Throughout Thomas Stearns Eliot’s poems run Christian themes and values that evoke a critical view of society. Though he published relatively little compared to other poets of his caliber, he has been recognized as both a poet and a critic. He himself has been criticized for “unnecessary obscurity” and for “authorian severity” (Bradley, 1163). Throughout his poems and other works, he professes a distinct critique upon society due mainly because of his belief that Christianity should play a major role in life.
In his poems, Christian beliefs remain in a reoccurring aspect that reflect his social criticism and his own Christian convictions. As Eliot began to become financially stable and secure, he began to look for spiritual outlets to arrive at. This outlet was that of England’s Established Church. Eliot began keeping a Christian ethical outlook of life. Irving Babbit, a Harvard professor, also attracted Eliot to the study of philosophy. Eliot was baptized under the church of England at the age of thirty-nine and began his literary crusade to promote Christianity.
In 1922, one of Eliot’s major works of modern literature was published. “The Wasteland”, full of images of despair and death is clearly an expression of Eliot’s religious beliefs. At this time during the 1920’s, “the Wasteland” appealed to young intellectual minds because of the tone it symbolized. It was the post-war period and Eliot’s main focus in “The Wasteland” was the failure of the Western civilization which World War II seemed to demonstrate. Gertrude Stein called this period the “lost generation”.
Ever since “The Wasteland” portrayed the feelings of despair of the lost generation, Eliot has been critical of Western civilization. In 1939, he was quoted as saying, “And it does not require a Christian attitude to perceive that the modern system of society has a great that n it is that inherently bad” (Criterion, 115). The things that were “inherently bad”, Eliot suggested to remove and replace it with Christian values. In ” The Wasteland”, he arrives with his criticism in an appropriate emphasis on sensitivity and imagery that provokes the reader to feel a deeper emotion and even a religious reaction.
Eliot defends this method of delivering his poetry by saying: Such selection of sequence of images and ideas has nothing chaotic about it. There is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts. People who do not appreciate poetry always find it difficult to distinguish between order nd chaos in the arrangement of images; and even those who are capable of appreciating poetry cannot depend upon first impressions. (Criterion, 235) In “The Wasteland,” there is an immediately noticeable reversed attitude about life and death that evokes a spiritual sense. Eliot makes death a consequence instead of a test of faith.
Also, in most works of literature, the cycle of spring to spring which includes the time of Easter, a religious celebration of great importance to Christians, is rejoiced and embraced. In “The Wasteland” it is the reverse. “The people of The Wasteland’ are not made happy by the eturn of spring, the fruitfulness to the soil; they prefer the barrenness of winter or the dead season” (Williamson, 125). Basically, life becomes a preparation for death. Everything that happens in the world is not of reality because it holds no value. The cause of this is Adam’s burden that was placed upon man.
Eliot has been quoted as saying, “I do not mean that our times are particulary corrupt: all times are corrupt” (“The Social Function of Poetry”, 453). Eliot “ignores the positive human aspects of Christianity” (Robbins, 24) and rigidly rejoices death. It seems that Eliot escapes from reality seen in “The Wasteland” and into a realm of religion and “over all Eliot’s writings hovers his contempt for human beings— because as we know them, they are part of the physical world” (Kojecky, 12). This use of reverse attitude allows Eliot to vividly express the theme of religious frustration.
In the “Burial of the Dead”, the first part to “The Wasteland” it states “memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain” (Eliot, 29). But what are these dull roots? The son of man is throughly confused because all he knows is the Waste Land and he cannot relate. Eliot suggests here death imagery which can be compatible with Christ’s death for he forgiveness of mankind. Eliot blends images from Isaiah 32 and Luke 23: the “dead tree” and “red rock” (Eliot, 30) which are descriptive colors used in third part of “The Wasteland” called “The Fire Sermon”. This symbolizes the burial of Christ.
Also the speaker in “The Wasteland” who often becomes the prophet during the course of the poem, shows man “fear in a handful of dust you will become. This is greatly associated with biblical references. In part IV of the “The Wasteland”, “Death by Water” the agony and despair of “The Burial of the Dead” merge into the trials of the Hanged God. The trials are symbolic of Jesus on stand under Pontius Pilate. Eliot concludes by saying that He (Jesus) is dead and the people are deteriorating. In Part V “What the Thunder said,” a journey is necessary to the scared river for its water and wisdom.
In Part I there was an emphasis on the need for water. “After observing, here is no water, the spirit is tortured by the desire of water and no rock or rock and also water or merely the sound of water, even the illusion of its sound; but there is no water’ ” (Williamson, 148). This torment develops the “red rock” from Part III. There is a physical and spiritual torment resent in Part IV and Part V. in Part V, there is a “gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded” (Eliot, 43) present which represents Christ yet again. In Part I the people prepare for the “journey to Emmaus” which confirms the identity of the Hanged God as Jesus Christ.
This journey is symbolic of the Bible’s journey to Emmaus when after Jesus’ resurrection, two of Jesus’ followers from Emmaus which is close to Jerusalem unknowingly brought Jesus to abide the night with them. During supper with them Jesus blessed bread and gave it thanks and then suddenly his spirit disappeared. The journey in “The Wasteland” is also a ourney created by the “slow of the heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke, 24). “The Wasteland” shows the decline of religious feeling in man of modern times. Generally “The Wasteland” is critiqued as being a poem of despair and loss of hope.
But Cleanth Brooks interprets it differently. He proposes that “The Wasteland” is not a poem of despair of the lost generation but a poem of affirmation in the Christian religion. In response Eliot has said. “When I wrote a poem called The Wasteland’ some of the approving critics said that I expressed the “disillusionment of the generation’, which is nonsense. I may ave expressed them for their own illusion of being disillusioned but that we did not form part of my intention” (“Thoughts After Lambeth, 52) . Compared to “The Wasteland”, Eliot’s later poetry took a positive turn toward faith in life in 1930. Ash Wednesday”, “a poem of mystical conflict between faith and doubt” (Bradley, 1165) was published. The title itself stirs up a religious element of humility and respect throughout the poem there are of the Mass at many points. For the ritual for “Ash Wednesday,” the priest dips his thumb in ashes and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead while reciting the words “Remember, an, that thou art dust and unto dust though shall return,”.
This reminds us of Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden (Genesis, 3). This theme of returning to God has also been seen in “The Wasteland. In the beginning of the poem, it is clearly seen that there is a loss of hope to turn again to the world. There is a loss of ambition. This derives from Isaiah 40:31, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as angels. ” But why is there a loss of this hope? The voice of this poem says that he will never see the “positive hour” (Eliot, 57). The reasons for the lack of hope is because things are listed to a time and a place and they have both passed for him. He renounces religion and “the blessed face” (Eliot, 57).
But then he simultaneously prays to God for mercy and for forgiveness of his previous contemplations. In Part I, mainly due to doubt, the speaker can turn neither to the world nor to God because of having renounced the world and salvation. In Part V, Eliot makes distinct referrals to the source of most of his inspirations: The Bible. Part V deals with the revelation of the Word of to the present day world. “If the lost word is lost … ” (Eliot, 63) He haracterizes that with the decline of religion and faith in the present day world. Part V deals with the anguish the speaker faces with the loss of hope.
Also in Part V, there is “veiled sister” (Eliot, 64) who prays for those “who will not go away and cannot pray” (Eliot, 64). The veiled sister is symbolic of the Blessed Virgin Mary who prays for those in Purgatory. Also, the silent sister is in Part IV who “signed but spoke no words” (Eliot, 60) is remembered. “Although God’s word is heard on various occasions, the silence of the agents of the divine love in Ash Wednesday’ is marked” (Williamson, 181). The final exclamation of the Word is a sharp reminder of spiritually and affirmed disposition towards man. Thus everyone and everything revolves around the Word.
But faith is needed to be realized in order to achieve salvation in a righteous way with God. In Part VI the theme of the lack of hope is retrieved again but there is an altered relation. “The lack of hope passed from a casual relation to will to a concessive relation to will” (Williamson, 182). Compared to Part I the development of grace is change. In the last part of “Ash Wednesday,” though the speaker dreads turning to the world, the world begins to appeal to him more now. This is hat period of time between death to the world and everlasting life with God.
This is when the speakers faith in God is restored. The final phase of the reversal is now completed. At the beginning of the poem the speaker could neither go to God nor to the world mainly due to doubt but a metamorphosis of the speakers outlook had occurred. His will in God has been fully restored and he does not want to be separated from God. The return of will for the speaker will allow him to strengthen the will of others. The sharp contrast of Part I and Part VI allow the development of the significant change that occurred to the speaker.
Ash Wednesday” is not a poem of denial in Christianity but a poem that “describes stages of despair, self- abnegation, moral recovery, resurgent faith, need of grace and renewal toward both world and God” (Williamson, 184). “Ash Wednesday” marks the developments of the speakers emotional relations to God and to the world. It is a meditated reflection that shows the progress of a Christian mystic. “Eliot was always a religious poet” (Ranson. 133) who tried to provoke religious aspects into his readers. Eliot’s criticism of the fall of Western Civilization due mainly because of World War II, was filled with the remarks that
Christianity should play a vital role in life. He believed that the church should dominate the entire life of an entire society. To this he says: The church is not merely for the elect- in other words, those whose temperament brings them to that belief and behavior. Nor does it allow us to be Christian in some social relations and non-Christian in others. It wants everybody, and it wants each individual as a whole. It therefore must struggle for a condition of society which will give the maximum of opportunity for us to lead wholly Christian lives and the maximum of opportunity for others to become Christian. (Criterion, 246)