Who Then Devised the Torment? Love.


T.S. Eliot is the only poet to be both featured in my copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and its American counterpart. He was born in St. Louis in 1888, but moved to London — becoming a British citizen in 1927. He is such a significant figure that both nations claim him as their own.

Perhaps Eliot’s greatest accomplishment is Four Quartets — four related, but separate poems published over a six-year period. They deal with the connection of time and eternity — of Chronos (linear time) and Kairos (“the timeless moment”). Like in Eliot’s early works, the poem connects to numerous earlier writings — such as, in this case, to the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the scriptural account of Pentecost, a Hindu text, and the Christian mystics John of The Cross and Julian of Norwich. He also makes allusions to both Milton and Dante.

The fourth section of Four Quartets, “Little Gidding” was published in 1942.

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.

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.



  1. David

    Magnificent stanzas.

    And timely for me, since I’m currently reading a history of the place that inspired these words — Little Gidding. Why there haven’t been more places like it, I can’t fathom.

  2. whipple

    Thank you for featuring this. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.

    I’ve heard, though I cannot remember where, that Eliot was converted at some point, and that the change can be read and felt in his work. Is this the case? All I’ve read is The Wasteland and Old Possum’s….

    In the meantime, I shall be glad to open up Four Quartets.

  3. Lanier

    Philip and I have read the Quartets over and over again–they are increasingly beautiful and painful. Our last perusal was during Lent last year, and Eliot’s words had such a white-hot purity about them, a strong, chastening charge, that it really made the season especially meaningful for both of us. Thank you for featuring the honorable T.S. today, D.S.! 🙂

  4. Eowyn

    Very majestic….Not sure I know what in the world it means, but I’ll figure it out….OH! Never mind that. I got it. Marvelous poem.

  5. Micah

    I’m with the Petes.

    Toward the end of “Burnt Norton,” I found myself muttering, “This is no poem; this is a dadgum wrasslin’ match!” I started wondering if I had won my English degree through sheer chicanery.

    Imagine my delight, then, when I found these lines a few pages over in “East Coker”:

    That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
    A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
    Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
    With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
    It was not (to start again) what one had expected.

    See? Even the POET calls it a wrasslin’ match.

  6. James Witmer

    My favorite English professor quoted her professor as saying that if only he could get people to read Four Quartets, he would consider himself a success.

    @Whipple – Indeed, Eliot was a staunch Anglican long before he died, and CS Lewis changed from mis-trusting Eliot and hating his work to becoming a friend and supporter.

    My reading of Eliot as a primary source is not robust, but I understand that his work is better understood as a continuum – that he asked good questions and described spiritual wrestling before his conversion (ie Prufrock), and increasing hope thereafter.

    My professor is working on a book about Eliot, Lewis & Sayers that I desperately hope gets published.

  7. Elizabeth of the Kirk in the Woods

    So good, so good.

    Poetry that speaks truth is so powerful.

    I must read this.

  8. Jen

    “The dove descending breaks the air
    With flame of incandescent terror”

    Lines like that make me giddy and wonder why I don’t read more Eliot.

  9. Carrie

    I’ve been “living in” The Four Quartets for much of the past year, meditating on phrase after phrase. It’s the kind of work that needs that sort of time, to roll over and over again in your mind until you’ve kneaded out a new kernel of understanding – which will be upturned and reillumined the next time you read the stanza.

    It’s a work that, while not inspired, I find to be almost as doxological as the Psalms.

    There was a great article recently in Curator magazine about getting “Lost in the Four Quartets” -http://www.curatormagazine.com/davidthomas/lost-in-the-four-quartets/

    @Whipple – Eliot converted in 1927, joining the Anglican church. His earlier works, particularly Prufrock and Waste Land, are considered some of the pinnacles of modernism – many of his contemporaries were utterly bewildered by The Four Quartets, with its hopeful (and inherently Christian) themes.

  10. Loren

    There are moments when I think I might finally be “old” enough to grasp something of Eliot–these lines smote me!

    …And if the “Carrie” who posted is indeed my much younger sister, you can see that she’s gotten “old” on Eliot before me. But I’m not surprised 🙂 . She’s pretty wise.

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