Paper 7: Extended Essay: Yeats and/or Eliot

Wordcount: 6134

"I arrived at the criterion that a religious poem was a poem concerned in some way with revelation and with man's response to it." (Helen Gardner, The Faber Book of Religious Verse)

The fact that certain poems of Eliot's have been included in the Faber Book of Religious Verse suggests that, by Gardner at least, they are regarded as 'religious poems'. However, where Gardner feels the necessity to create criteria by which to recognise religious literature, Eliot questions the validity of the concept of 'religious literature' as a distinct body of works, suggesting that all literature is to some extent religious:

I am convinced that we fail to realize how completely, and yet how irrationally, we separate our literary from our religious judgements. If there could be a complete separation, perhaps it might not matter: but the separation is not, and never can be, complete.1

Although Eliot speaks of religion in general, his personal focus is on Christianity; he explicitly states his desire for "a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian"2 in the context of a parallel desire for a world which is in itself Christian. The idea that all literature is somehow connected with religion assumes that the basis for religion is something which transcends the individual mind; and from the Christian point of view, of course, this is emphatically so. As far as Christianity is concerned there is only one true religion; therefore the world is 'Christian', created by the Christian God, even if it does not realise this. The existence of this viewpoint must at least be acknowledged in order to fully understand Eliot's view of all literature as being 'religious'.

Ideas of religion are always contentious, and ideas of revelation are often more so, even within the context of a religion. The New Shorter OED provides a relatively unbiased and clear explanation of what is meant by 'revelation':

1 Theol. The disclosure or communication of knowledge by a divine or supernatural agency; an instance of this; a thing disclosed or made known by divine or supernatural means.

The definition allows for the existence of, or at least belief in, more than one god; if, however, there is only one God, then all revelation must point to one truth. If this truth is that of the Christian faith, then the supreme revelation is that by which God revealed Himself to mankind, in the person of His son; the Word becoming flesh is the ultimate revelation, the living communication of knowledge by God and through God. Christians believe that this revelation was for all mankind and for all time; if this is so, then all literature must on one level be "concerned with revelation and man's response to it": it must constitute some kind of response, even if neither positive nor conscious, to that revelation.

It would be surprising if Eliot's post-conversion poetry did not in some way respond to this personal revelation. Assuming, however, that Eliot's conversion was no "Road to Damascus" experience, that 'revelation' would be a gradual process mirrored in the body of his poetry as a whole. This has been suggested by B. Rajan, who asserts that

Eliot's poetry is an advance, an inch-by-inch movement up the stairway in which the end is significant because it both remembers and fulfils the beginning.3

This sense of memory and fulfilment supports the idea of a gradual revelation, realised over a period of time; it also suggests a structure to Eliot's poetic œuvre which is almost Biblical, reflecting the way in which the Old Testament prophecies look forward to the New Testament and the coming of Christ, are fulfilled in Him, and are remembered by Him as He uses their language in direct quotations, adapted quotations, and a subtle but complex framework of allusions. The parallels with Eliot's poetry are immediately apparent. If this "advance" occurs in the macrocosm of the body of Eliot's poetry, it also occurs in the microcosm of a single poem; the image of the "stairway" immediately calls to mind Ash-Wednesday, which mimetically reproduces the struggle of the sinner through repentance and purgation. The poet strives towards both the desired redemption and the finished poem: redemption by words, in words, and by the Word within the word. The poetic act itself, the ascent of the stair, represents Eliot working out his own salvation in fear and trembling.

Religion and poetry, spiritual and poetic development, seem here to be inseparably intertwined. The idea of this dual advancement and improvement is reflected in the opinions of those critics who would describe Four Quartets as Eliot's greatest work, a literary and spiritual triumph; Watkins, however, argues that

After Eliot turned to Anglo-Catholicism [...] in 1928, his poetic power began to wane. Because the subject of his later poetry treats a great and noble religious faith, a believer wishes to regard it as great and noble poetry. And presumably genuine Waste Landers [...] would like to find in the later poetry not only art but also the end of the search for grounds for belief.4

Watkins, less concerned with the question of whether Eliot's later poetry is "religious" poetry than with that of whether it is "great and noble", suggests that a concern with the Word is insufficient; the concern with words must equal it. However, central to his reassessment of Eliot's later poetry is his assertion that it is insufficiently concrete: "The words and the Word are traditional, abstract, general, unspoken."5 The irony of describing Eliot's work as "traditional" in the context of negative criticism of his work appears to go unnoticed by Watkins, and the invocation of the unspoken Word, although alluding to Ash-Wednesday, seems in some ways more germane to the uncertainty of the early poetry, such as the words of Gerontion which turn out to be merely "Thoughts of a dry brain" [my italics]. Watkins implies that the "Waste Landers" would be deluding themselves in believing that the end of the spiritual quest lies in Eliot's later poetry; however, in doing so he suggests that the quest begins with The Waste Land. If this is the case, then this pre-conversion poem is nonetheless a 'religious' poem. If the beginning of Eliot's spiritual development can be seen in his earlier poetry, then Rajan's Ash-Wednesday-esque idea of a "movement up the stairway" would suggest that the later poetry marks not, as Watkins argues, a falling-off, but a "significant" end.

A different view again of interlinked poetic and spiritual development is offered by Toien; he sees Eliot's poetry as a progression "from the barren aimlessness of The Waste Land to the highly directed, intensely focused Christian mysticism of his last major work, Four Quartets."6 This apparent "barren aimlessness" seems incompatible with revelation or a meaningful response to it; yet The Waste Land displays intense spirituality, and could even be described as "religious" according to Gardner's criterion. More "barren aimlessness" can be seen in Eliot's pre-Waste Land poetry, although even Prufrock expresses a momentary desire to be an instrument of revelation as he contemplates Lazarus and John the Baptist. Most obviously concerned with the Christian revelation, however, is "Gerontion", whose speaker reflects on the confusion and doubt which attends man's desire for revelation:

Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign!'
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness.
(lines 17-19)

The respective voices of poet and Pharisees express a longing for revelation, a desire to "see a sign", but when the sign comes it is "Swaddled with darkness"; Gerontion seems to blame the silent word and the darkness for his incomprehension, but the Bible verses to which Eliot may be alluding when he speaks of "signs" and "wonders" rather imply that the hearer is at fault:

Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard [...]. How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles [...]?7

The speaker in "Gerontion" reveals his inability to heed or 'read' the words shown to him, the revelation of the Word in words: the "word within a word" is both the "sign" which the Pharisees are unable to read, and the Word signified by that sign. That the darkness is in the hearer, not the word, is further confirmed by the allusion implicit in the phrase "Christ the tiger"; Blake's words are immediately recalled, his "tyger" not "swaddled in darkness" but "burning bright / In the forests of the night".

The failure to read the signs in "Gerontion" is symptomatic of a more general failure to comprehend the Word; a new language is required for a new spirituality, and the speaker in "Gerontion" is trying to understand the former without having acquired the latter. Watkins comments that

When Eliot [...] turned to the faith, he was faced with the need for a new theological language.8

The fact that Watkins goes on to argue that Eliot never convincingly achieved that language, or at least never managed to fuse that language with successful poetry, suggests that words are in themselves somehow inadequate for expressing the Word:

Ultimate meanings in poetry are unutterable just as in theology words cannot describe the Word of God.9

Human language has fallen from the unity of sign and signified which can be found in the "word within a word", the signified Word within the signifying word: it has lost the ability to make a fitting response to the Word through words. The poet must therefore strive to make the necessary response through a language which is fundamentally inadequate; the 'religious poem' expresses the poet's response to revelation in terms of his own inability to make that response.

"Gerontion" not only addresses the conflict between faith and doubt implicit in any revelation, but more the problems of any revelation realised through History:

[History] Gives too late
What's not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion.
(lines 39-41)

Temporal revelation is inevitably caught up in the "many cunning passages, contrived corridors" of History, and is reduced from something given "too late", to something which is "not believed in" anyway; the words "if still believed" afford a momentary hope, but this is quickly dashed by the acknowledgement that it is believed "in memory only". Belief is a present state of mind; something cannot still be believed "in memory only". It is as false as a "reconsidered passion", a passion rendered lifeless by Prufrockian "decisions and revisions". In order to understand and respond to a revelation which occurs for all time, as the ultimate revelation of the Christian Incarnation is believed to have done, that revelation must be understood outside the context of time. "The tiger springs in the new year" suggests the passing of seasons; but "the juvescence of the year" must be understood in terms of a timeless "new year", a cycle of seasons, the significance of which seems to be missed by Gerontion. His very name implies an acceptance of time's linearity; he has grown old, and appears to face the only end of age with a mixture of fear and resignation:

What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
(lines 65-67)

This is perhaps why his response to revelation is so self-defeatingly rooted in time: age has alerted him to the passing of time. Yet he also seems to possess some awareness of the cyclical nature of time and the seasons, as he begins with an acknowledgement that he is "waiting for rain", although he ends with "a dry season".

In these hints of the promise of rain, and rain's attendant fertility and rebirth, can be seen a movement towards the relative timelessness of The Waste Land, with its fertility rituals and, on a more self-consciously literary level, its plethora of allusions and quotations from sources throughout literary time. Desire for revelation is apparent from the poem's outset, the epigraph referring to the prophetic Sibyl; the antiquity of the quotation suggests the timelessness of man's desire to hear the gods speak. The boys who question her, however, seek not so much knowledge as an opinion; with their naïve "τι θελεις" they uncover the Sibyl's buried life, her preference for death over a meaningless existence. While the need for revelation is inherent in the epigraph, what the quotation makes apparent is rather the inaccessibility of revelation; dead languages obfuscate the meaning, and even that meaning seems without hope: a question which shows a desire for communication but not for objective knowledge of the divine; and an answer which suggests that the oracle has no divine knowledge to impart, only hopelessness and despair.

Despair may seem prevalent in The Waste Land as a whole, with the ever-present image of the desert underlying and undermining every instance of hope; yet the desert, by its very lack of water, promotes thirst, a thirst for spiritual refreshment, such as can be seen in the desperate longing of

     If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only...
(lines 346-352)

The desire for "water" and "the rock" foreshadows Eliot's movement towards Christianity: the image of God as a Rock occurs several times in the Psalms10, and also on numerous occasions in the New Testament11; but it is the references to the pre-Christian Old Testament which are particularly interesting to examine in conjunction with The Waste Land, since the poem predates Eliot's acceptance of Christ. In the book of Exodus, which tells of the Israelites' wanderings "in the wilderness", their own Waste Land, the water and the rock are explicitly linked as God tells Moses how the people's thirst can be quenched:

Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.12

Just as this event in the history of the Israelites looks forward to the Rock of the Christian church, and the living water of Christ, so too can The Waste Land's expression of the desire for water, for the shelter of "this red rock", be seen as prefiguring Eliot's conversion; the poem shows clear signs of Eliot's personal spiritual quest being under way.

The quest mentality is prominent in The Waste Land, in its use of the Grail legend and, more generally, its strong sense of a search for some kind of objective meaning; it also contains several moments in which the need for revelation becomes apparent, and often, too, either the impossibility or incomprehensibility of revelation, or the impossibility of any adequate response. This theme is introduced in Biblical diction, reminiscent of God's words to Ezekiel:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images [...]
(lines 19-22)

The "son of man" is silenced, the Word is "unable to speak a word"; all that can be salvaged from the hint of the divine is "A heap of broken images". In the end all that is seen is "fear in a handful of dust", a bleak revelation compared to Blake's visionary "World in a Grain of Sand". The response to this partial, misunderstood revelation is not inspiration but fear. The subsequent "hyacinth garden" episode also suggests a kind of revelation but also the complete inability to respond to it:

[...] I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
(lines 37-41)

The experience on looking into the "heart of light" is not "the horror" of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but rather total paralysis, perhaps provoked by the protagonist's recognition of his own inadequacy: "I knew nothing". Immediately following this episode, the reader is confronted with Madame Sosostris, to whom revelation appears to be denied, and by whom what is revealed is misunderstood. She advises the protagonist to "Fear death by water", failing to see the potential for purification and rebirth which this symbol represents elsewhere in the poem; also, the Christian revelation appears to be hidden from her: she "do[es] not find / The Hanged Man", the figure who represents the type of the dying and resurrected god, fulfilled in Christ.

Moments such as these, hinting at a kind of revelation, all move towards the finale of The Waste Land. The voice of the thunder explicitly represents the "disclosure or communication of knowledge by a divine or supernatural agency"; however, the crux of this episode is not so much the revelation but the response to it. In the fable of the meaning of the Thunder, three groups of beings respond to the thunder's "Da", each group interpreting it differently: the gods hear the word as "damyata", which Eliot translates as "control"; man interprets the syllable as "datta", translated as "give"; and the Asuras or devils hear "dayadhvam", or "sympathise". Eliot changes the original order of these responses, however, beginning with man; this implies that it is man's response to revelation with which Eliot is primarily concerned, and suggests that according to Gardner's criterion The Waste Land is in fact more a "religious poem" than the poem of "barren aimlessness" which Toien sees.

The threefold interpretative response to an ambiguous revelatory syllable and the subsequent inconclusive conclusion with which The Waste Land ends is indicative of a movement towards a greater awareness of the ultimate inadequacy of man's response to revelation; even when the Thunder does speak, when the divine does communicate, responses to it are cryptic and disparate. Also, the long-awaited rain does not appear to fall; rather, the final confusion ushers in a new waste land of doubt where enlightenment should have sprouted. This new desert is realised in the dry hopelessness of The Hollow Men:

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
(lines 39-44)

Eliot's deserts symbolise spiritual barrenness and thirst; yet in this desert there is a slight hope of constructiveness and coherence, in that the "broken images" of The Waste Land are replaced by "stone images" which are "raised", which "receive / Supplication", implying that they are at least believed in. Yet the supplication is that of "a dead man's hand", suggesting something that is "not believed in, or if still believed / In memory only." The worship offered to these unapproachable-sounding "stone images" is a formalised and meaningless worship, a "reconsidered passion". Yet there is a desire for something meaningful to respond to, and for the ability to respond:

At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
(lines 48-51)

Despite the tenderness, the "broken stone" reveals that the "stone images" of line 41 are not in fact all that far from the "broken images" of The Waste Land; nor is the response of the Hollow Men, sightless and speechless, all that different from that of the protagonist in the hyacinth garden:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
(lines 57-59)

This avoidance of speech could be seen as an avoidance of the Word, or of a response in words.

What paralyses the Hollow Men, prevents them from making the desired response, is "the Shadow". The word suggests the "shadow of death" from which the Christian "fear[s] no evil"13; this is, after all, "the dead land", the "hollow valley". It is this shadow of death which has fallen on the supplicating hand, making it "a dead man's hand"; and when the shadow falls "Between the desire / And the spasm" it is hard not to think of this latter as the convulsions of death rather than the spontaneous movement of the living towards God. It is the Shadow which turns the "Trembling with tenderness" into "prayers to broken stone":

Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
(lines 80-82)

Man's immediate response to revelation is an emotional one; but the emotion has to become words, just as God became the Word, in order for it to form a meaningful response. Both the ultimate revelation of incarnation and our response to it seem vulnerable to the Shadow:

Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
(lines 85-90)

The shadow falls between the divine and the revelation, separating the "descent" to earth of God in human form from the "essence" or spirit of God; however, there is also an obvious contrast between "essence" and "existence", suggesting momentarily that it is the shadow of existentialism which prevents man's response to a divine power independent of the self. The Shadow also falls within time:

Between the conception
And the creation
(lines 78-79)

The fact that the Shadow can fall between two chronologically distinct stages of the revelationary act, or a creative response to it, suggests that such linearity is easily disrupted. A revelation is required which exists throughout time, outside time: the type of revelation for which The Waste Land is an unsuccessful, or only partially successful, quest.

The timelessness created in The Waste Land through its web of allusion is that of the "tradition" with which Eliot became so concerned, the "historical sense" which

is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.14

The poetic, creative act must be situated within "tradition"; as Eliot continues, "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone." However, this is balanced by the acknowledgement that the artist must not simply "conform" in such a way as to lose his individuality: "To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art."15 The individual gains a sense of individuality in relation to the past, a past which consists of other individuals operating within the framework of tradition. This is a theme to which Eliot returns in "Religion and Literature", denouncing the "unrestrained individualism" which he sees as being promoted by modern liberals as being unrealistic since

the reader of contemporary literature is [...] exposing himself to a mass movement of writers who, each of them, think that they have something individually to offer, but are really all working together in the same direction.16

That Eliot should write of tradition in conjunction with ideas of religion and literature being inseparable suggests that he sees a link between the two, and this link can perhaps be found in "After Strange Gods", in which Eliot addresses not only the need for tradition but also the danger that one might "associate tradition with the immovable" or "think of it as something hostile to all change."17 Since the fabric of history changes subtly every time a new event or creative act is added to it, tradition itself must be continually shifting and changing; yet it must also remain constant. As Eliot speaks of establishing tradition among a population he asserts that in so doing, "What is still more important is unity of religious background"18, a kind of orthodoxy; his view of the link between religion and tradition is later stated unequivocally: "I believe that a right tradition for us must be also a Christian tradition"19. This may seem, to the non-Christian, a preposterous statement to make; but Christianity and tradition are well-suited to one another. The changing yet constant tradition which encompasses individuals without subsuming their individuality immediately recalls, for the Biblically aware, the reconciliation of stillness and movement, universality and individuality, which is found in the Christian God: this God can say "I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed"20, but it can also be said that "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning [...]."21 The individual is "not consumed" because of God's unchanging changefulness: God's mercies are new every morning, yet He does not change. Likewise, tradition is constantly being renewed, rewritten by additions to it, yet remains a solid and unmoving benchmark against which the individual can be measured. Eliot weaves literature, tradition and religion into one thread; and, as Ecclesiastes tells us, "a three-fold cord is not quickly broken."22

It is towards this reconciliation of time and eternity, stillness and movement, tradition and individuality, that Eliot's poetry gradually progresses, and many have seen Ash-Wednesday as marking the beginning of the deliberate ascent of the "stair" to spiritual understanding, and to an adequate and personal response to what has been revealed by God. As the poem commences, however, the speaker is still confined within the temporal, not understanding the need to step outside time; his reaction is one of renunciation:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
(lines 16-21)

If "what is actual is actual only for one time", and if this is the limit of the individual's vision, then any sense of tradition, any sense of a revelation or even a religion which transcends the temporal, will appear meaningless. Eliot covers similar ground in "Burnt Norton":

Time present and time past
Are perhaps both contained in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
(lines 1-5)

It is in this poem that Eliot most memorably speaks of the reconciliation between past and present, stillness and movement, which he so often appears to be seeking:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
(lines 62-64)

In Ash-Wednesday, Eliot searches for "the still point of the turning world" almost without knowing what he seeks; when he says "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still" he appears to be close to the stillness, recognising the paradox inherent in what he desires, but not yet seeing the way towards reconciling it. Later the poet begins to see how the "Lady of silences" brings unity from disparity; she is

End of the endless
Journey to no end
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
(lines 80-85)

As "End of the endless" the Lady is a point in time, occurring within infinity; she is movement towards stillness, the "still point of the turning world". As "Speech without word and / Word of no speech" she is both the Word and the response to it; yet she is not confined within man's inevitable inadequacy, for she can respond both with and without words, in and outside time. It is she, or the Saviour whom she symbolises, who can unify past and present:

The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time.
(lines 135-138)

The cyclical movement of time is suggested by "new years", as opposed to the single point in time of the "new year" in "Gerontion". Also, the combination of "new verse" and "ancient rhyme" suggests the creativity of an individual within the framework of tradition, the sense of the past in the eternal present; although "Redeem the time" implies that all time is not "eternally present", being "redeemable".

As Eliot continues his ascent of the stair, he begins to more fully recognise the importance of words as a response to the Word:

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
(lines 151-156)

The word may be unspoken, but the Word is already spoken and can only be unheard; man may fail to respond to revelation, but it is man's words which fail, not God's. The Word of revelation, the Word that is not only from God but is God, may seem silent; but the fact that Eliot uses the words "and the light shone in darkness" suggests that, as John's Gospel tells us, the darkness comprehended it not; the Word goes unheard and misunderstood, but it is still a word and has been so since "the beginning", before time. Although there may seem to be "not enough silence" for the word to "Resound", the revelation, the voice of God, cannot be denied:

No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(lines 166-167)

Walking "among noise" may allow man to "deny the voice", pretend he does not hear; but this only leaves him with "No time to rejoice", nor even time to construct something on which to rejoice. There must be a response, and by the end of Ash-Wednesday the speaker begins to make it:

Sister, mother,
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto thee.
(lines 216-219)

The response may only be a wordless cry, coupled with the borrowed words from the hymn Anima Christi, but it is nonetheless a cry; and although it is "separated" by the line-break, it is still tied to the closing prayer by rhyme.

The Four Quartets develop and resolve the uncertainty shown in Ash-Wednesday, as Eliot strives to express the frustrating paradoxes of time and timelessness. In the Quartets he seems to have a far greater sense of the possibility of reconciliation; the poems work towards the unification of their various symbols, reaching towards the "still point of the turning world", where all paradoxes are resolved and "the fire and the rose are one". The movement is necessary for the stillness:

   Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
(lines 66-67)

The still point and the dance complement one another as do tradition and the individual artist. That the reconciliation of stillness and movement is necessary both in religion and literature, if indeed the two can be separated, is made clear in Eliot's mention of "both a new world / And the old made explicit"; the words could be seen as once again recalling the respective worlds of the Old and New Testaments. Just as art must be understood in the context of tradition, so the revelation of the "good news" must be understood within the context of the prophetic tradition. The parallels do not end here, however: the message of the gospel is believed by Christians to be true for all people and for all time, yet at the same time Christ is believed to have occupied a distinct historical time; this existence as God incarnate is fundamental to his importance as the centre of the Christian faith. Only by God's incarnation in time can mankind be set free from temporality and death, free to enjoy eternal life; "Only through time time is conquered." Likewise, the individual must respond in time, but in the framework of tradition:

[...] the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations [...]
("The Dry Salvages", lines 97-100)

If a revelation has been made for all time, then not only all literature but all experience is part of the response to revelation; to ignore this would be to have "had the experience but missed the meaning". The individual is "one life only", but the individual's experience is part of that of "many generations"; that experience only makes sense as part of the bigger picture:

        There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment...
("East Coker", lines 81-85)

Knowledge based on the individual's experience is only relevant to the moment from which it is derived, and therefore has no generalised value. However, if the individual sees experiential knowledge in the light of the experience "of many generations", then that knowledge begins to be applicable to the larger pattern of history. Similarly, the individual's response to revelation can only be useful to other individuals if it is seen in the context of the experience of others. In the end, however, what is important is not an intellectual response:

        You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
("Little Gidding", lines 43-46)

Again, response to God within tradition is suggested; the place is sanctified by the tradition of prayer which belongs to it. Yet the poet merely says "kneel", does not give the response any words; what results may be a "hardly, barely prayable / Prayer", or it may be simply the humility towards which Eliot moves in "East Coker". A poetic response to revelation must be in words, but the poet suggests that the individual may respond to revelation on a different level of communication, in greater humility.

Much of Eliot's poetry could be seen as "religious" according to Gardner's criterion, being concerned on many levels with revelation and man's response thereto. However, if Eliot's critical discourse concerning religion, literature and tradition is taken to its logical conclusion, then all literature fits this category; the distinction is no longer helpful or meaningful. Indeed, "religious" themes can be found throughout Eliot's work, not only in those poems which Gardner selects as "religious" or those overtly concerned with Christianity. Some later poems, such as "Journey of the Magi" and "A Song for Simeon", express a far more uncomfortable attitude to a revelation which ushers in "the time of cords and scourges and lamentations", rendering those who have experienced it

        no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
("Journey of the Magi", lines 41-42)

The response to revelation, as Gardner admits, "may be negative or uncertain", and Eliot works through a variety of responses to a revelation which at first is only barely known, and later is more fully known and understood. The response changes through time, although the revelation is for all time; Eliot's later poetry shows a greater degree of experience, a stronger sense of the pattern. This sense of tradition is perhaps what makes a truly "religious poem", as the poet comes to see himself as a part of God's plan and to respond accordingly.


1 T.S. Eliot, "Religion and Literature", in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.), pp 97-106 (p 100)

2 Ibid. , p 100

3 B. Rajan, "The Dialect of the Tribe", in The Waste Land in Different Voices ed. A.D. Moody (London: Edward Arnold, 1974) pp. 1-14 (p 5)

4 Floyd C. Watkins, The Flesh and the Word: Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971) p 53

5 Ibid., p 63

6 Bruce Toien, "T.S. Eliot's Spiritual Rebirth", DeKalb Literary Arts Journal vol. 10, no. 4 (1977), pp 37-45 (p 37)

7 Hebrews 2:1-4

8 Watkins, op. cit., p 62

9 Ibid., p 79

10 e.g. Psalms 18:2, 92:15

11 e.g. John 4:10, 1 Cor. 10:4

12 Exodus 17:6

13 Psalm 23:4

14 T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.), pp 37-44 (p 38)

15 Ibid., p 39

16 "Religion and Literature", p 104

17 T.S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (London: Faber and Faber, 1934) p 18

18 Ibid., p 20

19 Ibid., p 21

20 Malachi 3:6

21 Lamentations 3:22-23

22 Ecclesiastes 4:12

23 Helen Gardner, ed., The Faber Book of Religious Verse (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p 7 (introduction)