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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.


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