“Alle shalle be wele”: T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding and Julian of Norwich’s Showings

Jewel Spears Brooker

The epigraph of T. S. Eliot’s first major poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the coda of his last, Little Gidding, contain the same image, enfolding tongues of flame. His Collected Poems opens with the voice of a damned soul, Guido da Montefeltro, who is being tormented in the eighth circle of Dante’s hell for giving false counsel to others, a sin committed with his tongue. Guido’s punishment, in keeping with Dante’s representation of divine justice, is a visual counterpart of the sin itself, and thus in perfect contrapasso, Guido is forever wrapped in a quivering tongue of flame. His voice merges with that of a modern deceiver, J. Alfred Prufrock, whose signature sin of endless rationalization also involves an abuse of language and whose punishment is to wander endlessly in the circular and smoky alleys of his own mind.

Flames flicker throughout Eliot’s poetry and, in his last important poem, Little Gidding, they are present from beginning to end. In the final lines, they form a kaleidoscopic image that summarizes the poem, the sequence of which it is the capstone, and Eliot’s work over the previous three decades. The fires of Little Gidding, far richer than those of “Prufrock,” gather into a single image flames of desire and suffering, destruction and redemption, as well as the tongues of the dead and those of the Holy Spirit. As the sin in “Prufrock” involves an abuse of language, so the redemptive process in Little Gidding impels a purification of “the dialect of the tribe” (CPP 141).1 In “Prufrock,” Eliot prefixes a quotation from Dante, a fourteenth-century poet; in Little Gidding, he enfolds a quotation from a fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich. The embedded words are uttered by a comforting Jesus who assures Julian that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, everything is going to be all right. Eliot’s complex image — tongues of flame folded in on themselves and transfigured into the petals of a rose — is his counterpart of Julian’s “Alle shalle be wele.”2

The fires of “Prufrock” and Little Gidding are suggestive of two continuing strands in Eliot’s moral imagination — the first, an awareness of evil; the second, a longing for transcendence. The reality of evil is apparent in his attraction to figures such as Augustine, Dante, T. E. Hulme, and Charles Baudelaire; the longing for transcendence in his identification with figures such as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. His awareness of horror and beatitude, displayed in such early poems as “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” played a role in his conversion in 1927. His baptism, however, was more than a commitment to the Church; it was also a commitment to England. In ensuing years, as Ronald Schuchard has shown, Eliot increasingly turned toward English models of spirituality. In poetry, this turn is evident in his new appreciation of George Herbert; in religion, it is shown in his renewal of interest in Julian of Norwich.3

Julian, who refers to herself as a simple and unlettered Christian woman, is the author of a fourteenth-century classic in European spirituality, A Revelation of Love. The origin of this book, the first to survive by an English woman, is described in the work itself. When Julian was thirty years old, she had a near-death illness. Her family gathered and the parish priest administered the last rites. He then placed a crucifix before her glazing eyes and instructed her to concentrate on it. Between the hours of four and nine in the morning of May 8, 1373, she experienced in rapid succession fifteen visions, and the next night, she experienced one more.4 In the visions, which were not seen by others, Christ appeared, revealing his suffering, responding to her questions, assuring her of his love. Soon after her recovery, Julian described her visions in graphic detail. At some later time, she became an anchoress and was enclosed in a cell attached to a church in Norwich, where she remained for the rest of her life. In 1393, twenty years after her illness, she wrote a longer description of her experience, adding insights gleaned from thinking about the visions over time.5 This later version reveals that she was an informed theologian and an original thinker. Julian lived into her seventies, at least, for in 1416, she was named a beneficiary in a will.

Eliot’s engagement with Julian was continuous from the early 1930s. His interest, which evolved and deepened, went through several stages. First, Julian was to him a symbol of continuity in the history of the English Church. In 1937, in an essay on Paul Elmer More, Eliot wrote:

In his introduction to Anglicanism . . . , [More] fails . . . to emphasize the continuity of the Church: one might think it was the invention of Hooker. He does not give recognition to the probable influence of the mystics of the fourteenth century — Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich — as late as the time of Lancelot Andrewes and George Herbert.6

Eliot’s reason for including Julian’s work in Little Gidding was also related in part to church history. In 1942, he said that he put Julian in the poem to give it “greater historical depth” by balancing his allusions to the seventeenth-century with allusions to the fourteenth, the “other great period” in church history.7

Second, Julian was for Eliot a symbol of a vital connection between art and mysticism. He discovered her at Harvard in 1913-14 when he read Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (1911), a landmark in the twentieth-century revival of experience-based spirituality. As indicated by the following passage, copied into his notes, he was especially drawn to Underhill’s analogy between the artist and the mystic:

Visionary experience is . . . the outward sign of a real experience . . . . As the artist’s paint and canvas picture is the fruit, not merely of contact between brush and canvas, but also of a more vital contact between his creative genius and visible beauty or truth; so too we may see in visions . . . the fruit of a more mysterious contact between the visionary and a transcendental beauty or truth . . . [T]he paint and canvas picture . . . tries to show . . . that ineffable sight, that ecstatic perception of good or evil . . . to which the deeper, more real soul has attained.8

Eliot, like Yeats, felt that he had been deprived of access to the world of the spirit by post-Darwinian materialism and the decay of Protestantism.9 In this religious vacuum, he was drawn to Aestheticism, an early modernist movement that turned art into a religion with its own mysteries and rituals. Although he resisted the identification of art and religion, he accepted the idea that the mystical and the poetic imaginations have much in common (SE 382-93). In Mystics of the Church (1925), Underhill praises Julian not only as the crown of English mysticism but as a powerful artist. She dwells on Julian’s ability to convey profound truths in “homely images,” quoting as an example: “A child, when it is a-hurt or adread, it runneth hastily to the mother for help, with all its might. So willeth He that we do, as a meek child.”10

Third, Julian was attractive to Eliot because of her philosophical imagination. In 1913-14, while reading Mysticism, he was working on a Ph.D. in philosophy. Underhill connects philosophy, especially that of Henri Bergson, whose lectures Eliot had recently attended in Paris, with the mystical quest.11 In Mystics of the Church, she discusses Julian as a philosopher distinguished by a combination of utmost subjectivity and utmost objectivity: “Apparently the most subjective, Julian is really the most philosophic of our early mystics.” As an example, Underhill quotes her vision of God as a still point: “I saw God in a point . . . by which sight I saw that He is in all things . . . He is the mid-point of all things . . . He is the ground, He is the substance.”12 In Murder in the Cathedral and Four Quartets, Eliot used this traditional mystical symbol a number of times, always associating it with the point of intersection between finite and infinite, time and eternity, as in Burnt Norton: “Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance” (CPP 119).

Finally, Julian was for Eliot a powerful example of a Christian struggling with the problem of evil. In A Revelation of Love, she affirms the goodness and omnipotence of God, but is unable to reconcile those attributes with the reality of suffering. She circles and worries, trying not to deny the authenticity of her revelation, trying not to undercut the authority of the Church or the Bible. She broods on the implications of original sin and the meaning of the biblical account of the fall, central in Augustine’s theodicy. In the process, as Denise N. Baker has shown, Julian “formulates her own original response to a theological dilemma at the center of Christian belief: the problem of evil.”13 At the time Eliot returned to reading Julian, he was also circling and worrying. An awareness of evil had been at the center of his poetry, his politics, and his understanding of history from the beginning, but after his conversion in 1927, that awareness had to accommodate a newfound belief in the power and goodness of God. In the mid-1930s, in Burnt Norton, he imagines a rose garden that is also a “first world,” suggesting that despite the flaming swords barring the way, it might be possible to circle back to Eden. In Murder in the Cathedral, written in the shadow of the rise of Nazism, he dramatizes the murder of Thomas Becket as a parallel to the murder of Christ and thus projects an affirmation based on the paradox of the fortunate fall. In the last three Quartets, written in 1940-42 when England was in the midst of a catastrophic war, he made his most strenuous effort to come to terms with the problem of evil. In this effort, he looked to Julian of Norwich, making her “alle shalle be wele” his own, indicating thereby that she had become a significant spiritual mentor. Julian’s basic theology and her Trinitarian imagination descend from Augustine, but as Baker has demonstrated, her interpretation of her revelations calls into question fundamental premises of his thought, primarily his account of the fall and original sin.14 Given the fact that Eliot considered original sin as the foundation for understanding not only the human condition, but also human history, his engagement with Julian inevitably would have involved a re-examination of his own moorings.

Of the writers who contributed to Eliot’s understanding of original sin, the most important were T. E. Hulme and Charles Baudelaire. These figures first led Eliot to address the central question in theodicy: what is the good of evil? Influenced by Hulme, Eliot began by connecting original sin with literary politics — specifically, with anti-romantic assumptions about human nature. In the 1920s, influenced by Baudelaire, he associated the doctrine primarily with the knowledge of good and evil, an emphasis that is explicit in his essays and The Waste Land (1922). By the 1930s, as shown in After Strange Gods (1934) and The Rock (1934), he had begun to think of original sin in theological terms, as an inherited propensity to harm others and to ignore God. In the early years of the Second World War, in Little Gidding, he attempted to understand sin as part of a larger good.

Eliot’s interest in original sin was piqued soon after his arrival in London in late 1914 through contact with Hulme’s ideas. A pioneer of Imagism and an anti-romantic crusader, Hulme believed that original sin was the key to understanding history. As he used the term, it referred primarily to the idea that humans are inherently limited and prone to over-reaching. In his introduction to Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, reviewed by Eliot in early 1917, Hulme claims that “Romanticism . . . blurs the clear outlines of human relations . . . by introducing into them the Perfection that properly belongs only to the non-human.” In a passage marked in Eliot’s copy, Hulme praises Sorel as a “classical, pessimistic” thinker who understands “that man is by nature . . . limited . . . In other words, [Sorel] believes in Original Sin.” Hulme goes on to define Romantics “as all who do not believe in the Fall of Man. It is this opposition which . . . underlies most other divisions in social and political thought.”15

The stress on original sin can be found throughout Eliot’s work. In “Second Thoughts About Humanism” (1928), for example, Eliot quotes Hulme on the distinction between the “religious” and the “humanist” attitude. The first, which Hulme associates with classicism, assumes that man is endowed with “Original Sin” and “in no sense perfect.” The second, which he associates with romanticism, assumes that “man is either perfectible, or capable of indefinite improvement.” Hulme maintains that these two attitudes generate two different value-systems. From a religious perspective, values are “absolute and objective”; from a humanist, values are “relative to human desires.” Although Hulme’s espousal of original sin was in part political, it included a moral dimension. In a sentence quoted by Eliot, he maintained that for romantics, “the problem of evil disappears; the concept of sin loses all meaning.”16 This is a crucial element in Eliot’s anti-romanticism and the point at which for him literature intersects with morality.

By 1920, Eliot had begun to take note of good and evil in the work of Baudelaire, whose Les fleurs du mal he had discovered at Harvard in 1908-09. Baudelaire epitomized romantic excess: in religion, he was a flamboyant Satanist; in private life, he was “perverse and insufferable” (SE 374). Nevertheless, in Eliot’s view, this ultra-romantic was “the first counter-romantic” (SE 376). In support of this assessment, Eliot said Baudelaire was one to whom “the notion of Original Sin came spontaneously.”17 Sin for Baudelaire was a means of self-discovery, a way of descending into the abyss. The first poem in Les fleurs du mal, “Au lecteur,” links the poet and his readers in a fraternity of evil by cataloguing their shared sins — avarice, murder, rape. The last line of this poem, “— Hypocrite lecteur,— mon semblable, — mon frère!,” quoted almost verbatim in The Waste Land, corroborates Eliot’s description of Baudelaire as a “deformed Dante.”18

In his 1930 essay on Baudelaire, Eliot defends his view that the French poet understood good and evil by quoting one of Baudelaire’s outrageous aphorisms: “la volupté unique et suprême de l’amour gît dans la certitude de faire le mal.”19 Eliot interprets this aphorism as follows:

This means . . . that Baudelaire has perceived that what distinguishes the relations of man and woman from the copulation of beasts is the knowledge of Good and Evil. . . [he understood] that the sexual act as evil is more dignified, less boring, than as the natural, “life-giving,” cheery automatism of the modern world . . . . So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; . . . and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. (SE 380)

In bringing Baudelaire to bear on the conditions of modern life, Eliot was led to reflect on one of the central issues in theodicy — namely, what is the purpose of sin or, put another way, what is the good of evil?20 His position is that, both logically and morally, the sense of good presupposes the sense of evil. In spite of Baudelaire’s addiction to romantic claptrap, he understood “that what really matters is Sin and Redemption.”

[T]he recognition of the reality of Sin is a New Life; and the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation — of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living. (SE 378-79)

Baudelaire’s position is a theological variant of the ancient structural idea formulated by Heraclitus: The way up and the way down are one and the same. This Heraclitean notion, used by Eliot as the epigraph to Burnt Norton, is the basic structural principle in Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Eliot’s Four Quartets.

The attempt to see evil as part of a pattern that is in some way good is at the heart of Four Quartets. The first, Burnt Norton (1935) was written as a stand-alone poem “l’entre deux guerres,” and the other three — East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941), and Little Gidding (1942) — were written in quick succession under harrowing conditions during the first two years of the Second World War. Of the four, Little Gidding is the most concerned with theodicy and most deeply indebted to Julian, who appears at the poem’s turning point. Its brilliant concluding image of tongues of fire turned in on themselves to become rose petals was the fruit of decades of thinking about fire and roses. When asked about the roses in Four Quartets, Eliot said “There are really three roses . . . ; the sensuous rose, the socio-political Rose . . . and the spiritual rose: and the three have got to be in some way identified as one.”21 Eliot’s reference to “three” both limits and expands his meaning, for as indicated by his allusion to the Trinity, three is both three and infinity. In the same sense, there are “three” fires. First, there is “destructive fire,” associated with flames shooting from German bombers in Little Gidding and with apocalyptic terror in East Coker. Second, there is the “purgatorial fire” of East Coker, referred to in Little Gidding as the “refining fire.” Third, there is spiritual fire, including in Little Gidding Pentecostal tongues of flame and revivified tongues of the dead. As with the rose, so with the fire: they are simultaneously three and one, simultaneously three and all. “Fire and ice” is also used three times in the Quartets. In the first instance, fire and ice are apocalyptic; in the second, purgatorial; and in the third, Pentecostal.

Four Quartets begins and ends in a garden, and this return is essential to its theodicy. The rose of Little Gidding was gathered from the garden of Burnt Norton. The first Quartet opens with a brief meditation on time and eternity, followed by an image of a bowl of rose leaves giving rise to “footfalls” echoing in the memory “Towards the door we never opened / Into the rose-garden.” Entering this “might-have-been” garden involves finding “the first gate / Into our first world.” The reiteration of “first” brings echoes of childhood, young love, and Eden; it hints of a return to innocence and whispers that “alle shalle be wele.” The garden is entered, at least for a moment, and it contains more inklings of Eden — “unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,” children “hidden excitedly, containing laughter,” roses with the “look of flowers that are looked at.” The vision is undercut, however, by the presence of a deceiving thrush and by immediate banishment: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” (CPP 118). The moment in the garden, nevertheless, turns out to be unforgettable, a pledge given in time of the reality of the transcendent, a pledge that sanctifies the temporal, for “only in time can the moment in the rose-garden . . . / Be remembered; . . . / Only through time time is conquered” (CPP 119-20). Eliot returns in the last movement of Burnt Norton to the “hidden laughter / Of children in the foliage” (CPP 122). These unsustainable moments, much like Julian’s visions, open windows to another world.

Several instances of Eliot’s use of fire and roses appear in the second Quartet, East Coker (1940). The opening lines describe large cycles of human history:

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored . . .

Old stone to new building, old timbers to new fires,

Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth. (CPP 123)

These fires, destructive but part of a self-renewing cycle, take Eliot back to East Coker, his ancestral home, where he observes his seventeenth-century forebears dancing around a bonfire: “Round and round the fire / Leaping through the flames” (CPP 124). As he watches this dance of life, his ancestors disappear back into the earth. In the lyric that follows, Eliot moves to a world in which destructive fire, now paired with unseasonable roses, takes on darker meanings. No longer part of the dance of life, it becomes the agent of an apocalypse that ushers in the end of history. East Coker II describes a world in which disorder on earth is mirrored by disorder in nature. Late November is disturbed by sensations of spring. “Late roses” are filled with “early snow”; the Sun and Moon drop from the sky; comets weep. With Hitler’s planes soaring over Europe, it is also late November in the history of civilization, which risks being “Whirled in a vortex that shall bring / The world to that destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns” (CPP 124).

The most striking instance of the combination of fire and roses in East Coker comes in part IV, a meditation on the meaning of Good Friday and the most overtly theological passage in all of Four Quartets. In a tightly structured lyric about the paradoxical underpinnings of the atonement, Eliot writes:

If to be warmed, then I must freeze

And quake in frigid purgatorial fires

Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars. (CPP 128)

These purgatorial fires, like the apocalyptic fires that usher in the end of history, are associated with ice. They are also associated with roses, making them forerunners of the paradisial fire at the end of Little Gidding.

In a general sense, Little Gidding clarifies what had been implicit in the previous three poems — that Four Quartets as a whole constitutes a demonstration of the struggle to reconcile good and evil by finding unity in warring elements, different seasons, and conflicting voices. Structurally, it supports the theodicy theme by completing the circular journey begun in the rose garden of Burnt Norton. Thematically, it collects and transfigures images such as the dance and the fire/rose cluster that hint of ultimate goodness. In addition, it includes several figures whose work deals with theodicy — Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Milton. Augustine provides the foundation that Julian and Milton use as reference points. Julian resists his interpretation of the fall, and both she and Milton (but not Eliot) reject the idea of original sin.

In a more focused sense, Little Gidding should be seen as a war poem. From September 2 – November 7, 1940, the Germans bombed London every night. On May 10, 1941, there were over 3,000 casualties in a single raid. Eliot was in the city much of this time, and in 1942, as he was working on Little Gidding, he was aware that Hitler had conquered most of Europe and was expected to invade England. In the opening months of the war, Eliot had served as an air-raid warden, spending two nights each week on Kensington rooftops watching for fires. At dawn, he would walk through the shattered streets to his flat, an eerie experience that became the basis for the “Compound Ghost” section of Little Gidding. He uses his situation in the midst of one war to reflect on other wars — the Great War, the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, “forgotten wars” of the fourteenth century — and on philosophical issues raised by war.

As Little Gidding opens, the protagonist has retreated from the blackened streets of London to the shimmering lanes of a small settlement seventy-five miles to the north, Little Gidding, a place that in the English Civil War had been a beacon of holiness. This movement in space is also a movement in time, from the twentieth century to the seventeenth, and a shift of focus from present to past antagonists, primarily to the “broken king” Charles I who had found sanctuary in Little Gidding, the leader of the opposition Oliver Cromwell, and the poet/statesman John Milton. The time is midwinter, the shortest day of the year. With London burning, it also appears to be midwinter in the history of England. But in this winter darkness, the sun flames the frozen ponds, and light, both natural and supernatural, breaks through the gloom.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches. (CPP 138)

The blinding glare, “more intense than blaze of branch,” ushers in a timeless moment, a “spring time . . . not in time’s covenant.” This “midwinter spring” awakens the spirit with Pentecostal fire, not with “a mighty rushing wind,” as at the first Pentecost (Acts 2), but with tongues of flame flashing on ice. This is the third time that fire and ice have appeared together in Four Quartets. In East Coker, they were associated with the destructive fire that ushers in the reign of the ice-cap and with frigid purgatorial fires that are part of the cure recommended by Christ, the wounded surgeon. Here, in Little Gidding, at a moment of great peril, fire and ice are associated with beatitude, with the descent of the Holy Spirit and the rising of the human spirit. These icy flames also beckon the voices of the dead, not only Eliot’s poetic mentors, but his forebears in the faith, beginning with those present at the first Pentecost. Despite being gifted to speak in tongues, these saints and poets, “when living,” “had no speech” for what

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. (CPP 139)

The descent of the Spirit is a pledge of presence in a time of woe. The Spirit, in the Bible called the Comforter (John 15:26), uses voices of the dead, including Julian’s, to whisper that, despite the ostensible triumph of evil, “alle shalle be wele.”

In part II of Little Gidding, the speaker is back in the stricken city, breathing the dust from collapsing buildings and burnt roses. Having spent the night watching for “the dark dove with the flickering tongue”, that is, the German bombers spewing fire, he heads for home through devastated streets. In “the uncertain hour before the morning,” he meets a ghost compounded of several of his spiritual and poetic mentors, including Dante, Swift, and Yeats. The presence of Dante underscores an analogy between the speaker’s encounter with ghosts in the ravaged city and Dante’s similar encounters in the infernal city. The Compound Ghost chastises the homing fire-watcher for his sins and then reveals that the alternative to hell is purgatory.

From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit

Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire

Where you must move in measure, like a dancer. (CPP 142)

For the frustrated pilgrim wandering in the scorched city, the choice of fire or fire is little comfort. Before reiterating the terrifying link between the dark dove breathing fire on innocents and the bright dove descending on Christ at his baptism, Eliot summons another ghost, Julian of Norwich. Unlike the others, Julian turns her eyes from personal failings, preferring to imagine the good that can come of pain “Now, and in England” (CPP 139).

The problem of pain is at the heart of Julian’s theodicy. She defines sin as the physical and psychological pain endured by Christ and all mankind: “the shamful despite and the utter noughting [humiliation] that he bare for us in this life, and his dying, and alle the paines and passions [sufferings] of alle his creatures, gostly and bodely [spiritual and physical].”22 Although she feels uneasy about doing so, she wonders “why, by the grete forseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sinne was not letted [prevented]. For then thought me that alle shulde have be wele.”23 As she grieves over this situation, Jesus appears, not as a formidable male, but as a tender mother.

Jhesu Crist, that doth good against evil, is oure very moder [mother]: we have oure being of him, . . . with alle the swete keping of love that endlesly foloweth . . . . oure moders bere us to paine and to dying . . . . But oure very moder Jhesu, he alone bereth us to joye and to endlesse leving [eternal life] . . . . This fair, lovely worde, “moder,” it is so swete and so kinde in itselfe that it may not verely be saide of none, . . . but of him.24

As a mother to a puzzled child, Jesus responds with the comforting words quoted by Eliot six centuries later at the end of his visit with ghosts in the streets of London: “Sinne is behovely [necessary, appropriate, beneficial], but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shalle be wel.”25 Julian can understand how the suffering of Christ was “behovely,” but she flounders in the face of human suffering. She refuses to believe that God could be vengeful, and she rejects the doctrine that suffering is punishment. She interprets “sin is behovely” to mean that evil will lead to good, and so instead of counting “things ill done and done to others’ harm,” as the Compound Ghost does, she counts possible goods: suffering leads to self-knowledge and to knowledge of God; pain provides the occasion for Christ’s compassion for us and our compassion for others. As Baker notes, sin is pedagogical.26 In spite of apprehending these goods, however, Julian cannot fathom the saying that “alle shalle be wele.” During her youth, the Black Death ravaged England; from 1348-50, it killed between thirty and forty per cent of the population. As an adult, she had witnessed evil deeds. “Ther be many dedes evil done in oure sight and so gret harmes . . . that it semeth to us that it were unpossible that ever it shuld come to a good end.”27 She repeatedly objects to the saying that “alle shalle be wele,” and Jesus repeatedly responds, “It is soth [true] that sinne is cause of alle this paine, but alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thing shalle be wele.”28 Always courteous, always “shewing no maner of blame,” he simply says “alle shalle be wele.” He usually says it three times, signifying for Julian that he speaks for the Trinity.

It is significant that Eliot’s quotation of Julian comes at the end of his stroll with Dante through the streets of hell. She was especially troubled by the doctrine that suffering in this life would be followed by suffering in the next.

One point of oure faith is that many creatures shall be dampned [damned]: . . man in erth that dyeth out of the faith of holy church . . . also man that hath received cristondom [Christianity] and liveth uncristen life, and so dyeth oute of cherite. All theyse shalle be dampned to helle without ende . . . And stonding alle this [this being so], methought it was unpossible that alle maner of thing shuld be wele.29

This was an urgent matter for fourteenth-century Christians, for many who perished in the Black Death died without having a chance to confess their sins and receive the last rites of the Church. Jesus again urges her not to worry, promising that everything will be all right. Julian decides that his saying must have two meanings. One part, which is clear, concerns salvation; the other, which is hidden, does not.30 If it is true that “alle shalle be wele,” then God must have “a secret,” which she imagines as a “deed which the blisseful trinite shalle do in the last day . . . This is gret deed ordained of oure lorde God fro without beginning, . . . only knowen to himselfe, by which deed he shalle make all thing wele.”31 In part, Julian is simply being humble, but she is also conveying her hope that all suffering will be redeemed, all people be saved.

Eliot’s “Sin is Behovely, but / All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well” modifies the Augustinian/Dantean perspective of the Compound Ghost by adding the perspective of Julian. After quoting her, Eliot ruminates on the meaning of the saying. His immediate reference point is “this place,” Little Gidding, and the civil war that darkened England in the seventeenth century. He ponders the situation of brothers killing brothers, all fighting for God and England. The antagonists, “touched by a common genius,” were not villains — Charles I, who fled to Little Gidding for sanctuary, but eventually died on the scaffold; Cromwell, who led the parliamentarians, but whose death was followed by the restoration of the monarchy; Milton, Cromwell’s Latin Secretary, “who died blind and quiet” after finishing Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. These men were even then “United in the strife which divided them” and now are reconciled among the stars.

These men, and those who opposed them

And those whom they opposed

Accept the constitution of silence

And are folded in a single party. (CPP 143)

The phrase “folded in” anticipates Eliot’s image of reconciliation at the end of the poem, in which tongues of flames are folded in on themselves to make a rose. The reconciliation includes the combatants in the civil war, but it also includes the reconciliation of the living with the dead. For Eliot the poet, this reconciliation would have included Milton. Eliot was not an unbiased reader of seventeenth-century history, and in his early essays, he had allowed political and religious partisanship to compromise his assessment of Milton. By the 1940s, he knew that history would fold them into the same party — that is, the party of poets whose greatest work deals with good and evil.

Although Eliot’s attention is primarily on a seventeenth-century war, his language brings in other times and other conflicts. Eliot’s enfolding of Julian brings in the fourteenth-century, with its “forgotten wars.” “The spectre of a Rose” brings in the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses. “Why should we celebrate / These dead men more than the dying?” is a reminder of the twentieth-century war now raging, with soldiers dying “here and abroad.” The abandoned “king at night-fall” brings in the martyrdom of Christ and “three men . . . on the scaffold” brings in the three crosses on Golgotha. This cruel history has left enduring scars, but for Eliot, as for Augustine, Julian, and Milton, something deep in the human spirit, some “trilling wire in the blood,” inextricable from Providence, “Sings below inveterate scars / And reconciles forgotten wars” (CPP 118). The meditation on history in part III ends with the reassuring voice of Julian’s Jesus:

And all shall be well and

All manner of things shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching. (CPP 143)

These lines combine two sayings of Julian’s Jesus: “alle shale be wele” and “I am grounde of thy beseking [beseeching]. . . . sithen [since] I make the to beseke it . . . How shouldst it than be that thou shuldest not have thy beseking?”32 In Eliot’s reading of Julian, the benediction is not unconditional; it is contingent on grounding oneself in love and purifying one’s motives.

In part IV, the heart of the theodicy in Little Gidding, Eliot returns to the scene depicted in part II, the incinerated London streets on which he had been reprimanded by the Compound Ghost. The essential backdrop for part IV includes both Augustine and Julian. The lessons Eliot brings from Augustine have to do with the reality of sin and the inevitability of consequences; the lessons from Julian include her belief that suffering is not only a necessary part of human existence, but in some hidden way a beneficial part. The larger pattern of Little Gidding begins to emerge in this section of the poem. In part I, set in the hamlet of Little Gidding, the refugee from culture finds peace in the sun-sparked streaks of fire on an icy pond in midwinter. These flames (both illusory and real) stir his spirit, ignite Pentecostal fires, and loosen the tongues of ghosts. These beatific tongues are Julian’s fires. In part II, set on the streets of a burning metropolis in wartime, an agitated fire warden finds a monstrous dove breathing flames on civilians and meets a Compound Ghost who reproves him for personal wrongs. These are Augustine’s fires. In part III, the exasperated pilgrim beckons Julian to help him make sense of history. And now in part IV, Eliot merges the image of the descending dove of part I with that of the descending bombers of part II.

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. (CPP 143-144)

The successful coalescence of the bomber, an image of war and devastation, and the dove, an image of radiance and peace, is due in part to the visual overlap. The bomber appears in the sky as a giant dark dove: gray, bird-shaped, hovering or in flight, red-tongued. The connection is supported by language, much of it associated with fire (incandescent, discharge, pyre) that can be applied simultaneously to the bomber and the Holy Ghost. Both generate “incandescent terror” —the bomber by falling fire, the dove by sudden epiphany. Both bring tongues that declare “the one discharge from sin and error,” the bomber by discharging its incendiary load and ending lives; the Holy Ghost by pointing to Christ whose suffering discharged the debts of mankind. The paradoxes ending the stanza play with three meanings of fire — destructive fire, purgatorial fire, and refining fire. They suggest that, in ways yet to be revealed, these three are interrelated and that both physical and spiritual suffering are behovely.

The “pyre or pyre” alternative is terrifying, but also consoling because it includes on one side the redeeming fire of God’s love. “Who then devised the torment? Love.” This is the theodicy question, the same question posed by Augustine and Milton. The response, however, is Julian’s. At the end of A Revelation, she asks Jesus to explain the meaning of her visions.

What, woldest [wouldest] thou wit [know] thy lordes mening in this thing? Wit it wele, love was his mening. Who shewed it the? Love. What shewid he the? Love. Wherfore shewed he it the? For love.33

Julian concludes by declaring, based on decades of meditation on the problem of evil, that God loved us before he made us, and that his love has never slackened and never will, in spite of appearances to the contrary. As rhetoric, her conclusion is glib; as the fruit of decades of enduring and observing suffering, her conclusion is profound. Her wisdom, however, is not for the casual reader. Only those who have observed and experienced evil and tried to reconcile it with the goodness of God can understand her meaning. As one who had lived through one world war and was caught in a second, as one who had experienced estrangement and unhappiness, Eliot considered Julian’s conclusions to be wise. He also shared her position that one cannot demand to know all the truth about everything. The opening line of one of his earliest poems is “Hidden under the heron’s wing,”34 and in the following passage, written in the 1930s, he joins the concept of hiddenness and the still point, both crucial in Julian’s understanding of theodicy.

O hidden under the dove’s wing, hidden in the turtle’s breast,

Under the palmtree at noon, under the running water

At the still point of the turning world. O hidden. (CPP 86)

It does no good to assault the heron and the dove to find out what they are hiding. As Julian says: “the more we besy [busy] us to know his prevites [privates, secrets] in that or in any other thing, the ferthermore shalle we be from the knowing.”35 The superimposition of the dark and the white doves is the obvious context for understanding the theodicy implicit in the second stanza, but the shadowy presence of Heracles [Latin: Hercules], hinted at in the “pyre or pyre” phrase, is also crucial.

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. (CPP 144)

The central element in the myth of Heracles is the account of his “labors,” all of which involve a struggle with and triumph over death. All are a variant of his descent to the underworld, where he worsted Hades and brought Alcestis back alive to her husband. Eliot’s source is Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis, which tells the story of the hero’s homecoming. Contaminated by his sanguinary labors, he has to purify himself in order to avoid carrying violence into the domestic and civic spheres. Like Agamemnon, he arrives with a lovely captive. Like Clytemnestra, his wife Deianira is distressed, but instead of taking a lover and slaying her husband, she devises a trick to rekindle his love. Years earlier, she had been assaulted by a centaur engaged by Heracles to carry her across a river. Heracles shot the centaur with a poisoned arrow, but as he lay dying, the centaur told Deianira to save some of his blood, and if Heracles should prove unfaithful, she could use it to regain his love. When Heracles approached, she sent him a shirt dipped in the blood. He put it on and proceeded to light the altar fires. The fire activated the poison in the blood and thus made his shirt of flame irremovable. Horrified at having harmed her husband, Deianira killed herself. Realizing that death was the only way to end his torture, Heracles immolated himself on a pyre on Mount Oeta. His self-immolation fulfills several cryptic prophecies and leads to the apotheosis of the hero. As the play ends, the Chorus laments that the gods have no pity for mortals.

The myth of Heracles touches on several themes which are central to Eliot’s emerging theodicy: war, sacrifice, love, and most of all, atonement. Eliot weaves together three narratives. The first is that of Everyman, including the speaker; the second, that of Heracles; and the third, that of Christ. On all three levels, there is a descent to hell. The speaker has just emerged from a conversation with ghosts in the streets of London; Heracles has descended into the underground and overcome Hades; and Christ descended to Hades on Good Friday. “The intolerable shirt of flame / Which human power cannot remove” is suffering. For Everyman, it is inseparable from original sin; for Heracles, from his freely shot poison arrow; for Christ, from his fall, to use Julian’s image, into the Virgin’s womb. The name on the label of the shirt, paradoxically, is Love.

In the last movement of Little Gidding, Eliot gathers the themes of all four poems and composes them into an elegant and profound poetic theodicy. He achieves perfect concord between the form — four parallel compositions inspired by his love of Beethoven’s late quartets — and the theme — the harmony that eventually will be seen to exist between discordant parts of human experience. The theodicy has several essential elements. The first, which can be associated primarily with Augustine, is that it must acknowledge the reality of evil in human history. For Eliot, this meant accepting the doctrine of original sin, which for him had little to do with guilt and much to do with making sense of history. From Cain’s murder of Abel to Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews, history had been defined by reciprocal malice, a situation he associated with human nature after the fall. In Little Gidding V, he insists that being human means living inside this history, where every action “Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat” (CPP 144). History is not simply the past; it is “now and England.” “Now” is midwinter 1942; England is the country in which he lives. The second and related element in Eliot’s theodicy is that one must acknowledge the good and the beautiful, especially those moments in the rose garden that enable one to imagine being redeemed from history. The material world points to the immaterial, the natural to the supernatural; in Eliot’s poignant phrase, nature bowers “echoed ecstasy.” To pick up these echoes, one must tune in to the “Whisper of running streams, . . . The laughter in the garden” (CPP 127 ).

The third element in Eliot’s theodicy is that it must be forward-looking, teleological, as in Julian, rather than backward-looking, etiological, as in Augustine. Augustine’s basic questions about the existence of evil were related to its origins: when and where did it originate? who is to blame? His reference point was the beginning of history — that is, creation and subsequently the fall. Julian’s basic question, on the other hand, was related to the ends (effects) of history: given the human condition, what good can come of suffering? Her reference point was primarily the future in which God would perform a “secret” deed that would make everything right. Eliot is also forward-looking, drawn by an end which is both a purpose and a destination.

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. (CPP 145)

Eliot’s fourth element, inseparable from the third, is that the way forward involves a loop in time. The exploration leads to the “first gate” which opens to the might-have-been rose garden of Burnt Norton and from that imagined place to our “first world.” To reach that world, one discovers at the end of Little Gidding, it is necessary to go “Through the unknown, remembered gate.” The fact that the “unknown” gate, once found, will be “remembered” suggests that the discovery is a metaphor for the return to Eden.

The fifth element in Eliot’s theodicy is that it must allow for mystery. As discussed earlier, Eliot believed that something precious is “hidden under the dove’s wing,” “under the heron’s wing.” In the last paragraph of Little Gidding, he mentions the “voice of the hidden waterfall,” a voice “heard, half-heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea.” These hidden wonders are what Julian refers to as God’s secrets. God’s secrets are emphasized by another fourteenth-century mystic, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing,” whose words Eliot folds into this part of the Quartets. The line “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling” was written by an English monk who, like Julian and Eliot, kept his face to the wind. His version of an ancient paradox is that in order to find the way, it is necessary to enter a “cloud of unknowing”; in order to know, it is necessary to “know only that we know nought.”36 Such spiritual humility is integral to most mystical theodicy. In the coda of Little Gidding, as in the epigraph to “Prufrock,” the tongues of flame simultaneously conceal and reveal a someone, a voice, Presence.

The final point in Eliot’s theodicy, the one he has been moving towards from the beginning, is atonement, literally at-one-ment. This theme is caught in the coda of Little Gidding.

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. (CPP 145)

By the end of Little Gidding, the fire and the rose, which Eliot has been using as separate images for three decades, have accumulated incredible resonance. The fire has been associated with physical suffering, with damnation and purgation, with psycho-religious states from sexual passion to spiritual elation to mystical union, with material properties such as destruction and creation, with natural cycles of winter and summer. In Four Quartets alone, fire is associated with the intimate family hearth, ancestral fire festivals, indiscriminate fires falling on London, and apocalyptic fires that could usher in a new ice age. In its connection with purgation and apocalypse, fire has been paired with ice, both beautiful, both unifying, both catastrophic. Fire is associated with tongues of flame — those of the Holy Ghost, the saints at Pentecost, and the living dead from Heraclitus to Augustine and Dante to W. B. Yeats. All of these connections and more are hovering over the coda of Little Gidding.

The rose, similarly, has been accumulating significance in Eliot’s poetry for decades. It has been associated with a carpe diem motif, with beauty, sexual passion, might-have-been love, and might-have-been innocence. “The single Rose / Is now the Garden / Where all loves end . . . the Garden / Where all love ends” (CPP 62). In Burnt Norton, it is linked to both paradise lost and paradise regained, to lost and recovered love, to a gate into a “first world.” It also carries the resonance of Eliot’s other flower gardens, notably the hyacinth garden of The Waste Land, the site of an ecstatic experience leaving the protagonist looking into the “heart of light.” As the fire brings a multitude of witnesses to its symbolic power, so does the rose. In Little Gidding, the witnesses include Yeats with his ideal Rose and Dante with his multifoliate rose, specifically folded into the coda of Little Gidding. By the end of Eliot’s poetic career, the fire and the rose as separate symbols have gathered significance too great for words, and in the last line of the poem, the two are joined in a single line that embodies good and evil, beauty and horror.

“The fire and the rose are one” is a consummate image of atonement. It not only reconciles Eliot’s awareness of evil and longing for transcendence, but in the context of this poem, historical characters like Augustine and Julian, Charles I and Cromwell. It is a reminder that antagonists in wars great and small will be pacified, that the living and the dead, including Eliot and Milton, will be conciliated. The knotting of the fire and the rose binds life and death, whispering that pain is part of birth and death part of life. The reconciliation touches personal animosities in the human community, including marital estrangement. It includes not only peace on earth, but peace with God arising from the pain endured by Christ. While epitomizing these rapprochements, the image maintains difference. The paragraph of which it is the end, moreover, emphasizes the connection of reconciliation with return. The prefix “re” is an etymological reminder that these words, at the heart of Eliot’s theodicy, include the idea of conciliating again, of recovering something that has been lost, thus supporting the intuitions of prelapsarian unity and a loss of innocence. As Eliot writes in East Coker, “Home is where we start from” (CPP 129).

The incandescent beauty of the fire and the rose, however, should not detract from the crucial point that the closing image is adverbial. The main clause in the coda, the part that announces the ‘yes indeed’ of Eliot’s theodicy, is the double “All shall be well.” This direct quotation gives Julian of Norwich pride of place, even above Dante, who is situated in the modifier. The enfolded and enfolding of the tongues of flame and the petals of the rose compose the picture and sound the notes that substantiate confidence in the harmony of the spheres. “Alle shalle be wele.”


1 Quotations from T. S. Eliot’s works are cited in the text using the following abbreviations; when lines are sufficiently identified, by title or section of poems, no citation appears: CPP:

T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays [1909-1950] (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1952).

SE: T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, new ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950).

2 “A Revelation of Love” 13.27, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Version Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love, ed. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), p. 209. The version used by Eliot: XVI Revelations of Divine Love Shewed to Mother Juliana of Norwich, preface by George Tyrrell, S. J. (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1920). This was a printing of the editio princeps that, under a slightly different title, Serenus Cressy, O. S. B. had prepared and published in 1670.

3 Ronald Schuchard, “‘If I think, again, of this place’: The Way to Little Gidding,” Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.175-97.

4 “Revelation of Love,” chapters two and three, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, pp. 125-35.

5 “Revelation of Love,” 14.51, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 277.

6 T. S. Eliot, “Paul Elmer More,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 37.17 (February 5, 1937): [373]-74.

7 Helen Gardner, The Composition of Four Quartets (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 70.

8 Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911) (New York: Dutton, 1961), 271. The quotation is an abridged version of a long passage Eliot copied on a note card, now in the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

9 The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (1916) (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 77.

10 Evelyn Underhill, Mystics of the Church (1925) (New York: Schocken, 1964), pp. 130, 131.

11 Underhill, Mysticism, p. 30.

12 Underhill, Mystics of the Church, pp. 128-30.

13 Denise Nowakowski Baker, Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 63.

14 Baker, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, pp. 68-69 [63-82].

15 T. E. Hulme, “Translator’s Preface,” Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1916), p. ix [v-xi]. T. S. Eliot, review of Reflections on Violence, Monist 27 (1917): 478-79. Hulme, as Schuchard has shown, contributed substantially to Eliot’s growing interest in classicism, royalism, and Anglo-Catholicism. See “Hulme of Original Sin,” Eliot’s Dark Angel [52-69].

16 The Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme, ed. Karen Csengeri (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 444. Eliot, Selected Essays, pp. 437-38.

17 T. S. Eliot, “Baudelaire in Our Time,” For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928), p. 98 [86-99].

18 T. S. Eliot, “The Lesson of Baudelaire,” Tyro 1 (Spring 1921): 4 [4].

19 Translation: “The greatest and most singular joy in making love lies in the certainty of doing evil.” The aphorism is to be found in Fusées III, which Eugène Crépet ushered into print in Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres posthumes et correspondances inédites (Paris: Maison Quantin, 1887).

20 For further reflections by Eliot on Original Sin and evil, see After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934), pp. 61-62.

21 Gardner, The Composition of Four Quartets, 137.

22 “Revelation of Love,” 13.27, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 209.

23 “Revelation of Love,” 13.27, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 209.

24 “Revelation of Love,” 14.59; 14.60, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, pp. 309, 313.

25 “Revelation of Love,” 13:27, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 209.

26 Baker, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, p. 70.

27 “Revelation of Love,” 13.27, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 221.

28 “Revelation of Love,” 13.27, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 211.

29 “Revelation of Love,” 13.32, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 223.

30 “Revelation of Love,” 13.30, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, pp. 216, 217.

31 “Revelation of Love,” 13.32, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 223.

32 “Revelation of Love,” 14.41, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 249.

33 “Revelation of Love,” 16.86, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 379.

34 T. S. Eliot, “Hidden under the heron’s wing,” Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, ed. Christopher Ricks (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), p. 82.

35 “Revelation of Love,” 13.33, in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 227.

36 Quoted in Underhill, Mysticism, 337.