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T.S. Eliot, II. A Submission: “That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.”

The Dry Salvages, off Rockport, Massachusetts

On Thursday the 21st of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on T.S. Eliot to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the second part of my contribution to that evening, which opened with me reading aloud East Coker II.

Poetry is an art of big and small effects. The big effect of The Wasteland is to experience the dissolution of the subjective self into fragments. The big effect of Four Quartets may be our remembrance of how one person uses meaningful places in his own life as ground for meditations on time, memory, humanness and God. Even though these are lasting recollections of the poems, when we wish to draw meaning we go to verses, lines, or even single words, the small effects. It is a few of these small effects in Eliot we turn to now.

“That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.”

Well why does he bother? What kind of poet admits that? Rowan Williams has described this line as a custard pie in the reader’s face. Words are limited, styles change; we are open to misinterpretation and rejection. Words go only so far, yet are all we have and we are committed to them. Here Eliot upends Romantic notions about absolute statements. This line is an indicator of Modernism, a place where we accept things are provisional, relative, mutable, but will be said. Theologically the line reminds us that our efforts at describing God, ultimate reality, are necessarily limited by our means. Our meditations on God are circumscribed by the medium of language. We are all interpreters.

“Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.”

This is the final line of The Wasteland. In the late 19th-century, when Eliot was growing up, the imperial English-speaking world became conscious of the teachings of other religions in an unprecedented fashion. We think of Eliot as an Anglo-Catholic poet, but really he was first a poet, second a religious poet, and third an Anglican poet. In his now legendary notes to The Wasteland he writes: “Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is our equivalent to this word.” Eliot was a prototype of the modern writer engaged in inter-religious dialogue, confirmed in his own tradition, enacting the struggle of mind and spirit this entails. By the time of conversion in 1927 he poet and Christian first, but still his final word is Shantih.

“A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything).”

It’s telling that such a complex (not simple) person arrives at a place where he extols above all else a condition of complete simplicity. Even to have arrived at such a reduction, such a virtue, implies a great deal of personal cost. We think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, at the same time and unbeknownst to Eliot, writes in wartime Germany of the cost of discipleship. While the lines speak movingly of the determination of Londoners living through the Blitz, they speak of an acceptance of ‘everything’ that is formed and informed by humility. Eliot does not speak lightly when he accepts that simplicity will cost “not less than everything”, nor is he being stoical. The cost is real and the cost must be met.   

“Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;

Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;

Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,

Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.”

If asked what a Christian, or anyone really, must do today now, I think this is one of Eliot’s main leads. He is into restoration, whether of the broken individual, the broken society, a broken church, a broken world. Restoration is one of the main themes of his entire writing. Notice how we go from the breakdown of European society and landscape in The Wasteland to the signs of hoped-for restoration in Four Quartets. Notice how Eliot’s own literary adventures involve restoration of say Dante and the 17th-century Metaphysicals, piece-by-piece in criticism and poetry. Restoration, more especially, of the self is work that must not be delayed. Having experienced restoration in his own life, through suffering, conversion and change, Eliot endeavours to offer this as the way for others.

“Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.”

These lines, repeated through the poem ‘Ash-Wednesday’, are a curious petitionary prayer, at once imploring and comical. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) says the Psalmist. These lines are mimetic of the restless state they wish to overcome. They describe the active person in need of rest and reflection, describe the inner desire for contemplation. Eliot, in his practised brevity, asks that he care, because we are asked to care and care is possible within us. But at the same time we learn to care without caring to excess, wastefully. And there it is again: wasteland and not wasteland. Meanwhile, how can our restless spirit rest? How does it “sit still”? By asking to “teach us to sit still.” Hidden within Eliot’s poetry is an encapsulation of the story of Martha and Mary, active and contemplative together, learning how to pray, as well as work, more effectively.   

“… music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.”

While we have all probably known this state of being and might even describe it like Eliot, the logic of these lines is also a warning about being able to speak with finality about such a state, of speaking of it as an end in itself, or being able to describe it at all. He seems to say that while we “are the music while the music lasts” this is simply one way of talking about an experience, an awareness, that others may call grace. Or we have other analogies. It is one of several examples of “hints and guesses” that Eliot offers. In saying them about-and-about-again he infers that these are ways of understanding “the point of intersection of the timeless with time”, but only that and you will have your own experiences: experiences that equally are “heard so deeply” they are not heard at all. Listened to in the larger context of The Dry Salvages V, where they appear, these lines come as a culminating focus in this section, which is why I conclude here by reading aloud that poem.


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