Poet, playwright, and literary critic T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) was beset by personal challenges throughout his life, among which he suffered nervous breakdowns, and a failed marriage. Although he was to discover contentment in later life, the anguish of his earlier years were to inform many of his great works, and their relationship with the spiritual.
The epigraph taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy sets the tone for The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917). Although Eliot was in his twenties when he wrote this poem, the character of Prufrock is middle-aged, panic-stricken, and teems with silent anguish. Prufrock has been unable to live life because, as he declares towards the end of the poem: ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean!’ He is tragically unromantic (‘Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table), introspective to the extreme, wracked with regret, crippled by ennui, and ever conscious of his own insignificance (‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’). He is a vain man caught within his own circle of Hell; his neurosis enchains him, and renders him feeling like a ‘pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’. One can only imagine that Prufrock’s world-weariness was also in some senses Eliot’s. And the character serves as a precursor to the lost, despairing souls of Eliot’s next major poem.
The Waste Land (1922), was written over many years and completed shortly after the First World War. After the Great War the anguish of Prufrock had multiplied and become universal. Loss could not be ignored. The world had become a senseless shadow of itself. And as a consequence, Eliot felt modern man had lost his connection with spirituality. Over five parts (‘The Burial of the Dead’, ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Fire Sermon’, ‘Death by Water’, and ‘What the Thunder Said’) Eliot depicts humanity’s tragic decline, fall, and eventual search for salvation. In this poem he draws on a wide variety of sources from the Bible, the Upanishads, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Baudelaire, the Grail legend, and Greek myths. And in doing so shows us through a fragmentation of time, art, and history that physical desire can never fulfil, and nothing is immune to ruin. From kings to housewives, desolation does not discriminate. But redemption is not lost — only forgotten.
One of the central characters of The Waste Land is the Arthurian Fisher King — the impotent ruler of a decayed kingdom. His search is also modern society’s, a search to heal the sterility, and be washed clean — water is a recurring symbol of rebirth, of life through death. And at the end, drawing on Hinduism, we discover the thunderous voice of God (Ganga), who tells us among a dry, dusty landscape aching for rain that salvation may be gleamed — however temporal — through self-sacrifice (datta), compassion (dayadhvam), and self-control (damyata). The Waste Land is Eliot’s attempt to reconcile the lost, modern soul with the eternal. Although Eliot is clear that the path to salvation lies within the spiritual, he concedes that it is beset with constant difficulties and ruin may be unavoidable — even unforgettable — along the way.
Which brings us to Eliot’s last major poem, the Four Quartets (1935 – 1942). Written towards the end of his life and completed during the Second World War, the Four Quartets embodies Eliot’s lifelong search for salvation. The poem is arranged in four sections (Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding), with each section representing one of the four elements. Achingly lyrical in places, oftentimes obscure, at other times philosophical, this is Eliot’s attempt to distill understanding from the unknowable void of existence, and peer into the pervasive, impermanent heart of time.
He borrows from Buddhism to highlight the ephemeral nature of time — that the only certainty is the present: ‘If all time is present/all time is unredeemable./What might have been is an abstraction/Remaining a perpetual possibility/Only in a world of speculation’. He highlights humanity’s senseless cycle of growth and destruction: ‘In my beginning is my end. In succession/Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended’. Eliot had converted to Christianity by this stage, and this clearly influences the Four Quartets. As the poem draws to a close Eliot finds salvation in Christ. Whereas spring was something to be feared in The Waste Land (‘April is the cruellest month’), it becomes a thing of wonder and light in Four Quartets (‘Midwinter spring is its own season/Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,/Suspended in time, between pole and tropic’, it has a ‘glare that is blindness in the early afternoon). However, despite the imagery, Eliot’s overall concerns remain universally spiritual rather than dogmatically religious.
In my twenties I identified with the unrest of Prufrock. I too was debilitated by my own shortcomings and constant yearning. But as I navigated my thirties, I left those concerns increasingly behind as I charted a course through my own Waste Land — to seek water in a barrenness. And I have often felt like the Fisher King at the end of that poem who sits on the ruined shores with the arid plains behind him, thinking ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order?’ And like the prince in his ‘tour abolie’ — his ruined tower — gazing across a landscape strewn with ruin, wondering was it worth it? And yet knowing that a semblance of peace — however fleeting — may be attained. And here I am now, at a point of the Four Quartets wondering whether our plight, our search may be redeemable.
These concerns are as valid to us today as they were in Eliot’s. How do we seek peace in a world that is in constant turmoil? Rather than offering answers, science often complicates the issue. Sometimes the more we know, the less we understand. Technology and progress are intertwined with the ambitions of war and oppression. And the continual pursuit of desire and ownership often lead to disaffection.
The universe may always chart its course towards entropy — we cannot stop that, all things decay and fall. But it is by being conscious of these things, but not involved; through detachment, sacrifice, compassion, and control that we can perhaps find meaning. Eliot seemed convinced that he had found his paradise after having navigated the purgatory of The Waste Land. I still seek the cusp of mine. I am not interested in religion so much as the idea of truth. However, I concede that there may be things we can never know, that human consciousness is deaf and limited in its ability for comprehension in a senseless universe.