“Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them.”


A lot depends on “Four Quartets”

Does T.S. Eliot still matter, and matter in a big way? Novelist Douglas Murraargues just thats: “He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.”

It’s a bold claim, but I prefer bold claims to timid ones. I would take strong exception to some of his assertions, like this one: “W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still.” Also take issue (minorly) with his point that if English-speakers know Dante today, it’s probably because of Eliot. That certainly wasn’t the case for me. Dante is rather, well, basic.

But his central contention is interesting: “The more letters emerge, the clearer we see how Eliot did more than stare into, or balance over the abyss. The extremity of his knowledge of personal and cultural breakdown meant that he learned not just how a person or culture can be shattered, but how also they might be put back together.”

It may be why he wanted, as he wrote to his brother in 1930, he wanted “to leave as little biography as possible.” A fascinating excerpt the dense crowding of references that are an Eliot trademark:

Still fundamental…

In early Eliot this already seems to be more than a quirk, or mere attempt to jolt the reader. Already it seems something that is possible, though with no attempt to explain how that might be so. A reader might take this as simply one more demonstration of the breakdown of everything, so that characters even wander in and out of time, so much have things fallen apart. It is only once Eliot meditates on the nature of time in Four Quartets that he fully finds, and expands, a Christian metaphysics that justifies this early intuition of his about the potential recoverability of time: that all time might be eternally present, and redeemable.

There is a practical consequence of this view of time, and a practical utility which follows on from it that I have often seen in readers of Eliot. First-time readers, especially of his early work, often feel battered by the number of references packed into “The Waste Land” in particular. It is possible that—like the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia—this could all be seen as a skilful waste-tip of a culture: what has been left over after everything has come apart. But Eliot does not just present the jumble, he causes the reader to dig and wish to know more. He invites—in fact shows—people how to take things from the ruins. …

While other artists showed how culture could be either shown off, strewn about or destroyed utterly, Eliot demonstrated how it could be reclaimed. He showed how the remnants could become seedlings and sprout again, in another time or place. While repeatedly proving that he had a great artist’s ability to innovate, he also performed that second function of the great artist and demonstrated how culture can be transmitted. He didn’t just show the fire; he showed his readers how things could be saved from it.

He concludes that “through the course of his poetic career Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them. Indeed a way out of all time.”

Read the whole thing over at the U.K.’s Standpoint here.

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