T.S. Eliot’s early poetry is full of natural symbolism. There is the fog in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the wind in “Gerontion”, and of course the water, fire, and thunder in The Waste Land. The same is true of the Four Quartets, with rivers, oceans, roses, and yew-trees all playing significant roles in the development of the poems. The most important symbols, though, are those of light and fire. In the Quartets, sunlight is used to show the danger of worldly illusion, whilst also leading us on the path to God. Fire is used similarly: whilst it can be a source of distraction or even of destruction, it also stands for the idea of purgatorial or cleansing fire, a fire that is teleologically good. It is through these symbols of light and fire that Eliot guides us on our poetical journey from the Dantesque ‘place of disaffection’ of “Burnt Norton” to the ‘condition of complete simplicity’ reached in the poem’s finale, the fifth movement of “Little Gidding”.
The image of sunlight is first used in Eliot’s description of the dream-like ‘rose-garden’, which we come upon by walking through ‘the door we never opened.’ We are immediately in the world of the unreal, the realm of ‘What might have been’, creating an instant sense of unease reinforced by Eliot’s question: ‘shall we follow / The deception of the thrush?’ As we enter this ‘first world’ (words which suggest ignorance and naivety, whilst also indicating an Eden-like idyll) we are on guard, aware of an immanent sense of uncertainty – who are ‘they’, and what is the ‘unheard music’ hidden from our ears? The uneasiness of this description is increased when Eliot refers to the roses which have ‘the look of flowers that are looked at,’ implying a sort of superficial masked performance or false pretence. Then we stumble upon the dry pool which is suddenly ‘filled with water out of sunlight’ so that ‘The surface glittered’. Out of this water grows a ‘lotos’, recalling the drug-induced escapism of Odysseus’s men in Homer’s epic, implying that this rose-garden reverie could hinder us on our journey to God. We then learn that this water is no more than an illusory trick of vision, a desert mirage deceiving the mind. So here, the sunlight misleads the mind into imagining that the pool is full of water. Just as the symbol of water is a symbol of hope and growth in The Waste Land, so too is it in “Burnt Norton”, the lack of water suggestive of a bleak reality. Perhaps this is why Denis Donoghue describes the rose-garden as ‘man’s fantasy-refuge’. And yet, the bird (perhaps, as Morris Weitz argues, not the deceptive bird of before but a bird of truth) then says ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’ which may suggest that what we have just witnessed, the ray of sunlight creating an illusion of water, was a glimpse of actuality which we can only experience for a brief moment. And so, whilst the sunlight creates an apparent illusion, that illusion may be a glimpse of the reality that we, as temporal beings, struggle to reach. Perhaps the light in the rose-garden shows, in the words of F.R. Leavis, ‘a reality that, though apprehended in time, is not of it.’
In movement three of “Burnt Norton” sunlight plays a similar role. The ‘place of disaffection’ is dominated by a ‘dim light’ rather than the ‘daylight’ we saw before, daylight which turns ‘shadow into transient beauty / With slow rotation suggesting permanence’. Again there is a sense of uncertainty here created by the oxymoronic words ‘transient’ and ‘permanence’, possibly implying the duality of the light’s effect. Whilst the symbol of light shows a ‘transient beauty’, it also ‘hints’ or ‘guesses’ at some other reality, some extemporal ‘permanence’. In order to get beyond these ‘hints and guesses’ (which, we learn, hint at ‘Incarnation’) we must either live by ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action,’ or we must ‘Descend lower’ into the ‘Internal darkness, deprivation / And destitution of all property…’ In order to reach what the light is only glimpsing at, perhaps we must completely escape the light, engulfing ourselves in a dark and destitute world of ‘Desiccation’, ‘Evacuation’ and ‘Inoperancy’, the death of one aspect of the self. As Constance De Masirevich argues, ‘The key to the thought of T.S. Eliot is the idea of sacrifice as a means of becoming, of birth through death’ – hence, ‘In my end is my beginning’ and the fusion of birth and death in “Journey of the Magi”. Only through suffering a rigorous ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ will we ever experience the reality beyond this tired existence, the reality loosely revealed by the light. So, the path we walk down has ‘no secure foothold’ and is menaced by both ‘monsters’ and ‘fancy lights’ which risk enchanting us. The symbol of light, then, can both deceive us and guide us. It can create illusions, but if we escape certain aspects of selfhood and the various hindrances of temporal reality, it can also act as the ‘grace of sense, a white light still and moving’ – another oxymoron to show the inexpressibility of this timelessness.
The symbol of fire plays a similar role in the Four Quartets. Just as the sunlight in the rose-garden seems to create an illusion, so too can fire play an entrancing and almost deceptive role in the poems. In “East Coker”, we are captivated by the description of the ghostly dancing ‘Round and round the fire’ and we vividly imagine figures ‘Leaping through the flames’. The reference to ‘rustic laughter’ also recalls the image of the children in the rose-garden, suggesting again those ‘hints and guesses’ of the sunlight. And yet, the language of this description seems almost mocking – it is, apparently, ‘A dignified and commodious sacrament’ which ‘betokeneth concorde’. This, as Masirevich argues, is ‘human-kind held in the circle of time, striving to bring dignity to its animal joys and ecstasies.’ Just as the ‘hollow men’ dance ‘round the prickly pear’, so in “East Coker” these figures are ‘joined in circles’ and dance ‘round and round’ in endless futility. They are ‘Keeping time’, trapped in the temporal bounds of the average human existence. Their dance around the fire descends into no more than ‘Dung and death’. And so, here there are no hints and guesses, there is no permanence or timeless reality – there is only a dark dance of animalistic urges, temptingly mirthful and yet inevitably transient. Even the language is deceptive, drawing us back into the past of Eliot’s ancestors and imitating Thomas Elyot’s work The Boke named The Governour.
As well as being a symbol of enticement, fire also acts as a force of destruction. At the start of “East Coker” the speaker describes the role of fire in the destruction and regeneration of life in the human world. Eliot writes: “Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, / Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth…’ Just as in The Waste Land, fire is a symbol of the human world’s dangerous depravities, so in the Quartets it is a source of apocalypse, a ‘destructive fire’ which shall burn the world. However, fire is also a positive motif. In the fourth movement of “East Coker”, Eliot describes how ‘The whole earth is our hospital’, possibly a reference to the hospitals and infirmaries of WWII, waged whilst Eliot was writing this poem. But the hospital of “East Coker” is also religiously symbolic, with Christ as our ‘wounded surgeon’, wounded by the stigmata of the cross. It is only through Christ and through the ‘dying nurse’ (which Curtis Bradford says represents the Church) that we can escape this hospital. Eliot explains that ‘to be restored, our sickness must grow worse’, which suggests that pain and destruction can indeed have a positive aspect to them – the hospital is the ‘vale of soul-making’ (Keats) described in Irenaean theodicies. The destructive fires of the first movement, then, become ‘frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.’ The rose has now become a symbol of God’s love, manifested in Christ’s death on the cross and the Eucharistic ceremony – ‘The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food…’ This idea of a painful purging is recalled later on in the description of ‘The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror’ (arguably a reference to the Blitz) which can discharge us from ‘sin and error’ through fire. The torment and terror of the ‘intolerable shirt of flame’ which we must wear has been devised by ‘Love’, Eliot explains – we must either be consumed by the fire of the human world, or cleansed by God’s loving flames, again showing the duality of this symbol.
Fire, then, has become a positive image, one of cleansing and hope. This is clear in the description of ‘midwinter spring’ at the opening of “Little Gidding”, which combines the symbols of both light and fire. The difference between this description and the rose-garden description, though, is that, as David Perkins suggests, whilst in the rose-garden description we were only looking at the ‘heart of light’, in the latter description we are in the centre of it – the fire, the sunlight, the glow and the glare are all around us. We are confronted by a ‘glow more intense than blaze’ which ‘Stirs the dumb spirit,’ recalling those pious lines from Hopkins’s “The Windhover” – ‘My heart in hiding stirred for a bird.’ This is not just a ‘transient beauty’, it is ‘pentecostal fire’ which flames out both within time (‘the dark time of the year’) and without time (‘not in time’s covenant’). And so, this is clearly a more powerful image than that of the rose-garden, and yet it is arguably still only a ‘glimpse’ of the true reality – the hedgerow only has a ‘transitory blossom’ and the bloom is ‘sudden’. Though it is a development from the rose-garden mirage created by sunlight, it is still not ‘the unimaginable / Zero summer…’
It is often said that each one of the Four Quartets is associated with one of the elements, and there is surely no doubt that the final quartet, “Little Gidding”, is associated with the fire of God. It is in Little Gidding, the small Cambridgeshire town which represents ‘the world’s end’, that Eliot has found ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’ both in and out of time – ‘Never and always.’ The eternal and the temporal have finally met. Perhaps Eliot’s hope is that we can escape the view of time as a linear construct and instead live in the ‘Now’ so that we can see history not as ‘time past’ but as ‘a pattern / Of timeless moments’. Only then can we reach the ‘condition of complete simplicity’ which costs ‘not less than everything’ (in that we have given up our selves). Thus, it is in Little Gidding that ‘All manner of thing shall be well.’ In Little Gidding, where Nicholas Ferrar established his religious community, ‘the tongues of flames are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.’ Though it might only be possible in Heaven, this is what Eliot has been searching for. After overcoming the ‘Tumid apathy with no concentration’, after accepting the death of the old self in the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and after suffering the pains of purgatorial fires, the symbols of God’s authority (fire) and God’s love (rose) have finally been combined.