Why T.S. Eliot still matters
His contemporaries’ reputations have diminished. But Eliot’s has grown: he is the poet who shows us what can be saved from the ruins
I remember the exact words with which I was first introduced to “The Waste Land” while still at school. “This isn’t a poem you read. It is a poem you will live with.” Everything in the years since has proved those words true. And not just with that work, but with all of T.S. Eliot—the Four Quartets above all. It seems to be the same for many people. He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.
His contemporaries, by contrast, all seem to have grown smaller. W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still. But most of the other figures who dominated English poetry in the last century look diminished in the rear-view mirror. Which makes it even more striking that Eliot seems to grow. To consider why that should be is to consider something not just about our time, or his, but something about the nature of time, and the purpose of culture.
It is often thought that great artists in some way reflect or sum-up their age. And it is true that from “Prufrock” (1915) onwards Eliot seemed to speak to the particular, fractured nature of modern life. But many of Eliot’s contemporaries, including Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, managed that too. There must be reasons why Eliot continues to be read and they are not. One is that through the course of his poetic career Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them. Indeed a way out of all time.
He didn’t write like other poets. And it wasn’t just that he wrote less frequently. Where others poured the stuff out, Eliot seemed to keep everything down, erupting only when it could not be suppressed any longer. Where did “The Hollow Men” or “Choruses from the Rock” come from but that deep fundament?
It was Auden, in his 1949 review of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, who observed that Eliot was not a single figure but a household in which there were at least three permanent residents. The first was an archdeacon, prim and intellectual. He was condemned to share the abode with “a violent and passionate old peasant grandmother” who had witnessed every variety of war, rape, famine and pestilence. She had “looked into the abyss” and could “scream the house down”. The third person in the household was a young boy who enjoyed practical jokes, so that as well as coping with the old woman’s screams, the archdeacon also had to watch out for an apple-pie bed or exploding cigar.
Since the publication of Eliot’s letters by Faber, we can see how close Auden came to getting to the core of the older poet. After a 20-year hiatus between the first and second volumes, these collections of letters have been emerging regularly over the last decade, so that we are now up to volume eight and the year 1938. They are comprehensive, including all the most mundane of Eliot’s business correspondence. When it comes out, the “selected letters” should find a good audience. But they will not be able to show, as these huge, turgid volumes do, the greater truth about him. For what the letters make clear is the extent to which Eliot spent his life standing on the trapdoor of the cellar, knowing that the forces inside could blow out at any moment. His ability to keep it down, to try just to survive the elemental forces he knew were growing is at times terrifying.
There is a terrible letter from 1925 in which he describes how he has tried to hold himself together as a person over the previous ten years, during his first marriage. “I have deliberately killed my senses—I have deliberately died—in order to go on with the outward form of living—This I did in 1915.” Throughout the succeeding volumes, in the midst of the thousands of polite reciprocals there are very occasional moments when similar screaming breaks out from the basement. Sometimes it is mixed in with the laughter of the schoolboy, such as in the silly, “humorous” correspondence he conducts with Bonamy Dobrée (“Buggamy”) amid everyday business matters. But when the latch rattles even slightly it can be horrifying. In a footnote to a 1926 letter to Conrad Aiken, we learn that in response to one letter praising his poems sent by Aiken (then in hospital), Eliot responded by sending a printed page ripped out of The Midwives’ Gazette with certain words underlined in ink—“Blood, mucous, shreds of mucous, purulent offensive discharge.” Just that. No signature, no comment.
The more letters emerge, the clearer we see how Eliot did more than stare into, or balance over the abyss. The extremity of his knowledge of personal and cultural breakdown meant that he learned not just how a person or culture can be shattered, but how also they might be put back together. For all the biographical criticisms that can be made of Eliot—which may be one reason why, as he said in a letter to his brother in 1930, he wanted “to leave as little biography as possible”—there is a conspicuous bravery in the process by which he achieved at least three things that none of his contemporaries did.
The first is that he didn’t just speak to his time, but found a way to reclaim time. The opening of “Burnt Norton” might be his most famous mediation on this, but the presentation of all time as eternally present was there from some of his earliest poems. Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) includes a startling, bathetic poem titled “The Boston Evening Transcript”. While stuck in the flat-lining world of the poem’s title, three of the nine-line poem’s tightly-packed lines read:
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to La Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street.
Why is La Rochefoucauld there? For the same reason that Stetson—the comrade from the ships at Mylae—can be found among the crowds flowing over London Bridge in “The Burial of the Dead”. Because he can be.
In early Eliot this already seems to be more than a quirk, or mere attempt to jolt the reader. Already it seems something that is possible, though with no attempt to explain how that might be so. A reader might take this as simply one more demonstration of the breakdown of everything, so that characters even wander in and out of time, so much have things fallen apart. It is only once Eliot meditates on the nature of time in Four Quartets that he fully finds, and expands, a Christian metaphysics that justifies this early intuition of his about the potential recoverability of time: that all time might be eternally present, and redeemable.
There is a practical consequence of this view of time, and a practical utility which follows on from it that I have often seen in readers of Eliot. First-time readers, especially of his early work, often feel battered by the number of references packed into “The Waste Land” in particular. It is possible that—like the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia—this could all be seen as a skilful waste-tip of a culture: what has been left over after everything has come apart. But Eliot does not just present the jumble, he causes the reader to dig and wish to know more. He invites—in fact shows—people how to take things from the ruins.
The clearest example I can think of is the fact that today among English-speakers it is almost certain that if they have any awareness at all of Dante Alighieri it is thanks to Eliot. The lines they are most likely to know are either the one used of the crowds flowing over London Bridge (“I had not thought death had undone so many”), or the one Valerie Eliot included in her footnote to her 1971 critical edition of “The Waste Land”. There she suggests that in the misery of the protagonist of “A Game of Chess” (who in the manuscript remembers “the hyacinth garden” from the previous movement—perhaps a little too clearly, for it was later excised) Eliot may have had in mind what Francesca says to Dante in the Inferno: “There is no greater pain than to recall a happy time in wretchedness.” It is a route not just into Dante, but back to Dante.
While other artists showed how culture could be either shown off, strewn about or destroyed utterly, Eliot demonstrated how it could be reclaimed. He showed how the remnants could become seedlings and sprout again, in another time or place. While repeatedly proving that he had a great artist’s ability to innovate, he also performed that second function of the great artist and demonstrated how culture can be transmitted. He didn’t just show the fire; he showed his readers how things could be saved from it.
In considering this achievement you have to keep reminding yourself how stark the main body of his work is. Briefer even than Larkin, Eliot’s Collected Poems can be found on 200 pages, all told. There has always been some confusion about this, because the achievement seems too great for such brevity. It is said that some guests on Desert Island Discs had their request to take the works of T.S. Eliot as their island book turned down because the book had to be a single volume. Of course the complete poems and plays altogether (including Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) fit comfortably into a single volume—a fact that Faber obscured slightly in 2015 by deciding to publish two useful but unwieldy huge critical editions of the poems. But how could such a comparatively short poetic journey have ended up having such an impact?
It seems to me that the final answer lies in the direction of the journey Eliot accomplished from the earliest poems to the conclusion of the Four Quartets, by then, with phrases that resonate as forcefully as the opening of St. John’s gospel. What is clear now is the extent to which Eliot not only stared into the abyss or stood over it, but how he managed to cross through it: through the howling fire that threatened to galvanise him, as it does everyone. Even after the conversion to the Anglican church it is not as though Eliot’s path was carefree or smooth. But by the time he finished the Four Quartets his achievement can be seen in its proper perspective and with a clarity that turns out to be evident, whether you started reading him yesterday or have been thinking about him all your life. He remains nearly unique among artists in the last century for having managed not just to walk through that century but, with occasional slips, extraordinary poise and a great deal of bravery, emerged at the other side of the fire-walk with a vision held aloft.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.