Thursday, 22 February 2007

On T. S. Eliot

One of the most impressive people I met on my recent visit to Mexico was Christopher Southgate, who is not only a scientist and theologian, but also a poet. In Cancun, we talked a little about T. S. Eliot (one of my favourite poets) – so I was delighted the other day to receive in the post a copy of Chris’s book, A Love and Its Sounding: Explorations of T. S. Eliot (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1997), 96 pp. This work, a long poem in seven sections, is a poetic biography of Eliot. And it’s truly delightful. Here’s a sample from section VII (p. 63):

I sit in the Church at East Coker
Your ashes’ resting place. Above them
An understated epitaph –

You ask us from an oval tablet
To pray for the repose of the soul
Of Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet.

There is a sense of our petitions
Being sought for yet longer struggle –
That the pale purgatorial fires

That beckoned you from the desert burn
Still. I do not believe it. The church,
The high dark Jacobean panelling,

The plain space of nave, checked floor, plain swept,
Sturdy house for the elusive God
Of earth and air, rose and fire, shelter

From our storm-flung present anarchy,
Speaks of stillness, clarity of light,
And of the Furies finally befriended.

2 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

Thanks for this, Ben. And while we are on the subject of 20th century poets whose faith was determinative for their verse, let's not forget that yesterday was the centenary of the birth of W.H. Auden, particularly in juxtaposition with Eliot. As Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, observed last week in an article in the Church Times, whereas Eliot's poetry tends to focus on the Eternal Now, Auden's poetry is more celebratory of the (one of his great poems) "Precious Five" (i.e. the five senses). Eliot's poetry, Harries suggests, "is a via negativa. Auden's is a via positiva." You could also say that Eliot is the more tragic poet, Auden the more comic.

In a splendid essay in his collection Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling (2004) entitled "Auden's Happy Eye", Alan Jacobs asks: "Why are Christians so indifferent to Auden?" (he has a contrast with Eliot in mind). He considers Auden's homosexuality to be a factor, but finally suggests: "More important, perhaps, is his Kierkegaardian emphasis on indirect communication. This emphasis stemmed from Auden's determination to repent of his, and his fellow poets', prideful assertions of their own importance. But Christian readers, for the most part, don't want their poets to be humble: their tastes are pretty thoroughly Romantic, and they want their poets to be seers, prophets, 'unacknowldeged legislators of the world' (as Shelly put it) - just as long as they are Christian seers, prophets, legislators. As they often say, they like poems that are 'redemptive'. But Auden understood that nothing and no one is redemptive except Jesus Christ."

Polly said...

Best poems of T.S. Elliot

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