There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life
Being between two lives—unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
- The speaker starts this section by telling us that there are basically three ways of living your life: being super-attached to ourselves, to material things, and to persons; being super-detached from ourselves, from things, and from persons; or between these two extremes, becoming indifferent to both attachment and detachment in a way that kind of makes us resemble dead people. This third way seems to be the best for the speaker, since it exists "between two lives," and the rule of thumb for this poem is: if something overcomes an opposition and doesn't take sides, it's probably the way to be.
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent.
- The purpose of memory is to free ourselves of time and desire and to love something beyond these things. In other words, we might love something like a country, but this sort of love begins in love of ourselves (attachment to our own field of action), but eventually learns to "find that action" (or our personal lives) to be "of little importance." This brings us back to the lesson of humility that the speaker keeps going on about in this poem.
History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
- These lines talk about how the history of humanity might be a history of freedom or servitude, depending on how you look at it. In this history, we can remember all of the people who have lived in human history, how they've all disappeared just like we will. But this isn't the end, because people are ultimately "renewed, transfigured, in another pattern." This could mean anything from becoming part of the earth to being totally reincarnated. The speaker's talking about the concept of renewal more than any concrete example.
- In these lines, the speaker more or less tells us that everything's going to be okay. Heck, even sin is something useful and necessary ("Behovely"). In this case, he could very much be telling this message to the people waiting for World War Two to end.
If I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of no immediate kin or kindness,
But some of peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius,
United in the strife which divided them;
- The speaker sets up another statement with an "if," saying that if he thought about a bunch of people who aren't particularly all that great, but who are united in "the strife which divided them," then he… well, as always, it takes him a long time to finish a thought, and he doesn't finish it yet here. What he seems to be referring to, though, is the war and how it manages to unite people under a common "strife," or hardship.
If I think of a king at nightfall,
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad,
And of one how died blind and quiet,
Why should we celebrate
These dead men more than the dying?
- The speaker mentions several famous figures in history who've died to much ceremony, especially Jesus, who was crucified with two other men (making it three "on the scaffold"). There have no doubt been other people who've died "In other places" without anyone taking much notice. No doubt, many people have suffered deeply.
- But, at the end of the day, he wonders why we should celebrate these dead men "more than the dying?" In other words, why don't we pay equal attention to everyone who dies? Isn't every human life worth the same thing? Is celebrating the deaths of some people more than others just a way of opening the door to selfish thinking? Won't we all just start trying to beat each other out for the best funeral?
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incarnation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
- We can't just go back in time and bring the past into the present, nor can we expect everybody to find religion again and become super-Christian (symbolized here by "the spectre of a Rose"). We can't "revive" all the old factions and groups that have fought throughout history, and we can't live our lives moving to the beat of "an antique drum." We need to find new ways to live, and new ways to engage with our world.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
- Great men of history like Jesus and all the people who were against him have all lived their lives and are now dead. In this sense, they have accepted their "constitution of silence" and are now all together, dead in the soil of the earth ("folded in a single party").
- Whatever advantages we've had in life, we inherit them from other fortunate people. Further, we've also taken "from the defeated" what they had to leave us. The defeated in this case is someone like Jesus, who left his death to us as a symbol that could only be perfect in his death. Why does death make the symbol perfect? Because it freezes it in time and helps it to be more permanent. After all, if Jesus had gone on to live the rest of his life and get overweight like Elvis, we might not remember him quite the same way.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
- Again, the speaker closes this section of "Little Gidding" by telling us "Don't worry, be happy," that everything is going to be okay. It's tough to say if he would've been this optimistic or comforting if the entire world around him wasn't exploding when he wrote this, but hey, we'll take it.
- Ultimately, what the speaker wants in the "Four Quartets" is for us to stop acting selfishly and to find a way to "purify our motives." He's only got two more sections to make his case, so it'll be interesting to see what sorts of closing arguments he can come up with, or if they'll be any different from the stuff he's been repeating throughout this poem.