Q&A with World War I

It feels as if the entire year has been leading up to this point. T.S. Eliot. The man was a brilliant poet, and only used his words on what had to be said.

In 1922, what needed to be said was The Waste Land. The poem is a morbid, collage-like work (which one is inclined but hesitant to call a masterpiece, only because of how hopeless the thing is). In case it’s unfamiliar, I’ll throw out a quick synopsis.

Before an analysis, some historical background.

The Western world had just (barely) survived the First World War. Leading up to the war, the great minds of the west had begun turning to science to help solve their problems. God, if He existed (which they doubted), couldn’t help them now. Science, however, could take mankind straight to a utopian paradise. It was the same science, however, that created mustard gas and machine guns for WWI.

After the war, the West was at a loss. This seemed the climax of the culture, and it was almost too hideous to bear. Death counts in this four-year conflict had taken nearly 40 million casualties with it (The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 hadn’t taken a tenth of that). It seemed that we had lost our humanity entirely. Our culture had been fragmented.

Eliot’s The Waste Land is a description of just that. Throughout the work, it’s impossible to peg down a speaker. We don’t quite know who’s telling the story at any given line, but we can only tell that it changes frequently. When it was published, many critics were appalled at the construction of the thing. Eliot abandoned traditional verse and rhyme in the piece (EXCEPT for a moment in part three, The Fire Sermon, where we watch a young man whose “Exploring hands encounter no defence” from a young woman who can only vaguely decide, once he’s gone, that she’s glad it’s over. Eliot will give his audience the traditional romantic structure, but only in a moment that is repulsively unromantic.) Eliot’s footnotes allow us to see how many lines of the poem come from ancient and modern texts. It would seem the poem is rushing around looking for an answer to the million questions swirling through the air at the moment. The result, however, is schizophrenia. The entire thing is fractured, like a hideous collage. We catch glimpses of Dante, Shakespeare, Augustine, and even Buddha, but nothing satisfies the poem’s black hunger for truth, or peace, or love. In each of the five sections in the poem, we find destitution. We see a corpse planted in the ground, we hear couples in both rich and poor houses scream and growl in an empty game of chess, we visit a desert and long for only the sound of water but find nothing. The poem ends with one word repeated three times. “Shantih”. It best translates to English as “peace that passes understanding.”

As I finished the poem, one question flashed in my mind: “What on Earth could that one word do to resolve all of the pain in the last 432 lines?” The answer is, nothing. It’s a hollow, useless peace. That was Eliot’s point, I believe. Use whatever word from whatever language reminiscent of whatever religion. It won’t fix this. Humanity has been broken. This is life on Earth in the Twentieth Century.

Then, Eliot gets converted to Anglicanism. Suddenly, one of the most stunning poets of Western History has found the truth of the universe.

And in 1943, what needed to be said was Four Quartets. Praise God that it was so.

This is Eliot’s voice, and Eliot at his finest. This one I am more than confident in calling a masterpiece. Critics have labeled Four Quartets with the same amount of religious significance at Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chartres Cathedral.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to unpack this beauty entirely (In my research I found two published thesis papers on this work. I also bought a 150-page book on the thing). I can, however, tell you how Eliot answers The Waste Land with Four Quartets in a few main ways.

Both of these poems (I’m going to consider Four Quartets one piece here) are dedicated to reality. What we saw in The Wasteland was the mass hysteria of a shattered culture. The pain presented was there only to draw attention to the depths of hopelessness for the West, and perhaps the rest of the world. Not so with Four Quartets. When Eliot was converted to Christianity, he didn’t become blind to the weight and pain of the world. Four Quartets have plenty to say about the wandering masses, the pain of redemption, and the tragedy of time. However! I’m so glad I can use that word. These things are warnings, I believe. Instead of the mug shot and obituary of The Waste Land, Eliot allows us a glimpse of pain in order to instruct us. We learn of those “distracted from distraction by distraction” so that we’re able to avoid becoming one of them. We learn of “the dying nurse/ Whose constant care is not to please/ But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse” so that when we are “beneath the bleeding hands we feel/ The sharp compassion of the healer’s art”. We feel overwhelmed by Eliot’s heavy description of time, but it’s there only to help us realize and submit to the truth that “Only through time time is conquered.” This time, Eliot is handing us an Rx for the sickness he’s diagnosed.

The Waste Land, you’ll remember, pulled lines from quite a handful of historical texts, looking for answers. An ancient Greek character was actually a spectator and commentator during the stomach-turning scene in The Fire Sermon. The point being, history can’t help us here. The past doesn’t have any sort of answers for us. We’re back to square one. Not so with Four Quartets. After conversion, Eliot had a comment to make about the past, but it was not hopeless. Instead, Eliot tells us that by the power of “the still point of the turning world” (which is an image that is a medieval Christian concept, and an incredibly beautiful one) “both a new world/ And the old” are “made explicit, understood”. History is suddenly valuable. Here, Eliot whispers (without directly quoting, because now our man is speaking as himself) of Dante and a few of the saints, and they make his truth all the stronger. Instead of spitting in the face of the past, crumpling it up and pitching it into a wastebasket, Eliot summons the voices of the past to give Four Quartets a foundation and a chorus of voices to sing of the truth of reality. However, Eliot puts a very interesting twist to history in East Coker (the second part of Four Quartets). Listen to this: “Do not let me hear/ Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,/ Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,/ Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” History has become human. Our ancestors are no longer a crowd of chattering highbrows full of hot air (as they were in The Waste Land). Instead, our ancestors have fear and folly, the same as we do. They are people, with the same blood and battles as us.

Now, we arrive at the endings. I already told you about the final line in The Waste Land. Three words that appeared from nowhere and boldly (and falsely) claim a resolution to the schizophrenic panic of the rest of the poem. Not so with Four Quartets. Eliot’s Christian masterpiece ends by telling us “the fire and the rose are one.” Wow. First of all, let me highlight the emphasis on unity here. I’ve told you about the fragmentation of The Wasteland. Throughout Four Quartets, Eliot describes dancing, stillness, rhythm, and harmony. It’s all over the place, and it’s also in the end of the poem, telling us that at the end of the day, despite whatever pain you’ve found (and believe me, says Eliot, I know it’s there), there is unity and peace. Unity between what? What is this fire and this rose? Well, it’s a long story. Read Four Quartets and you’ll understand a lot more (and be all the better for it), but for now, I’ll tell you that this rose is reminiscent of Dante’s celestial rose in Paradiso. I use the word reminiscent, because it’s not exactly a symbol (that’s a whole other essay right there). It is beauty at “the still point of the turning world”. The fire is a purifying, Purgatorial fire (also reminiscent, not a symbol). It is righteousness and salvation. This purifying fire and the perfect beauty of the rose are one, and they are all you need. I’ll tell you another wonderful detail: these two have been with us throughout Four Quartets. We met the rose in Burnt Norton (the first part), and caught glimpses of her in each and every part of the poem(s). The fire introduced us to the Holy Spirit in Little Gidding (the fourth part), and led us into perhaps the most stunning stanza in the entire piece (the book that I bought got its title from this stanza). That’s real peace. That’s true assurance.

The truth of God can answer any confusion of the world, even the chaos after the First World War. I thank Eliot for making that so beautifully plain to us.