T.S. Eliot: A Sigh in the Wasteland

In a recent podcast Paul Vander Klay interviewed three men who have organized the conference Convivium 2023: Poetry as Perception, to be held the weekend of November 17 and 18 in Hector, Arkansas. The down-to-earth approach of these men, to make poetry an accessible  part of everyday life, is exemplified by the “About” page that describes the men simply as a priest, a cardiologist, and an earth mover.

In the comments to PVK’s podcast I learned that Jeremy Irons has read the complete poetry of T.S. Eliot. The recordings are in five parts that are also the chronological order that Eliot wrote them (note that the audio of Parts Three and Four are interchanged). I know next to nothing about poetry, but for me listening makes it much more accessible. So I write here in the spirit of the event organizers, to give a non-expert, everyman assessment of Eliot’s poetry.

Listening (and reading along) to the complete works is like following a poetic journal of the passage of Eliot from modern ironic alienation, loneliness, and sadness; in effect the poetic description of the meaning crisis, that culminates in Part Three: The Wasteland. There is much on the frivolous triviality of his contemporaries without regard to the potential for redemption and graciousness in those same people. For example, Eliot dissects the meaningless existence of the very busy people who scurry to nowhere in this excerpt from The Wasteland,

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

But there is a progression through the oeuvre, marking Eliot’s conversion to Anglican Christianity, to peace and to a spirit of generosity. Below I note passages from the final part, the Four Quartets.

Four Quartets – 2 East Coker

  You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not

In this short stanza are five lines that describe so much of the modern world.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

Here Eliot reveals insights on old age.

Four Quartets – 4 Little Gidding
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
     To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
     First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
     But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
     As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
     At human folly, and the laceration
     Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
     Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
     Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
     Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
     Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
     Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
     Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.’
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
     He left me, with a kind of valediction,
     And faded on the blowing of the horn.

Finally, I leave you with a now famous passage that is a basis for much wisdom.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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