Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poetry Transformed: TS Eliot and the clarifying beauty of Christianity

After four years as an English major and Torrey student--after four years of reading some of the best poetry the West has to offer--there is exactly one poet I still read: TS Eliot.

And that comes down to a few key qualities of Eliot's poetry. The haunting beauty, the constant switching between barely comprehensible and maddeningly-yet-enticingly incomprehensible, his constant preoccupation with time, eternity, and the relation between the two...all of that, yes. But the most interesting fact is that TS Eliot began his career as a poet as an atheist, and ended it as a Christian, and the change is not  merely discernible, or hinted at, or "possibly" is as evident as the edge between light and shadow, between a blasted wasteland and a blooming hedge in May-time.


His pre-Christian poetry is haunting, and even beautiful at times, in the way that Ecclesiastes is. It is a sad, wistful beauty at best, a longing for things to be different, and a resignation to things as they are. This resignation is, indeed, Eliot's greatest comfort, and that which removes or threatens that resignation even for an instant is cruel. "April is the cruelest month," The Waste Land begins, as Eliot laments the way that April brings life out of the that cannot hope to sustain itself in the stony wasteland that he wanders.

It is difficult to truly capture the docile confusion of The Waste Land, the gentle and unresisting death of hope, and the resignation against certain doom, by merely quoting lines here and there. To truly get the full experience, you would have to read it in its entirety (which you can do here). Eliot walks a wasteland littered with "stony rubbish...a heap of broken images, where the sun beats." Although it is repeatedly interrupted by vignettes of varying degrees of lucidity, it always returns to the wasteland, as Eliot laments "Here is no water but only rock /  Rock and no water and the sandy road."

And while the ending seems to bring relief, it is only the relief of having nothing left to hope for. He fishes on the shore of a fish-less lake (earlier described as "Oed' und leer das Meer"), having turned his back on the wasteland, as the poem winds to its disjointed and unsatisfying end ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins"). Add in the footnotes that most people believe are completely made up, and you have the complete picture of a meaningless, ultimately futile journey that can only end in acquiescence to the wastes.

And as bad as that is, The Hollow Men is worse. Holy crap, is it worse. "We are the hollow men," it begins. "We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! / Our dried voices when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless."

This is hopelessness. This is futility. This is Ecclesiastes, but with a crucial difference: Solomon knew that there was something more and better, even though it was unknowable. The Hollow Men betrays no such hope: Only a listless questioning of whether it is like this "in death's other kingdom."

This world is dead. And it ends "not with a bang but a whimper," as Eliot tries-and fails--to find comfort in a recitation of The Lord's Prayer, as the end of the world overtakes him. (I should say here that another good friend of mine sees the possibility of a more hopeful death here, which might result in a resurrection: We disagree).

A classmate in Torrey lamented Eliot's "pessimism" and his low view of life and existence, but she was wrong to do so: pre-Christian Eliot is notable precisely for his exacting accuracy when it comes to an atheistic worldview.

That was written in 1925. And in 1927, Eliot entered the Anglican Church of England. And in 1930, he wrote Ash-Wednesday, and everything was different.


The mechanics of his poetry did not change. The broken sentences, the half-finished thoughts, the mixture of knowledge and incomprehension, that all remains. But there is now an unmistakable sense that his thoughts have something real and actual to strive for, that though the finishing of his thoughts are beyond his ability, they are not beyond existence.

In his conversion, TS Eliot did not go halfway. He went straight from atheism to the ceremony-laden, sacramental "high church" of Anglicanism, rather than the "low churches" that had sprung up in a sort of rebellion against it. And Ash-Wednesday, itself named after one of the Holy Days of the Anglican calendar, shows Eliot wrestling with that sense of collision between earthly and heavenly things that such a sacramental order entails.

Make no mistake, this is not the "Now I'm a Christian and everything's super great!" kind of conversion story. Eliot may not understand his faith entirely. He may not understand how he can leave his past behind. He wrestles with his past, with the meaninglessness of his past life, in imagery that is extremely graphic. He is confused and questioning about his new faith. But it is not the resigned confusion of The Waste Land or the deathly apathy of The Hollow Men. It is, rather, a passionate and active straining towards understanding. Rather than lament his lack of understanding, he actively petitions for this lack to be remedied--and what's more, he holds out genuine hope that it will.

But the contrast is sharpest and most evident in his Four Quartets, which is similar in structure to The Waste Land--but that is where the similarities end. In The Waste Land, the meaning is always much less than you had believed and counted on. The narrator spends the poem searching for water, and once he find it, it is nothing but a desolate sea, a place to fish and wait for the ruin of the world. But in Four Quartets, "the purpose is beyond the end you figured." It is not a dearth of meaning, but an unforeseen abundance and significance, found in prayer, and resulting in redemption ("And prayer is more / Than an order of words, the conscious occupation / Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.")

Here we see the operations of the "wounded surgeon", who with "bleeding hands" and "sharp compassion," is able to heal those who are dying. Here is the wrestling with the sacraments, and the paradox of Good Friday ("The dripping blood our only drink,/The bloody flesh our only food:/In spite of which we like to think/That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-/Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.")

And always--always--we see the relationship between time and eternity, and the idea that time can be conquered and redeemed, but only from within time, only from an interaction between eternity and time. And of that, we have the Incarnation, where "the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual."

You could write a paper on just one of Eliot's poems. I cannot do them justice here. But it is crucial to note that the end of all this is redemption: A redemption that comes not through comfort and ease, but through sacrifice and fire. As Eliot wrestles with his past life and considers how much of it was wasted, or misguided, or "things ill done and done to others harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue," he sees that there are but two outcomes:

"From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."

And it is that refining fire which dominates the ending of the Four Quartets. it is a fire that heals and purifies even as it burns, and it is in contrast to the fire that only rends and destroys.

"The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of 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."

This has been TS Eliot. You might enjoy him as much as I do: You might be unable to stand him. However, you should definitely at least give it a shot.


  1. I need to go back and read more Eliot. Perhaps the Quartets would be a good choice, since I don't believe I have read those.

    I am quite fond of The Hollow Men, particularly the way the eyes and the stars are intertwined and related throughout.

    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

    I am curious why you have given up other poetry? Maybe I am one of the very few that still read it for pleasure, I guess. I find that it utters the unutterable. As you put it, "maddeningly-yet-enticingly incomprehensible" in a way that continually fascinates me.

    I also thought it was interesting that you consider "high church" to be a further departure from atheism than the "low church." That would be an interesting idea to discuss at length. Definitely, an elaborate ritual is far from no ritual at all. On the other hand, "low" church was considered low in part because of its association with the "lower" classes, so for well educated intellectuals, "high church" may have seemed more comprehensible. In that sense, even though my heritage is decidedly low church (Mennonite ancestors, the CMA and Evangelicalism), I find a resonance with Anglican and other liturgical traditions because it speaks a similar musical and literary language to what I already inhabit. I wonder sometimes if it might not be a real stretch for a Lewis or an Eliot - or even a Chesterton to go slum it, as it were, in a Pentecostal church. But, as you put it, the distance from a negative belief to one with a detailed tradition is also a significant journey. I will be thinking about this one a bit more.

    1. You've read Eliot but not the Four Quartets? Dude...sad times.

      As for The Hollow Men, I've always felt it to be a sort of pagan Ecclesiastes, without even the duty of serving. I suppose I "enjoy" it, but it's definitely a different (and lesser) sort of enjoyment than that of Four Quartets or Ash Wednesday.

      To say that I've "given up" on other poetry is too strong. I still have very fond memories of George Herbert (and have even busted out my copy of "The Complete English Poems" a few times), and I enjoyed Wordsworth and Coleridge as well. What I should have said was that no other poetry draws me back to it the way Eliot does (I originally had a bit more of a qualifier in my Intro, but I must have nixed it to save on space). There is the sense that I do not yet know what Eliot means, though I may find out at any moment (as I recently discovered the meaning of his "double part" in Little Gidding, last of the Four Quartets). With many others, I feel that their meaning is apparent.

      And as for the "high church - low church - atheism" thing, it's not so much the ceremony/ritual, as what that ceremony and ritual represent. It seems as though it might be easier for an atheist to go for a low-church spirituality, where the sacraments are merely symbols of a spiritual reality, rather than that of the high church, where the sacraments are activities where the spiritual and physical meet. (although I admit that is pure speculation, and for all I know it may be completely wrong).

      And as for "slumming it" in a Pentecostal church, well, depending on the branch of Pentecostalism, that migh open up a whole new can of worms (or snake-handlers). Although certainly there should be fellowship between high and low Christians.

      (Also, as you might have noticed, this blog is not a hot-bed of discussion, so I certainly appreciate you posting).

    2. Just to clarify, I meant "slumming it" in the socioeconomic, not the spiritual sense. (I realized I wasn't very clear.) In both England and the US, the theological divide also tends generally to be an economic, social, and racial one as well. That's why I could see an Oxford atheist feeling more at home in Anglicanism or UK Catholicism. (Perhaps less so in American Catholicism, which is increasingly Latino and poor - and has always been dominated by more recent immigrants.)

      Interesting idea about the symbolism versus the physical and spiritual union. I could see that now that you put it that way. (Perhaps since I was raised low church, I miss a lot of the nuances of high church sacrament.)

      I know I have huge gaps in my literary experience. (Another is the fact that I got next to zero 20th Century literature in high school.) Since I went straight from there to law school without doing much undergrad work, I didn't fill in the gaps there. That is one reason why I am making a concerted effort to fill in the missing pieces as an adult. Well, that and I really love reading.

      For what it's worth, my favorites are Frost, Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Browning. Not quite as inscrutable as Eliot, no doubt, and decidedly traditionalist, but they speak to me.

      If Eliot's depths thrill you, are you also an Auden fan? He too has so much that has to be teased out - and an interesting journey of his own.

    3. Ah, now I understand. I tend to overlook the socioeconomic side of that (because it's something that shouldn't exist, but does). That makes sense.

      I too, was raised (and am) decidedly low church, but during my time at Biola and Torrey, I learned to appreciate a more "high" view of communion and baptism.

      And I have heard of Auden, but I don't believe I've read any of his poetry.