What passes in the human heart is known to God alone, and the private spiritual life of T. S. Eliot may have been rich and full. But Eliot’s publicly presented spirituality-the spirituality in the Four Quartets, Murder in the Cathedral, and The Rock -seems merely weak and strange. Not all spirituality is exuberant or bright, of course. There exists a real spirituality, like John Henry Newman’s, that spends itself in the mad, dry attempt to make our inexact words say the exact things of faith exactly, just as there exists a real spirituality, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’, that seeks the light of God most strongly in the darkness of His absence. Eliot’s spirituality, however, is not precisely dry and not precisely dark; it is instead something like an exotic hothouse plant forced to a small, unlikely bloom-over-cultivated, over-nursed, and over-watched.

For an entire generation of believers Eliot stood as an icon and his faith as a watchword. Born to an age of avant garde art and thought that defined itself most clearly by its rejection of faith in God, Eliot with his gradual-and public-conversion made it respectable again for believers to believe. The respectability was not exactly intellectual, for to the avant garde’s amazement there continued to be many intelligent people whose lives were organized around their faith. And the respectability was not exactly moral, for in their gossipy world the British intelligentsia knew too much about one another’s private lives for Eliot to claim the authority of a moral hero. The respectability he gave to belief was instead, and more importantly, aesthetic. That a great modernist poet-the author not just of the definitive statement of the Unreal City of modernity in The Waste Land but of so many quotable and right lines about the abyss in “Prufrock,” the “Sweeney” poems, and “The Hollow Men”-could come to believe meant that the finest expressions of human life remained available for believers.

Misreading, perhaps, the end of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica , Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group claimed at least the identity of feeling and morality if not the superiority of feeling to morality. But “feeling” is an equivocal word, and the moral feeling that the Bloomsbury Group meant is not exactly (as Alasdair MacIntyre claims) an emotivism but rather a cultivated aesthetic sense, a self-confirming feel for opposing the finer, more delicate thoughts and things to vulgar, coarse, Victorian self-confidence. And if a man like T. S. Eliot with his obviously delicate feeling could manage to believe, then the modern failure of nerve that so many modern men and women felt might itself contain a new and properly modern-properly delicate, properly aesthetic-path to continued faith in God.

Grace exists where one finds it, and Eliot’s example and real gift for turning powerful and right lines probably did help some believers at some moments during this terrible century. But his self-conscious spirituality ends only in paralysis and his delicate spirituality freezes at last faith’s difficult search for understanding.

Part of the problem with Eliot’s late use of Christian spirituality to fill the void of modern times is that in his early and middle poems he made the void so large. It was with “Gerontion” (1920) in his second volume of poems that Eliot first used deliberate Christian imagery: “In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger.” But the Christ of “Gerontion” serves no more as the Christ of Christian faith than the Agamemnon of “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” serves as the Agamemnon of Greek legend. Since the Battle of the Books, at least, the contrast of ancients and moderns has been a staple of European literature. And when poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wanted to express their increasing discomfort with modern times they found the contrast an obvious trope. Eliot mastered the ironic use of meaningful ancient (and Shakespearian) epithets to indict meaningless modern squalor: though “Her shuttered barge” like Cleopatra’s “Burned on the water all the day,” still a rich and vulgar American takes her; though “Morning stirs the feet and hands / (Nausicaa and Polypheme),” still Sweeney in a “Gesture of orang-outang / Rises from the sheets in steam”; though “Gloomy Orion and the Dog / Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas,” still “The person in the Spanish cape / Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees.” But Eliot’s use of antiquity is not new, and his use of Christianity in “Gerontion” seems an easy parallel to his ironic use of pagan myth-a parallel suggested perhaps by his ironic use of antique churchly words to indict present-day churches in “The Hippopotamus” and “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service.”

And yet, “Gerontion” contains suggestions of something more than the obvious irony of the “Sweeney” poems, suggestions of something Eliot developed two years later in The Waste Land (1922). The poems in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) make some classical and biblical allusions, but always as aloof and ironic indictments of the emptiness of the characters who speak the poems-as though the poet’s own aesthetic feeling and moral sensibility somehow exempt him from that emptiness. In “Gerontion,” however, the poet begins to link the allusions with one another and thereby to give them a life of their own. The richness of the past becomes as important as the poverty of the present; indeed, the reality of the past begins to be the fullest indictment of the present-an indictment that the poet begins to realize he himself does not escape.

Midway through “Gerontion,” Eliot slips into a meditation on the playwrights John Webster and Cyril Tourneur:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, Guides us by vanities. Think now She gives when our attention is distracted And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late What’s not believed in, or is still believed, In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with Till the refusal propagates a fear.

In the tortured and sinister politics of post-Elizabethan England, in the tortured and sinister syntax of post-Elizabethan playwrights, Eliot seeks an “objective correlative” for tortured and sinister Europe after World War I. History, as the past contained within the present, renders the self-conscious present perpetually ironic, for history perpetually offers possibilities for belief that-the poet supposes-have become impossible for us now to believe.

“Gerontion” is a failure. One problem with the poem is that Eliot cannot find his way back from his historical excursus to the Christ-tiger who makes an unearned reappearance at the poem’s end, and another problem is that the complicated politics of England between Elizabeth and the Restoration does not work well as a figure for Versailles after the war. The first problem must wait ten years for a proposed solution in “Ash-Wednesday” (1930). But the second Eliot solves, with Ezra Pound’s help, in The Waste Land.

Too much has been said about The Waste Land to make original comment about it possible; it has become, like Hamlet , one of those central works around which criticism feeds upon itself, and everything one says about the poem must finally be about not just the poem but what has already been said about the poem. Eliot himself, with his appended notes and references, made The Waste Land a poem to be read in the context of prior readings of the poem. But Eliot’s notes have an even more ironic purpose in the poem, for they prove the extension and richness of the past as past and thus prove the narrow poverty of the present. With the fragmented discourse and simultaneous voices of The Waste Land Eliot finds the objective correlative for the meaninglessness of modern life that had eluded him in “Gerontion.” He finds as well, however, with the intrusion of time into the poem, the meaninglessness of modern death-the meaninglessness of his own future death, for though the poet by his creative act may stand outside the chaos he describes (the ascription of meaninglessness is, after all, an ascription of a sort of meaning), he cannot stand outside death. The poem longs for a resolution to the poet’s fear of death,

There is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock), And I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust

at the same time that it longs for a resolution to the decline of the West,

Above the antique mantel was displayed . . . The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale Filled all the desert with inviolable voice And still she cried, and still the world pursues, ‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears. And other withered stumps of time Were told upon the walls . . . . I think we are in rats’ alley Where the dead men lost their bones.

T. S. Eliot is a poet of fragments, as Stephen Spender once said, through which run certain great and obsessive themes. And this becomes a vice in the late plays and the Four Quartets , for Eliot realizes his themes insufficiently to pull the fragments into a whole that will reflect the Divine simplicity and the unity of faith. But it remains the greatest virtue of The Waste Land , for Eliot presents the modern mind and modern city as composed of fragments from the past, “a heap of broken images,” through which run great and obsessive anxieties. In “What the Thunder Said,” the final section of The Waste Land , the anxiety with death and the anxiety with decline at last join: the fragmentation of the poet’s obsessive learning and the fragmentation of the Unreal City have a single origin. What the thunder said is “Da”-but if it had said “Datta” (the Buddhist commandment to be generous), the poet and the city would have given with open hands. What the thunder said is “Da”-but if it said “Dayadhvam” (the commandment to be sympathetic) or “Damyata” (the commandment to be restrained), the “heart would have responded / Gaily.” What the thunder said is that God has departed from both the poet and the city-and that death and decline alone remain. “He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dying.” The last words of the poem are not the last line’s “Shantih Shantih Shantih,” but the last note’s dry explanation that “‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is our equivalent to this word.” Eliot reduces even “Shantih” to an ironic fragment, and for the poet and city alike a doomed defense alone remains: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

From Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach” (1867) to Philip Larkin in “Church Going” (1955) poets have found the decay of the culture’s religious faith an easy trope with which to express their melancholy sense of lost meaning. But it is a decadent trope and perhaps a wicked trope, for it acquiesces in decay at the same time that it bemoans it and it agrees to inevitability at the same time that it regrets it. Indeed, I suspect that despite the melancholy tone of “Church Going” Larkin actually wishes the utter cessation of faith would come more quickly. Even in The Waste Land Eliot flirts with this trope of lost faith: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” But he knows philosophy too well to suppose that we could somehow find a meaning for lost meaning, somehow understand why we seem no longer to understand. The reduction of faith in God to an age in history is an attempt to understand faith by surmounting faith, by making the history of faith in God an event transparent to a superior historical understanding. But if the purpose of performing the reduction is to explain why the world no longer seems essentially intelligible, then we lack an explanation for why history should manage to find the age of faith historically intelligible. If the absence of faith in God makes everything meaningless, then even that meaninglessness must be meaningless.

“The Hollow Men” (1925) forms a coda to The Waste Land , for in “The Hollow Men” Eliot purifies in the desert’s dry furnace his obsessive anxiety with death and his obsessive anxiety with decline. But he purifies as well his knowledge of the single origin of these anxieties in the absence, not exactly of faith, but of the God in Whom faith would believe-if only we had faith. The philosophically trained Eliot sees that without God, nothing may be beautiful, or true, or good. And here in “The Hollow Men,” two years before he entered into Christian communion (on June 29, 1927), Eliot makes the mistake that cripples the spirituality of all his later work.

I must be careful to say exactly what I mean, for certain critics, Marxist or Freudian or postmodernist, dismiss Eliot’s late spirituality precisely because it makes an attempt at spirituality-as though Eliot, after looking deep into the abyss in The Waste Land , had closed his eyes in horror and stumbled back into a childish and outdated faith in a childish and outdated God. What I mean instead is that I think Eliot never did truly believe and that his poetry is not about faith’s wait for God but about the hollow man’s wait for faith. Of course, he probably did believe, and many accounts of personal encounters with the poet describe the deep humility and sincerity of his faith. What we encounter in his late poetry, however, is a profound confusion of faith with a brilliant and learned man’s rational understanding that he needs to have faith. It may not have been a confusion in his personal life of prayer, but it is an obvious confusion in his published poetry. And it is still more obvious in his social criticism in The Idea of A Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture . Even at his most devout, Eliot sees religion instrumentally-not as Plato’s “Noble Lie,” of course, instilled in the simple people but disbelieved by the elite, but as a sort of “Noble Truth,” instilled in the simple people so that the society may continue but believed in a delicate, ironic, and aesthetic way by the elite. In the anglophilia, misjudged irony, and grotesque delicacy of the worst line Eliot ever wrote-the Magi who have seen the Christ-child reporting, “it was (you may say) satisfactory”-we encounter a spirituality so crippled by its self-consciousness that it testifies only to a mistake in the poet’s understanding of faith.

And the mistake originates in the philosophical moves Eliot makes in “The Hollow Men” and extends in “Ash-Wednesday.” The failure of modernity rests on the misguided attempt to found philosophical certainty on the self’s consciousness of itself, and Eliot rightly sees modernity’s failure. But his answer is to force himself to rise to consciousness of his self-consciousness-and then, when he finds that selflessness is not found there, to force himself to rise to consciousness of his self-consciousness of his self-consciousness-and then, when he finds that selflessness is not found there, to force himself to rise . . . -and then . . . . St. Augustine walked this path in the Confessions , and it drove him mad. The notion seems to be that, because we are finite, we cannot (in the real psychology of thought) follow self-consciousness to its apparent infinity; we cannot be infinitely self-conscious. Eventually, at the limit of our thought, we must arrive at a consciousness of which we cannot be self-conscious. Eventually we must arrive at a pure, selfless act of thought that may thereby think the true philosophical foundation of the self.

The path of self-consciousness, however, may be walked only if desire is stronger than reason, only if the will goes on longer than the intellect. The thinker who grows tired and leaps to the conclusion of the apparent infinity of self-consciousness has let reason triumph over weak desire. Augustine falls further and further into self-willed madness as he advances further and further into self-willed self-consciousness, and at last (in a garden as the Confessions tells the story) he converts by the grace of God from madness to that pure and selfless act he sought. But it is a pure and selfless act of will and not of intellect. Augustine becomes an unthinking, irrational, and motiveless desire for the Will of God. And when a child’s voice-saying, “Take up and read”-wafts over the garden wall, Augustine drifts as gently as a leaf across the garden and over to the table where he finds the letters of St. Paul.

Augustinian voluntarism provides a philosophical support for St. Augustine’s conversion that rationalism could never provide. F. H. Bradley, on whom T. S. Eliot concentrated his philosophical studies at Harvard, found his dialectical idealism-his rational Hegelianism-break down at exactly this point. If the fundamental instrument of the human search for the Divine is the intellect, if the mystical experience is the Aristotelian identity of self-thought thinker with self-thinking thought, then only God could ever arrive at faith. Hegel would be exactly right: the subjective will, because irrational, would be objectively useless and unknowable; history would be the story not of individuals but of God Himself coming in history to freedom, rationality, and self-consciousness. Kierkegaard could not stomach the idea, and F. H. Bradley (at least in a famous passage criticizing Matthew Arnold) apparently could not either. “How can the human-divine ideal ever be my will?” asks Bradley.

The answer is, Your will it can never be as the will of your private self, so that your private self should become wholly good. To that self you must die, and by faith be made one with that ideal. You must resolve to give up your will, as the mere will of this or that man, and you must put your whole self, your entire will, into the will of the divine. That must be your one self, as it is your true self; that you must hold to both with thought and will, and all other you must renounce.

With the demand that by an act of will we give up our will, Bradley reaches toward the Augustinian answer. But Eliot’s comment on this passage-”The distinction is not between a ‘private self’ or a ‘higher self,’ it is between the individual as himself and no more, a mere numbered atom, and the individual in communion with God”-reveals the extent to which the poet has missed it. The intellect remains for Eliot the organ of faith, just as rationalism (or a sort of rational recognition of the need for supra-rationalism) remains the philosophical support for the search for faith. And the rational self becomes for Eliot more and more attenuated as it walks the path of self-consciousness, more and more ironic, more and more delicate, more and more aesthetic, more and more vague. The poet of precision in “Prufrock” becomes the poet for whom even precision serves abstraction in the Four Quartets . Eliot remained intelligent, of course; if anything, he grew more intelligent as he grew older. His voice deepened as his lines grew denser, and he dropped the boyish trick of using unusual words for their effect as unusual. But he could not find in poetry the faith in God that he saw so clearly he required.

It is not surprising, then, that “Ash-Wednesday” should be the most unified and perfect of the poems after Eliot’s conversion. In an essay that appeared shortly before The Waste Land, Eliot claimed that the metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert “feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose . . . . A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” In “Ash-Wednesday” the thought is still new to Eliot-the thought that knowledge of the need for faith might be itself a kind of faith if only it were felt deeply enough, if only it were experienced deeply enough. And in “Ash-Wednesday” the thought is felt and experienced deeply. “Ash-Wednesday” is a poem not so much about God as prayer for God, and not so much about prayer as about the effort of the poet to put himself in the attitude of prayer. The stuttering fragmentation of lines, developed in “The Hollow Men” to suggest frustrated incompletion, Eliot utterly reverses in “Ash-Wednesday” to suggest consummated completion: just as immediately beyond the spoken line waits the unspoken consummation the hearer expects to hear, so immediately beyond the spoken poem waits the unspoken consummation of faith.

Because I do not hope to turn again Because I do not hope Because I do not hope to turn . . . Lord I am not worthy Lord I am not worthy but speak the word only.

The experience of his new thought modifies Eliot’s sensibility, and there shines through the lenten dark of “Ash-Wednesday” a joy in the poetic craft that was missing from “The Hollow Men.”

But the joy fades as the thought grows stale and hardens into an established position. Eliot’s spirituality does not deepen as time goes by, and portions of the Christian workers’ chants in the choruses from The Rock (1934) have the joyless feeling found elsewhere only in 1930s socialist workers’ declarations of communal joy in work. Eliot never lost his power to turn quotable and right lines:

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people: Their only monument the asphalt road And a thousand lost golf balls.”

But in the choruses from The Rock the good lines all glibly indict the lack of other people’s faith rather than declare faith’s presence in the poet. And lines like “I journeyed to London, to the timekept City, / Where the River flows, with foreign flotations” seem merely weak echoes of the Unreal City in The Waste Land . The immediate and personal feeling of “Ash-Wednesday” becomes didactic generalization in The Rock , and the confusion of faith with the knowledge of the need for faith becomes established fact.

There is a certain kind of intelligence-a kind of quickness and skill at manipulating ideas at a certain middle level of abstraction-that good poetry does not necessarily require. Neither Tennyson in the nineteenth century (according to a famous gibe by W. H. Auden) nor John Berryman in the twentieth impresses the reader with his intelligence; we read Tennyson and Berryman for their language and for their profundity at higher and lower levels of abstraction than intelligence commands. Matthew Arnold is a critic of commanding intelligence, but his struggle to divorce the critical function from the poetic is a struggle to divorce intelligence from poetry (a divorce that reaches its decadent completion in the simplicity, power, and stupidity of the poetry of the highly intelligent A. E. Housman). Eliot’s long quarrel with Arnold about the function of criticism is finally a quarrel about maintaining a place for intelligence in poetry. And what constantly impresses the reader is the intelligence in Eliot’s criticism and poetry alike. Eliot is smarter than we are, better read, and more thoughtful.

This is the explanation, I think, for his near success at presenting Christian spirituality in Murder in the Cathedral (1935). Eliot had read and thought seriously about Augustine and Thomas More. He had read and thought seriously about Donne, Herbert, and Dante (especially Dante-unlike any other great English critic, Eliot returns to Dante as often as he returns to Shakespeare). Eliot knows, in other words, what he would say if only he had faith, if only he lived in a world where faith was the given and the struggle was for understanding. And in the verse-drama of Murder in the Cathedral , in the voice of Thomas Becket seeking to purify his motives for accepting martyrdom, Eliot gets to say it:

I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper, And I would no longer be denied; all things Proceed to a joyful consummation.

With the novelty of a new poetic form, with the ability to speak in an actual believer’s intelligent voice and consequent freedom from having to speak in his own, Eliot gets to say what he would have said if only he believed. And he says it beautifully, simply, and with real grace. But in his attempt to make the play topical, in the changed tone of the murderers’ speeches to the audience, for instance, Eliot actually succeeds only in reminding us that the murder of Becket is not topical (in any immediate social or political sense) and that Becket’s voice is not Eliot’s.

When the war put a stop to productions of new dramas, Eliot began to work again in the poetic style he had developed in “Burnt Norton” (1935), composing the last three of the Four Quartets: “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942). Perhaps the increased anxiety with death in a man growing older explains the return Eliot makes to the poetic analysis of time he had begun in “Gerontion”-an analysis that characterizes the quartets from the famous beginning of the first,

Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable

to the brilliant conclusion of the last,

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree Are of equal duration. A people without history Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel History is now and England.

It cannot explain, however, the calm that also characterizes the Four Quartets . The years brought to Eliot a practiced ease and naturalness in thinking in the patterns of Christian thought. Sometimes the voice becomes didactic (as it was in the fifth section of “Ash-Wednesday”), and sometimes the old sneer at the modern world breaks through. But the voice of the Four Quartets remains mostly a voice of calm but deep humility attempting with great and studied care to do justice both to the reality of temporal experience and to the reality of the atemporal Divine.

The poet knows history’s reality, but the manner of its reality he finds difficult to describe, for everything that has reality must be present in some way and history presents itself in old traditions, old places, and old books-history presents itself in dissociated fragments whose purpose and unity we cannot immediately discern. Memory, especially when we grow old, presents our own past in this same way: as sudden and dissociated memories-as the poet remembers-of the dust on a rose bowl, of a river, of the passengers on a train. If the past were present to us in some sort of formal pattern, we might have sufficient knowledge to understand our present life and future death. But neither history nor memory presents the past in a patterned way, and the present lacks what would be necessary for us to comprehend it.

In certain moments and in certain places, however, and without explanation, time opens up for us in a flood of associations from history and memory. For all that it is temporal, this experience seems not so much an experience of being in time as an experience of being outside time-of being in a Now in which great stretches of time are simultaneously present. Like Proust, Eliot is careful and precise in his descriptions of such experiences. But unlike Proust, Eliot is careful to remain outside them, for his purpose is not to invest these “spots of time” (as Wordsworth called them) with mystical significance but to develop in them a metaphor for what the mystical enfolding of all time in God’s Eternal Now would be like.

A tone of detachment pervades certain passages in the Four Quartets : in “East Coker” where Eliot puts the metaphor of Christ the wounded surgeon, in “The Dry Salvages” where he mocks augury, in “Little Gidding” where he transforms German dive-bombers into the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit. And this detachment originates finally in Eliot’s desire to turn experience into metaphor. The progress of the artist, Eliot wrote when he was younger, is “a continual extinction of personality.” The poet must not experience his experiences; he must stand self-consciously outside experience in order to watch himself experience. And in the Four Quartets the self-conscious poet stands outside his temporal experiences in order to find in them a metaphor for the atemporal he has not experienced. The fundamental experience in the Four Quartets -that experience to which all other experiences are ordered as metaphors-Eliot always describes in the conditional or the subjunctive or the future.

And all shall be well and All manner of things 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.

The metaphors work not properly as metaphors for faith, however, but as metaphors for what the mystical experience would be like if only we could have it. Eliot still demands knowledge, albeit a supra-rational knowledge, and still demands that faith be like knowledge. The language of mysticism-the language he borrowed from such Christian mystics as Julian of Norwich, who used it to describe the point where irrational faith gave way to supra-rational knowledge-Eliot uses to describe instead the point where his rational knowledge would give way to irrational faith. He has confused the experience of faith with the experience of God-or at least he has confused his own waiting for faith with the faithful’s waiting for God.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and love and hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

This is not faith’s difficult search for understanding, but understanding’s impossible search for faith. And all that remains for the poet is a delicate, aesthetic, self-conscious almost-spirituality-a detached and wistful watching of himself, watching himself, watching.


Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things .

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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