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Thomas Stearns Eliot
An Early Re-assessment for the New Century
by Joe M. Ruggier

A prolific, hardworking author who witnessed, whatever his labours were, to the traditional value of working till you drop — plagued, also, by neurotic disorders which he handled by becoming active as an athlete — T. S. Eliot did not, by comparison to the sheer extent of his professional labours, write much original poetry and, as a matter of fact, published only one slim volume of major, selected poems. Yet his selected poems display Housman’s unerring sense of when to write, and when enough had been said. Eliot knew precisely when his inspiration was in flight and when it was that it said, “you have said enough”. Besides, like the fine, outspoken critic that he was, he was not altogether prone to vanity, knowing clearly that others had rights to criticize him just as he did them, and his criticism conveys an exemplary feeling of clean-breasted honesty. Again, his attempt to revive English drama displays much pluck, bravery and courage, and bears witness to the Spanish saying that “God loves a courageous soul”. Yet his plays are not on the whole as memorable as his serious poetry.

At this point, I cannot help recalling the following passage, taken out of his famous essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", which sums up certain major aspects of his poetic creed:

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted of following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, "tradition" should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it with great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet be­yond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not me­rely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feel­ing that the whole of the litera­ture of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simulta­neous existence and composes a si­multaneous or­der. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as 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.

As profoundly truthful, and as positively moving, as I find this teaching to be, I cannot help feeling that, unlike Homer, whose brilliant mind, at the dawn of Time, was singularly uncluttered, Eliot, like the rest of us today who are sensitive at all, suffered psychologically from being required to toe the line to all the great minds, all the great discoveries of all time, and his mind, like ours, was overpowered by the clutter of the ages — a psychiatric phenomenon of which his poem "The Waste Land" is such a powerful correlative. What is positively miraculous is that out of this waste land of thought and feeling he managed so powerfully to "construct something upon which to rejoice” that out of the freest of his free form we are always overpowered, compelled and thrilled by the astonishing emergence of unique craft and profoundly interesting structure.

T. S. Eliot worked stupendously as a magnificent technical innovator and re-invigorator of language who approximated poetry to conversation using a striking free form technique. In spite of this apparent freedom of form, however, Eliot worked beautifully in rhyme and metre also as displayed internally within all his free form from his earliest (Prufrock) to his maturest (the four Quartets) …

Read as one long poem with the various parts marking distinct stages upon a spiritual journey, the entire corpus of Eliot’s selected poems reads like a continuous uninterrupted account of one man’s spiritual growth and journey from the 20th Century ennui and angst of Prufrock to the heights of mystical, Christian contemplation. We start in a valley, a deep ravine or abyss, and finish on a mountaintop, amid the breathtaking heights of spiritual ecstasy and consolation. We see in his work the face of the proverbial, bored and unhappy professor, in search of the Peace and Joy of the Gospel — (just as we see this face also in Rex Hudson’s work, in Hopkins’s and in Jacque Maritain’s) — and we are comforted by the unique example he gives us that such a priceless blessing is not unattainable, having, to a certain degree, attained it himself and shown us how. And reading him we are blessed by the feeling that there is, indeed, hope for everyone. Each poem in the sequence provides a gorgeous objective correlative for an interior state of mind, heart and soul. The sense of profound interior structure and relational sequence is paramount and Eliot’s work conscientiously exemplifies the truth that to be great, one must always heed one’s Conscience and what the Divine Spirit is trying to say at every point in the journey, in guidance …
Eliot, however, is a striking example of the truth that far too much fame and popularity is not good for you in your own lifetime, for the simple reason that the reaction against you will settle in, and Heaven defend you, then, from the crushing insults which readers who have been oversold about you will surely raise. The alternative to this type of acclaim, which in Eliot’s case was decidedly spontaneous and unforced, is renown which gathers slowly, gently, and which does not come all at once, but stays with you after death, and grows with time, like the proverbial waters which, although still, run deep.

Too much fame, perhaps, with all of its unholy pressures, is what prevented Eliot from becoming an orthodox Catholic like Dante, or like Thomas Merton, or like Jacques Maritain. If he had done so Eliot could easily have been declared a Christian Saint and even Doctor of the Church. He was great enough for these honours in a myriad ways and his fortunes with posterity would have been enhanced and assured. The only reason that so many Saints and inspired Authors feel that the arts are a false or spurious honour is precisely and in all simplicity because audiences are always tempted to discuss the arts in a spirit of idle talk and boastful vainglory and not in a spirit of prayer to the Divine Author Himself of all valid inspiration …

A lifelong practitioner of the unswerving, the uncompromising, the conscientious, and the exemplary, T. S. Eliot, perhaps, made one last-minute concession to idle talk, to vainglory even, (like the foolish women talking of MichaelAngelo in "The Waste Land"), and this one lapse sadly cost him securer and far more glorious honours. One wishes that, just as audiences are inspired, often quite spontaneously, to say that an author is as great as Eliot, they ought to feel equally inspired, while contemplating an author like T. S. Eliot, to pray as if everything depended upon their prayers …

Bearing in mind my qualified reverence and lifelong admiration of Thomas Stearns Eliot, I shall herewith desist entirely from questioning and probing his integrity any further. I endorse without question the astute, priceless discernment and the brilliant simplicity of St. Augustine’s sentence … “Many who seem without are within” … and I shall conclude this reassessment with a story drawn from experience. As a University student in Malta I was, in many respects, naïve and vulnerable. Because my staunch Catholicism positively aroused resentment in my classmates, even as my high grades aroused their envy, I endured many harsh, unkind criticisms, and I was badly in need of emotional protection. I found this protection in the work and gorgeous poetic effects of T. S. Eliot.

I was very happy with the arrangement … a great Anglo-Catholic emotionally protecting and rescuing an inexperienced Roman Catholic: capital! It could not be better. I positively used to reply to all the unkind criticism I was enduring with well-chosen quotations out of my great Mentor’s books in such a way that no one could tell me that either myself or my sources were narrow-minded. I shall never, in short, forget just how truly the shining Spirit of Eliot asserted and reasserted me, affirmed and reaffirmed my poor, naïve, vulnerable spirit in those days of inexperienced Youth, and it is for these reasons that I insist, always, that I owe this Poet a debt of gratitude. It would be sacrilege for me to cast a shadow on his motives and intentions. I shall never forget just what spiritual comfort, moral solace, and emotional reassurance I derived, extracted and earnt myself, in those days, between the lines of all of Eliot’s pages, and I positively feel for this lesser
poet what Dante felt for Virgil:

           “tu duca, tu segnore, e tu Maestro.”[1] 
            (“you are Guide, you are Lord, and you the Master.”)

Copyright © Joe M. Ruggier
October 2004

[1] Dante — La Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto II, line 140.

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