For my upcoming Ash Wednesday reflection for this blog, I decided to write a little meditation on T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash-Wednesday, for reasons I’m sure are not difficult to guess. However, as I prayed and prepared my points for that particular article, it struck me that Eliot was a much more complex writer than I initially realized. This made it harder to expound upon his work than I experienced with Chesterton. Whereas Chesterton’s language was relatively straightforward, Eliot’s writing twists and turns wildly, making for a much more confusing read. With this in mind, I decided to write this little piece to ‘introduce’ Eliot to you readers, and explain also why his writing can speak to a Christian, or at least, to me.
Born an American in 1888, Thomas Stearns Eliot lived most of his life as an expatriate, ending his life as a British citizen in 1965). He is considered one of the most important poets of the 20th Century, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Having converted to the Church of England (or Anglicanism) in 1927, “Ash-Wednesday” (published in 1930) is widely considered to be his ‘conversion poem’, where he penned down his thoughts on his encounter with Christ.
Eliot is a ‘Modernist’ poet, which basically means… that his poems are really, really confusing. If you take the time to read his poetry, don’t expect to find a clear and concise narrative. Poetry has a somewhat dubious reputation of being opaque and hard to understand, even perhaps being ‘deep’ for the sake of sounding ‘deep’, and it can be argued that Eliot and his compatriots had more to contribute to that reputation than the poets of any other era. But in a way, that was kind of the point. The question they asked themselves was that in a post-industrialized and fast-paced world, how were poets supposed to find the words to describe the human condition of the time, especially when so much poetry, from Homer to Wordsworth, had already been written? Was there anything left to be said?
The Modernist poets tried to explore the limitations of language, inviting readers to pause and take in the words, reflecting on them to achieve some form of understanding. This is true for Eliot as well – he often inserted references to such things as Greek myths, the Bible, and Dante in his poems, and if the reader couldn’t understand or get those references, well, too bad for the reader. But as a Christian, Eliot used such references to make familiar scenes or lessons from the Bible seem new and wondrous. Think about it – in the jaded culture of our modern world, to be able to express the Gospel in new terms allows more people to hopefully come into contact with the faith.
One such example is in Eliot’s long poem East Coker, part of his masterpiece, “The Four Quartets”. In this poem you find the following lines:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
In this short excerpt, Eliot enters into dialogue with St. Paul’s famous address to the Corinthians: “In short, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13). This is one of the most famous lines in the Bible, and rightly so, but it has also been repeated so often that it runs the risk of coming across as trite and generic to modern readers, especially since the modern world has very different concepts of faith, hope and love than St. Paul.
This is why it is significant that Eliot begins this short excerpt with the request for his soul to ‘be still’ – as mentioned previously, Eliot’s approach to his work is that he wants the reader to slow down and think through what the poem is saying. He then proceeds to instruct his soul to wait without things like ‘hope’ and ‘love’, saying that to have these things at this time would be to direct them towards the ‘wrong thing’. This can seem strange to the average reader, we are so used to seeing these terms expressed in positive terms. By playing with our expectations of these familiar terms, Eliot forces us to consider whether our understanding of Faith, Hope and Love match up to the way they are described and demonstrated in the Gospels. Furthermore, he then proceeds to reconstruct this Bible passage by stating that we can encounter true faith, hope and love through ‘waiting’. Anyone who has experienced having to be patient in trial and the quiet voice of God in the midst of suffering will see the striking power of these words.
I hope this little reflection gives you a little understanding of Eliot’s work, and prepares you a little for when we take a closer look at his poem this Wednesday.
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