Thirty-one years ago, when I had aspirations as an up-and-coming critic in the Catholic press, I wrote an essay on T.S. Eliot that was published in the Jesuit weekly, America. I thought it daring to suggest that the major poet of our time was something less than the robust Christian figure which an effective propagation of the faith then clearly demanded. In those days, I saw Art in the service of Truth without the former having first served its own needs and virtues as well. I had the sense, at least, to ask what makes a Christian poet in the first place and settled on an answer based on practical grounds. I said that “a Christian poet is one whose work is Christ-centered,” and with that kind of emphasis. It did not occur to me that any authentic poem, in harmony with the natural law and certain Thomistic principles, might also be considered a Christian poem at large.
Still, there had to be more to it than that; and I went on from there to specify that the Christian poet “must be primarily a poet of the Redemption, for this is the center and circumference of everything he writes. Christ must be in his poetry, and most of all the blood of Christ.” It was this latter figure, no doubt, which was supposed to have clinched the case against Eliot’s very aloof and abstract order of the Christian experience. I was emboldened—and perhaps even rude enough—to suggest some difficulty in our having to imagine Eliot as a follower of Christ in a purely Franciscan sense. And yet the point was not wholly outrageous, I modestly insist, when one considers Francis of Assisi as possibly the first great sacramental poet. He beheld in nature itself the very countenance of Cod the creator; and in this regard, without question, he was precursor to St. John of the Cross and to Gerard Mauley Hopkins—the latter, of course, a sacramental poet without peer in the modern age.
It is therefore legitimate to ask whether Eliot, in our own time, was that kind of Christian poet. Frankly, he was not precisely that kind of poet—but neither is it required that he should have been. In an age of almost complete alienation from Christian doctrine, Eliot’s was not the voice of the triumphalist. He would not have been heard at all, moreover, if such had been either his demeanor or inclination. Eliot was the poet of The Waste Land (1922) before he was the poet of Four Quartets (1943), and yet the “Shantih shantih shantih” of the one does not cancel out “the fire and the rose” of the other. In particular, it was not fair for a critic to have claimed, some years ago in Poetry (Chicago), that Eliot was incapable of the type of expression uttered by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! One drop would save my soul!” This was not only unfair but inaccurate.
Yet there was a very compelling argument in Spencer Brown’s review of Williamson’s A Reader’s Guide to T.S. Eliot which stated in part: “In Eliot’s poetry, neither Christ’s blood nor any blood streams in the firmament; a thin, beautiful ichor drips quietly under a rock.” The reader takes the sense of that for what it’s worth, and we may even grant it intellectual assent and nod wisely to ourselves. And yet, upon further reflection, this is not to understand Eliot at all; and it certainly betrays a casual lack of knowledge-, with, to say nothing of some want of empathy for, the Eliot text itself We think at once, for instance, of the verse interlude in East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets. Reading this section, with its familiar theme—”The wounded surgeon plies the steel”—it is astonishing that anyone could deduce from it the image of a thin and beautiful ichor dripping quietly under a rock. The Christian Sacrament of the Eucharist could not have been more explicit than in Eliot’s lines, “The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food,” the explicitness of which has been duly resented by some of the more secularly minded critics of Eliot.
The mistake of the Christian advocate is to presume and even to insist that a poet like Eliot has to go on reiterating endlessly what he has already stated succinctly. T.S. Eliot was a sacramentalist in the practice of both his art and his faith, and no one has a right to demand of him any more than that. It has been little noted, in fact, that one of the great achievements of Eliot is that he has been a sign of contradiction to Emerson’s denial of the Eucharistic Presence—a rejection which had long since set the tone for, as Flannery O’Connor once said, “the vaporization of religion in America and therefore of its effects in our literature.” T.S. Eliot stands against Emerson even as poets like Walt Whitman and, later, Wallace Stevens had sedulously embraced him and in whom Robert Frost, for example, had early found his predominant model.
Speaking of Robert Frost, a friend and fellow-journalist once asked me which poet I considered to be greater than the other—Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot. After offhandedly evaluating each poet for what I thought he did better than anyone else of his generation, I answered that in the end Eliot had to be reckoned the greater poet. My friend wanted to know on what grounds I based that evaluation, and I said I chose Eliot because with him the stakes were simply greater. He went for the main chance, so to speak, which Frost never did until very late in life, and then chiefly in a poem (“Kitty Hawk”) which largely fails its theme and intention. Also, I think, Eliot was truer to the times in which he lived—that is to say, the etherized urbanite Eliot may still be with us long after countryman Frost has disappeared with the last polluted fogs of the doomed ecological conscience. It is perhaps just barely useful to add that whereas Robert Frost was a poet we could easily love and only grudgingly admire (especially in the light of the now fashionable derisions provoked by the official biography), T.S. Eliot’s poetry is something other than the object of popular affection. And yet, one’s admiration of him has been generally vast and conclusive.
When we say we are moderns, we must also admit that we are Prufrock wondering whether we dare to eat a peach or wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled. We are eternally languishing, like another and something-less-than-strongwilled Roland at Roncevalles, maintaining as best we can a rear-guard action to Western civilization’s inglorious demise. It is incredible that Eliot, in his 20’s, could have been as world-weary as all that. And yet this ennui of Prufrock, the indictment of The Waste Land, and the catarrhal utterances of “The Hollow Men” do not tell the end of the story, whether whimper or bang, for there is always Ash Wednesday and the even greater redemptive movements of the Four Quartets in the offing. This is why Eliot ought to mean so much to us—and how, for example, in less than a dozen lines from Ash Wednesday he may be worth the total bucolics of Robert Frost and the gaudy baubles of Wallace Stevens.
Eliot had a perception of the times which most other modern poets have clearly lacked, and he further demonstrated this by becoming a great critic as well as an even greater poet. He early wrote an order of English prose, especially in the essays of The Sacred Wood (1920), which surely must rank with the best of the century. These essays, oddly enough, were not without a certain undergraduate sense of high spirits balanced with the insights of a wise professor. Later, some would say that Eliot’s criticism had lapsed into mere pomposity.
It is the more likely ease that these indolent detractors were simply unwilling, for whatever reasons, to make the commitments that Eliot himself had made and which his fine intelligence had carried further than they were either inclined to follow or disposed to understand. It is to Eliot the poet, however, that one must always return. The body of the work is relatively small, but it has pierced the age like a laser beam out of the encroaching darkness. Reading some of the earlier and more approachable poems—like “Preludes,” “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “Morning at the Window”—one can still taste and smell the city and urban milieu from which Frost and the lesser Georgians had long since fled. Besides dealing with ultimate questions, there is in Eliot a sense of the terrible sadness and anguish of the times. If all this passes away, as it may be biblical to suggest, then perhaps Frost will have survived the actually more profound Eliot; but at present such signs as we have still point to the continued diminishment of a beneficent and healing nature in an increasingly hostile and urbanized world. The liturgical cycles no longer relate to an antipastoral society. In any case, even in such an apparently straightforward poem as “Portrait of a Lady,” we hear lines that are nothing less than heartbreaking, banal as that may sound nowadays, just as in some of the fugal abstracts from Bach we often hear the most ineffable and lucidly tuneful themes.
It remains at least improbable that any literate person in the 20th century shall have remained uninfluenced by, or even untouched by, the poetry of T.S. Eliot. You do not often find it a quality attributed to Eliot’s poetry that it should touch the reader, but is there anyone in what Dr. Carl Jung called the second half of life who cannot recognize oneself, though in a bitterly poignant way, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” alone? The critic Edmund Wilson once wrote an essay in which he noted how many of Eliot’s lines have been absorbed into the language of our time—even more so, perhaps, than in the other three great polarities of modern American verse: Frost, Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. But almost every line in “Prufrock” is a very sad music we know by heart and headache.
In the modern era, we are especially blessed in the means we have of hearing the recorded voices of our greatest poets. The voices of Frost and Dylan Thomas come readily to mind and ear. In each instance, the true voice-print of the poet, derived from the poetry on the page itself, is clearly discernible. Having heard Eliot read his poems at Boston College and on other campuses and listening to him on Caedmon records, one knew at once why the word “sepulchral” had already become a usable term in describing the effect of his tone of voice and general demeanor before an audience. But when he used this same tone of voice in the “Old Possum” verses, which would later become the inspiration for the Broadway musical Cats, Eliot achieved one of the quietly hilarious performances of our time. He left us much more than that, of course, in a body of work which not only includes the extraordinary poetry but some exceptional criticism and at least one play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), which ought to survive as performed drama of a very high order.
In the end, it was inevitable that someone should have pointed out, as the poet Richard Eberhart took pains to do some years ago, that for 20 years after Four Quartets, and therefore until Eliot’s death in 1965, the major poet of our time had remained creatively inactive, whereas Frost and others had produced notable poems to the very end. It is captious to make much of this, however, if we fail also to realize that within Eliot’s brief span of creative effort he achieved, without question, a level of development beyond which it was impossible to go—in the same way, perhaps, that we may consider Beethoven’s last sonatas and quartets as points beyond which we cannot go, at least not as far as art is concerned. Beyond that point, of course, lies the mystical experience itself The rest is silence and the music of silence. Other poets have not achieved as much, even with the blessing of life spans greater than Eliot’s, and so they repeated themselves to the very end and in modes now thoroughly familiar. The permanence of T.S. Eliot, as perhaps the preeminent voice of the 20th century, remains assured.