Study Guide

Four Quartets Little Gidding, Section 4

By Eliot, T.S.

Little Gidding, Section 4

Lines 827-833

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
    Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
    To be redeemed from fire by fire.

  • This pesky dove seems to be flying around us again, and usually we'd think it was a symbol of peace, but the speaker has complicated that idea in "Little Gidding." First of all, what kind of dove "breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror"?
  • Again, this could be a good thing because the speaker thinks fire is rejuvenating; but still, this is one scary dove.
  • So here's what this dove seems to be telling us (according to the speaker): the only way we're going to improve our world ("discharge from sin and error") is if we make a choice that ends up hurting or "burning us" ("pyre or pyre"). If we're going to be redeemed, all of our choices are going to be painful ("redeemed from fire by fire"). But hopefully, it'll all be worth it in the end. 
  • It looks like the speaker knows that one of the toughest things about making people change is getting them to accept that it'll be painful.

Lines 834-840

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
    We only live, only suspire
    Consumed by either fire or fire.

  • If all of us are in need of a good whoopin', then who is it that decided this is necessary? Who's the higher power in all of this?
  • Well in a word, it's Love. Love is the one thing that'll drive us to make the right decision even though it's difficult. After all, it was Love personified that was behind the "hands that wove / The intolerable shirt of flame." This is a reference to the "shirt of Nessus" from Greek myth, which was the poisoned shirt that eventually killed the great hero Hercules. 
  • The shirt of flame symbolizes the terrible pain of "burning away" our love of ourselves and replacing it with a higher, more divine love. We do not have the power to remove this shirt from ourselves, and all we can really do is give in to its burning and allow ourselves to become something more than goal-driven, self-admiring individuals. In the end, there's no choice; we can be "consumed by either fire or fire."