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Poetry is able to grant the reader the ability to perceive that reality, in spite of its often chaotic and random appearance, has some underlying unity by which it is bound together. This insight, in turn, provides the terms by which one may make peace with the world…

unityA 2012 survey found that only 6.7% of Americans had read poetry within the previous twelve-month period, a significant decline from the already abysmally low 12.1% of Americans who read poetry in 2002. If this rate of decline continues, as few as three to four percent of Americans will be reading poetry in just ten years. This is, of course, nothing less than the death of poetry. It is necessary, then, to launch a defense of poetry against the forces of indifference and lack of understanding. And few better defenses of poetry exist than that provided by T.S. Eliot. In his poetry and criticism, Eliot provides a theory of the usefulness of poetry as a means by which to better understand oneself and others, thereby overcoming the isolation otherwise inherent in the human condition.

According to Eliot, the poet presents a vision of the world which allows both the reader and the poet to make sense of the varied phenomena of existence. The reader of poetry is able to derive from his reading a shared experience with the poet, enabling him to better understand himself and the world through the glimpse into the internal world of another which poetry has provided him.

The Inarticulate Waste Land

The poem for which Eliot is best known is his 1922 modernist masterpiece The Waste Land. There, Eliot captured the mood of the Western world following the horrors of World War I and the tedium of industrialized urban society. The Waste Land, however, makes no effort to isolate horror and boredom to a specific geographical, political, or historical context. Through the use of imagery, allusion, and rhythm which transcends any single context and which draws upon a number of cultural traditions, Eliot extrapolates from contemporary events to the universal human condition, highlighting a certain uneasiness with self and other within it.

One of the themes that runs throughout The Waste Land is the theme of inarticulation. In The Waste Land, every attempt at conversation inevitably descends into the inarticulate.

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing.
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
(CPP, 40-41)

Eliot links the inability to communicate with the inability to comprehend. Lack of meaningful speech is interpreted as lack of thought. The source of the noise and the meaning of the wind cannot be discussed because there is no knowledge, vision, or memory.

What conversation does occur takes the form of small-talk, a semi-conscious evasion of anything that is significant. The final stanza of the second section of The Waste Land records a conversation among several people at a pub. While the conversation frequently hints at topics of great import—sex and war, life and death—each is discussed only with a superficiality indicative of an inability to comprehend the depth of the matter. “[T]hink of poor Albert, / He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time / And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will,” one of the speakers says (41). In a single statement, both the horrors of World War I and the procreative act are reduced to mundanity. Albert is neither an experiencer of atrocity nor a war hero. He is merely “poor Albert.” The sexual act is no longer an act of love between two people that produces the life of a third person; it is “a good time” which can be had with anyone interchangeably and the results of which can be annihilated by “pills” provided by a “chemist” (CPP, 42). “What you get married for if you don’t want children?,” asks one of the participants in the conversation. Reproduction, cause and effect, and the social meanings of marriage, and, by implication, the family, are all denied by the abortifacients. The ultimate human acts—creating and destroying life—are denied significance. Human personality, self and other, is denied. Eliot writes in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, “Our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world” (SP, 96). This evasion often takes the form of a “boredom” as in the nonchalant banter of this conversation, but beneath this Eliot detected a “horror” which was always present yet evaded by modern man.

Eliot’s exploration of this evasion continues throughout his works, frequently taking the form of an unbridgeable alterity between oneself and others. In the Family Reunion, Harry’s inability to fully understand his own interior world is the source of his inarticulation.

Something inside me, you think, that can be altered!
And here, indeed! where I have felt them near me,
Here and here and here—wherever I am not looking,
Always flickering at the corner of my eye,
Almost whispering just out of earshot—
And inside too, in the nightly panic
Of dreaming dissolution. You do not know,
You cannot know, you cannot understand.
(CPP, 250)

Harry’s inability to identify the source of what haunts him translates into an inability to accurately describe it through the medium of language. His separation from his own interior world becomes the cornerstone of the separation between himself and others. Others “do not know… cannot know… [and] cannot understand” Harry because Harry cannot know or understand himself.

If I tried to explain, you could never understand:
Explaining would only make a worse misunderstanding;
Explaining would only set me farther away from you.
There is only one way for you to understand
And that is by seeing. They are much too clever
To admit you into our world. Yours is no better.
They have seen to that: it is part of the torment.
(CPP, 250)

The inability to articulate his own internal world to others inevitably leads them to misunderstand it, thereby widening the chasm of alterity. Neither Harry nor Mary, his interlocutor, can peer into each other’s interior worlds. They are permanently cut off from understanding each other.

The Poet Seeking Understanding

One of the greatest differences between Eliot’s early and later works is the introduction in the later works of a potential solution to the evasion and misunderstanding of self and other. In his Four Quartets, Eliot several times raises the possibility of attaining a true, even if partial, understanding. In East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets, Eliot meditates on the inability to communicate events in the life of one’s inner world even to oneself:

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. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. . . .
(CPP, 128)

As words appear with the temporal realm, the phenomena which they seek to describe have already passed and been replaced by new phenomena. Language itself, then, is part of the chasm between self and understanding—not the bridge between them—because it requires the use of a body and mind which are always already less agile and more forgetful through age.

There is, however, some hope:
. . . And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
(CPP, 128)

The poet’s lack of ability to be original is, in fact, a positive sign. “There is no competition” among poets because each is searching within himself is able to bring to the fore again anew what all share in common. There is a hint of renunciation to the forces of inevitable inarticulation as Eliot declares that “there is only the trying” and “the rest is not our business.” If this is to be interpreted as submission, however, it is a robust, rather than a despairing, submission. As Eliot proclaims in the following stanza:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation.
(CPP, 129)

While a full understanding may be perpetually elusive, there is always “a further union, a deeper communion” that may be achieved within oneself and with others.

Eliot writes that the poet must look “into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracks” (SP, 66). Poets, whom Eliot envisions as “old men” in East Coker, “ought to be explorers.” There is no limit to what they may uncover within themselves and within the world, if they will delve deep into every part of their being.

Seeking Understanding through the Poet

It is through the poet’s search for understanding and clarity that the reader is able to attain greater understanding and clarity. In his essay on “Hamlet”, Eliot coined the term “objective correlative” to describe this ability:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (SP, 48)

The objective correlative, then, establishes a bridge between consciousnesses which allows the poet and the reader to, in some sense, share in a common experience. The poet is able to unify the disparate phenomena of life and share his vision of reality through the objective correlative, uniting his experience with that of the reader. Thereby, the chasm of inarticulation between self and other is overcome, however momentarily.

In the Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, Eliot introduces another term to describe these moments of crossing the chasm:

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual.
(CPP, 136)

The crossing is again only partial and tentative. It is never fully articulated and so never fully understood. Yet it is an “Incarnation,” a moment in which there is “communion.” There is the possibility of a “union / Of spheres of existence” in which both poet and reader temporarily emerge from the prison of subjectivity and share in a commonality of experience and perhaps even a mutuality of consciousness.

In his essay on “Dante”, Eliot asserts “it is a test… that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” (SP, 206). As poetry speaks first through the feelings, it is a mark of the excellence of a given poem that it is not necessary to understand it on an intellectual basis for it to work upon one’s consciousness. Describing his initial experience of The Divine Comedy, Eliot explains: “The impression was new, and of, I believe, the objective ‘poetic emotion.’” While he later pursued a greater understanding of Dante’s history and culture, none of this was necessary to the initial effect of the poetry. Instead, there was an “objective correlative,” an aspect of the poetry by which the poet was able to move the reader and speak directly to and through the feelings of the reader.

It is the ability of poetry to raise experience from the level of the particular to the level of the universal that is central to its ability to momentarily unite the otherwise divided “spheres of existence” in which each individual lives. “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions,” Eliot writes “but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all” (SP, 43). It is the “bad poet” who seeks for “novelty” in the discovery of subject matter, as the only worthwhile subjects are those which are universal.

The universality of the feelings and experiences expressed through poetry and the possibility of the “union / Of spheres of existence” does not, however, imply a loss of individuality. On the contrary, loss of individuality is the danger run by the poet who attempts to separate himself from others and strike out in some altogether novel direction. “Underneath the convention there is the stratum of truth permanent in human nature,” Eliot writes in his essay on “Thomas Middleton” (SP, 190). Commenting on Eliot’s thought on the place of the individual in a tradition of art and thought, Northrop Frye notes that “humility” is “a prerequisite of originality. The self-expression that springs from pride is more egocentric, but less individual, for the only self that can get expressed in this way is one just like everyone else.” The irony of the individualist is that he loses his individuality in his attempt at originality. Speaking of readers, Eliot notes,

There may be too many publishers; there are certainly too many books published; and the journals ever incite the reader to ‘keep up’ with what is being published. Individualistic democracy has come to high tide: and it is more difficult today to be an individual than it ever was before. (SP, 104)

The is true for the poet as well. In constant attempts to keep up with trends, the poet loses what makes his voice unique in the first place.

In contrast to this loss of individuality through obsession with novelty, it is through the “union / Of spheres of existence” that true individuality is realized by both poet and reader. Eliot explains,

What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time, a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing. (SP, 88)

That the “spheres of existence” of the poet and of the reader are momentarily crossed and perhaps unified does not imply that either swallows up the other. There is no destruction or loss; there is new creation. James Olney writes,

We are the poem as we read it, as the words, the images, and the rhythms pervade and become our being; the poem stands for us, and not for us a moment since or a moment hence but now as the images lie in the mind’s and penetrate the mind’s ear, as the subtle rhythms go below the conscious mind to recreate for us the same new-born self that they express. As that self is the poet’s and not the poet’s, so it is ours and not ours; perhaps it is most properly to be called the self of the poem—requiring both poet and reader, as they require it, to come into united being.

The “union / Of Spheres of existence” through the poem, then, produces a third entity which unites poet and reader.

Absolute identification of the poet and reader is not necessary to this sphere of commonality. It is enough that the reader understands and is able to sympathize with the poet’s experience. In the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot continues,

When the doctrine, theory, belief, or ‘view of life’ presented in a poem is one which the mind of the reader can accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience, it interposes no obstacle to the reader’s enjoyment, whether it be one that he accept or deny, approve or deprecate. (SP, 86)

Even in those instances in which the thoughts and experiences of the poet differ substantially from those of the reader, commonality can be established by skilled poets and sensitive readers. The reader does not need to adopt the viewpoint of the poet to accept it as one plausible outlook on the world. It is enough for the reader to grow in his appreciation for and understanding of the poet’s outlook.

Simultaneously, Eliot’s theory of poetry avoids the opposite extreme of reducing all understanding to subjective interpretation. Eliot’s thought, then, runs contrary to the poststructuralist attempt to remove the authority of the author entirely to claim for the text an independent status in which no interpretation can be of greater truth than another. Though Eliot spoke of “the independence of the poem when it has been written and dismissed by the poet,” he was not advocating an abandonment of the belief in a definite meaning for a text attached to the author’s intent. Eliot, after all, was not shy about calling the opinions of one commentator on The Waste Land “nonsense” (SE, 314). The feelings of the poet cannot erase those of the reader nor can the feelings of the reader supplant those of the poet. The reader’s experiences cannot be read into the text so as to efface the element of the poet’s being which has been imprinted into it. A poem arises out of and continues to reflect the poet’s experience.

Eliot’s reference to the “union / Of spheres of existence” as an “incarnation” in the Dry Salvages is once again the key. Eliot, of course, borrows the term and its implications from the Christian belief that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Eliot’s application of the orthodox Christian belief in the unity of God and man in which neither is swallowed up by the other to his conception of poetry, then, yields a similar notion. As the poet’s experience becomes, in a sense, incarnate within the mind of the reader it does not swallow up or destroy the reader’s experience nor does the reader’s experience swallow or destroy that of the poet. Instead, the two enter into an engagement on equal terms, each suffusing without annihilating the other.

Order and Pattern in the Work of the Poet

The poet enables this “incarnation” to become actual through his ability to make apparent an underlying order in the world of experience. In his lecture on “The Poetry of W. B. Yeats,” Eliot praises Yeats as “the poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general system” (SP, 251). Helen Gardner praises Eliot in similar words. She writes, “The effort of every true poet is to unify his experience, and the development of every great poet is the extension of the amount of experience he can order into poetry.” It is through the ordering of the disparate phenomena of experience, then, that the poet is able to accomplish his task. The mark of a truly great poet is the breadth of experience which he is able to arrange into a comprehensible pattern.

This does not imply, however, that the poet is to be a dogmatic ideologue who seeks to impose order upon experience that substantiates his prejudices. Eliot condemned I.A. Richards’ attempts to create an ideology of poetry, for example. Russell Kirk writes of Eliot’s criticism of Richards, “Poetry expresses many things, and it may express religious insights; yet it is… foolish to say that ‘Poetry teaches us’ certain ultimate truths.” Quoting Eliot, Kirk continues,

Any theory which relates poetry very closely to a religious or a social scheme of things aims, probably, to explain poetry by discerning its natural laws; but it is in danger of binding poetry by legislation to be observed—and poetry can recognize no such laws.

To attempt to identify poetry and ideology too closely damages both poetry and whatever ideas it is being wedded to. Poetry becomes a mere tool for propaganda and the ideas being propagandized are shown as insufficient to stand on their own. As Kirk puts it, “No man is saved by poetry.” This is the crux of Eliot’s criticism of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, of which Eliot wrote “it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology which would have better been left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved” (SP, 263). Milton failed, according to Eliot, in large part because he did not know when to be a theologian and when to be a poet.

Eliot has himself, of course, been thought of a theological or philosophical poet. Olney, however, rejects such a label for Eliot, drawing on Eliot’s own theory of poetry to do so. Speaking of the Four Quartets, Olney writes:

One might say that pondering is not only the mode but, in a sense, the subject as well of the poem. In any case, the pondering proves to be a circular process that does not issue in an answer but turns in upon itself for substance, and Eliot never, speaking in his own voice, formulates a philosophy or maintains a conclusion.

While the poetry Eliot wrote after his conversion to Christianity may reflect the importance of that event to Eliot’s life and may be written from the perspective of one who has taken on a new faith, none of it is theological in the sense which Eliot attributed to Milton’s poetry. The Four Quartets ponder issues of faith, but they do not cajole the reader into accepting Eliot’s faith.

In illustration, it is possible to turn to a section of the Dry Salvages which is decidedly religious in its language. Eliot writes Section IV as a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary. He begins:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.
(CPP, 135)

While it is possible to read this section of the poem in a strictly theological vein and therefore to perceive it as a Christian poem, implying a limited purview and perhaps a limited reading audience as well, such a reading is unnecessary and rather facile. It comes close to being dishonest, in fact, in the ability of such a reading to entirely evade the universal human impulses that run throughout this section and the entirety of the poem from which it comes. There really is, after all, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady which stands on a promontory near the Dry Salvages, the rocky islands off the Massachusetts coast from which Eliot took the name and imagery of his poem. And many sailors have died after leaving from the nearby port, passing by the Dry Salvages and the nearby shrine of the Virgin Mary. In the face of great danger, it is a universal human impulse to turn to a higher power for help and for comfort, one reflected in the very presence of the statue Eliot refers to in this poem.

The religious references in Eliot’s poetry are not confined to Christian images and ideas, a point worth emphasizing as it highlights Eliot’s ability to draw the universal out of the particular. The Waste Land, for example, combines imagery and allusions taken from Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and Eliot’s use of Eastern religious ideas and imagery did not end with his conversion to Christianity. Even in the Dry Salvages, with its overtly Christian themes, Eliot refers to the Hindu god Krishna, meditating on the words of the Bhagavad Gita in relation to various dangers that will be faced by sailors as they head out to sea. Eliot has not inculcated a single religious ideology in the Four Quartets; he has articulated a vision of life which is wide enough to take into its purview the whole fabric of human experience. Eliot’s later poetry, then, is no more propaganda for Christianity than his earlier poetry was propaganda for disillusionment. Each set of poems is, rather, a reflection his internal state at that moment which he invites the reader to share.

Propagandizing is, in fact, impossible for the poet. In “Hamlet,” the same essay in which he coined the term “objective correlative,” Eliot wrote of the ability of the poet to bring together a variety of phenomena into a cohesive unity:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the type-writer or the smell of the cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes (SE, 145).

The poet makes sense of the world of experience through his ability to discover the ways various sense impressions may form a cohesive reality. There is nothing that the poet is allowed to explain away or to relegate to an inferior status. For the poet, all phenomena of experience are of equal and of the utmost importance. Whether it is the philosophy of Spinoza or the smell of the food cooking on the stove, these sense impressions must be treated in the manner in which they are received by the senses, as of equal relevance, and that relevance must be found and integrated into the relevance of all other experiences. Experience must be worked into a poetic whole. The ideologue attempts to explain phenomena through ideology. Any given event is to be attributed to the factors highlighted by the ideologue as the source of all events. The poet, however, works in the opposite direction. He begins with the phenomena and seeks a means by which they may fit together.


This fitting together of the pieces of experience is, of course, only one of innumerable possible means by which to explain experience as a whole. This is why “there is no competition” among poets. There is no poet who can ultimately outdo the others and so remove their ability to write new poetry. Although they work with the same set of experiences, the variety of means by which these experiences can be explored, discussed, and unified is the inexhaustible source of all poetry. What is “essential,” writes Eliot, “is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a process of sophistication” (SE, 446). Each poet, then, lends to his readers a certain lens through which to view the world of experience. In so doing, he grants the reader a vision of the world which may be ultimately incorrect and which the reader may ultimately reject or abandon, but which yet provides some special insight.

Eliot concludes Poetry and Drama with a statement that grants a great deal of insight:

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.

Poetry provides a “credible order” by which one can make sense of phenomena. In so doing, poetry is able to grant the reader the ability to perceive that reality, in spite of its often chaotic and random appearance, has some underlying unity by which it is bound together. This insight, in turn, provides the terms by which one may make peace with the world. In this case, “world’ includes both the world internal to and external to the reader, including even the internal worlds of others. The isolation of subjective existence does not weigh so heavily upon one who is able to peer, however haltingly, into the internal world of another and there to partake of a shared experience.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Fascinating. I find especially interesting the distinction between poetry and propaganda, even propaganda in service of truth. I think it is important, especially when speaking with those who are suspicious of Christian doctrine, never to start by trying to push a particular doctrine or set of assumptions. Instead, we must begin with experience and intuition, with the individual, and see to what universals this leads us. I think that if we follow these paths rightly, they will always lead us back to a definite truth. We need not worry about guarding Christian doctrine; if it is true, it will emerge on its own, for reality will always assert itself. All roads will, in the end, lead us back home.

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