Eliot’s Early Poetry and the Search for a Saving Faith
In late December 1925, T.S. Eliot wrote to the critic Gorham Munson: “The Holy Ghost always descends in the nick of time, and always in disguise.”i It was fitting for this poet of prophecy and presage to foreshadow his own conversion.
A rather unbelieving Unitarian until his conversion in 1927, Eliot was perhaps the quintessential modernist poet, able to capture and animate the ubiquitous sentiment of bewilderment and chaos caused by the unprecedented destruction and change that characterized the early twentieth century. At the time he wrote his most revered poem, “The Waste Land,” the world had just witnessed one of the bloodiest wars in history, one that for the first time made prominent use of chemical weaponry, tanks, and machine guns.ii As a result of the war and disillusionment following from it, many soldiers and their families, including Eliot, developed a condition defined at the time as neurasthenia, characterized by “profound mental and physical exhaustion,” along with feelings of unrest and discontent.iii At the same time moral relativism, an uncertainty about whether there were or could be any absolute moral truths, began to garner popularity in America and in many European states. Finally, Eliot was enduring a personal crises, for his marriage to Viven Haigh-Wood was slowly unraveling. Vivien suffered from her own neurosis, leading Eliot to say that “only her brain was alive;”iv the author slowly distanced himself from his wife during the first ten years of their marriage. From a purely historical perspective, Eliot had good reason to feel as distressed as he did. The disorienting world of the early twentieth century was moving quickly, and in the eyes of many, in a lamentable direction.
Disheartened, the early Eliot took to his pen to attempt to uncover a solution to the madness. The author’s life and early works reveal a search for relief from his personal crisis, a search that led him to examine and eliminate historicism, a kind of literary-cultural syncretism, and despair, amongst other solutions, before he considered traditional Christianity, which proved to sustain and satisfy him.
In his search for meaning, Eliot first turned to history, deeming it paramount to all other sources of literary inspiration in working through the anxiety and distress of his own circumstance. In “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” he praises his contemporary James Joyce, claiming that Joyce manipulates “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” and that Joyce’s method of writing “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy.”v
This emphasis on history certainly had an extraordinary effect on his life and writing, for he could now separate himself from the broken world of the present, as well as the people in it, and enter a new perspective of timeless history, a history including religion (he examined works of Christian and Eastern religious thought). It is very likely that Eliot’s later interest in traditional Christianity can be traced to discoveries from this period of deep curiosity.
In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot examines how the author should find inspiration in historical sources. At its base, his argument promotes the depersonalization of the author and his distance from the work. Discussing the characteristics of the ideal author, Eliot writes,
… the mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of “personality,” not being necessarily more interesting, or having “more to say,” but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.”vi
He writes further, likening the author to a chemical catalystix that allows the reactants of the process— phrases, lines, ideas—to form.vii Without the catalyst, the reactants are nothing, yet the catalyst plays no part in contributing to the final product, the masterpiece. Eliot did not wish his personal circumstances or emotion to contribute in any way to his poetry. The irony is that despite his efforts, many critics still consider his work, especially what he wrote during his crisis years in the 1920s, to be profoundly expressive of his personal life. Some scholars, such as Allen Austin, argue, in contrast to what Elliot himself seems to say above, Eliot’s criticisms indirectly value the idea of self in the author’s work;viii Austin claims that “at no point in his career does Eliot hold the doctrine of impersonality.”ix Biographer Lyndall Gordon writes, “To understand Eliot’s life it is necessary to see the continuity of [the] venture through [his] poetry.”x Though I mention Eliot’s theory of impersonality out of respect and fairness to the great author, to many critics, the correlation between Eliot’s life and work is undeniable and deserves examination.
Eliot’s early poems published before his conversion in 1927 are often regarded as his greatest works, perhaps because they most strongly express the profound personal pain felt by Eliot amidst the perceived chaos of the 1920s. The poems of this period in Eliot’s life share one defining characteristic: they are incredibly nihilistic and usually puzzle the reader as he or she sifts through the maze Eliot creates in relaying his underlying despair. These early poems fail to find a substantial and lasting solution to this despair, as Eliot explored various options before examining the claims of Christianity and Christ, in whom he was surprised to find, after his long search, one able to “bind up the brokenhearted” and “comfort all who mourn.”xi
Eliot’s 1920 poem “Gerontion” is the first illustration of his search for meaning in his poetry, a poem which brought out the thoughts from which he would craft his masterpiece, “The Waste Land,” two years later. The poem starts with a heavy, dreadful declaration: “Here I am, an old man in a dry month / being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.”xii The speaker, to whom Eliot seems to relate personally, finds himself in a period of aridity, characterized by death and thirst for what was. He waits desperately for the solution, for the return of rain. In the meantime, he is disillusioned with the present, for as the boy reads to him, he remains disinterested and detached, retreating into his thoughts and pondering how his situation could have come to be. The man places blame on both the secular history of Europe (of which Eliot had been in constant study) and, strikingly, on “Christ the tiger.”xiii The speaker references the Old Testament prophecies of Christ, reminding us that it had been said “‘We would see a sign,’”xiv though he perceives the coming of Christ to be currently unfolding in the present, and the Lord to be “swaddled with [the earth’s] darkness.”xv He continues illustrating Christ in a negative light, as one who has come “in the juvescence of the year,”xvi not to forgive and cultivate a new spring but instead to devour the earth and her inhabitants.xvii To Eliot’s speaker, Christ is not the life-giving rain he longs for, but rather another dreadful contributor to the current “dry season,”xviii of which there is no end.
In the midst of this “dry season,” Eliot wrote his most revered poem, “The Waste Land,” an incredibly complex work composed of multitudes of simultaneously heterogeneous and homogeneous allusions to great works of literary history. It is impossible to examine here the full breadth of this poem’s complexity, but it is relevant to consider Elizabeth Gregory’s intriguing argument identifying a subtle direction of the poem. She first argues that the opening three sections of the poem crystallize Eliot’s anxiety as an important theme. Madame Sosostris warns her client to “fear death by water,” a paranoid character in “A Game of Chess” worries about a noise under the door, and two women in a pub hold a conversation tinged with anxious uneasiness.xix But Gregory then considers Phlebas the Phoenician, a character introduced in the poem’s fourth section, “Death by Water,” whose entrance and immediate death she argues radically alter the direction of the poem. Her belief is that Eliot crafted Phlebas’ death to signal the inevitable futility of individualism, and promote conformity to timeless tradition:
Previously [in the poem], the [modern] poet was assumed to be at a loss, the sterile scion of a very old line, because he was unable to transform the words of his predecessors into something uniquely his own. Here, however, in the character of Phlebas, he learns that he has all along been mistaken in his enterprise. Rather than seeking to impose his personality on the tradition, he must seek to lose himself in it.xx
Phlebas’ death is the lesson Eliot wishes to teach; it is a noble death in which both author and character are overcome by the waters of literary tradition. This suggests that Eliot’s escape from his personal unhappiness and disillusionment with a broken world was to lose himself in the despair, abandoning hope and finding peace in the knowledge of his own insignificance. Some critics believe that this was Eliot’s solution to coping with his situation in 1922, but this solution of accepting despair did not satisfy him for long. “The Hollow Men,” published in 1925, was Eliot’s final poetic outcry from within this godless “solution,” before the hope of Christ replaced the author’s despair. Rubén Balaguer summarizes the poem
The Hollow Men portrays a poetic consciousness in which intense nostalgia for a state of heavenly purity conflicts with the paradoxical search for a long-lasting form of order through acts of denial and alienation. To the common observation that The Hollow Men expresses the depths of Eliot’s despair, one must add that the poet in a sense `chooses´ despair as the only acceptable alternative to the inauthentic existence of the unthinking inhabitants of the waste land.xxi
In many ways, the poem reflects a resurgence of new action in the already established “waste land,” but ultimately again portrays a world failing to find redemption in itself. The people inhabiting the world are “the hollow men, / the stuffed men.”xxii It is unclear with what exactly the men have been stuffed, but it is certainly worldly, and the author realizes that it is undoubtedly insufficient. In the people’s common suffering, they “[lean] together [with a] headpiece filled with straw,” and the speaker cries: “Our dried voices, when / we whisper together, / are quiet and meaningless / as wind in dry grass.”xxiii Eliot, in recognizing the futility of the people’s attempt at unification, sees such despair as “the only acceptable alternative.” Thus, in the three years of reverberations from “The Waste Land,” Eliot still struggled with the same problem, as well as the same solution. He was dissatisfied with despair but simply could not find a better response. It is almost too perfect that Eliot so honestly based his final pre-conversion upon the image of the hollow man, for, before his next poem, his innocently acknowledged personal cavity would be filled. As Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”xxiv
On June 29, 1927, Eliot was privately baptized into the Anglo-Catholic churchxxv and confirmed the following day.xxvi It is still unclear what exactly may have been the direct cause of this stunning conversion, but one can at least note some possible influences. After he published “The Hollow Men” in 1925, Eliot’s life entered a downward spiral, and he became more desperate than ever to find his escape. 1925-26 had been years of marital agony for Eliot and his wife, as her neuralgia worsened and she was stricken by the resurfacing of her own childhood fears of loneliness. Her husband’s constant fatigue caused by splitting time working long hours at his job at the bank and caring for Vivien had worn him down. His first solution was divorce, but he managed to delay the idea, figuring it would only cause him more anxiety. The Clark Lectures, released in 1993 but delivered by Eliot at Cambridge in 1926, reveal Eliot’s belief that there might be a spiritual solution to his marriage, that “the heart of light” might “silence” his discontent.xxvii Simultaneously, his rivalry with his contemporary Middleton Murry, who was also spiritually struggling, led him to posit the potential existence of “a higher authority than the ephemeral glamour of disillusion.”xviii Perhaps it is then no surprise that, on a trip to Rome in 1926, Eliot shocked his family by kneeling down in front of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” out of admiration. F.B. Pinion describes the scene: “Here was a spiritually humble, contrite man ritualizing his acceptance of a higher authority.”xxix At this point, it was clear that Eliot’s search for relief from the world’s brokenness had finally led him to examine the same roots of religion he had quoted in “The Waste Land” just a few years before, yet this time more personally and intensely. Eliot biographer Peter Ackroyd comments on this period of Eliot’s life:
He was aware of what he called ‘the void’ in all human affairs–the disorder, meaninglessness, and futility which he found in his own experience; it was inexplicable intellectually . . . and could only be understood or endured by means of a larger faith.xxx
Yet Eliot’s conversion is interesting in that this period of his life was not immediately characterized by joy, excitement, and long-sought relief. Eliot believed, but he was not sure that he knew why. Christianity was, in effect, his last resort, but a last resort that was surprising him, for he found he could accept its explanations of sin and morality. Intellectually, he had singled out Anglo-Catholicism as the sole means of understanding the world, and yet, there was much to be learned.
Eliot’s first poem after his conversion was “The Journey of the Magi,” one of his most fascinating and yet often overlooked works. Many critics read the poem as Eliot’s honest expression of his unfamiliar and uncomfortable new life. It portrays in depth the three biblical magi’s journey to the newborn Christ and, indirectly, Eliot’s own route to faith. To the author, the world is still the same, still broken; the narrating magus explains,
a cold coming we had of it / just the worst time of year… the camel men cursing and grumbling / and running away, and wanting their liquor and women / and the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters / and the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly / and the villages dirty, and charging high prices. / A hard time we had of it.xxxi
The second stanza describes a more dreamlike, positive journey, detailing the beauty of the land and exhibiting anticipation.xxxii Yet the poem surprises the reader, for after the accumulation of impatient excitement as the magi draw near to the Christ, the narrating magus admits: “we arrived at evening, not a moment too soon/ finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”xxxiii That is the end of his description. In this deliberate flatness of tone, Eliot unfolds an anticlimax comparable to his own experience, as it was simply enough, but uncomfortable and still uncertain. The narrator then asks, “were we led all that way for/ Birth or Death?”xxxiv Eliot is only being honest, unsure of his new life, whether it is the death of his painful struggle to find purpose, or a birth through a newfound realization.
Despite this early ambivalence, he would soon discover that he had been led “all that way” for both death and birth. Eliot spent his later life putting to death his quest for making sense of an insensible world, for in Christ, he found his solution to the problems of his generation; in Christ, he was reborn, and able to express the joy of his new freedom in his later poems and plays. Paul exclaims in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new is here!”xxxv Eliot himself became a new creation through divine transformation, but his literary self took on a new nature as well. “Ash Wednesday”(1930) and “Four Quartets” (1944) exhibit this rebirth, poems which most evidently express his faith. Eliot was finally able to write from within existential stability, unlike in his previous poems, where such stability was deeply yearned for but nowhere to be found.
Eliot did not believe in drastic conversions.xxxvi His belief was at first purely intellectual, and it grew gradually and cautiously. Despite his early skepticism and despair, Eliot was never dishonest or opaque in his expression. His poetry was potently nihilistic, and his personal disillusionment almost always found its way into his writing, even though this contradicted his literary manifesto. It is plausible to suggest that Eliot’s early success owes itself to such transparency, especially considering the relevance of Eliot’s restless cries to the hysteria of the post-war generation.
A holistic examination of Eliot’s life and works offers an intriguing opportunity to explore how Christian faith can answer the dilemmas of those earnestly grappling, intellectually and emotionally, with a seemingly broken world. Here was a man who was internally broken, searching for the meaning why and for his own cure. He had eliminated all of his options, even abandoning the despairing thought that no option could satisfy him, before he was left to believe that a faith in God somehow would. But to his bewilderment, it did. Most if not all of us share Eliot’s struggle and know the travails of examining numerous options in search of intellectual stability and existential peace. Admittedly, some discover Christ to be the solution; others do not. But to consider that a literary giant, even idol, who for the longest time listed Christianity as his least likely hope, was surprised, converted, and later devoted his life to writing Christian poetry is nothing short of astonishing. Eliot’s biography has forced many critics and historians to reexamine their own faiths, and should inspire any reader to do the same.
i. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 2: 1923-1925, ([S.l.]: Yale UP,
ii. William L. Hosch, World War I: People, Politics, and Power (New York, NY: Britannica Educational
Pub. in Association with Rosen Educational Services, 2010) 48-53.
iii. Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter, Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001).
iv. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton 635.
v. T. S. Eliot and Frank Kermode, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1975) 177-178.
vi. T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen &, 1950) 53-54.
vii. Ibid. 54.
viii. Allen Austin, “T.S. Eliot’s Theory of Personal Expression,” Publication of the Modern Language Association, 3rd ser. 81 (1966): 303.
ix. Allen Austin, John J. Pollock, Stephen A. Black, and Elisabeth Schneider, “The Consistency of T.S. Eliot in His Theory of Personal Expression,” PMLA 88.3 (1973):523-26.
x. Lyndall Gordon, T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (New York: Norton, 1999) 209.
xi. Isaiah 61:1-2, fulfilled by Christ in Luke 4:18- 21. All scripture quotations come from the New International Version.
xii. T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion”. v. 1-2.
xiii. Ibid. v. 20.
xiv. Ibid. v. 17.
xv. Ibid. v. 19.
xvi. Ibid. v. 19.
xvii. Ibid. v. 33, 48.
xviii. Ibid. v. 75.
xix. T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” v. 31, 33, 34-35.
xx. Elizabeth Gregory, Quotation and Modern American Poetry: Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads (Houston, TX: Rice UP, 1995) 50.
xxi. Rubén Balaguer, “Analysis and Interpretation of “The Hollow Men”,” University of Valencia, web, 30 Dec. 2011. <http://mural.uv.es/rubafa/hollowmen. htm>.
xxii. T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” v. 17,18.
xxiii. Ibid. 5-8.
xxiv. Psalm 34:18.
xxv. “Eliot, T.S.,” New World Encyclopedia, web, 30
Dec. 2011. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.
xxvi. Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1984) 162.
xxvii. Gordon 221.
xxviii. Ibid. 222.
xxix. F. B. Pinion, A T. S. Eliot Companion (Totowa,
NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986) 34.
xxx. Ackroyd 160.
xxxi. T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi,” v. 1-16.
xxxii. Ibid. v. 21-29.
xxxiii. Ibid. v. 30-31.
xxxiv. Ibid. v. 35-36.
xxxv. 2 Corinthians 5:17.
xxxvi. Barry Spurr, “T.S. Eliot’s Extraordinary Journey of Faith,” ABC.net.au, web, 29 Dec. 2011. <http://www.abc.net.au/religion/ articles/2010/08/03/2972229.htm>.
Will Hogan ‘15 is from Pittsburgh, PA. He is a Neuroscience major.Tags: anxiety, Christian, Dartmouth College, death, despair, God, Gorham Munson, history, hope, James Joyce, joy, literature, marriage, modernism, poetry, The Waste Land, TS Eliot, Unitarian