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Fire or Fire: A Question Answered

As for us, now will we come to thee, our Consuming Fire. And thou wilt not burn us more than we can bear. But thou wilt burn us.

George Macdonald

Nearly five years ago I wrote a poem which came out of a time following a friend's sudden death. I can't say the poem is about the individual death but it was written in the wake of it, in the winter season, and in a time of personal gloom. It wasn't without clumsiness but it captured well enough a suspicion, or an apprehension, I had about the nature of our life here on Earth. This is it:

A wild fancy old as time allows

will flit from you to me to someone new

and let our mouths so sagely to announce

on Earth we're only trav'lers passing through

By this contagious wisdom it's implied

whenever we wear out our patch of ground

the pleasures of the world shall be denied

and we will from the dead earth be unbound

And with such an unbending fact as this

we must – if we are spiritually sane -

face that our own phantasmagoric mist

is all that after death will then remain

What a mountain of the spirit to be mined,

accepting that our land and home and bonds

are only moments on a rock where we recline

'til we gather our few things and wander on!

But I wonder if this isn't just a play

where we relish that we cast ourselves the martyr

and gain, immortally, our soul to stay

by giving up the whole world in the barter

Imagine if the Savior when at last

he deigned to be nailed cruelly on the cross

rose proudly as the third day came to pass

and said “I live now! Though the world itself is lost”

This trick of ours, this subtle sleight of hand

allows us to be comfortable with lying:

that we're the living thing and not the land,

that we are not the thing so near to dying!

Is it rather not more probably the truth

that the force of life comes through us like a fire

and burns us up like kindling in our youth

and moves on to another waiting pyre?

And does it not seem more likely a thing to you

when beyond the bland old posturing and fuss

we admit it's not the world we're passing through

but the world that's swiftly passing right through us?

And that all the words and music that we write

and every scrap of work thrown in the pot

is the pleading with the world with all our might:

“Forget me not! forget me not! forget me not!”

The poem is not a lesson in subtle or hidden meaning. For better or worse it lays quite plainly the suspicion: that what we think of as life, and what we think of as ourselves, are not the same thing. We are not so much spirit trapped in physical matter. Rather we are matter, with its local particularities, which momentarily traps spirit and then gets passed over. Or burned up, “like kindling in our youth.” Our apparent humility in repeating the “contagious wisdom” - namely, that we are not of this world and we are “only strangers passing through” - is not true humility. It is only the vain hope of a temporary thing. We “cast ourselves the martyr” in order to gain immortality at the expense of the world. The hard acceptance of seeing ourselves as spirits who must give up material possession to attain higher experience belies the far deeper dread that we are in fact the things which are temporary, made of dust, will be left behind sooner than later. Left behind by what? Life itself. The spirit of the world. The immortal. Whatever it may be, it is something decidedly not us. We have our moment, a leaf of wheat in the wind. And before we have even begun to fully thrill of our new motion, the wind has moved down the pasture and out of reach.

This was what I was brooding on five years ago and now I ask myself: am I brooding on it still? Is this still a suspicion I have of the way life is, of what people are? Are we fundamentally temporary or do we own a stake in something immortal?

And have I learned anything since the time of this poetic inquiry? Have I anything to add now?


And now I must report an utterly unexpected answer to my question. I did not start writing this little essay today knowing an answer, but a kind of external answer, or at least a response, has come to me tonight. I have reached for T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets on my shelf, not because I have ever read them, but out of pure compulsion. I have been looking for Malcolm Guite's book of poems called The Singing Bowl, but I can't find it in the disorder of my library, and so instead I am leafing towards Little Gidding, the fourth poem in Eliot's series. I am only familiar with its name and the approval with which I have heard good writers reference it.

And as I struggle along, trying to orient and settle myself in the poem, I find that, remarkably, Eliot is talking about purifying fire. It is in fact the poem's main thematic image.

“And what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

Interesting. Yet by now it is 1 a.m., and I am like K in Kafka's Castle, falling asleep just as the official is offering hopeful and meaningful information. But before that can happen, I am shocked to come to the fourth part of the poem:

“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.”

Has the world spoken to me by guiding my hand to a book which overwhelms my own image of fire with one of its own? Does it even meet me at the very line which is the crux of my poem – the question – by matching the same two rhyming words?

My question: Is it rather not more probably the truth

that the force of life comes through us like a fire

and burns us up like kindling in our youth

and moves on to another waiting pyre?

The reply:

The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre- To be redeemed from fire by fire.”


It has been a few days now since coming across this passage from Eliot, and I have tried to understand what it has done to my question. Little Gidding is a village in Cambridgeshire, England. Eliot wrote his poem during the days of World War II when Britain was being bombed nightly. “The dove descending” draws its double meaning from these bombs which, for Eliot, were falling in the present tense. And it is a kind of shocking and uncomfortable parallel, this association of the dove of the Holy Spirit with the Nazi attack on his homeland.

If we pull back a bit, we can see the picture clarify, though not exactly soften. Here is the entirety of part IV of Little Gidding:

“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.”

“Pyre or pyre” ... “fire or fire”

It seems Eliot was trying to alert us to a parallel world walking alongside the daily horrors of his – and much of his generation's – experience.

In my poem's vision of reality, there is a fundamental distance between us and the force of life. We may have the brief illusion of possessing it, but we soon are left behind and return to lifeless matter. Eliot, on the other hand, asks us to distinguish between two kinds of fire. Alongside the destructive fires of life, stoked by the hatreds, ambitions, and mistakes of the world, there is another, mysterious fire which always accompanies it. It shows itself as a flash of spring in midwinter. A rushing mighty wind. But if we do not know or believe or even suppose that there is any such fire, a kind of holy fire...if we believe only that the fire of life we long for - are possessed by - is the same that burns us up into nothing, then we cannot even begin to think of possibilities beyond death. Or beyond the calamities of the moment.

But if we believe in this “Pentecostal fire,” even if we just suppose it might exist, Do we gain anything? To turn to Eliot's opening metaphor, we gain a “midwinter spring.” Something flashes warm in the darkest hour, not saving us from suffering, but assuring us we are not suffering meaninglessly, or permanently.


I also found some commentary from Malcolm Guite on this poem, not on the above passage but an earlier one, also with fire as the symbolic image. In part III of Little Gidding, Eliot very deliberately uses the terza rima style of Dante's Commedia.

‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated sprit proceeds/ unless restored by that refining fire/ where you must move in measure like a dancer’

On these lines, Guite comments:

“They allude, of course, to the moment near the end of the Purgatorio when the pilgrims ascend towards the Earthly Paradise, the garden of our origins and of our restored humanity, at the summit of the Holy Mountain. But Eden is surrounded by a circle of fire. The poet-pilgrims must pass through that fire, in which the last of love’s imperfections will be purified. Desire for the beloved must be redeemed from the possessive lust which makes a person an object, and restored to that wholeness of love in which the beloved is desired and loved, body and soul, for herself as person. It is only when Virgil reminds Dante that his beloved Beatrice is waiting for him beyond the fire that he has the courage to enter the flame.”

In my poem, the vision I had was a bleak one, though I suspected it may be the truth. Whatever we are, whatever collection of characteristics, urges, experiences, we have more in common with transitory matter than animating spirit. We are the thing which gets used up by some unknowable force, burnt up, and scattered. Our greatest hope can only be that whatever it is that briefly animates us will remember us after we are long gone. “Forget me not! Forget me not! Forget me not!”

In this vision there is no participation, no active will, only a minimal, confused, and temporary sense of identity and desire. But Guite's comments remind us of the Christian symbology of fire via a famous scene in literature that Eliot indisputably had in mind while writing Little Gidding. This holy fire is “refining,” or purifying, not annihilating. One cannot pass through it without losing something or being changed in some way, but it is not the merciless, indiscriminate force of a falling bomb. One might even say it cares about us, sees something of itself in us, and by its nature, protects that something.

I suppose it can be said – thanks to the depth of Eliot's poem and not my own – that my question isn't entirely obliterated by the answer I have found in Little Gidding. Rather than blot out my own vision, or rebut its flaws, Eliot's poem pulls back a veil to reveal possibilities beyond what I had considered in my time of perplexity and sorrow. It doesn't deny the presence of the destructive fire, nor does it deny our fragility. But Eliot suggests that in spite of our limits, we are a creation that can make a fundamental choice. We can choose which fire to be possessed and consumed by. The natural, mindless, annihilating fire, or holy fire.

I can to some extent follow the philosophy, or theology, of these dual meanings as they are laid out, especially if the writers or poets presenting the abstractions are gifted. But what does this mean on solid ground, out in the actual, non-abstract world? It is something of a mystery to me still, but Eliot, George Macdonald and others seem to suggest that if you can voluntarily submit to being consumed by the spiritual fire, a fundamental part of you can survive the destructive fire of death. Do I actually believe this, you ask? I don't know. Ah, but you didn't ask if I knew. In the absence of knowing, one has to believe one thing or another, provisionally of course. And in that case, yes, I do believe there is something eternal about each of us that resembles in miniature something beyond us. And that the golden cord between it and us is not altogether severed, and is being perpetually rediscovered. And if that cord is not leading us to something like love itself, what use is there believing or doing anything at all? What else is worth believing?

Incidentally, I do see the irony of calling Eliot's poem an answer to mine, as it precedes mine by some 7 decades. But this is the strangeness of literary time. We are answered by those who have come before us. There are strange anachronistic meetings always taking place between great, minor, and homely works, meetings that take place in the heads of people stumbling around in their studies. And so, somehow this great English poet replied to my question before I ever was alive to ask it. I have to wonder, in the struggle of life against death, what – or who – else has gone before me?

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