Clearly, T. S. Eliot is the most influential poet writing in English in our time. There is probably no living writer about whose work there has grown up such a body of critical commentary. So great has been his reputation that a few years ago an American university had to move the site of a lecture by the poet from its largest auditorium to the football stadium (in the manner of a Billy Graham rally) to accommodate the 14,000 people who wished to hear him, a phenomenon surely unique in the current neglect of poetry.
Eliot’s work, both poetry and prose, although the poetry alone can be considered here, has a peculiar significance for the Christian, whether he be theologian, preacher, or layman, for Eliot has diagnosed and described with the most acute perception the spiritual malaise of our time. He has portrayed the lost inhabitants of “the Waste Land” with an irony that is at once pitiless and compassionate. He has shaped phrases that are unforgettable and has fashioned rhythms that, once heard, haunt the ear forever. He has fused the past and the present, ugliness and beauty, the majestic and the tawdry, the timely and the timeless, in poetry which is (according to his own unrivaled definition) “thought felt.” And in some of his work, he has lifted a prophetic voice that has echoes of the great voices of the past in an idiom that is uniquely his own.
While his name is known everywhere since he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1947, and while his greatness as an artist and his importance as a critic are generally acknowledged, the Christian implications of his work are probably not widely recognized. Surely if the history of literature teaches us anything, it is the power of great poetry to survive “the rude wasting of old Time.” Whether Eliot’s poetry has this quality of enduring greatness, or whether it is likely to be limited to the age which gave it birth, we cannot say. But it is a voice crying in the wilderness of our Waste Land.
In his earlier work the almost innumerable literary allusions in several languages, combined with the abruptness and discontinuity of his juxtapositions, weave patterns so complex as to be almost incomprehensible to some intelligent readers; but, unlike the work of many of his imitators, his patterns, in spite of their apparent fragmentation, their unusual syntax, do yield up meaning upon study and analysis. And the riches, once discovered, are certainly worth the strenuous effort they demand.
One may compass a small and simple chapel in a brief inspection, but the great cathedral requires time and study for its appreciation. So the true poet demands and deserves our study and reflection. No mere “reading” will yield up his riches. Nor will a smattering of anthology selections give any idea of such a poet’s stature, nor any proper understanding of his work, for it is a whole and rises structurally out of the vision of a lifetime.
The Pre-Christian Mood
Eliot’s work ranges the modern world from the time of the First World War. It falls basically into three stages. There is the first period of the early poems, prior to his conversion to Christianity, a period characterized by a revulsion from the spiritual aridity and moral decadence he saw making a waste land of our Western culture.
In this stage, his work is chiefly negative, beginning with the pathetic portrait in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” of a self-conscious, indecisive and futile middle-aged bachelor of the Boston Brahmin class who is afraid of life, afraid of its demands, its responsibilities, its mystery. Trivial decisions and enervating indecision beset him, compass him about, drown him in frustration.
Eliot can move from this refined and inhibited type of character, who “measures out his life with coffee spoons,” to the man of excess vitality and little intelligence, “Apeneck Sweeney.” With his incomparable gift for irony, Eliot pictures him “among the nightingales” that are singing near the Convent of the Sacred Heart where he is ashore in some low dive about to be “rolled.” The vulgarity of the scene with the drunken “person” who tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees, is sharply juxtaposed against the singing of the nightingales which bring to mind the night of Agammemnon’s murder by his wife. So, as frequently in other poems, the noble and tragic chords of the past are played against the ignoble and strident dissonances of the present.
In “Gerontion” there is an old man in a dry month waiting for rain and for death without having really lived:
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt march, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house …
In this poem there is also a sense of imminent judgment.
In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger …
No longer is He the Lamb of the paschal feast, of the Holy Communion,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers …
Now He is the Lion, the tiger. “Us he devours.”
The poem is an almost terrifying compression of the horror of the spiritually purposeless and unredeemed life. “Vacant shuttles weave the wind.” It is a modern version of the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes. All is vanity, and age is a slow dwindling to dust.
In all these early portraits of Eliot’s gallery there is an almost surgical objectivity. His people are like patients “etherized upon a table.” They are dead while they live.
It is this aspect of our society that preoccupies him at this time and horrifies him. It is the spiritual emptiness of “the hollow men,” sterile, impotent, without purpose, drifting in a sort of limbo like Dante’s, a valley of shadows, of dry bones, a cactus land, where they ‘grope together and avoid speech,” where “lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stone,” unable to complete even an incantation of the Lord’s Prayer. They can only dance around the prickly pear in a sort of nursery ritual awaiting the end of the world. They are not “lost, violent souls,” but only hollow men.
His most famous poem of this period, “The Waste Land,” is an extremely concentrated and cryptic analysis of our Western civilization, without God, and therefore without faith, without hope, without genuine love. The perversions and travesties of love are revealed at all levels of the social scale and are sharply juxtaposed to hone the incisive irony of the sketches.
There is first, in the section entitled “A Game of Chess,” the portrait of a lady in her boudoir, and the description of the sybaritic setting not only parodies but rivals in beauty the famous description of the barge of Cleopatra which Shakespeare puts into the mouth of his Enobarbus. The unnamed woman here is clearly distraught, nervous, neurotic.
“What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?” she cries finally, and the masculine voice of resigned ennui replies
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
Directly from this scene among the upper class, we are taken to a pub at closing time where two women are talking over their beer about a third who is trying to prevent the birth of a child, her sixth. (She is only thirty-one.) Love at both levels has been twisted, debased, its growth inhibited, and its proper fulfillment denied.
The third scene, mediating between these two, is curiously placed in the third section. Here we find the same denial of genuine love. A young typist “home at teatime” submits passively, morally and spiritually apathetic, without any real desire, to the utterly selfish approach of “the young man carbuncular.” When he has gone, she rises, “hardly aware of her departed lover”
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
The poem ends with a kind of wistful hope. There is a sound of thunder. Perhaps there will be rain in the desolate land. At least the speaker, the mutilated and impotent ruler (symbolic of fallen man’s spiritual heritage and moral incapacity?), can attempt to set his own lands in order. There is here at least the recognition of man’s need of grace, the life-giving water on a thirsty land.
One can detect in the poems of this early period Eliot’s increasing revulsion as he contemplated life at its various levels without God and without hope.
Eventually, in 1927, after a growing interest in the English church and state, he united with the Anglican church and became a British subject. Exactly what motivated or advanced his conversion to Christianity we cannot say, for he has not told us explicitly. But his reading of Lancelot Andrewes, the great Elizabethan Christian and scholar, and the metaphysical poets, chiefly Donne, and particularly his reading of Dante, were undoubtedly factors. And the very great influence of the critic, T. E. Hulme, is also notable. At any rate, the change becomes apparent in his poetry and critical essays.
The second stage in Eliot’s development is characterized by a turning toward and statement of spiritual affirmations. At the beginning of this period there are two specifically Christian poems, biblical in their source and both related to the Incarnation, a concept which is to become central in his thinking. There is “Journey of the Magi,” based on a Christmas sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, and suggesting the Birth that was “hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” The dramatic voice, one of the Magi, says that they returned to their places, their Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
“A Song for Simeon” speaks in a similar voice, but here the old man speaking has come from the Chosen People who have been anticipating and longing for the appearing of their Messiah. Now the aged prophet can die in peace, having seen His salvation.
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
But the most famous poem of this period of turning to positive Christian themes and values is undoubtedly “Ash-Wednesday.” It is a poem of conversion, and one of the central symbols in it is the purgatorial spiral stair, the turning, the moral struggle, and recovery. This poem most clearly suggests the influence of Dante and is full of echoes of his work, especially the Vita Nuova and the Purgatorio. But there are biblical allusions also, from Song of Songs, Ezekiel, the Revelation, and the Gospels. It begins with the death of hope, with the existential despair of self. There is a rejection of carnal love as incapable of satisfying the thirsty soul, but still there is the persistence of desire.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair …
And there is echoed the word of the centurion in Luke, “Lord, I am not worthy.” Then from this Everlasting No, and from the Center of Indifference, which Carlyle a century earlier had so vividly depicted, the poet moves to the Everlasting Yea, to resurgent faith, to the lost vision of Light. But the Word still escapes, is beyond reach. There is the need for grace, there is the prayer for humility, and there is the final surrender in the phrase of Dante’s, “Our peace in His will.”
The images in this poem, as its title would suggest, are essentially Catholic, but, beneath the images, a spiritual experience is shared which is very similar to any genuine turning, whether Catholic or Protestant, a turning to God the Saviour from the false gloria mundi. The thoughtful evangelical Christian can recognize here the spiritual ascent essential to the growing experience of the grace of God in the work of the Spirit in sanctification. It is no accident, although it is a curious observation missed by many, that the two most widely separated extremes of the Christian faith—the hierarchical and liturgical Roman Catholic and the free, almost formless Society of Friends—meet at the point of the mystical experience of God in self-surrender and self-abnegation, and the need for grace and redemption. Actually, Eliot’s work combines in a mysterious fashion strands from the Puritan and Calvinist as well as the Catholic traditions. Undoubtedly he is eclectic, but not in the amorphous manner of Emerson. All that he has gathered from the literatures of the world, from anthropology and modern psychology, from Greek and Oriental thought, he has woven in some way into a basically Christian design.
Eliot moves from these earlier “Christian” poems in the “third voice” to a group of poems of the highest order of contemplative and philosophical verse. The group, now known as “Four Quartets,” begun with “Burnt Norton” in 1934, was not completed until the third stage of his development in 1943, although this group is essentially of the second.
It would be impossible in a short essay to deal at all adequately with the closely-woven texture of these poems. They contain the finest distillation of his thought. Not only are they structurally and musically supreme works of art, but they carry a very heavy burden. They evolve and whirl like galaxies of light out of the mysteries of Time, not only out of “the pastness of the past,” as he says, but out of its presence. As Matthiessen suggests in his perceptive analysis, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, here is
the difficult paradoxical Christian view of how man lives both ‘in and out of time,’ how he is immersed in the flux and yet can penetrate to the eternal by apprehending timeless existence within time and above it. But even for the Christian the moments of release from the pressures of the flux are rare, though they alone redeem the sad wastage of otherwise unillumined existence.
And in the same essay, commenting on “The Dry Salvages,” the third of the quartets, Matthiessen says further,
The doctrine of Incarnation is the pivotal point on which Eliot’s thought has swung away from the nineteenth century’s romantic heresies of Deification. The distinction between thinking of God become man through the Saviour, or of man becoming God through his own divine potentialities, can be at the root of political as well as religious belief. Eliot has long affirmed that Deification, the reckless doctrine of every great man as a Messiah, has led ineluctably to Dictatorship. What he has urged in his Idea of a Christian Society is a reestablished social order in which both governors and governed find their completion in their common humility before God.
The Quartets have rightly become the most intensively studied and the most extensively expounded of his poems. They best represent the ripeness of his wisdom and the intricate complexity of his thought.
But his most explicit statement of Christian themes is to be found in the choruses from The Rock, a pageant performed in 1934, which he helped to write on behalf of a fund for the repair of old churches in the London diocese.
The chorus opens with the famous passage on the “endless cycle of idea and action,” modern man’s whirling activity and expansive knowledge which bring him no nearer to God.
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The weakened plight of the Church is graphically set forth, with the excuses men offer for its neglect in city and suburb.
We toil for six days, on the seventh we must motor
To Hindhead, or Maidenhead.
If the weather is foul we stay at home and read the papers.
Against this indifference, against the shoddy house of plaster and corrugated roofing erected for worship, “filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers,” the voice of the poet is lifted like the voice of a prophet of old declaiming against the sins of his people. Not only the rhythms and accent, but the very words beat with the indignant intensity of one who speaks his divine burden:
The Word of the Lord came unto me, saying:
O miserable cities of designing men …
The Word goes unheard in the cities
And the wind shall say, ‘Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.’
The Choruses mount from invective and denunciation, through passionate and heart-broken appeal, to surrender and the ultimate vision of Light, celebrated in a hymn to Light that rivals Milton’s.
This work not only epitomizes the affirmations of the second stage in Eliot’s development, but strangely leads into the third, characterized by ambiguous analyses and tentative proposals. Made aware, by this first venture into dramatic poetry for the theater, of the possibilities in the more direct use of the “third voice” to reach the unchurched. Eliot has since devoted his writing almost wholly to the dramatic form. He has done more probably than any other writer to quicken the revival of religious drama in our time.
The Third Stage
Murder in the Cathedral, written for the Canterbury festival in 1935, was his first full-length drama. This dramatization of the murder of Thomas á Becket in 1170 (projected in a more recent version by Jean Anouilh), had a number of themes: the spiritual testing of a martyr facing death; the spiritual training of people witnessing his sacrifice; and the conflict between Church and State, becoming in our time again a live issue with the rise of Hitler’s Germany and the spread of communism. The play is full of significant insights and memorable lines.
However, Eliot soon abandoned the historical setting for his poetic dramas and attempted a much more difficult thing, to write poetic drama out of contemporary material with contemporary characters.
In this third stage, the Christian reader or spectator at first will be puzzled and disappointed by the almost total absence of any specific Christian reference. But the later plays have been concerned with people in need of Christian grace and discovering in one way or another their need.
Of the four contemporary plays produced since 1939, The Cocktail Party probably suggests more of the Christian message than the others. Instead of a clergyman, there is the now familiar psychiatrist. No specifically Christian solutions are offered to the dilemmas of the characters, but indirectly they are forced toward them.
The young girl Celia, who had been in love with the married protagonist, Edward Chamberlayne, shares her problem with the psychiatrist. There are two symptoms, she says, that disturb her. One is the feeling of the lack of real communication in the noises people make when they talk to each other. The second, she hesitates to express. Reilly, the psychiatrist, persuades her to share it.
Celia: It sounds ridiculous—but the only word for it That I can find, is a sense of sin.
Reilly: You suffer from a sense of sin, Miss Copplestone? This is most unusual.
Celia: It seemed to me abnormal.
So sharp is Eliot’s irony.
Celia eventually abandons the attempt to find peace in merely human love, and gives herself to the divine. She goes to Africa as a missionary nurse. And we learn at a later cocktail party among the same, although changed, characters with whom the play began, that she has been killed by the natives there. Her death, and the shocking manner of it, affect differently all who hear of it.
This is the method of the plays—by indirections to find directions out. They will not satisfy at all the one who desires a more explicit statement of Christian themes. But in his plays, Eliot thinks of himself as a sort of Virgil, preparing men for the Advent, making them aware of their need. And surely there is a place for such a contribution.
It is only as one studies and reflects upon the total work of a great poet that he can come into any adequate perception of his total vision. C. S. Lewis has spoken directly in Christian terms to the unbelieving sophis treated minds of our day. It has been Eliot’s more difficult task to speak obliquely to them, to steal upon them unawares, to haunt with images that stir memoir and desire, to waylay with hopes and aspirations not wholly dead, to surprise the unbeliever with gleams of faith that will not leave him at ease in the desiccated charade of his existence.
The Christian witness, be he minister or layman, will be better equipped to communicate with the intelligent unbeliever in our time if he knows the work of this significant poet.
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