“T.S. Eliot: Refining Fire”

“I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only / We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key…”

-T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

I’ve put off writing about my favorite poet for a long time—probably because I was worried I couldn’t do justice to that awesome Shamanic Power, which T.S. Eliot bore into the world.   But the time has come for an attempt…

T.S. Eliot is known for being a difficult poet.  If this means that Eliot’s verses are just a number of obtuse jigsaws of interest only to the scholar, it is immensely unfair, since his early poetry is perfectly accessible and his later poetry does not provide as many obstacles to understanding as one would suppose.  The Wasteland, of course, presents the most obvious difficulties: it is a kind of collage, organizing different scraps of Western Civilization into a coherent whole, narrating a quest for The Holy Grail in which all the different bits and pieces are made to participate.  But, unlike his friend Ezra Pound’s poetry, knowledge of Eliot’s allusions and his vast base of references in multiple languages (including Sanskrit) is not at all necessary to begin to appreciate his genius, though a heavily foot-noted copy of The Wasteland is highly recommended.  There are lines in The Wasteland that stung me when I first read the poem, back in high school—not, actually, for school, but out of my own curiosity—even if I didn’t know that he was ripping some of them from old swains like Edmund Spenser or Oliver Goldsmith.  The quote affixed to the beginning of this article is such an example (not of a stolen line, though), but there are plenty of others: “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits / Like a taxi throbbing waiting…” and “I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”  Despite whatever personal flaws critics wish to point out (usually, Anti-Semitism), Eliot wrote the poems of the age just past, of the Twentieth Century.  He is the central poet to have written in English since W.B. Yeats.  Yet his consciousness was not that of a spiritually clairvoyant seer like Blake, who could twist the human psyche up into a terrifying mythology, or of a poetic dramatist like Shakespeare or Browning, or of a bard writing hymns to his “barbaric lunar muse” like Yeats.  Eliot’s genius was for lyric, for music, for feeling—his poems work on you the some way that the sad songs from Pet Sounds work on you, “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” (though that might be a considerably darker variety of sadness than that present in Pet Sounds.)

Thomas Stearns Eliot had what the Spanish bard, Federico Garcia Lorca, called duende—“soul,” in the American sense, something deep and bluesy and striking at the very root of feeling.   But duende is also dark, daemonic, dealing in shadows and broken images…  Eliot was attracted by the possibility of ecstasy, of a transcendence that could tug you out of time.  In fact, he had a weird—maybe even mystical—experience as a young man, when he was walking through a crowded street and suddenly felt that he was enclosed within a “circle of silence.”  On the whole, his poetry laments his inability to have or reconnect with this sense of the numinous.  A mood of deep loss—not tied overmuch to any particular object—pervades even his most positive poetry.  This is evidently related to a mysterious and recurring evocation of lost love and to strange recollections from early childhood found scattered throughout Eliot’s poems, from the earliest to the latest: “There, the eyes are / Sunlight on a broken column / There, is a tree swinging / And voices are / In the wind’s singing / More distant and more solemn / Than a fading star.”  This image—which is later revealed in Four Quartets to refer to children laughing, hiding in the boughs of a yew tree—constantly returns in Eliot and seems to reference some sort of strong visionary experience from his boyhood.  For the lost love, we turn to The Wasteland: “My friend, blood shaking my heart / The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract / By this and this only, we have existed…”

Yet, if the longing for a universal yet personal love and spiritual transcendence is central in Eliot, so is his sense of the absence of both—his intense nausea.  In “The Preludes” we see how “the worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots,” and The Wasteland is a kind of elegy (in addition to being a Grail Quest), which continually mourns the death of a young man by drowning (I’m not sure this young man can be fixed as any particular person, though scholars have tried to say it was Eliot’s friend, Jean Verdenal, who died fighting in Gallipoli during World War I.  Certainly, references to Verdenal exist in The Wasteland and he is related and, in a sense, a part of the dead man, but I don’t think their friendship tells the whole story.)  In a more profound sense, it seems that Eliot laments the departure of the “visionary gleam” that so satisfied the British Romantics and American poets like Whitman before him.  As others have observed, there is a deep, autumnal or plain-wintry tone of loss and longing in Eliot’s poetry that can be traced back to Tennyson and Whitman (also, the nightmare London of Tennyson is the same as the “Unreal” Boston, London, and Paris of Eliot), being especially profound in Whitman’s “Sea Drift” elegies and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

But Eliot rejects the Romantic need to find solace in the mind’s interaction with Nature, even though it seems to have been his heart’s first inclination: “I cannot drink / There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again.”  Eliot tried to remedy this loss, which had left him bare at his imaginative and spiritual core, by turning, first, to Buddhism and Hinduism (and, to be perfectly fair, to the French Fascism of Charles Maurras) and later by embracing Christian Orthodoxy and becoming a veritable seer of Anglo-Catholicism (“Catholic” Anglicanism), though Krishna and the Buddha still show up in his later poetry.  Yet underlying even the most forthrightly orthodox affirmations, there remains a sense of the visionary potential inherent in everyday experiences and of the vanishing of that potential.  One only needs to compare Eliot’s walk along the shore in “The Dry Salvages” with Whitman’s sea-side walk in “As I ebb’d with the ocean of life” to find intense parallels.  First, Whitman: “Tufts of straw, sands, fragments / Buoy’d hither from many moods, one contradicting another, / From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell / Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear…”  Now, Eliot: “Where is there an ending, the soundless wailing / The silent withering of autumn flowers / Dropping their petals and remaining motionless; / Where is the end to the drifting wreckage, / The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable / Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?”  Harold Bloom says that Whitman would have been disturbed by Eliot and unhappy with their resemblance, evidently because Eliot was an orthodox Christian, a Classicist, and a conservative.  I don’t know what Whitman would’ve thought of Eliot’s religion or politics, but I think he would’ve been proud of his (somewhat unwilling) disciple’s poetry.

I find Eliot’s capacity to be disturbed by change, by time—so evident in the passage just compared with Whitman—to be one of his most moving and sympathetic traits (even if it is politically related to his admiration for a fascist thinker like Charles Maurras.)  He shares this with Whitman—though, I suppose, all poets share it, since temporality might be the theme qua theme of poetry.  Being a part of it, we inevitably write about it.  But rather than give into his sense of the world as an inferno of time—to simply surrender, and meld with it, like Algernon Swinburne did when he said that our life was just “a dream or a vision / Between a sleep and a sleep”—Eliot wanted to save some room for the Eternal, for the old verities of spirituality and poetry.  This is most evident in his lines about “The Word” from Ash Wednesday: “Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled.” And, in possibly his greatest epiphany, from “Little Gidding,” he urges the spiritual athleticism of a Christian Saint or of a Hindu Yogi: “From wrong to wrong, the exasperated spirit proceeds / Unless restored by that refining fire / Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”

Other poets have perhaps rammed their poetry with more intense verbal difficulties and gymnastics in celebrating the natural world, which is rewarding in its own way—Late Wallace Stevens would be a good example.  And others have more directly approached the quest to be a visionary poet in the Romantic tradition, rather than reacting against it—consider Hart Crane.  Yet Eliot endures because he, better than anyone else, articulated the spiritual emptiness of the age and — unlike many who had made the same diagnosis — sincerely sought a cure.

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2 thoughts on ““T.S. Eliot: Refining Fire”

  1. Lovely! Eliot is one of my favorites, though it is probably somewhat blithe to say so since I haven’t given him the amount of reflection and research he deserves. Even so, the Four Quartets moved me to tears and I’ve read Prufrock a few dozen times. The Waste Land was so overwhelming that I only read it once and understood very little of it.

    You’re very good at putting into words things that I might be able to articulate if I were a much more learned man. In his poems I have always felt a sort of urgency, a painful urge to grasp onto the thread of time and hold it still or even pull it backwards. To wit, my favorite bit from “The Dry Salvages”:

    For most of us, there is only the unattended
    Moment, the moment in and out of time,
    The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
    The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
    Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
    That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
    While the music lasts.

    • Hey Colin,

      Thanks for responding and for your kind words — you’re definitely right about his need to try to turn back time and you cited one of the best passages in the “Quartets,” from “The Dry Salvages.” There’s a guy who plays piano outside in Harvard Square sometimes and he has a sign hanging off his piano that says, “You are the music while the music lasts,” and attributes it to Eliot.

      As for time: “In my end is my beginning,” as he keeps saying in “East Coker.” And even though Eliot’s getting at this from an Anglo-Catholic contemplative perspective (“In my end is my beginning” was apparently the credo of Mary Queen of Scots), I think it’s authentic roots actually hearken back to the greatest of Romantic poets: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting / The soul that rises with us, our life’s star / Hath had elsewhere it’s setting / And cometh from afar / Not in entire forgetfulness / Not in utter nakedness / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, Who is our home.” (That’s from Wordsworth.)

      By the way — best of luck with grad school and everything!

      Go jolly,

      Sam

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