T.S. Eliot and the Modern Condition

It is now almost one hundred years since T.S. Eliot began work on his most famous poem, The Waste Land. The completed poem was not published until 1922 after earlier revisions to the draft, many of them suggested by Ezra Pound.  Most critics agree that this poem was one of the most important poems of the twentieth century and I know of no poetic production of the last two decades to measure up to it.

Millions of words have been written about the poem and its setting. It has given rise to books, myriad scholarly essays and, no doubt, hundreds, if not thousands, of PhD dissertations.  And yet today, the work is probably known to relatively few people (in comparison to say, 50 years ago).  Eliot is out of fashion, having been declared a misogynist, anti-Semitic, etc.  In fact, let’s be honest and admit that all Western literature is out of fashion.  If you need any proof, just consider the howls of indignation when Sydney University recently proposed a “Western Traditions” course.

Eliot was a modernist in poetic style – that is to say, he believed that it was no longer possible to produce poetry in the accustomed earlier styles because these could not reflect the realities of the present day. Europe had just been torn apart by the First War – a war of mechanised killing which claimed over 10 million lives on the Wester Front alone. Eliot was, by this time, living in London, and what he saw about him in the lives of ordinary citizens was hardly conducive to heroic or romantic poetry.  Indeed, one might say it was not conducive to any poetry. Eliot was a realist who wanted to depict nothing less than the whole of his civilisation as he saw it– its public places and its private lives. And so, most of his early poetry is bleak and forbidding. And yet there is another side to these early poems which redeems them, as it were. And it makes them hugely relevant to our own position today when the outlook is perhaps even bleaker than it was in Eliot’s day.

In the first place, Eliot was a poet of precision and power.  By this I mean that his knowledge and use of the English language was such that each word, each phrase or sentence, is honed to a razor edge. The language is made to carry an almost intolerable load of meaning.  When I read The Waste Land for the first time, it seemed to be just a jumble of words and images, thrown together in a haphazard way.  And yet, I found certain phrases sticking indelibly in the mind. Even the evocations of decay and hopelessness, everywhere evident in the poem, had a sort of stark beauty.  The poem seems to act on the unconscious mind  in a powerful way.  You cannot forget its images and its echoes. This is a mark of great poetry.

We should not suppose that the various images presented to us in The Waste Land “stand for” something other than themselves. His images are real and his meanings are direct.  When, for instance, we read the phrase “Unreal city” – an exclamation called out by the sight of crowds of people streaming across London Bridge and avoiding each other – Eliot means what he says.  London is indeed “unreal’ in that it has lost contact with some higher reality. Some months ago I reviewed a book which had the title “Freedom from Reality”. It concerned the self-destructive potential of the modern notion of freedom – a freedom solely occupied with the senses and, as such, crippling the traditional and proper notion of freedom as a liberation from the restrictions imposed by the senses.  This is precisely the metaphysical sense that Eliot uses.

And yet, it is dangerous to assume that the poem must have some hidden meaning which the reader needs to uncover.  As I have indicated above, the first-time reader is usually perplexed by the work and is moved to ask “What is it about? What is its meaning”? To which, the most appropriate answer might be; “the poem is only problematical if you persist in looking for a meaning. Why not just read it for the sounds and images contained”? And that is a perfectly proper thing to do with a poem. And yet we seem to be drawn irresistibly to the need for some underlying meaning to ‘explain’  the work. I have now watched many video lectures on the work, given by prominent Eliot scholars. Most of them make exactly the point I have made above – don’t look for some overarching explanation.  And then, of course, they spend the next hour or so doing just that!  We cannot help ourselves, and maybe that is part of the genius of the work.

That, then, will be my excuse for what follows below.

The poem may perhaps be explained by an analogy. Let us speculate that the worst had happened and the recent Notre Dame fire had indeed caused the great rose windows to fall into a thousand broken shards, so that the scenes they had depicted now lay broken and scattered.  What story do they present to us now?  Nothing but unconnected fragments laying about the ruins.  This is what Eliot conveys to us in his poem – the unconnected, twisted ruins of what was once called Christendom. And so the other point to make about the poem is simply this.  It might be a bleak and forbidding picture (or series of unconnected images) that is conveyed to us, but it is only made so by reference to some other and higher standard or aspiration.  That is to say, we only see the depth of the decay because we – and Eliot – have some intimation of a better and more proper mode of existence for a human life. In short, the Real.

And indeed, Eliot gives us hints of this higher mode of life right throughout the poem.  Those who know their English literature will pick up references to earlier and famous works in the Western Canon – works by Dante, Homer, St. Augustine, and so on. I am no literature academic, but I might just mention once such reference made by Eliot and show just how he uses it to depict the depth of our decay. 

In the third section of The Waste Land, the famous “Fire Sermon”, we get this opening description of the Thames in London:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

Here, in the repeated phrase, “Sweet Thames, run softly” Eliot is referencing a famous poem, Prothalamion, by Edmund Spenser (16C).  Spenser wrote the verse in honour of the double marriage of ‘Ladie Elizabeth and Ladie Katherine Somerset’. The setting for the poem is the Thames, and we get this beautiful description:

Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems, 

Was painted all with variable flowers, 

And all the meads adorned with dainty gems, 

Fit to deck maidens’ bowers, 

And crown their paramours, 

Against the bridal day, which is not long: 

      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. 

Each stanza of the poem ends with the refrain: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.

The contrast with the Thames of Eliot’s time could not be more stark and, of course, Eliot’s borrowing of the phrase “Sweet Thames run softly” is the last twist of the knife. He puts in the rubbish and pollution of the present world and takes it away again, leaving only the waste land of the title. Later in ‘The Fire Sermon’ we get these two lines:

The river sweats

Oil and tar.

Here, in just six words, is a powerful evocation of foul pollution. The word ‘sweats’, in particular, carries enormous weight.

But, for all this negativity, we need to remember that by naming this section of the poem “The Fire Sermon”, Eliot is referencing a sermon from the Pali Canon where the Buddha preaches liberation from suffering through detachment from the senses. There is, then, a spiritual agenda at work in Eliot’s poem, and in later poems from Eliot, it becomes more and more apparent. In fact, in his “Notes” accompanying the poem, he tells us that his reference to the Buddha and a later reference to St Augustine (“To Carthage then I came”) are connected: “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident”.

And now we get to the nub of the matter – the underlying drive or motivation which compels Eliot to write as he does.  He might begin as a modernist poet, but he most assuredly does not end as one – not, at least, in the common understanding of the term ‘modernist’.  Eliot did not repudiate the past but, rather, looked for ways in which he might properly live in his own age and attempt to come to terms with it. His was, at bottom, a spiritual quest:  how does one live spiritually in such an age? It is the question facing all of us. To the Bloomsbury crowd and to other secular intellectuals of his age, Eliot came to be seen as almost a traitor to their cause.  He had become, in their eyes, part of the Conservative establishment. But the truth is that Eliot was involved in a great spiritual crisis of his own.

It was not possible for Eliot to simply dismiss the “big questions” concerning life.  He had to face them squarely. He could not accept that life was essentially meaningless – a Darwinian struggle of sophisticated and self-assembled molecules – but neither was it easy for such a brilliant mind to submit blindly to Faith. But indecision was not an option. The consequences of indecision in this matter are starkly laid out for us in his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is a rather pathetic figure who desperately wants to be in the company of ladies but cannot summon the courage to make the first move.  At a deeper level the poem gnaws at all of us:

Do I dare         
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse

Many commentators on the life of Eliot will tell you that he “converted” to Anglo-Catholicism, perhaps implying an earlier atheism or agnosticism. This is not true because he was born into  a rather strict Unitarian family in the USA  and, as far as I am aware, never really abandoned belief in God. But, for him, the Unitarianism of his parents and their circle was too arid, too much of “this world” (too comfortable, perhaps), and seemed to lack a deep spiritual underpinning.  Meaningful ritual, the sacraments, and the general notion of withdrawal from the world of the senses were all of importance to Eliot and this drew him to Anglo-Catholicism – a ‘movement’ within Anglicanism rather than some separate religious entity.

What particularly concerned Eliot was the sense that we are creatures of time and, therefore, cannot escape its restrictions. Time is the necessary precondition for our salvation. And this brings us to the last and perhaps greatest of his poems, the Four Quartets.  Here at last, we see Eliot contemplating what he called “the Dance”, and how we might come to reflect upon it:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Here, at ‘the still point’, is the Holy Spirit, hovering over all things and imparting harmony to the cosmos. What then, as creatures of time, should be our response?

            … You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
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.

The poem ends with an affirmation not just of hope, but of certainty, repeating a phrase from Julian of Norwich in the late 13th century:

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.

In his book Dove Descending, the well-known Eliot scholar, Professor Thomas Howard, says of the Four Quartets: “In my own view, this sequence of four poems represents the pinnacle of Eliot’s whole work. Four Quartets stands as Eliot’s valedictory to the modern world. I would place it, along with Chartres Cathedral, the Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” and Mozart’s Requiem, as a major edifice in the history of the Christian West.”

For those readers unfamiliar with Eliot’s poetry, perhaps the best introduction is not by reading, but by listening.  True enough, Eliot arranges his verses for  visual effect as well as other kinds, but the sound of the poem is, perhaps, more important. And for first time readers, getting the sound of the poem can be difficult. My own introduction here was via the reading of Eliot’s major poems by Sir Alec Guinness.  Here, for the first time, the various ‘voices’ in The Waste Land came to life for me. I had earlier listened to part of Eliot’s own reading, but found it rather remote and uninteresting (this was a deliberate ploy by Eliot – he wanted the listener to do all the work here).  Guinness reads with obvious sympathy and an understanding of the underlying themes. He himself converted to Catholicism and, like Eliot, did so without any great “Damascus Road” experience. As he said: “There had been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things.”

Just so! All manner of things shall be well.

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Brian Coman

A former research biologist, I returned to the Academy after retirement to take up postgraduate studies in the humanities. I am interested in most aspects of the Western Tradition but, in particular, I have focused on that grey area between philosophy and religion.

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