THE other day, I took a small group of students and colleagues to Little Gidding. We were a mixed company: some were coming on a literary pilgrimage; some were coming for spiritual space and sustenance; some, perhaps, just to get away from the drudge and intensity of the Lent term in Cambridge (“the place you would be likely to come from”, as Eliot drily and obliquely put it); some of us perhaps unsure which of these three reasons had the upper hand.
But we came, nevertheless, on a stormy February day, leaving the rough road, turning “behind the pigsty to the dull façade, And the tombstone”, and there we all were, once more at the end and beginning of things.
It was a wonderful day, and a joy to breathe Eliot’s great poem into the air in the place that inspired it, while “the light failed on a winter’s afternoon in a secluded chapel”. There is, indeed, something mysterious about that place. I have visited it many times, alone and in company, with many purposes in mind, many expectations; but what it gives is always something different, there is always a surprising fecundity in its familiarity, as with each visit you rediscover that
what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.
(Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”)
I thought I had come to introduce the place and its history, the poem and some of its sources, as I have done many times before; and, indeed, I did these things, but they were, as Eliot says, only the shell, only the husk. We had the early afternoon free, and some of us decided to brave the storm and take the little walk to Steeple Gidding. Our way was almost immediately blocked by a great sea of mud on the usual old track, impassable in our inadequate Cambridge footwear. I would have given up, but one of my students said “Let’s find another way,” and so we set off up the little road, along the hedgerow that Eliot promised would be “White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness”.
In May, maybe, but not in February. Back on the main road, we found another, more promising track, and were off again, constantly rebuffed by the big wind and spattering rain — blown back, but determined more than ever to press on.
My students forged ahead on wet edges between field and woodland, and I followed their lead, struggling to catch up. And, when we came clear together on to a stretch of usable track, further up the way we had earlier abandoned, they had great beaming smiles of triumph, their faces shining and ruddy with the effort and the bite of the wind.
As we pushed on towards the little church at Steeple Gidding, I suddenly remembered how, last year, I had stood in the still air and warmth of my study at Girton while those same students nervously read their essays in practical criticism, and I tried to open and encourage their capacity to appreciate poetry. But here they were, well ahead of me, no longer reciting the dry rehearsal, but breathing in the real stuff.
And so, for me, the purpose of our visit broke sheer and clear like clean new grain from the husk, and I knew that my task had been completed, and I could retire gracefully.