016 T. S. Eliot


Almost every year I re-read at least some of the works of T.S. Eliot, whom I consider the greatest poet of this century. On a ten-hour plane trip, returning from England (where my wife and I had spent a week hiking the Cotswalds with some good friends, Chuck and Jeanne Millhuff, Keith and Maxine Walker) I spent much of the journey immersed in Eliot’s poetics in The Complete Poems and Plays (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952).

Those who’ve read nothing except what appears in typical anthologies identify Eliot as the author of “The Wasteland,” of “The Hollow Men,” works which captured the dark weariness of the “lost generation” of the 1920’s. Toward the end of that decade, however, Eliot embraced the Christian faith, as evident in his 1930 poem, “Ash Wednesday,” and his subsequent work reflects that commitment.

During the 1930’s, he helped write a play, “The Rock,” specifically designed to be produced in a church. Subsequently embarrassed by it, he allowed only his “choruses” to be printed in his Collected Poems 1909-1935. Basically the play deals with the collapse of cultural Christianity so evident in our day–a Church in disarray which “does not seem to be wanted / In country or in suburbs; and in the town / Only for important weddings”–a Church desperately needing to hear the voice of Christ, the “Rock.”

The Church needs to hear because the world’s gone astray. Lamentably, Eliot sigh, in some lines which I think sum up our century: “the wind shall say: “‘Here were decent godless people: / Their only monument the asphalt road / And a thousand lost golf balls.'”

The choruses, of course, reveal little of the play’s plot, but they do contain some marvelous lines, such as these from the first chorus which confirm what many of us know in our more honest moments: the “progress” we so highly tout and energetically pursue is an illusion, for

“The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death 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 cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

Our cities are not communities, our families are fragmented, and our lives lack real focus. So we’re lost and anxious, defeated by our greatest achievements:

“O weariness of men who turn from God

To the grandeur of your mind and the glory of your action,

To arts and inventions and daring enterprises,

To schemes of human greatness thoroughly discredited,

Binding the earth and the water to your service,

Exploiting the seas and developing the mountains,

Dividing the stars into common and preferred,

Engaged in devising the perfect refrigerator,

Engaged in working out a rational morality,

Engaged in printing as many books as possible,

Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles,

Turning from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm

For nation or race or what you call humanity;

Though you forget the way to the Temple,

There is one who remembers the way to your door:

Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.

You shall not deny the Stranger.”

In contrast, the way of the ROCK demands inner rather than outer work, spiritual rather than material investment. Indeed, the ROCK says:

“All men are ready to invest their money

But most expect dividends.

I say to you: Make perfect your will.

I say: take no thought of the harvest,

But only of the proper sowing.

The world turns and the world changes,

But one thing does not change.

In all my years, one thing does not change:

The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.”

In that struggle the Church is called to join with the ROCK, to do what can be done in the present moment, to leave the results of the endeavor in His hands, for “OF all that was done in the past, you eat the fruit, neither rotten or ripe. and the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.” What we must do is to preserve our inheritance, to build and re-build the Temple of God.

“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?

She tells them of life and Death, and of all that they would forget.

. . . . . . . . . .

They constantly try to escape

From the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one

will need to be good.

But the man that is will shadow

The man that pretends to be.

And the Son of Man was not crucified

once for all,

The blood of the martyrs not shed once for all,

The lives of the Saints not given once for all:

But the Son of God is crucified always

And there shall be Martyrs and Saints.

And if blood of Martyrs is to flow on the steps

We must first build the steps;

And if the Temple is to be cast down

We must first build the Temple.”

Passages such as those above make “Choruses” from The Rock rewarding, but Eliot’s Four Quartets give us his most mature and profound poetic work. Deeply influenced by the theology of St. John of the Cross, Eliot’s quartets provide us a probing of the human predicament along with an openness to God’s radical solution to it.

In “Burnt Norton,” we’re invited to explore the mysteries of time and history, of memory and experience, to delve deeply into the inner realms of solitude, to discover the inability of words to capture the reality of existence.

Then in “East Coker” we discern something of the meaning of history; we discover the reality of spiritual rebirth. Here, eliot says: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

In humility, in submission, we encounter the One who gives us spiritual life, who delivers us from sin’s bondage and grants us goodness. The following lines, dealing with Christ’s atoning work, are some of the finest I’ve ever read:

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease

If we obey the dying nurse

Whose constant care is not to please

But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,

And that, to be restored, our sickness must

grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital

Endowed by the ruined millionaire,

Wherein, if we do well, we shall

Die of absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents

us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,

The fever sings in mental wires.

If to be warmed, then I must freeze

And quake in frigid purgatorial fires

Of which the flame is roses, and the

smoke is briars.

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.”

The third quartet, “The Dry Salvages,” continues Eliot’s quest for insight into history, for understanding of the salvation story. Much evades us, much we fail to understand,

“But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint–

No occupation, either, but something given

And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,

Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.”

The fourth quartet, “Little Gidding,” repeats and deepens themes earlier treated. Living with the mysteries of time and history, of sin and sanctity, we’re called to a contemplative, prayerful response, to a paradoxical attachment and detachment, a taking hold and letting go, all of which perfect, by cleansing, our will. Here the reality of Pentecost shines forth, for:

“The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or 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.”

What’s required of us to experience such fire? to know such cleansing? In Eliot’s re-echoing of St John of the Cross’s Living Flame of Love,what’s required is simply this:

“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 addition to writing poetry, Eliot wrote several plays. I’ve never seen one o the produced on stage, and I understand they’re probably better read than seen. I think Murder in the Cathedral, which recounts the murder of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, is his finest drama.

Basically, the story deals with Thomas’ spiritual transformation from a courtier to the king, who once enjoyed all the dividends of earthly success, to a churchman willing to die for the Faith.

Having returned from exile in 1170 determined to obey the Pope rather than the King, Thomas struggles first with four tempters who seek to dissuade him. Pleasure and temporal power he easily resists. He’s discerned what Eliot seeks to clarify in this play: only God truly shapes history, only God has rightful power.

But an unexpected fourth tempter challenged Thomas more deeply. He urges Thomas to become a martyr, to become a celebrated saint, and thus to control human events from the tomb. To this graver temptation, however, Thomas says no:

“Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

. . . . . . . . . .

Servant of God has chance of greater sin

And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.

For those who serve the greater cause may make

the cause serve them,

Still doing right: and striving with

political men

May make that cause political, not by what

they do

But by what they are.”

With that discernment (forever needed by those of us who so easily misread our motives because our actions seem good), the archbishop resolves to follow God’s way, the way of self-surrender and death. That death comes when three knights arrive, determined to implement the expressed desire of their king, and kill Thomas in the cathedral.

Their dialogue illustrates the radical difference between the ways of the Church and those of the world. Thus, when his subordinate priests seek to lock the church doors and save his life, Thomas says: “Unbar the door! / You think me reckless, desperate and mad. / You argue by results, as this world does, / To settle if an act be good or bad.” But the way of the Church is the way of Christ, the way of suffering and death. So he declares:

“I am here.

No traitor to the King. I am a priest,

A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,

Ready to suffer with my blood.

This is the sign of the Church always,

The sign of blood. Blood for blood.

His blood given to buy my life,

My blood given to pay for His death,

My death for His death.”

Death comes, the death of a martyr and saint. It’s the stuff of which the Church is made . . . the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. Murder in the Cathedral reminds us of that enduring truth.

* * * * *

Following WWII, Eliot published two plays, The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party, both of which make for interesting reading and insightful commentary on contemporary culture, though they do not rival his earlier works in my judgment.

In The Family Reunion, an aristocratic family gathers to welcome home Harry, Lord Monchensey, rather recently widowed when his wife was mysteriously lost at sea. Harry is expected to follow his mother’s wishes and take over management of the family estate. Amy, a manipulative, domineering woman, had restructured heir plans (which had been earlier foiled when Harry married a woman Amy disliked) and hoped the family reunion would consummate them.

Harry, however, refuses to fall into his mother’s scheme. His experiences have quickened his thirst for something more than the comfort and ease of an aristocratic manor, with its lands and income. So he departs as abruptly as he arrived–to become a missionary! Exactly where he headed and what “missionary” activity he embraced we don’t discover, but it’s obvious Harry took a radical turn away from his mother’s plan and followed an inner hunger in quest of something more real.

The Family Reunion describes the petty, vain world of comfortable people with little to live for. It also reveals an inner spiritual world where those who seek find, those who knock have doors opened for them.

* * * * *

The Cocktail Party starts with a cast of characters attending a party in the Chamberlaynes’ London flat. Edward hosts the party because his wife, Lavinia, had left him that morning and he could not notify all the guests that the party was off! One person, the “unidentified guest,” provides a sympathetic ear for Edward, and the other “friends’ drift in and out dropping clues as to what’s transpired.

It’s early evident that though Edward and Lavinia had been married five years they’d not really known or loved each other. They’d had affairs, though they imagined the other knew nothing of them. When they work toward reconciliation with a counselor–the “unidentified guest,” now revealed as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, who seems to represent the Holy Spirit–they discover they are “A man who finds himself incapable of loving / And a woman who finds that no man can ever love her.”

With Reilly’s assistance, the Chamberlaynes put their marriage back together. And another of the characters, Celia, the woman Edward earlier courted, discovers her deep longing for sanctity–a longing which led her to undertake foreign missionary service and die a martry’s death. Her decision followed a striking awareness of her our sinfulness and need of salvation:

“It’s not the feeling of anything I’ve ever done,

Which I might get away from, or of anything in me

I could get rid of–but of emptiness, of failure

Towards someone, or something, outside of myself:

And I feel I must . . . atone–is that the word?”

In her earlier relationships, Celia discovered:

. . . we were only strangers

And that there had been neither giving nor taking

But that we had merely made use of each other

Each for his purpose. That’s horrible.”

Hungry for a deep-level spiritual joy, Celia embraced Reilly’s most radical cure: a trip to a sanitarium where she could be, as a human, “trans-humanized.” That done, she embarked on her vocation as a missionary nurse, a calling which culminated in martyrdom.

The Cocktail Party has a peculiar allure to it. The blending of routine, mundane details with supernatural sensitivities shows Eliot’s poetic gifts an dramatic skills. One’s aware, while reading it, of the importance of daily decisions, of the need for prevenient grace, of the possibilities for “transhumanization,” or of sanctification as man’s highest calling and joy.