It is paradoxical that the most respected and influential poet of our materialistic age should have been a firm believer in supernaturalistic Christianity, committed in his life and art to its traditional dogmas.

The man who has given his name to The Age of Eliot is the same as the one who wrote: “I doubt whether what I am saying can convey very much to anyone for whom the doctrine of Original Sin is not a very real and tremendous thing” (After Strange Gods, New York, 1934, p. 61).

One can scarcely imagine an assertion less in accord with the temper of our day. And yet what Eliot said did convey a great deal to many thousands, and the way he said it produced the only major poetic revolution thus far in the twentieth century. (The eruption of the apocalyptic “Neo-Thomists”—Dylan Thomists, that is—though violent was not lasting). Indeed, it may be said that Eliot gave to his age its poetic voice, as Chaucer, Spenser, and Wordsworth did for their own times. The rural villages, pastoral scenes, and Tennysonian rhythms of the Georgian poets before World War I were totally irrelevant to a time torn by a million bayonets, broken off from tradition, fragmented and spiritually sterile. Pent-up artistic impulses burst out in Dadaism, Surrealism, and their kin, but it was Eliot (and Pound, less influentially) who taught the poets of the modern age to write again; and he did so as early as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in this country in 1915 and in England in 1917. It was a startlingly new style, one of fragments, hints, seeming irrelevancies, bizarre juxtapositions, haunting half-memories—but, amazingly, unified in sensibility. The mood was weary, self-deprecating, nostalgic, fearful.

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

It is difficult to think of any other poem in the course of English literary history which has had the impact of this first, short, brilliant creation.

Equally as remarkable as the stylistic originality of Eliot is the wholeness of his collected verse. The poetry of no major writer since Milton is so unified and internally self-consistent. Though his work reflects his own spiritual journey from inherited Unitarianism through doubt and spiritual disintegration to ultimate Christian faith, yet his major poems compose a single work as clearly as do the parts of The Divine Comedy. Consequently (as Eliot has said of Shakespeare), one must know all of his works to know any of them. Each illuminates the other, for each is a kind of knowing, as movements of a musical composition are a kind of hearing, organic within the whole, developmental, not merely steps toward a conclusion. Hence, Eliot’s first impact was owing, not to his content, the part which can be taken out of a poem and paraphrased, but to his strange power of inwardness, his capacity to make the poem seem an utterance from the reader himself. “Let us go then, you and I.…” One has the shock of hearing oneself speak; the amazed self-recognition of one looking into a mirror after a long illness, palpably oneself, but seen as if for the first time, completely recognizable, but at the same time frighteningly strange.

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It is thus not necessary to understand his verse rationally on first reading in order to comprehend it deeply. As Eliot has written: “I have said that explanation may be necessary preliminary to understanding. It seems to me, however, that I understand some poetry without explanation.… And sometimes explanation, as I have already hinted, can distract us altogether from the poem as poetry, instead of leading us in the direction of understanding” (The Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1956).

It is important to realize, however, that beneath the style there is a texture of closely woven, self-consistent, rational, philosophical, psychological, theological content. A perfectly adequate answer exists for the query of a frustrated English reviewer of some years ago: “What is he writing about?” But the answer is not easy, for Eliot is writing precisely about that aspect of man which is largely denied by our age, and to describe which we no longer have a working vocabulary: man’s spiritual nature, that part of his being which is created in the image of, and can commune with, God. If we have no experience of which words can remind us, which they can be about, we must have words of “primary intensity” which will constitute the experience itself. Hence Eliot’s employment of the “objective correlative”—in his own words, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked” (Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot, New York, 1950, pp. 124, 125).

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Meaning From The Mosaic

Poetry made up of such objective correlatives may, superficially, appear to be a mere jumble of fragments; but, as is true of a mosaic, when one studies the form, immerses himself in the artistic medium and environment (with Eliot this means the whole tradition of English poetry), separately examines each part (the study of each poem in detail), and then steps back, the whole of the purpose emerges, shining and alive.

Since we shall in a moment turn to what Eliot says, it is worth remembering here that his eminence is validated by his total artistic achievement, not by what he believed. To say that his poetic reputation would justifiably have been as great, though different, had he been a Buddhist or an existentialist rather than a Christian, is not to minimize the element of content in literary art. It is simply to say that Milton would have written a great epic poem had he made his subject King Arthur, as he originally intended, instead of the Fall of man.

The fact remains, however, that truth is a major dimension in great art, and for the Christian reader Eliot’s works take on the deepest validity. Nor can the non-Christian ignore it as if it were an ingredient not essential to judicious criticism. We must not echo the folly of Dennis Saurat, who urges us when we read Milton “to study what there is of lasting originality … and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest” (Milton: Man and Thinker, New York, 1924, p. 111). Art is a melding of form and content, and it is as impossible to consider the work of a great artist apart from his content as to consider a statue by Michaelangelo apart from its subject matter.

The first thing to be said, perhaps, about Eliot’s content of meaning is that up to the ’thirties, when he published Ash Wednesday, it was by no means clear that he was writing with Christian relevance. At least the implications which are now so clear in retrospect in “Prufrock,” “The Hollow Men,” “Gerontion,” and The Waste Land were not apparent to contemporary critics. The religious dimension seemed capable of being made palatable to the secular mind in terms of Jungian archetypes, pagan fertility cults, and Freudian insights. We know now, of course, that this was partly a trick of “the Old Possum”—his assumption of an antic guise to permit unpleasant truths to be declared in a hostile environment. This is made explicit in The Waste Land (in which the truth almost slips out), where the protagonist pretends madness, as did Hieronymo in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and as did Hamlet, to protect themselves among enemies. (And so widely do the implications of Eliot’s circles of allusion range outward that we have the right to remember Hamlet’s lines: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!”)

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The wisdom of hindsight makes us wonder why even “Prufrock” did not reveal itself as a poem susceptible only to a Christian explication. The Dantean motto; the depiction of man fallen from high estate, diminished in stature and significance; the urgency of an unremembered question with which to redeem the time; the echoes of Scripture; even the title (“The Love Song …”)—all find their home in only one context. Most explicit, perhaps, is the “overwhelming question.” Though it is never identified, it is revealed to have cosmic implication (“Do I dare disturb the universe?”), to center in the difference between life and death (“ ‘I am Lazarus come from the dead’ ”), to transcend linear time (the echo from Marvell’s “Coy Mistress”), and to be one which we cannot ask in our theophobic age without acute social embarrassment (“… as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”). The Christian view of natural man breathes in the pervasive mood of poignant loss and meaninglessness consequent upon the loss of a mode of being (spiritual) that man no longer possesses, and can scarcely recall as a human heritage. It breathes in the sense of ennui, the perverted need to kill, not redeem, the time—a patient etherized upon a table—a little more slumber, a little more sleep—endless polite talk, and teas, and cakes, the ices—lonely men in shirt-sleeves leaning out of windows.

Christianity In ‘The Waste Land’

The Christian frame of reference becomes far more visible in The Waste Land, published in 1922 (five years before Eliot joined the Church), although again the contemporary critics failed to realize it. Some, of course, dismissed the entire poem as a hoax; others were somewhat misled by the indirection of Eliot’s own notes, which were fragmentary and printed only because the publisher needed more material to eke out a very slim volume. A very few began to sense the truth, and to rejoice or to raise their eyebrows, as their temperaments and personal views moved them. Surely the basic themes and symbols were unmistakably Judaeo-Christian: the wanderings of Israel in the desert, the Rock (in all its connotations), baptismal water and cleansing fire, the Grail search, the garden (Eden and Gethsemane), the journey to Emmaus, the Dantean and scriptural echoes, the Resurrection, Peter’s repentance, and many others. If these were not enough, the “fragments I have shored against my ruins” near the end of the poem gave the game away. These fragments are three, and are so explicitly Christian in their delineation of repentance, regeneration, and reconciliation that the poet is forced to pretend madness more flagrantly lest a hostile court destroy him. “Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.” Even so, some previously favorable critics tried to dismiss him (as some tried to dismiss Evelyn Waugh in the ‘forties when Brideshead Revisited appeared), but it was too late. Eliot had become the voice of our age.

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In 1927, when what was to become Part II of Ash Wednesday appeared, and in 1930, when the entire poem was published, the antic guise was discarded and the style altered to fit the new manifestation. The brasses are muted, the violently unexpected notes in unpredictable key are disciplined, and the strings predominate, in a mood appropriate to the “turning” which is repentance. (No adequate study has yet been made of Eliot’s changing style from “Prufrock” to “Little Gidding,” and the rather casual reader, very mistakenly, assumes that there is only one Eliot voice, that of the verse through The Waste Land.) “Because I do not hope to turn again.…” The rings range outward—“Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved” (Psa. 80:3); “Now at this time is the turning of the year. Everything now turning that we also would make it our time to turn to God in” (a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes); the spiraling circles of Dante’s Purgatory.

Because I do not hope to turn again

Let these words answer

For what is done, not to be done again

May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

There remained only the beatific vision of Four Quartets (published between 1935 and 1942), as different in style from the early verse as that of Samson Agonistes is from Paradise Lost. It is the verse of a truly great poet, one who has over the years mastered every technical dimension of his medium and who, like Beethoven in his last quartets (on which the structure of these poems seems to be modeled), can combine profundity with seeming simplicity. The Quartets do not merely end Eliot’s non-dramatic work; they culminate it. Here are all the symbols, moods, accents, allusions, hints of the early poems blended in verse which is at once poignantly and sensuously here and now, and mystically otherwhere. Through it all gleams Incarnation, the wonder, mystery, beauty of the impingement of the Eternal upon time, the only solution for the human predicament: “If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.”

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Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall,

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.

The garden of innocence, fall, and disaster is redeemed by the garden of suffering and sacrifice; the valley of shadows and bones is caught in a sudden shaft of sunlight, and there rises the hidden laughter of children in the foliage; the fire of judgment and cleansing becomes the light of the Empyrean.

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The ending is not the crash of a romantic symphony but the perfectly inturned harmony of resolved complexity, a joining of immediacy and eternity.

Quick now, here, now, always—

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

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