19 May 2013

‘And all shall be well’ … on the Day of Pentecost

“And all shall be well and/ All manner of thing 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” ... sunset in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Day Pentecost, which falls 50 days after Easter Day and ten days after the Ascension. As the disciples were coming together to pray, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” Divided tongues, “as of fire,” danced above their heads, and “all of them were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (see Acts 2: 2-4).

Evie Hone’s window in Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara, Co Meath, has images of Pentecost interspersed with images of Saint Patrick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Later this morning I am celebrating the Pentecost Eucharist as a teaching Eucharist with part-time students on the MTh course.

But I am also reminded this morning of ‘Little Gidding,’ which is the fourth and final poem in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and is Eliot’s own Pentecost poem.

‘Little Gidding’ begins in “the dark time of the year,” when a brief and glowing afternoon sun “flames the ice, on pond and ditches” as it “stirs the dumb spirit”:

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.
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.

The poem uses the combined image of fire and Pentecostal fire to emphasise the need for purification and purgation:

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.

In ‘Little Gidding,’ Eliot combines the image of religious renewal with the image of the London air raids and the constant fighting and destruction within the world. This compound image is used to discuss the connection of holy places with the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, communion with the dead, and the repetition of history.

The Nicholas Ferrar Window in the chapel of Clare College, Cambridge

Eliot visited Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire only once, in May 1936. There Nicholas Ferrar had formed a small Anglican community over three centuries earlier in 1626. The community at Little Gidding lived according to Anglican principles and the Book of Common Prayer. However, the community was scattered during the English Civil War and eventually came to an end with the death of John Ferrar in 1657. The church at Little Gidding was restored in 1714 and again in 1853.

Although Eliot visited Little Gidding in May 1936, this poem was not published until September 1942, having been delayed for over a year because of Eliot’s declining health and the air raids on London during World War II.

“... You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid” – TS Eliot ... The Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Little Gidding

‘Little Gidding’ deals with the past, present, and future, and humanity’s place within them as each generation is seemingly united. The poem focuses on the unity of past, present, and future, with an understanding that this unity is necessary for salvation. In this poem, humanity’s flawed understanding of life and turning away from God leads to a cycle of warfare, but this can be overcome by recognising the lessons of the past.

‘Little Gidding’ is a poem of fire with an emphasis on purgation and the Pentecostal fire. The beginning of the poem discusses time and winter, paying attention to the arrival of summer. The image of snow, which provoke desires for a spiritual life, moves into an analysis of the four classical elements of fire, earth, air and water and of how fire is the primary element of the four. This is followed by a discussion of death and destruction, things unaccomplished, and regret for past events.

The poem then describes the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz in World War II. The image of warfare merges with the depiction of Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit is juxtaposed with the air raids on London. Humanity is given a choice between the Holy Spirit or the bombing of London; redemption or destruction. God’s love allows humanity to be redeemed and to escape the living hell through purgation by fire.

At the end of the poem, Eliot describes how he has tried to help the world as a poet. He meets a ghost, who combines various poets and literary figures from the past, including Dante. Speculation about the other poetic and literary figures contained in this spectre includes Virgil, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and the Irish writers WB Yeats and James Joyce who had died recently, or even the shade of Nicholas Ferrar.

Eliot and the ghostly figure or spirit discuss change, art and how humanity is flawed. The only way to overcome the problems of humanity’s flawed condition, according to the ghost, is to experience purgation through fire.

The fire is described in words that echo the description of God’s love by Julian of Norwich. ‘Little Gidding’ continues by describing the eternal contained within the present and how history exists in a pattern:

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
all manner of thing shall be well.

The poem concludes by explaining how sacrifice is needed to allow an individual to die into life and to be reborn, and that salvation should be the goal of humanity.

Excerpts from ‘Little Gidding’:


Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
Whem 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.
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. 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?

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.
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 facade
And the tombstone. 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 fulfilment. 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.

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 notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. 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.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

“What we call the beginning is often the end ...” – TS Eliot. Reflections at the end of the day in the waters of Minster Pool in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The poem concludes with words from Julian of Norwich and images of Pentecost too:


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. 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 but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. 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.
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.
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. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

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, unremembered 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 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 thing 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.

‘If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges / White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness’ ... Cross in Hand Lane, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin.

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