Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Towards The Still Point 8 - Another Look at T.S. Eliot's Beliefs


Sunset, Howth, September, 2003
 Of the many poets I loved at College in the late 1970s, T.S. Eliot rates with Dylan Thomas and Randal Jarrell as being one of my all-time favourites.  Why these three in particular?  Well, the answer to that question is quite easy indeed.  The late great John Devitt taught and tutored me in the literary oeuvres of these three poets, and it was through his good offices that I began to listen to these three wonderful makers of poems reading their work.  Their living, spoken voices captivated me from the start - their wonderful enunciation, their powerful passion about what they were saying and the sheer ability of each to communicate how they were feeling won my heart immediately.  In short, it was on hearing them read (or even perform) their poems that made me become an addict to good poetry.  I learnt the valuable lesson, too, that poetry is essentially an oral art!

T S Eliot always appealed to me as I was studying theology and philosophy as well as English literature in those days, and this Anglo-American or more correctly American-English poet had a keen interest in both subjects.  American by birth, Eliot was a student at Harvard, and wrote his thesis (Ph.D.) on the nineteenth-century philosopher F. H. Bradley. He also studied in Germany, and at the Sorbonne (Paris) before coming to Merton College, Oxford, where he settled. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Eliot turned to Christianity in 1927. Specifically, he rejected the Unitarianism of his upbringing, and embraced Anglo-Catholicism, (essentially The Church of England) in a public and controversial conversion. He wrote his best-known conversion poem, Ash Wednesday the following year.

Now, it is important to emphasize that Eliot was far too learned and erudite to confuse the areas of Theology and Literature or to use the latter for the promulgation of the tenets of the former.  In other words, as even the most unread students in English Literature, or in any literature for that matter, will know, didacticism is often far from persuasive, and more often than not destroys good literature, reducing it to mere pamphleteering or propaganda.  So our poet refused to take the high moral ground of didacticism which often might and does smack of hypocrisy.

T.S.Eliot was interested in the writings of previous critics of ethics and commentators on faith, such as Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. As a scholar of English, he was keen not to confuse theology and literature, but he acknowledged that the two approaches need not conflict with each other. Indeed, he believed that writing was a way of approaching the great mysteries of human life, and if this meant showing the human being in all his colours, "warts and all" as the cliché has it, in his confusion as well as his certainty, at his best and at his worst or somewhere in between, then so be it.

Eliot was a well-known celebrity and cultural commentator during his own lifetime.  He posited that culture was, in fact, simply the expression of a nation's religion, in various diverse forms. (This seems somewhat cracked to me, or rather more correctly, in the wrong order, as most of us today would see religion as a part of culture and not the other way around!) Because of his interest in civilization and society, much of his study was concentrated on the ritual, rubric, iconography, and cult of religion, be it pagan simplicity, Christian hierarchy or Buddhist philosophy of life. 

Pope's Cross, Phoenix Park, September 2003
However, once again T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was a man of his era, who had lived through the human and consequent cultural devastation of two major World Wars.  These were two realities that simply could not be ignored.  Consequently, it's not hard to understand why he also believed that a lot of the most remarkable achievements of culture had arisen out of discord and disunity. He thought that society in his own age had broken down to a large extent, as expressed in his great modernist poem The Waste Land to which I referred in my last post on this modernist poet.  Writing after The Great War, he felt that modern life was rife with futility and anarchy. It was his interest in the institutions of society that led him to see the importance of communal worship, and the significance of religious practice for entire nations, as well as for individual souls.  It is also important to point out that The Waste Land (1922) bears the hall mark of a man who had undergone a fairly recent nervous breakdown and a devastating divorce from his first wife.  In other words the cultural devastation mirrored to a great extent his own inner one. The poem is also known for its obscure nature - its rather confusing slippage between satire and prophecy and back again and also its abrupt changes of speaker, location, and time. Despite this, it has become a touchstone of modern literature, a poetic counterpart to a novel published in the same year, James Joyce's Ulysses. Among its best-known phrases are "April is the cruellest month", "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and "Shantih shantih shantih," the Sanskrit mantra that ends the poem. Shanti, Santhi, Shanthi or Shantih as Eliot personally spells it means peace, rest, calmness, tranquility, or bliss.  Eliot, here in this poem translated it as "The Peace which passeth understanding."  (The Shanti Mantras are Hindu prayers, not Buddhist!)

Eliot was always interested in (i) the potentials and (ii) the limitations of other religions, as well as those of Christianity.  Buddhism is a particular interest of the author of this blog, and it exercised a great influence on this great modernist poet of the English language. It attracted him for everything it has to say about the pain of human life and desire and most especially for its prescriptions as to how to learn to avoid such pain and such desire.  He was also very interested in the concept of sunyata (divine emptiness). In Buddhism, emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena arising from the Buddha's observation that nothing possesses an essential or enduring identity (anattā). In the Buddha's spiritual teachings, the realization of the emptiness of phenomena is an aspect of the cultivation of insight that leads to wisdom and inner peace. The importance of this insight is especially emphasized in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and is explicated in the tathāgatagarbha sutras.


He had a great interest in the Bhagavad-Gita (one of the Hindu Scriptures) and a fascination with the occult and with the mysticism of all Eastern Religions. Yet he advocated the need for systematic belief structures, and did not fully embrace the Confucianism of his friend and fellow modernist poet Ezra Pound. Eliot was also very interested in mysticism, but felt the need to commit vivid sensations of mystical moments to paper, some of which are the most profound pieces of Christian creativity of the last century.

The force and insight of Eliot's work often arose from his personal experience. However, it is important to point out, and totally understandable, that his personal life was not without its periods of doubt as well as faith. He often suffered financial difficulties, was of an anxious disposition, and his marriage to his first wife, Vivien, broke down partially as a result of nervous illnesses from which both of them suffered.

Eliot wrote poetry partly as a means of escaping from the trials of his life, but he also died saying that his creativity had caused him great personal suffering. He wrote several plays: Murder in the Cathedral , The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party.  His greatest poem, which overshadows The Waste Land, and which was the poet's own preferred work, was The Four Quartets. These all dealt with the religious aspects of time and redemption. Even when writing about the suffering of individual people, Eliot maintained a sense of hope, and he was not given over to despair.

The fourth section of The Four Quartets is called Little Gidding (which highlights the element of fire) is the most anthologized of the Quartets.   It is also instructive to realize that Eliot's experiences as an air raid warden in The Blitz power the poem (unsurprisingly).   It is a small step, then, for such a highly strung and deeply imaginative and learned man to make when he imagines in this quartet meeting Dante during the German bombing. (Dante's Inferno etc).  The beginning of the Quartets ("Houses .../Are removed, destroyed") had become a violent everyday experience during The Blitz of London.  This creates an animation, a background scene, a veritable film running there in his mind and ours against which for the first time he talks of Love as the driving force behind all experience.  And in a drive or blitz of Love towards The Still Point, if I may be so bold as to mix metaphors as well as religions, the Quartets end with an affirmation of the medieval English Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416): "all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well".  This surely is the Christian Still Point.

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