Features April 2023
T. S. Eliot’s still point
On the poet’s life & work.
Addressing the Friends of the Irish Academy on the subject of W. B. Yeats in 1939, the year after the Irish poet’s death, T. S. Eliot proclaimed that Yeats “was one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.” In making this point, he celebrated Yeats’s work for its expression of the man’s “unique personality.”
This may have sounded strange to Eliot’s audience, who would have known his single most influential critical statement, made two decades before. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot had announced the “impersonal theory of poetry,” which held that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”
Yeats was indeed an “impersonal” poet, Eliot explained, but by this he meant that, “out of intense and personal experience,” Yeats was “able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol.” This was not an obvious claim. Yeats’s dreamy and melancholy early work had seemed already antiquated to the poets of Eliot’s generation. His concerns with Irish culture and politics were provincial. His mature poetic vision was in turn eccentric and gnostic, the doctrine of a church to which only he could belong. What Eliot intended by this remark, however, was Yeats’s continuous growth over his long career. The poet indulged and then shook off the misty tastes of the nineteenth century, before striving to find a mode of expression suitably “hard” for an age of disillusion and violence, of the machine and total war.
His career displayed all the restless struggle with form and expression that Yeats’s had.
A more likely candidate to join the ranks of those poets whose history was the history of their times was Eliot himself. His career displayed all the restless struggle with form and expression that Yeats’s had. Indeed, the literary critic Malcolm Cowley spoke for many when he observed that Eliot “never repeated himself and never . . . persisted in any attitude or technique: once having suggested its possibilities, he moved on.” But where Yeats’s work remained, to the end, a romantic and, at times, even juvenile celebration of the ecstasy of violence and the poetic fruitfulness of conflict, Eliot’s poetry, from the very beginning, considered violence and conflict a nightmare from which one struggled to wake up.
By violence here, I do not primarily mean world wars, Anglo–Irish conflicts, or the ideological contests that reshaped Europe during Yeats’s and Eliot’s lifetimes. I mean rather something more fundamental. The history of their times was of course bookended and shaped by massive military conflicts. But violence was also the deep psychological undercurrent of the era. Modern materialists had proposed that all reality could be explained by the collision of object with object and the resultant force. Marx had argued that history was the story of class conflict. Freud had argued that the self was a mere product of an ongoing interior conflict. Modern German philosophy, including that of Nietzsche, portrayed the human being as trapped within a suffocating subjectivity, even as it introduced the possibility that one might escape the walls of the interior by a violent assertion of the will. These distinctly modern views all suggested that violent conflict might constitute not simply the tumult of nations but every aspect of reality down to the interior life of the person. The self might be a bundle of fragments at war with one another, no less than was social life or political life. “Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity,” wrote Eliot in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), but by these words he did not mean sophistication, but rather, as he put it elsewhere, an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy.”
Eliot’s life, including his poetry criticism, shows his restless, ongoing attempt to give poetic expression to this distinctly modern anxiety that everything may be a series of violent collisions. Early on, he wrote of his own poems to his friend the poet Conrad Aiken, “I know the kind of verse I want, and I know this isn’t it.” In the decades ahead, he repeated the complaint, including in his last important poem, Four Quartets (1943), where he sighs with the somewhat retiring modesty of an old master:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
These different kinds of failure were in part driven by a sense of the continuous conflict and instability that were history, but they were also informed by a quest of sorts. Was there any condition, any reality, that stood apart from the violence of history? A place where force was not simply met by competing force, but where stillness, silence, and peace might reign?
Last year marked the centenary of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land (1922). There can be little doubt that the poem gave expression to the history of Eliot’s time. Its first readers, including those who could not understand it, sensed as much. It also shaped that history, leading many of those same readers to see their time on Eliot’s terms. The significance of Eliot’s poem as a psychological record of its time, as a historical landmark, is well established.
But historical importance is not the only question. Over the last decade, Eliot’s complete prose has been collected and fastidiously edited in eight volumes by a team of scholars led by Ronald Schuchard. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue published a variorum edition of the poems in two volumes in 2015. John Haffenden has been publishing Eliot’s letters, which series is now in its ninth volume and far from complete. In 2020, Princeton University Library at last opened the archive of Eliot’s letters to his sometime beloved and longtime correspondent Emily Hale—a trove for which scholars had been waiting for fifty years and which has already become a definitive resource for knowledge of Eliot. For the very first time, then, the scholar and reader have access to nearly every surviving document, previously published or private, that Eliot ever wrote.
With the centenary has also come a spate of new books on Eliot, including Jed Rasula’s What the Thunder Said: How “The Waste Land” Made Poetry Modern and Matthew Hollis’s “The Waste Land”: A Biography of a Poem.1 The Scottish poet Robert Crawford has just completed his two-volume biography of the poet with Eliot After “The Waste Land,” the first biography to benefit from the publication of the Hale letters.2 At least two other new biographical works focused on Hale and other women in Eliot’s life have also been published.
What are all these books doing? Are they adding more weight to the headstone that marks Eliot, in the words of the fourth tempter in Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral (1935), as mere “historical fact,” a “man who played a certain part in history”? Or does his work as a poet and critic, which did so much to shape the last century of literature, still live? And if it does, what is the basis and extent of its vitality?
Crawford quotes an elderly Eliot holding forth at dinner and complaining that only his “major” poems have readers, not his “minor” ones. Few major poetic reputations could rest on fewer major poems than Eliot’s. Despite the mountains of prose and letters, and despite the over two thousand pages of the Ricks edition of the poems, the mature and collected poetry only comes to about two hundred pages, and, within that slender tranche, only about half would fall under the category of what Eliot himself meant by “major.”
Despite the impersonal theory of poetry, Eliot seldom wrote about anything beside himself.
The major work just barely suffices to provide points on a narrative arc that leads us, poem by poem, on a journey through the violence and solipsism of history that Eliot felt and feared. It gives us his long analysis and lamentation of its causes, and it leads on to a moment of conversion, after which the poems begin to explore the possibility of a truth and a peace in history and yet also beyond it. This, I say, is the story the poems unfold for us, but it was also the story of Eliot’s life. Despite the impersonal theory of poetry, Eliot seldom wrote about anything beside himself, in his poetry or his prose. That has had the effect of making his literary criticism provocative but inconsistent and often untrustworthy regarding its nominal subjects, but it also made Eliot just the kind of poet he proclaimed Yeats to be. Eliot’s life and poetry are the history of his time, he its representative figure, his work its “general symbol.”
I would go further. Eliot’s anxiety to discover new poetic forms adequate to the age in many ways limited his achievement as a poet and condemned him to be more repetitive and narrower in range than many other major poets in the literary tradition. And yet his attention to the central question of the modern world—is there anything at all in the world beyond the violence of power?—made him both a perceptive and insightful writer in his own day and a poet whose unsparing criticism of life seems now prophetic of what has become of our civilization since his death. In Eliot’s day, the reduction of human life and the world to what Nietzsche called “the will to power” was a dominant idea that drove the ideologies of communism and fascism and haunted the life of the liberal West. In our day we see that, for the mainstream of our intellectuals and the broader population as well, the possibility that life could consist of anything other than power and its abuse seems nearly unimaginable. The story of Eliot’s life and work, in this regard, seems a salutary reminder that genuine peace is possible, even if it is a peace “not as the world gives.”
Eliot’s early poems, which Ricks brought together in a single volume for the first time, are for the most part not even of historical interest. “A Lyric,” which appeared in Eliot’s prep-school magazine in his student days, shows him to be a prodigious young imitator of the metaphysical poets. Others give us Eliot experimenting with the kinds of phrases and social observations that found mature expression in his first book, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). A pair of poems, “Dirge” and “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” are significant only because they include lines that were later incorporated into The Waste Land. Nearly all the rest consist of especially derivative imitations of Jules Laforgue, the French symbolist poet who effectively gave Eliot his style.
Two early poems, however, are essential to understanding the rest of Eliot’s career. “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” depicts a self-lacerating lover addressing his beloved. At first he would merely punish himself out of desire for her:
I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled . . .
But as the lover approaches the beloved, his violence turns outward; he imagines taking possession of her and dominating her:
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me.
This is not good poetry, though some of its phrases and rhythms will reappear in the stronger poems of Prufrock and beyond, but it does express a distinctly modern view of desire. That love may lead to domination and murder is a thought as old as the world (or, at the least, as old as Plato’s Phaedrus), but, beginning with Oscar Wilde and the decadents of the fin de siècle, it had quickly become the only thought. That “each man kills the thing he loves,” as Wilde put it, that natural desire does violence to nature, had become something of an assumption. Love was a struggle for power, and sexual union entailed domination. The human desire for ecstasy, to be carried away and taken out of ourselves, out of our own “self-possession” and rational control, had become a desperation in an age that seemed tepid in its conformity and boring in its daily existence. Fantasies of violence could bring about exhilaration, but because violence is an action, it was a source of ecstasy that one could procure on one’s own. Modern life may consist of the daily grind, the uninteresting works of power in industry and commerce, but sexual violence seemed to promise an escape from those conditions and from the dull confines of the self.
If “St. Sebastian” voices Eliot’s anxiety at being a mere subject of power but also the desire to escape by a different kind of power, another early poem provides an alternative vision of things. Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Eliot, An Imperfect Life (1999), takes Eliot’s poem “Silence” as central to understanding his life as a whole. The poem begins in the “Vexed and debated” modern “city streets” that Eliot’s poems will take for setting at least through The Waste Land and which they will occasionally revisit as “a place of disaffection” in the decades after. In the middle of “Silence,” however, the scene drops away as the speaker is drawn out of himself in ecstasy. The crash of industrial power, which is like the tumultuous wave of the sea, falls silent:
The seas of experience
That were so broad and deep,
So immediate and steep,
Are suddenly still.
Here is a different sort of ecstasy. One not procured by an action, a violence of one’s own, but one that is freely given from beyond. The poem ends,
At such peace I am terrified.
There is nothing else beside.
On Gordon’s reading, Eliot is a belated transcendentalist on the model of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his life is a private spiritual project in search of the silence briefly known on that city street. Such a portrait is incomplete. The Eliot of the poems and the biography, as Crawford has now shown, is above all the figure of “St. Sebastian,” subject to violent passions and cultivating those passions in search of an experience of ecstasy. In this regard, he is very much a part of the modern world. It is only through the exploration of violent ecstasy that he discovers its insufficiency and is surprised to learn that it is possible to pass beyond it, to find a silence and peace that may not be snatched by the power of the will but in which one may be enfolded.
That this was the path of Eliot’s life and the drama recorded in his poems is not much in dispute. His London contemporaries witnessed the continual conflict between Eliot and his wife Vivien Haigh-Wood. Vivien’s behavior was almost continuously hysterical and made Eliot miserable. She was concerned she dominated him, and he concerned he dominated her. And yet they remained together for seventeen years before Eliot filed for legal separation. At the most intimate level, his life was riven by continuous strife.
But then, almost without warning, his life took a decisive turn with his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. Eliot’s contemporaries, like recent critics such as Rasula, saw a certain radicalism in the avant-garde energies of “collage” that appear to give shape to The Waste Land. For many, it hardly seemed to anticipate entrance into the staid national Church. But indeed the violent wretchedness of the world revealed in The Waste Land was precisely the condition he wanted to escape and believed he could escape only by what that poem calls an act of “surrender/ Which an age of prudence can never retract.”
The early poems express a certain conservative lament.
As Crawford’s biography makes clear, Eliot was always a conservative in politics; the early poems express a certain conservative lament for the decadence of the present age. The strange features of his work that led Arthur Waugh to compare Prufrock to a “drunken slave” followed from Eliot’s fear that the romantic conventions of the previous century made use of a vague consolatory sentimentality to distract readers from the unhappy facts of their existence, because “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
The poems of Prufrock are the antithesis of this sort of romanticism. A century earlier, the romantic John Keats’s “Belle Dame Sans Merci” had gowned lovesick passion and tuberculosis in the garments of faery and melancholy balladry. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” presents to us the rambling thoughts of its protagonist, a young bourgeois man much like Eliot in his Harvard years. Prufrock’s interior monologue shows him to be well-fed on the stuff of romance but incapable of realizing such ideal forms in action. He would be a prophet, like “Lazarus, come from the dead,/ Come back to tell you all . . .” He would be deep and heroic, like Prince Hamlet. But he has nothing to say and is no hero; he is at best “an attendant lord, one that will do/ To swell a progress.”
Prufrock was distinctive in English poetry because of its depiction of gritty city streets, after the fashion of Laforgue. It was also distinctive because of its vers libre, also borrowed from Laforgue. It is worth noting, however, that Eliot’s versification was more conventional and familiar than this comparison may suggest. Laforgue’s French vers libre was composed in lines with variable numbers of syllables and punctuated by irregular rhyme. Most of Eliot’s lines were composed not syllabically but in iambic feet, such that a plurality of the lines in the whole of Prufrock are iambic pentameters, as are these famous lines from the “Love Song”:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
What is most striking in Eliot’s first great poem is the way it shows the garments of romanticism as just that—as costume meant to dress up the banal. We see poor mediocre Prufrock trying on the costumes and realizing that they do not fit. Conscious of this, he finds himself impotent and without resources, struggling to speak. He is bottled up in himself and the only available means of ecstasy, of self-assertion, are the romantic tropes he now finds unbelievable or at least too great for him. He would assert himself by violence if only he could. Instead, he cowers in fear of rejection, lest the debutantes of Boston notice the bald spot on his head or his spindly arms and legs and mock him. If he were to approach one, he fears she would reply with incredulity, “That is not what I meant at all.”
Incapable of action, he can only fantasize of the ultimate inaction, death. And this he does, dreaming in romantic fashion of walking on the beach and hearing “the mermaids singing, each to each.” But fantastic mermaids are no less scornful than Boston ladies: “I do not think that they will sing to me.” To be startled from this fantasy, and from all fantasy, is to be restored from the world of mermaids to the properly human world, but this Prufrock experiences as death: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
The other poems in Eliot’s first book are dwarfed by comparison. “Portrait of a Lady” is told from the perspective of a Prufrockian narrator, but its mockery is turned outward, at the domineering bourgeois lady who would dominate her young male companion with her effusive and pretentious conversation (the wit of “Prufrock,” by contrast, lies entirely in the dissection of his self-conception). Other poems capture urban scenes with restraint or, as in “The ‘Boston Evening Transcript,’” enact fantasies of aristocratic revenge on the mediocre culture of early twentieth-century America. The poems flirt with the possibility that human life is reducible to material conditions and our behavior as mechanical creatures, emotionally needy wind-up toys. The only alternative is the assertion of a knowing sensibility, a civilized hauteur that condemns the modern age as barbaric and its romantic fantasies as mere sentiments.
In the years that followed, Eliot’s criticism attempted to imagine that life had once been more than the banal violence of machines and the impotent fiction of terrible fantasies. He borrowed a historical theory from the German Romantics, that human beings had once been organic wholes but were now divided, as only material things can be divided, into parts that think and parts that feel, but never the both together. “Gerontion,” which opens Poems (1920), was his first attempt to offer this account in verse. The poem famously depicts the West as an old man “Being read to by a boy.” The book the boy reads is history itself, and it is a story of entropy and decline. The inmates of the modern West, such as Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, and Madame de Tornquist, attempt to distract themselves from the boredom that comes with living on the long downward slope of history, by means of anxious movements or the violence of decadent and eccentric rituals. They try to “Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,/ With pungent sauces,” as Eliot puts it near the end of the poem. Prufrock did not dare to act, so he drowned. These characters act, but they cannot stop history’s decay. The wheel of history turns, sending “fractured atoms” out into the abyss. There is nothing else, it seems, beyond history but more history. “Gerontion” is a poem of despair.
The poems collected with “Gerontion” merely replay different versions of the same scenes of decadence. When The Waste Land appeared in 1922, it also seemed to its first readers a poem of despair, one that repeated the depiction of history in “Gerontion” as a spinning cycle of disintegrating atoms. This was not, however, quite correct. The Waste Land is fragmented, even more so than Prufrock’s thoughts or the old man’s history, and among its last lines is the despairing “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” We see desperate acts of self-assertion and violence to escape from that condition. Among these we might note the repairing to superstitions (the tarot readings of Madame Sosostris) and the St. Sebastian–like sexual encounter between a young typist, worn down and as incapable of feeling as her typewriter, and the “young man carbuncular,” who “makes a welcome of indifference” as he pushes himself upon her. The poem is filled with generalized scenes of death-in-life, from the workers crossing London Bridge to Phlebas the Phoenician, “a fortnight dead” and drifting endlessly in the whirlpool of history.
The poem flirts with the possibility of violence.
But from the beginning, the poem flirts with the possibility of violence and the rebirth that may come from it. That “April is the cruelest month” we all know by now; the agony of birth may restore life to the dead land. We see other fragmentary signs of life, a vision of light, the toll of a church bell, the laughter of fishermen, but it is the final violence of a thunderstorm out of the East that seems most elusive yet most promising. In the closing section of the poem, Eliot fantasizes of a new revelation, a new gospel, that would restore water, life, and order to the historical world. “What the Thunder Said,” as that part is called, is a gospel of action: to give, to sympathize, to control. Eliot’s language sounds as if it were a recipe for a more confident and directed violence than was the capricious searching after sensations of ecstasy he has depicted earlier in the poem. But, and I think this is the crucial development, this recipe is a thing given from above. It comes not because Prufrock suddenly gets his nerve together, but because an unspecified voice in the thunder, the divine voice of Revelation 10:1–7, declares it.
Eliot subsequently depicted modern persons as “hollow men” in the poem of the same name (1925), incapable of great violence and thus unworthy of the eye of the pagan heroes or Christian saints who long ago crossed “to death’s other Kingdom.” In “Sweeney Agonistes” (1926), he imagined modern man once again as a squalid, lustful city slicker whose only dream of ecstasy, to free himself a moment from the thought of “birth, copulation, and death,” is the prospect of doing “a girl in.”
“Sweeney Agonistes” has two epigraphs, one from the Oresteia of Aeschylus and one from St. John of the Cross that speaks of the possibility of the soul being “possessed of the divine union.” Nothing could frame more starkly the choice Eliot came to see about human life. Either life is a natural tragic cycle of violence and revenge, which we may enact but never escape, or we must surrender “self-possession” and allow ourselves by supernatural grace to be possessed. Only complete abstention from action can allow divine grace to lead us beyond history and its busy motions to the “Peace which passeth understanding” (to use the words of St. Paul quoted in the notes to The Waste Land).
Eliot made his decisive choice, in 1927, when he was baptized into the Anglican Church. The realization in poetry took somewhat longer. Having made his poetry out of the violent desire for ecstasy and its failings, how was he to represent peace? In the near term, he did not. Rather, he dramatized the violent rapture of conversion as a tragic event. “Journey of the Magi” and “A Song for Simeon,” the first poems he published after his conversion, show the revelation of Christ as the incarnate son of God as costly knowledge, leaving those who experience it aliens in both the old world and the new. His next poem, the sequence “Ash-Wednesday” (1930), moves beyond tragedy but remains a poem about the event of conversion. The poet prays, “Teach us to sit still,” lest he be “separated” from the divine will. The poem begs for what is not yet attained.
Of Eliot’s prose during this period, two essays stand out as particularly revealing: “F. H. Bradley” (1927) and “Religion and Literature” (1935). In the first, Eliot rejects Matthew Arnold’s idea of culture as a means of human perfection and formation of the “best self.” We cannot hope to remake ourselves by force of will but must surrender to being transformed by a will superior to our own. In the second, Eliot states directly that all that lies within history, including moral values, is mere flux. The principles of truth and goodness exist beyond time, and only in surrendering to them and judging in terms of them can we live in contact with that which is permanent. God’s eternity is the reality by which the unreality of time must be understood.
Eliot’s plays The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral, premiering in 1934 and 1935 respectively, illustrated these two principles with great power. In the latter, Thomas Becket, the archbishop, silences his will and becomes an instrument of God, and he thus comes to rest in the peace of God, despite his violent martyr’s death. A few lines from that play were cut from the script in rehearsal. From them, Eliot constructed the opening of “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets.
Given how chancy the origin of the Quartets was, it is remarkable that it became the poem that completed Eliot’s work as a lyric poet and most perfectly expressed human life as a pilgrimage through the violent tumult of the world toward peace in the contemplation of God. “Burnt Norton” begins with a mystical vision in a garden. The rest of the poem wrestles with the effort to describe that vision of “the still point of the turning world,” which is God, the unmoved mover of history, and with the further effort to understand the point of life, of our experience in history, if its meaning lies categorically beyond it in the absolute. Is every moment outside communion with the absolute a mere “waste sad time”?
This was an especially pressing question in the years Eliot composed three of the four Quartets. The Second World War had begun, and England was enduring the evacuation at Dunkirk and the Nazi aerial bombardment that came to be called the Blitz. Eliot, who served as an air raid warden, composed the poems as a meditation on how we shall live in time but for the sake of what lies beyond time. “We must be still and still moving,” he writes at the end of “East Coker.” We “are only undefeated/ Because we have gone on trying,” observes “The Dry Salvages”; therefore, “fare forward, voyagers.”
The first volume of Crawford’s biography winsomely details the ways in which the sounds of Eliot’s childhood in St. Louis and his early reading gave shape to much of the language of The Waste Land. The second volume shows similarly how the English sense of doubt about the integrity of the nation and the need for spiritual affirmation guided Eliot in the composition of his last great poem. If the Quartets sometimes sounds like Winston Churchill, Crawford indicates, the effect was not unintended. The Waste Land sold a few hundred copies in the first few years after its publication. Four Quartets sold in the many thousands. It became the great English national religious poem of the Second World War.
It is a work of art that invites its readers into the desert of the Christian fathers.
But Four Quartets is more than a national poem. It is, as Eliot himself hoped, almost more than a poem. It is a work of art that invites its readers into the desert of the Christian fathers, into the darkness and the stillness of contemplation. In its verses, Eliot attempts to describe and enact prayer, but he also reflects on the art of poetry in itself. Poetry and prayer both involve a kind of failure, but they are also reminders that there is a stillness and a peace beyond the violence of time and that the human mind can know it even within the explosions of a restless and turning history.
Eliot struggled to maintain that vision of peace in the decades ahead, as he attempted to live as a Christian and maintained his long correspondence with Emily Hale. She loved him and wanted to marry him. Eliot held her at bay. Like Vivien before her, Hale had a dominant personality, and while we will never know Eliot’s true intentions, it seems likely that an epistolary romance allowed for a peaceful and purely spiritual relationship. The convening of their flesh would have reintroduced the violence of living he had sought to escape. Although Eliot’s career as a lyric poet was finished, his work in verse drama suggests a long struggle to bring the peace of Christian faith into the life of the body—an aim he realized within his marriage to the young Valerie Fletcher in 1957 and the composition of his last play, The Elder Statesman, in 1959.
In our day, almost every aspect of social life is viewed in terms of power, from sexual entanglements to ecclesial pronouncements; even the liberal arts are measured in terms of their utility rather than their intrinsic value. The young report record levels of anxiety and depression, as if they are restless but without purpose; they view life as a painful struggle for a pointless success. The drama that takes place across the span of Eliot’s poetry seems more vital than ever. It reckons with the vanity of worldly ambition, the banality of the mechanical routines of work and recreation, and the drugs and superstitions with which we try to allay our fear of the emptiness of life. If we are tempted to think there is nothing in this world that can still our hunger, Eliot’s poems tell us we are correct. But his poems open onto another world than this one, the enclosed world of the work of art, the eternal world of the spirit. The heavy, brooding cadences of Four Quartets in particular draw us out of ourselves and, in the words of “Burnt Norton,” “Into our first world.”
- What the Thunder Said: How “The Waste Land” Made Poetry Modern, by Jed Rasula; Princeton University Press, 344 pages, $39.95.“The Waste Land”: A Biography of a Poem, by Matthew Hollis; W. W. Norton & Company, 544 pages, $40.
- Eliot After “The Waste Land,” by Robert Crawford; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pages, $40.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 8, on page 4
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