A long running, important project to me, Spiritual Poverty explores the irradication or commercialisation of spirituality by borrowing metaphor and inspiration from TS Eliot’s poetry. Water is spirituality; the lack of it is drought. Most of these photographs are meant to be printed very large, so a great deal of their impact and even meaning is lost by web-display at www.EnglishPhotographer.com. But here are some Fine Art photographs from the series.

Aesthetics, while important, are left to play second fiddle to significance in these photographs. With that in mind, I suggest reading my thoughts about TS Eliot’s approach to spirituality in two of his most important poems in order to understand the thought-process that created them.

The return to God – Spirituality in the Waste Land and ‘The Four Quartets’

In 1922, The Waste Land made the proclamation, ‘We who were living are now dying.’ 1 It was characteristically Modernist, voicing the feeling that the twentieth-century world was in a state of decline. It was, as we shall see, deeply personal. Eliot’s poetry, while expressing the zeitgeist as a Modernist spokesman, plays out his hopes and anxieties before us, obtuse in many places simply because, ‘it is impossible to say just what I mean’ 2. Not just due to the limitations of language and discourse either, but also because Eliot himself was naturally a very private individual. In addressing the spirituality presented in ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘The Four Quartets’ I shall pay attention to the progression of Eliot’s spiritual outlook, ponder the idea that it may be a regression, and then conclude that the Christian framework which he finally embraces has been carefully trimmed to represent an ‘answer’ to a futile search for an inexpressible ‘peace of mind’, while retaining a suspicion that he is often playing with us anyway.

The dawn of the twentieth century was a period of rapid industrialisation in the West, continuing the spread of ‘dark Satanic Mills’ 3 that had so terrified the Romantics. This threatened to destroy traditional ways of living as industry and commerce required large workforces, and rapid rural-to-urban migration resulted in vast, anonymous cities. Madame Sosostris, to whom spirituality has been reduced, and whose ‘witchcraft’ suggests tentative meaning to the Poem’s discourses, presents the image of modern futility; ‘I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.’ 1 This prediction is then seen fulfilled in the next stanza;

‘Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter’s dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.’ 1

Eliot’s image of London raises several issues about the City. Its unreality is due partly to the subject’s detached perspective (he retains an aloofness by virtue of a rich introversion that other ‘thoughtless’ beings in the Waste Land seem to lack) and partly to the tarnished winter’s highlighting of the artificial metropolis, populated by automata.  The allusion to Baudelaire’s ‘Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves’ in the accompanying notes 1 introduces the suggestion that the people, while moving about, are not quite alive. The parallel with Dante’s decent into Hell reinforces this, and the ‘sighs’ suggest weariness and repeat the notion of dying. That the image mirrors Dante’s view of Purgatory and not Hell means retaining a life of sorts, even if it is barren and empty. 4

The Waste Land is a kind of Hell – it represents a depressive stage in Eliot’s life attributable partly to his marriage – and its bleak, fragmentary outlook is an exploration of this hopelessness. However, Hay comments ‘Dismay at finding his personal, interior journey … converted into a superhighway seems to have been one of the main impulses toward his discovery of a new way after 1922.’ 5 Eliot, expatriate, had always retained a certain aloofness, and his spirituality (dabbling in Eastern Mysticism, alien at the time, for example) reflects this. The Modernist rejection, Northedge says, of Romantic epiphany is due to a belief of its naiveté, based on an awareness of the limitations of language, discourse and ideology. 23

Detached body parts, eyes and feet here, are familiar images in Eliot’s poetry, symbolising a fragmented world consisting of concrete parts unable to constitute a greater whole. This echoes the move from the Enlightenment ‘individual’ towards the industrial image of workers as objects. Eyes are strongly symbolic in Eliot’s poetry, and the downcast gaze of the anonymous workers suggests vision, intellectual or spiritual, that remains unused. Importantly, the Londoner’s are not unable to see; they do not bother to. Similarly, the ‘one eyed merchant’ 1 has had his vision impaired, but retains the potential to see. Eyes in Eliot’s poetry are either harshly judgemental, ‘that fix you in a formulated phrase’ 2 as in Prufrock, or are empty, indications of spiritual poverty, ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!’ 1 In ‘Little Gidding’, Eliot’s eyes have reappeared, fragmented, with the mouth plagued by ‘Dead water and dead sand’ 6. We imagine the eyes represent the spirit, the mouth the body; the fear of drought remains, but moving from the torment in What the Thunder Said, ‘If there were only water amongst the rock’ 1, he now suggests that quenching ones desires with ‘bad’ water is just as fearful. This indicates a rejection of the experience that he had formerly toyed with in The Waste Land, ‘we shall play a game of chess’ 1, in favour of being ‘still, and let(ting) the dark come upon you/ Which shall be the darkness of God’ 7

The ‘Sweet Thames’ flowing through the stagnant Capital must be asked for permit like a God; ‘run softly till I end my song’ 1. In ‘The Dry Salvages’, the speaker muses, ‘I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable’ 8 (‘The Dry Salvages’, Eliot). The Thames can therefore constitute the vital, sublime force of Nature that the original settlers contended with, but which is now passed over indifferently by the unreflective City inhabitants; ‘the brown god is almost forgotten/ By the dwellers in cities’ 8 . This dormant vitality is not the Christian God, but can be traced farther back to roots in those inexpressible twinges of spirituality that led men to gaze at stars, create gods and make sacrifices to them.

Eliot’s use of base religion and worship of the ‘elements’ – ‘The Four Quartets’ represent Earth, Air, Wind and Fire – propose the instinctive need  for spirituality, and the ruinous effect of absence thereof.

Significantly, crossing the Bridge over the river into The City financial district leads to the St. Mary Woolnoth’s church; a religious haven embedded in the centre of the Modern world. Could this later be the ‘still point of the turning world’ 9? No, Eliot’s Christianity seeks something a temporal, elusive, and transcendent – not an ‘empty chapel, only the wind’s home’ 1 Here, the bell tolling ‘With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ 1 resonates with the death of God, Jesus, in Luke 23:44 10. The image is made more explicit, ‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden’ 1, and linked to fertility – the resurrection directly linked to sprouting, summoning the agrarian calendar of winter’s ‘death’ preceding spring’s ‘rebirth’. Of course, for the inhabitants of the Waste Land whom ‘Winter kept … warm’ 1, a clinging to stasis and inaction raises the fear that the ‘God’ will be resurrected prematurely artificially, upsetting cyclical death and rebirth. The spirituality in the poem is thus linked to the recurrent seasonal patterns.

The idea of the Death of God recurs throughout history, having roots in agrarian attention to seasons. It is most apparent in the Christian Resurrection of Jesus, and occurs again in different form in German Enlightenment Philosophy. ‘Gott ist tot’ 11 was a sentiment that had been expressed back as early as 1801 by Hegel, and later by Nietzsche, who emphasised the crumbling basis for moral virtue. 12 However, the idea of a deity’s death goes much further back. With the numerous interpretations of the word ‘God’, interpretations span from a lament at society’s secularisation to that of negation’s necessary place within the idea of God.  However it is interpreted the idea remains controversial, and Eliot’s position as a ‘spokesman’ for Modernism, tied it to Modernistic thought.  However, by 1927 he had as good as declared himself to be ‘a Classicist in literature, Royalist in politics, and Anglo-catholic in religion’ 13 and was ever after a devout Anglican. Influenced by the wide study that incorporated much Eastern Mysticism, Eliot arrives at an apophatic idea of a God able to give sense to a seemingly incomprehensible Modern world, and able to give hope of personal Salvation. Hay advises against reading The Waste Land too optimistically; ‘It (is) irresistible, in a culture still nominally Christian, to hope that The Waste Land was about a world in which God was not dead. But the poem was not about such a world.’ 5 To Eliot at the time, God may well have been dead, killed by academic reason, but the constant presence of resurrection images allows a rebirth.

In an artificial environment, from which, ‘(t)he nymphs are/ departed’ 1, the Modern Man strays from the contact with nature which previously gave his life order. The God is unable to return due to the desolate, unfeeling nature of the land, but moreover, will be unable to be properly received in the event of return anyway. This, perhaps, is the meaning of the section in ‘The Game of Chess’ in which Lil’s awaits her husband’s returns. Albert’s service in the army is akin to death for the audience, recovering from the horrific Great War. His return is delayed but imminent; the ‘HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME’ refrain speaks for the dead God, and for the natural fertility cycle, halted by the inane procrastination of the Waste Land’s inhabitants, ‘What shall I do now? / What shall we ever do?’ 1

Time is present though, and chimes the God’s initial demise. The speaker complains; ‘at my back from time to time I hear/ The sounds of horns and motors’, but we must differentiate between internal and external time. Externally, the cars represent progress’ onrush, but the sense of stagnation in the poem suggests that inwardly, far from speeding up, the Modern world has got stuck, is rushing around in circles, and is holding up the natural order in so doing. Levensen diagnoses ‘the noisy, swarming town, not conscious enough to know that it’s dead’. Time must run naturally again for the God to be reborn. The ‘halting’ of time is partly procrastination, seen in Prufrock’s character, ‘Time yet for a hundred visions and revisions’ 2 (Prufrock, Eliot), and it instils the inability to act. ‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ 1 is Eliot’s solution in The Waste Land, but in ‘The Four Quartets’, aware of time’s grasp, he advises, ‘be still, and wait without hope’ 7

Time in ‘The Four Quartets’ seems so intrinsic to Eliot’s philosophical spirituality that his poetry becomes increasingly prosaic and direct, as if he feels it is essential that his audience has the best chance to understand.

Indeed, he has includes an ‘abstract’ at the beginning of ‘Burnt Norton’. (Appendix 1) The many Hindu references attest his study of philosophy and mysticism; symbols from the Bhagavad-Gita juxtapose the Christian imagery we’d expect from the converted Anglican. For example, that each of the quartets meditates around similar ideas suggest a parallel with the four Canonical Gospels. They are neither revelatory nor celebratory though; they are Eliot’s journey towards an a temporal oneness with God he feels his ‘moments’ auspicate.

The Waste Land is therefore an intermediate personal purgatory. It induces the spiritual growth that aids a painful self-discovery. Bedient (Appendix 2) quotes Gordon’s view that the major figures related to the poem, Dante, Christ, The Fisher King, etc. all pass through a period of trial to be reborn, extrapolating that ‘the protagonist is hell’ 24 . So Eliot, having passed through this disquiet, is able to find a fuller peace with God.

Biblical references occur regularly, and in ‘East Coker’ mirror Ecclesiastes 3: 1-9, which meditates on the planned, deterministic nature of God’s world, in which there is ‘a time to be born and a time to die’ 15 . Similarly, Eliot says that there is ‘a time for the wind to break the loosened pane’ 7 (could this reference the established Church symbolised by the chapel Weston traces through Arthurian legend? 16), highlighting humankind’s inability to halt time, or stop its effects. The refrain, ‘In my beginning is my end’ 9 accepts that existence must necessarily become non-existence in time, and yet seems to accept it, thankful of the possibility for action, ‘I am here/ Or there, or elsewhere.’ 7 His Christianity ensures that he feels that God giving and then taking away is perfectly acceptable. He does not however believe in commercial advancement now, and a hoarding of things, ‘He takes nothing from his labour/ that he can carry in his hand’ 17, preferring to gain humility, ‘the only wisdom that we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless’ 7 and memories of,

‘the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall’

that lead to ‘liberation’ 6

This collection of ‘moments’ moves on from The Waste Land, in which Eliot presents ‘a heap of broken images’ which, according to his idea of objective correlatives – the gestalt idea of painting unpaintable pictures with fragments – will establish a consciousness to transcend; ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’ 1. His inability to unify the fragmentary world he found himself in, combined with an habitual awareness that everything he said or did would ultimately be forgotten– see his strained promotion of Phlebas whose bones are ‘picked in whispers’ 1  – manifests in the desolation and futility of the Waste Land. His fear that, were he to announce that he is ‘Lazarus come from the dead,/ come to tell you all’ 2 , his reception would be a misunderstanding ‘that is not what I meant, at all’ frustrates him, inducing obscurantist references. By ‘The Four Quartets’, he has moved from the drawing room reputation, ‘they shall say’, to a relationship with God, who he feels reintroduces a hope for personal salvation.

This faith is egocentric; he is just another of his symbolic fishermen at the mercy of a cruel sea of time. Spirituality is the life raft, and if it’s Jesus piloting in the guise of a surgeon, then so be it. Contrary to this, he also wishes to negate the self, like Zen Buddhism, ‘you must go through the way in which you are not’ 7, and finds the idea of ‘this moment’ attractive. Essentially, with past and future illusory he has only the present moment, and as ‘all conditioned things are impermanent’ he must ‘work out (his) own Salvation with diligence’ 18 Faced with an awareness of many religions, he turns to God’s reassuring Salvation of Plenty in Heaven over the utter loss of self in Buddhism; Enlightenment. As a man from an affluent, respected background who had attended Harvard, Sorbonne and Oxford and would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, can we rebuke his desire for an eternal soul?

T S Eliot reminds me of Van Morrison, an unimportant consideration but which I’d like to include. This is because, both being intelligent, sensitive artists, they possess an elevated spirituality from the brute reality of the world with its rivers bearing ‘Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends’. Eliot studied philosophy, learnt Sankrit and Pali, and lived with Bertrand Russell. He was incredibly well educated, and had access to many ideas, not least the Eastern religions, which were at the time exquisitely novel and held much promise. His experiments with the East are more curious escapism than a heady embracing of their true values, for the cultures were so entirely alien as to be incomprehensible in anything but an academic view.

Van Morrison sings about Enlightenment in an explorative way and also asks, ‘When will I ever learn to live in God?’ So Eliot, conservative and established, may explore far afield, but was always destined to come home. Hence, his ‘red rock’ 1 of the Eastern Landscape – the shadow representing the obscurity of its Religions with a suggestion of comfort – is an alternative to the offerings of Western Civilisation. The lines closely follow an unpublished poem, ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus’ 19 , which contains explicitly Christian imagery; the ‘bloody cloth and limbs’ 19 , presumably of Christ. The rocks though, are gray, contrasting with the passion of ‘red’ in the Waste Land. So, with the image of striding purposefully Eastward, Eliot promises, ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust,’ 1 using the Christian image for the body’s transience: a driving force behind all spirituality, for how are we to accept that this precious, unique self will become as the earth?

‘Even while the dust moves

There rises the hidden laughter

Of children in the foliage’ 9

We are therefore to be comforted by the idea of youthful innocence and vitality, but in Zen the external world is seen not as a reason to exist, but rather a feature of one’s own existence; there is no ‘other’ but only a unity with everything else. Eliot, while realising many forms of unity, such as the Absolute -influenced by the British Idealism of F H Bradley, on whom he wrote his doctoral thesis – seems keener to invest in the possibility that God is outside everything –timeless and thus able to ‘pluck’ him out. Simultaneously, Eliot’s experience, ‘I have known them all already’ 2 leads him to wish for something more – he, like the Sibyl of Cumis, or Tiresias, the blind seer who ‘has exhausted all human experience’20 , sees the World as a pointless prison, made more real by the possibility of religious transcendence, ‘Thinking of a key, each confirms a prison’ 1 . When the Eastern religions prescribe that he must sacrifice his self and lose his attachments, he balks at the idea, having gone into the mountains to seek solitude – time for introversion – and finding only the harsh reality of ‘red sullen faces’. His juxtaposition of St Augustine, ‘Oh Lord thou pluckest me out’ 1 with Buddha’s Fire Sermons’ ‘burning burning burning’ 1 mixes the Buddhist rejection of life’s pleasures as illusory and ultimately a cause of suffering with Augustine’s praise of God for ‘rescuing’ him from vice. Note that God is paternal, whereas Buddhism teaches the acquisition of self-control.

Eliot’s move to Christianity can be compared to William Wordsworth’s conversion. As he admits in ‘East Coker’; ‘…one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say’ 7 It may be misconstrued that Eastern teachings to exceed one’s self in pursuit of enlightenment are somehow more fulfilling and respectable than finding peace of mind through humility before a Christian God. This is a simplification. Religion is an intensely personal thing at the spiritual level, at which the texts can be seen not as rule books, but biographical accounts of finding something greater, or more profound ‘by men whom one cannot hope/ To emulate’ 7 Many Buddhist ‘Gods’ were constructed to aid in meditation, discarded along with the texts after enlightenment. Many Western Gods were mortal (Appendix 3) Greek and Egyptian Gods were rumoured to have died.21 How attractive then, is the Christian God, who dies only from people’s hearts, leaving the possibility of forgiving rebirth? Eliot’s attachment of his spirituality to Christianity is shrewd; it buys popular acceptance from the Church and its supporters, presents an ‘answer’ to his search for life’s meaning (Love), and importantly, fills the void of power that so haunted him in the Waste Land. Levenson applies Keynes’s power absconditus; ‘There was an Archduke… There was a Coriolanus’ (representing the broken Aristocracy, and therefore class) ‘There were loitering heirs of city directors, now departed … There was a Fisher King.’ 14

Eliot’s strive for something greater is influenced by the breakdown of hierarchy he saw taking part in Modern Post-WW1 society; for example with the invention of the ‘white-collar’ worker, seen as the typist 22 ‘home at teatime, (clearing) her breakfast’ 1 . The fears of the period; the class, the Jazz age, the secularisation, the War; all of this interacts with his unique character to forge his spirituality. If he wishes for supranational knowledge, thinks he has a source and can safely call ‘it’ God and submit to it, then his spirituality is complete. Ultimately though, his decision for faith is a desperate version of Pascal’s Wager, as he renounces all other faith for a hope of meaning after death. That he is aware of many more choices and returns to a personal, eclectic version of Christianity points rather depressingly to the human condition – we may strive and strive in one direction or the other, but comfort persists, ever alluring, and old consoling beliefs remain the real ‘roots that clutch’ 1 , almost eradicable from the human soul.

Endnotes

  1. Eliot, T.S., ‘The Waste Land’, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)
  2. Eliot, T.S., ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)
  3. Blake, W, ‘Jerusalem’, < http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/blake01.html>, [14th January 2008]
  4. Dante, A, The Divine Comedy, (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1998)
  5. Hay, E, Negative Way, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982)
  6. Eliot, T.S., ‘Little Gidding’, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)
  7. Eliot, T.S., ‘East Coker’, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)
  8. Eliot, T.S., ‘Dry Salvages’, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)
  9. Eliot, T.S., ‘The Burnt Norton’, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)
  10. Luke, ‘The Death of Jesus’, Gospel of Luke, http://www.ibs.org/niv/passagesearch.php?passage_request=Luke%2023&tniv=yes, [14th January 2008]
  11. Hegel, G, The Phenomenology of Spirit, (Oxford: OUP, 1979)
  12. Nietzsche, F, The Genealogy of Morals, (USA: OUP, 1998)
  13. Eliot, T.S., For Lancelot Andrewes, (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928)
  14. Levenson, M, A Genealolgy of Modernism: A Study of English literary doctrine 1908-1922, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984)
  15. Ecclesiastes, 3:1-9, ‘A Time of Everything’, http://www.ibs.org/niv/passagesearch.php?passage_request=Ecclesiastes+3%3A1-9&submit=Lookup&display_option=columns&niv=yes, [10th January 2008]
  16. Weston, J, From Ritual to Romance, (Dover: Dover Publications, 1997)
  17. Ecclesiastes, 5:15-18, ‘Riches are Meaningless’, http://www.ibs.org/niv/passagesearch.php?passage_request=Ecclesiastes%205&niv=yes, [10th January 2008]
  18. Buddhanet, ‘2:31, Buddha’s Last Words’ in ‘Life of the Buddha’, <http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/lifebuddha/2_31lbud.htm>, 14th January 2008
  19. Eliot, T.S., ‘From The Death of Saint Narcissus’,< http://poems.vox.com/library/post/from-the-death-of-saint-narcissus-by-t-s-eliot.html>, [12th January 2008]
  20. Edmund, W, ‘The Poetry of Drouth’, <http://world.std.com/~raparker/exploring/tseliot/reviews/poetry-of-drouth.html>, [12th January 2008]
  21. Frazer, J, The Golden Bough, (USA: Touchstone, 1995)
  22. North, M, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991)
  23. Northedge, R, Presentations of Epiphany: A Comparative Study of the Images of Time & Place in the Poetry of William Wordsworth & T.S. Eliot, (Lancaster: MA, 1997)
  24. Bedient, C,  He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986)

 

Appendix

  1. ‘Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past.
    If all time is eternally present
    All time is unredeemable.’

Eliot T.S., ‘The Waste Land’, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)

 

  1. ‘In the lives Eliot invokes,’ Gordon comments, ‘…Dante, Christ, Augustine, the grail knight, Ezekiel–there is always a dark period of trial, whether in a desert, a slough of despond, or a hell, followed by initiation, conversion, or the divine light itself.’ The protagonist is not merely one among others in hell (and the ‘conversation’ between him and Stetson, who were alive and comparatively heroic together so long ago, only makes sense in a dimension of hell… the protagonist is hell’

Bedient, C, He Do the Police in Different Voices: ‘The Waste Land’ and Its Protagonist, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986)

 

  1. ‘the Greenlanders believed that a wind could kill their most powerful god, and that he would certainly die if he touched a dog. When they heard of the Christian God, they kept asking if he never died, and being informed that he did not, they were much surprised, and said that he must be a very great god indeed.’

Frazer, J, The Golden Bough, (USA: Touchstone, 1995)

 

Bibliography