T. S. Eliot’s Poetry Is Alive

September 29, 2015

by William Edgar

Poetry is about crafting words. Not data, but lyrical, imaginative verbal invention. Unlike other art forms, even creative prose, poetry addresses the soul at its very source, at the place where language intermingles with deepest consciousness, God’s own image. To catch the difference, try saying in descriptive prose, “Death be not proud.” You might at best explain that death has been conquered by God’s power, or that it can no longer hold us in bondage. You might succeed in describing the aging process, the agony of disease, the separation of spirit and body, and then the hope of heaven. But you would have missed everything important: the defiance, the victory song, the stance, looking at the last enemy in the face, and dressing it down. John Donne’s entire sonnet leads up to the final line, “Death, thou shalt die!”

Poetry is about crafting words. Not data, but lyrical, imaginative verbal invention.

Poetry, as Matthew Arnold puts it, has power “to awaken in us a wonderfully full, new, and intimate sense of [things], and our relation to them.” Poetry, like music, is a performance, not just a message. At times it resembles prayer. Poetry, as John Ciardi puts it, is “the natural language of man’s most exalted thoughts.”[i] To accomplish that, “the essence of a poem is that one thing in it requires another… The poem, that is, is forever generating its own context. Like a piece of music, it exists as self-entering, self-generating, self-complicating, self resolving form.”[ii] That is not to say there is no relation of poetry to outside facts. It relates to them mostly with connotations, feelings, words as historical repositories, and less than with denotations.

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1065) was a staunch defender of the art of poetry, because for him well-crafted words could subdue the tohu wabohu, the formless void of the world. In his 1939 essay, “That Poetry Is Made with Words,” he says,

Poetry, if it is not to be a lifeless repetition of forms, must be constantly exploring “the frontiers of the spirit.” But these frontiers are not like the surveys of geographical explorers, conquered once for all and settled. The frontiers of the spirit are more like the jungle which, unless continuously kept under control, is always ready to encroach and eventually obliterate the cultivated area.[iii]

In this case, the chaos is as much within as without. Thus, the frontiers of the spirit need taming, and poetry is the best instrument to subdue this most present jungle. But of course, not just any poetry can do this.

Eliot revolutionized modern literature. Even his critics, who were numerous, agreed that his lyric poetry changed the landscape altogether. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) established him as a classic poet, one that would be known and reckoned with down through the ages. Most of us who were educated in the English tradition will have had many of its eloquent lines hard-wired into our memories:

Let us go then, you and I,
Where the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

What starts out as a quiet romantic walk with my beloved in the sunset ends up in Qoheleth-like emptiness. The poem is full of such contrasts. The twice repeated line, “In the room the women come and go, Talking of Michelangelo” satirically sums up the atmosphere of false aspirations ending in babble so characteristic of his day, perhaps of any day. While we want to be significant, are we not reduced to “a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of the silent seas?” Very few texts so well captured the jungle at the frontier of human souls wandering around war-torn Europe. Much of Eliot’s early work indeed echoed the anxiety reigning in the West after the defeat of pre-war optimism, in the years between the two world wars. But the very words of such a poem testify, albeit dimly, to hope, to a world beyond the chaos: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”

Eliot revolutionized modern literature. Even his critics, who were numerous, agreed that his lyric poetry changed the landscape altogether.

T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, to a wealthy family from New England. His puritan ancestors came to Massachusetts for reasons of religious dissent. By the late nineteenth century most of the family has become well-bred Unitarians. His mother, Charlotte Stearns Champe Eliot, had taught school and was a quite decent poet herself. She was religiously inclined; the parallels between mother and son are patent, though not complete. Her poetry was rather serene, whereas Thomas’ was, if the word is not too strong, tormented. Eliot’s intelligence was prodigious. He devoured Western literature. He read or spoke numerous languages. He studied Indian culture. He entered Harvard at seventeen to study French literature. He stayed there through the PhD program, but took a year at Oxford, and never left England thereafter. He was unhappily married to Vivien Haigh-Wood, a woman deeply troubled both physically and mentally. Eliot initiated a separation, and she died in an asylum in 1947. He remarried at the age of sixty eight to Esmé Valerie Fletcher, and had a relatively happy conjugal life until his death, age seventy five. He died of complications arising from emphysema, provoked by the London air and his heavy smoking.

After a brief time of teaching, followed by a position as clerk at Lloyd’s Bank in London, Eliot went to work as a director at Faber Gwyer, later Faber & Faber, the legendary publishing company. He created The Criterion which he edited from 1922 to 1932. This gave him a considerable voice in the literary and social criticism of the day. In 1927 he converted to the Anglican Church, and settled into its Anglo-Catholic expression. He also became a British citizen. Publicly he was an industrious editor and the friend of many younger authors. Privately, as is evidenced in his poetry, he was a man haunted by much grief and suffering, though a man of faith.

Although he wrote essays and plays, many of which are monuments in their own right, his lasting contribution is without doubt his poetry. As a young man in London he became friends with Ezra Pound, who recognized Eliot’s great gift and helped him on the way to a life of artistry in words. Eliot gratefully acknowledged his mentor in the dedication of “The Waste Land,” calling him il migliore fabbro (“the better craftsman,” as Dante had put it in Purgatorio XXVI). This was a considerable compliment!

* * *

Several surprises await the novice reader of Eliot’s poetry. The breadth of his knowledge is so dazzling, we are tempted to say of him, as was said of the Apostle Paul, “your great learning is turning you mad.” (Acts 26:24) At first, his many quotations and references seem almost distracting. Then after reading and rereading the text, and reciting it out loud, we begin the hear, as it were, the work as a whole. If one takes the trouble to decode the references and translate the quotes, then the many parts begin to cohere. Like the great symphony, non-musicians can enjoy it and perhaps hum the melodies. The learned music scholar will hear all the nuances, the different instruments, the cross-references, the historic roots, and the whole will be all the more meaningful.

The breadth of his knowledge is dazzling. At first, his many quotations and references seem almost distracting.

A related surprise is the apparent fragmentation of Eliot’s poetry. In what is perhaps his greatest masterpiece, “The Waste Land,” such atomization is acknowledged by the poet himself. The very last line says it with synecdoche (the part representing the whole):

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayahhvam. Damyata.
Shantih   shantih   shantih[iv]

What are these fragments? Presumably they are the pieces of Western culture left in shambles after the destruction of the prevalent optimism of the nineteenth century. Still, the poem is not a random set of motifs, but a seamless movement, a symphonic elegy unified in its diversity. Significantly, Eliot has shored the fragments into a sort of collage, where various bits are glued together. And this give hope in the midst of the ruins. As Helen Vendler puts it, “[T]here is purposefulness in its wandering: as the poem completes itself linearly, it also takes on a crystalline spatial structure that replicates, in it textual feeling, a pattern of human emotion.”[v] Again, the analogy of music is helpful here, especially modern music, like that of Stravinsky’s large-scale ballets or Maria Schneider’s jazz orchestral arrangements, because it parallels the unity and diversity of the words crafted into this concerted montage of metaphors and quotations.

Eliot’s poetry is informed by his lifelong pursuit of philosophy with a theological essence. As an undergraduate at Harvard he concentrated on philosophy and literature. Upon graduation he went to Paris for a year to study Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Bergson was Jewish, but would convert to Roman Catholicism in 1921. Highly critical of Marx for his materialism, and of Darwin for his approach to natural selection, he nevertheless believed in a sort of macro-evolutionary movement in the universe, directed by an élan vital, the creative force akin to God himself. What drew Eliot to Bergson (who knew America and was close to some of its prominent thinkers) was the idea of process. Bergson’s rather lyrical or rhapsodic notion of universal process and his idea that the human brain was a repository and censor of the past in the present, is not unlike Eliot’s baroque combinations of words and themes, leading to some faraway mermaid call. Eliot believed the Christian life was one of slow and steady growth, rather than instantaneous conversion.

Eliot’s poetry is informed by his lifelong pursuit of philosophy with a theological essence.

Another early philosophical influence on T. S. Eliot was the idealist Francis Herbert Bradley (1846-1924), about whom he wrote his doctoral dissertation for Harvard.[vi] Unlike Bergson in many ways, yet Bradley also attacked empiricism and utilitarianism, and believed in acquiring the best ideas through human experience, an experience that tends toward the ideal. Truth is only partially available to us, yet we may believe that there is an Absolute in which all things cohere. Soon, however, Eliot was drawn to the powerful outlook of Britain’s most prominent philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Strange as it sounds, for Russell (1872-1970) was a famous atheist. Eliot not only admired him, but he and his wife would move in to Russell’s flat in London (which would not be helpful for their marriage, sad to say). Eliot believed this mentor to be among the clearest voices for science and linguistic analysis, ones that liberated English philosophy from the German influence. Russell used his craft to achieve two sorts of analyses. The first was reductive, attacking various logical fictions in order to reduce them to non existence. The second was more constructive, taking concepts and making them more clear and measurable.

On the strength of Russell’s influence, Eliot now returns to a sort of empiricism. In his first works on literary criticism he clearly reflects Russell’s penchant for scientific responsibility. In a major work on criticism, The Sacred Wood (1920), he calls for clarity, precision, and decries anything vague and indefinite. This does not mean merely the cold analytic deductions of bare intellect. He also defends the role of feelings as well as knowledge, to achieve human perception. For example, he criticizes the poetry of Swinburne because, “the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning,” and that because “the object has ceased to exist,” whereas he praises John Donne because in his verse, “sensation became word and word became sensation.”[vii]

Russell was the early twentieth century’s great apostle of pure science. He argued that science was much more likely to be true than philosophy. In his work on logical atomism he advocated the facts, the facts and only the facts. Eliot would soon turn away from this scientific idolatry, finding it “crude and raw and provincial.” Still, he would always cherish a certain need for objectivity both in criticism and poetry. Unlike Russell, as he grew, he would increasingly locate this objectivity in living tradition. He found it in such places as a common inheritance, a common cause, common principles, and especially the common pursuit of true judgment. Eventually he would concede that objectivity cannot be devoid of human passion and situatedness. Not unlike Wittgenstein, Eliot began to believe that all knowledge was applied, and somehow socially conditioned.[viii]

The heart of Eliot’s philosophy, then, is wisdom.

This is not to say that Eliot was a relativist. He converted to Anglicanism in 1927. While he no longer could accept the naïve objectivity of Bradley and Russell, he did believe that God, the Absolute, could dispense much practical wisdom to his creatures. Something like Aristotle’s phronesis emerged in a Christianized version. Aristotle taught that intelligence must be qualified by virtue if it is to lead to the wisdom we need to navigate in the world. Eliot famously said, “there is no method except to be very intelligent.”[ix] The heart of Eliot’s philosophy, then, is wisdom, not only instrumental wisdom, but the ability, as found in the children of Issachar, who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” (1 Chron 12:32)

Where would such wisdom lead him? We know and respect Eliot first and foremost as a poet. He was also a respected literary critic, and a social critic. While we must not simply apply his social thought to his own verse, there has to be some connection. His views are not always easy to summarize. A good deal of debate surrounds the question of Eliot’s real convictions. Eliot sympathized with some of the more conservative movements of his day. Though critical of romanticism, he loved nineteenth century cultural advocates, like Coleridge. He endorsed Charles Maurras in the New Criterion, at least in a sanitized version. When the pope condemned Maurras’ Action Française in 1927, Eliot defended the group, albeit without endorsing some of its darker aspects. Maurras had argued that the French version of republicanism was basically a façade to hide an industrial and capitalist lust to wrench authority from the nobles and from the church. Eliot did not approve AF’s purist nationalism, nor did he “flirt with fascism,” as some of his critics would have it. Nor can he be proven to be anti-Semitic. It is true he was slower than some to see the evils of Nazism. He would later regret any impression of denying the horror of the Nazi persecutions of Jews.[x]

One possible reason for these kinds of accusation is that at times Eliot sounds élitist to the point of denying the virtues of a liberal and diverse society. Occasionally he made statements about the dangers of mixing cultures that sounded racist. Further, at one point early on he was a royalist, though he later developed the view that the church should be a social center of gravity, not the government, be it royal or Tory. In his work on the nature of culture looked for an approach that could provide a dynamic for unity that could overcome the fragmentation of the age. In Notes Toward the Definition of Culture Eliot argues that culture at its best is simply “that which makes life worth living.” He strongly believed that “no culture can appear or develop except in relation to religion.”[xi] Accepting Durkheim’s type of evolutionary view, he reckoned that given enough time, modern societies would grow and would become more differentiated. While this is happening, we must ensure that we strive toward concord, rather than what appear to be the forces leading to an “aggregation of human beings who are not units but merely bundles of incoherent impulses and beliefs.”[xii]

* * *

Eliot’s wisdom would lead him to write some of the most original and powerful poetry of modern times. How do we assess it? Few are indifferent to it. His most famous critic was C. S. Lewis. Although Lewis averred in A Preface to Paradise Lost, “I agree with Eliot on matters of such great importance that all literary questions are trivial in comparison,” yet their disagreements were deep. It made it hard to be a supporter of both men. Their conflict was the more remarkable in that they were so similar in profile: roughly contemporary (Lewis lived from 1889 to 1963), both were outsiders (Lewis from Ireland, Eliot from America), both converts to Anglicanism, and both conservatives who were placed by commentators into the same camp, along with such co-belligerents as W. H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers and Graham Greene.[xiii] Over what issues were they at odds?

His most famous critic was C. S. Lewis.

The line between temperament and conviction is often very thin. Early on, C. S. Lewis himself had wanted more than anything to be a poet. His numerous poems are almost entirely classical, mythic, profoundly committed to the great canon of Western literature. The enemy is modernism, which tends toward the “abolition of man.” J. R. R. Tolkien himself described their clash not to be jealousy, but the conflict between two different worlds, “the classical and the traditional versus the free and the modern.” Lewis loved solid forms and shapes, conventional symbols, he said, whereas Eliot delved into new images and subjective thought associations. Lewis suggested in one of his own poems, “A Confession” (1954), that Eliot could only testify to “sensibility in decay.” Eliot’s modernism was inaccessible to Lewis. To compare as he does in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” an evening spread to the sky with “a patient etherised upon a table” made no sense to him at all.

Some of the judgments made by these two rivals are nearly comical. T. S. Eliot once remarked that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was most certainly an artistic failure. To which Lewis replied, if this is failure, then failure is better than success! To be fair, Eliot did think Shakespeare, like his beloved John Donne, belonged to an age where the intellect “was at the tip of the senses.” Eliot was largely responsible for the revival of interest in the metaphysical poet John Donne. Lewis called Donne a minor poet whose tortured imagery is the main reason why there is such interest in him today. Instead, Lewis loved Percy Bysshe Shelley, whereas Eliot thought him old fashioned, lacking even the virtue of a John Dryden, whom he considered modern and refreshing for his time. Eliot thought romanticism to be wasteful nostalgia, Lewis thought it a sure guide to faith. And so it went. Happily, in the late 1950s they became very good friends. They had both been assigned to the group that revised the Anglican Psalter, and found so much in common that their abiding philosophical differences took second place to their human affection.

How should the arts respond to the growing threats of the twentieth century against the dignity of human life and the heritage of celestial values?

A large part of the misunderstanding arose out of the question of the proper interpretation of the purpose of literature. How should the arts respond to the growing threats of the twentieth century against the dignity of human life and the heritage of celestial values? How to assess the surrounding culture in order to critique it? Eliot thought the best way was prophetic warning. One raises a red flag by echoing much that can be heard. Lewis called that accommodation. In 1935 a mutual friend, Paul Elmer Moore, wrote Lewis about one of Eliot’s essays on James Joyce, and called Eliot “a great genius expending itself on the propagation of irresponsibility.” To which Lewis responded, here we have no great genius, but we do have the propagation of irresponsibility![xiv] Lewis could not imagine anyone standing for truth who did not do so in a classicist, well-disciplined fashion. Eliot was worse than a devil since he posed as a student of the classics. As to matters of faith, for Lewis, Eliot is Mr. Neo-Angular, the character in Pilgrim’s Regress who represents people who use the Christian religion to promote snobbery, “trying to make of Christianity itself one more high-brow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad.” Further, “T.S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against.”[xv] Eliot did have his rather highbrow views of culture, as we have seen. But is it fair to call him Mr. Angular?

This is one of the abiding aesthetic questions of our time. Should Christians be conservatives? And is conservatism classicist? Or should they be iconoclastic prophets, warning of decay by describing it in its own terms? It is a legitimate debate. I find myself largely sympathetic with T. S. Eliot in this matter, even though I am devoted to so much in C. S. Lewis. Was not Eliot a twentieth-century Amos, a John the Baptist? Gentle reader, you decide. Read these extraordinary poems and then decide. Or don’t. Simply let them weave their spell on you.



The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917)
Gerontion (1920)
The Waste Land (1922)
Ash-Wednesday (1930)
Four Quartets (1935-1942)


[i] John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959, p. 678.
[ii] Ibid., p. 769.
[iii] New English Weekly, 15, 27 April, 1939, p. 27.
[iv] The second line is from Thomas Kyd, a contemporary of Shakespeare, in the play inspired by Seneca, The Spanish Tragedy, in which Hieronymo takes revenge on his son’s murderer before killing himself. The final words are the last lines of one of the Upanishads, and according to Eliot signify the same benediction as expressed in the New Testament, taken up in the Book of Common Prayer: “The peace which passeth understanding.”
[v] Helen Vendler, “Introduction,” in T. S. Eliot: The Wasteland and Other Poems, New York: Signet, 1998, p. xviii.
[vi] Titled, “Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley,” it was sent to the Harvard philosophy department from England in 1916, and enthusiastically received by the faculty. Because of difficulties in trans-Atlantic travel during the war, Eliot was unable either to defend, or to be awarded the degree.
[vii] T. S. Eliot: The Sacred Wood, London: Faber & Faber, 1997 (orig. 1920), pp. 129, 149.
[viii] The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987 (orig. 1933). According to Richard Susterman, here he moves from foundationalist realism to hermeneutic historicism. See, “Eliot as Philosopher,” in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, A. David Moody, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 40.
[ix] The Sacred Wood, op. cit., p. 11.
[x] The attempt to prove Eliot anti-Semitic by Anthony Julius, in his T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, is utterly unconvincing.
[xi] London: Faber & Faber, 1948, rev. 1962, p. 27.
[xii] T. S. Eliot: “Religion Without Humanism,” in Humanism and America, Norman Foerester, ed., New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1930, p. 112.
[xiii] The cover story by Time Magazine, Sept. 8, 1947, calls this group “heretic intellectuals.” Their heresy? Orthodox Christian belief.
[xiv] Quoted in Rowland Croucher: John Mark Ministries.
[xv] Ibid.


This article was published in an earlier form on The Trinity Forum.


William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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