Poetry Analysis: Little Gidding IV by T.S. Eliot

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The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

Submitted: April 21, 2015

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Submitted: April 21, 2015



Poetry Analysis: Little Gidding IV by T. S. Eliot

By: Nwachukwu Lawson Luke



The dove descending breaks the air

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

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.


Literary critic, playwright, editor and Nobel Laureate, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on Sept. 26, 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1898, he attended Smith Academy where he studied Latin, Greek and French. After battling with inguinal hernia, a medical condition which describes the protrusion of the abdominal cavity contents, he found a way to overcome his physical limitations—writing. Although he was born an American, he moved to the United Kingdom at the age of 25 and obtained British citizenship at 39.

Despite producing few poetic pieces, (probably due to his health problems), Mr. Eliot influenced several notable poets like Ezra Pound, Allen Tate and Hart Crane. In 1948, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature; he also won the Order of Merit award (in that same year).

After a long battle with emphysema, he succumbed to death on 4 Jan, 1965 in London, England. He is hailed for his immense contributions to the English literary world.


Named after the home of an Anglican community, the poem was first published in Sept, 1942. It is the fourth and the final poem of the four Quartets—a series of poems which shows the poet’s perspective on time, humanity and salvation. Its physical setting is the 20th century Universe, which stood in dire need of cleansing.

Critiqued for its overt religiosities, notably by Malcolm Cowley and Delmore Schwartz, it emphasizes the need for spiritual purification and purgation. The poet, who was a member of the Anglican church, apparently believed in Pentecost (as seen in the first Quartet) and in the existence of an eternal fiery torment. It comprises 2 stanzas with a total of 14 lines.

Line 1

The descending dove signals the entrance of a ghost into humanity. According to traditional Pentecostal beliefs, the dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit; the Bible records that during the baptism of Jesus, a dove descended on his head and a voice came down from the heavens (Matt. 3:16).

In Greek lexicology, the English word: “spirit” or “Ghost” is usually translated as “pneuma.” it means “Air” or “Wind;” thus, The descending dove (the Holy Spirit) breaks the air (is everywhere).

Lines 2-4

The Ghost appears to have come with the intent of purification; for he carries with him ‘flames of incandescent terror.’ Lines 3-4 describes the Ghost’s acceptance—of which tongues declare his ability to, indeed, purify from sin and error.

Lines 5-7

Here, the poet says that although the cleansing process is rigorous and difficult, humanity should still desire to see its manifestation.

Lines 8-12

The poet appears to stand in defense of the Ghost; he says that love is the motive behind the cleansing and that humanity should stop avoiding this process.

Lines 13-14

The poet conclusively states that humanity is presented with two choices: either accept the fiery purification from the Ghost or be trapped in an eternal fiery torment.

The three Quartets: “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker” and “Dry Salvages” apparently represents the elements—air, earth, and water. “Little Gidding,” the last of the Quartets, overtly depicts images of the fiery element (the last of the elements), and since it was named after a church community, it should not be surprising that its interpretation is a religious one.


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