TS Eliot and the art of hope and despair – Palatinate

By Leo Li

TS Eliot is no more a prophet than a recounter. A pioneer modernist of the lost generation – witnesses to the nightmarish decadence of gilded glamor throughout and after World War I – he is also a quiet traditionalist. His idiosyncratic verses could easily escape us for their rich symbolisms; yet, once understood, they evoke fundamentally universal joy and pain. As much as the Roaring Twenties were a turning point for Western civilization, so Eliot proved an unprecedented pivot in crafting a new poetic canon stanza of the world.

Born in Missouri, USA in 1888, Eliot moved to Oxford on a scholarship in 1914. After Oxford proved hardy and repetitive to Eliot, he began to visit London frequently. He was not only enamored with the vigorous cityscape of London, but also with the brainy genius of Ezra Pound, an American expatriate poet. With his poetic prowess both recognized and influenced by Pound, Eliot published his first poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915. Written in a paradigmatic rebellious and fragmented stream-of-consciousness style, he created a precedent for the neurotic, socially frustrated, philosophical and theological voice of Hamlet that dominated Eliot’s later poems, including his seminal land of wastepublished only seven years later.

land of waste is a diabolical but heartbreaking homage to World War I and its aftermath, and more personally, to Eliot’s declining sanity due to his failed marriage. The first section, “Burial of the Dead”, features one of the first, if not the best known and most quoted line: “April is the cruellest month”. The lines that follow—“breeding/lilac out of the dead land” and “Winter kept us warm”—are oxymoron lamentations against post-war despair and decay. In this darkness, Eliot envisions shell-shocked veterans and undead crowding the “unreal city”, sinking “over London Bridge” exhaling “sighs, short and infrequent”. He sees apocalyptically the old world moaning its funeral farewell; he sees the innumerable multitude of souls perished in the Great War.

It’s the burial of the dead, a new world without a past

It is the burial of the dead; a new world without a past—”your morning shadow walking behind you”—because the past had been marred by war. This imagined world had no future — “your shadow in the evening rising to meet you” — for the future would be an uncertain and joyless darkness. Juxtaposing moments and images of childlike happiness—”when we were kids, staying with the archduke/my cousin, he took me on a sleigh”—with modern banality, Eliot shows us “the fear in a handful of dust” — the ultimate horror of nothingness.

The second section, “A Game of Chess”, evokes a similar but more metaphorical image – that of an opulent Madame representing Europe which had become embroiled in the war. They once adorned with glories have become the empty vessels of an empty nostalgia. Followed by less-than-life dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘Lil’, the unfaithful wife of a war veteran, Eliot laments the futility of modern love, which he believes to be just a shell. devoid of sensuality. Eliot invokes some more haunting images in the third section, The fire sermon, about this idea – Sweeney and Mrs. Porter at the brothel, Mr. Eugenides the homoerotic merchant, Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley etc. However, Eliot offers a potential means of redemption from post-war/trauma nihilism: faith. Quoting Buddha, representing the East, and Saint Augustine, representing the West, Eliot explores a universal antidote to chaos that lies beyond religious dogma. Despite being a devout Anglican, Eliot, in earlier poems such as “Hippopotamus”, had shown this tendency to reconcile the virtues of different teachings and perspectives, a possible result of his years of training in Sanskrit and Hindu-Buddhist philosophies.

Eliot offers a potential way to redeem himself from post-war/trauma nihilism: faith

The fourth section, “Death by Water,” though small, concisely rejects material salvation and artificial hope. In the fifth section, “What the thunder says”, Eliot also summons the images of Jesus Christ and of Vyasa, the reference Hindu who composed the Upanishads. Collage of characters and places interspersed from different historical eras – “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London” – Eliot transcends physical constraints to convey to us the universality of suffering and despair, but also and perhaps even more so, joy and peace. These joys and these peaces are brought not by modernity, by scientific progress, by sensualities and sensitivities, but by a constant and eternal love – a love that buds even in the dead earth. land of waste stops there, after the incantation: “Shantih Shantih Shantih”, which means “the peace which passes understanding”.

In the words of Eliot – “tongue of fire beyond the language of the living” – the world is a place without love, but deserving every bit of our love, and each of its inhabitants is but a lost traveler , nervous and desperate who yearns for salvation; each month is the most cruel month, but each wasteland is a soil sown with hope that germinates.

Image: Héctor J. Rivas via Unsplash

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