Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 -1965) was a poet, literary critic, playwright and lecturer. Better known as T.S. Eliot, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Born in St. Louis Missouri, he moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25, later assuming British citizenship and remaining in England until his death in 1965.
I was first introduced to his poems in a high school English class and met up with him later in a World Literature class in college. I think he stuck in my visually attuned mind because he painted such meaningful and vivid images in his poetry. He is considered the founder of 20th Century Modernist poetry.
The 19th Century Romantics, such as Wordsworth, had held sway over English poetry for many decades. Eliot’s essays on literature and his work as a poet opened the door to a new type and style of expression. He experimented with new verse rhythms based on the rhythms of contemporary speech. The structure of his poems were like collages - composed of fragments of speech and images. He integrated numerous other voices in his poems besides his own - and many outright quotations from other authors - his favorites being Dante and Shakespeare.
And yet this man - steeped in philosophy, Sanskrit, and religious skepticism - who revolutionized the language of poetry - became a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. His work as a “Christian” author, essayist, and lecturer is less well known than G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. I know that Eliot held some views typical of the upper class and elites of his day that we do not cherish now. Nor was Eliot a saint.
I am NOT an expert of T.S. Eliot - I didn’t even major in English! But I am very interested in exploring how his long literary period of essays, lectures, plays, and poetry were informed by his piety and his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I really enjoy listening to Eliot read his own poetry in recordings he made which you can easily find on-line. Here is Part One of my exploration of T.S. Eliot:
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.
That is the first verse of Psalm 102 and that verse is used by T.S. Eliot as the last line of his poem Ash Wednesday. Surely if ever there was a case of a soul who grieved and groaned over the futility of existence, death, and wished for rebirth - it was T. S. Eliot. And in Ash Wednesday he provides a useful image or metaphor of working and walking out our salvation.
Two of his most famous poems are The Wasteland and The Hollow Men - poems of deep despair. (He is today mostly remembered as the author of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), a collection of whimsical poems made popular in the hit musical Cats)
The Wasteland was published not long after the end of WW1 - the world’s deadliest conflict - with an estimated nine million combatant deaths and 13 million civilian deaths. In addition to his despair over the state of post WWI Europe, Eliot struggled in his personal life. Financial woes (he worked as a teacher and then in a bank), a failing marriage and ill health led him to a nervous breakdown. The Wasteland was written from a sanitarium in Switzerland.
The Wasteland expresses the disillusionment and disgust after World War I, portraying a fearful world pursuing barren lusts, yearning desperately for any sign of redemption - a groan or lamentation over the seeming futility of existence. The language is fragmentary, seemingly chaotic, often circular like a nursery rhyme. The limits of human words to express articulately the depths of anguish is emphasized - The Wasteland is portrayed as either a rocky desert without water or as a crowded and festering city - a hellish London. There is no God in the wasteland. As there is no God there is no Son of God and no hope of deliverance or rebirth. - There are only myths. Time is without meaning - it turns like a wheel of damnation.
Eliot’s next poem, The Hollow Men was written in 1925. The opening stanzas are haunting:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together, Are quiet and meaningless
The hollow men are neither alive nor dead. Though stuffed with the straw and stubble,
they are hollow in that they lack substance, are devoid of emotions or faith.
they have no capacity for positive action - they have no positive will - Their scarecrow faces are painted on and do not reflect the image of God -
As Ps. 1 says: they are like chaff the wind drives away
They are in a hollow world too:
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
This is a despairing picture of the futility of the world. The closing stanza of the poem is haunting:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
A whimper is an embarrassing sound for a man to make - a kind of pathetic cry for relief and rescue. In another sense, it is the sound a new-born baby makes - a sign that a child is born and is alive. It is a sign of hope - Perhaps, the hope of salvation is present, although very faintly, for the Hollow Men. Yet, the Lord God is able to respond to the feeblest, inarticulate, weakest sound of person who is in desperate need of a savior.
Eliot's despair, however, was short-lived. He came to reject the humanist philosophy of his contemporaries and in 1927 was confirmed in the Church of England. He became a devoted Anglo-Catholic, much to the dismay and hostility of the circle of literary elites to which Eliot belonged.
His first poem written after his conversion, in 1930, is titled Ash Wednesday. Like all his poems, Ash Wednesday is complex and deeply personal. It is the story of Eliot’s conversion – with all his skepticism and doubts still there, offered to God.
(End of Part One)