I was nineteen. (I doubt that this sort of thing happens to people much older than that.) I was a sophomore in college, and had just presented a paper on The Waste Land in front of a few dozen students and teachers who had to be there. Their boredom didn’t make me any less nervous or, hours later at the English-department barbecue, after a few drinks, any less proud of myself. My paper was so clever that I hardly understood it. “You must be very smart,” I wanted our school’s acclaimed visiting writer to tell me when we found ourselves standing next to each other. The acclaimed writer caught me off guard by what he actually said: “Do you believe in T. S. Eliot?” I didn’t understand the question, which meant, I realized later, that the answer had been yes.
Eliot, fifty years dead, still elicits these kinds of reactions. He made himself into a god and was smashed as an idol, having established the kind of authority that invites acolytes, apostates and sectarian conflict. I loved Eliot’s poetry for the seriousness it seemed to lend to literature, the sense that the poems I felt so deeply and understood so partially might on any rereading reveal something profound. It wasn’t often more precise than that; such is authority. It wasn’t religious, exactly, but it wasn’t exactly not—my reading, say, “Ash Wednesday” again and again in its almost inarticulable longing as I thought of surrendering myself to the Virgin like the speaker of the poem. I was still open to that sort of thing at nineteen.
I didn’t know much about Eliot’s history: the racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, priggishness and prudery. It’s all there in the letters and biographies and late social criticism and early unpublished poems (unsuccessfully suppressed)—I’d just hardly read them, because I didn’t care about Eliot. I cared about Eliot’s poems, and I didn’t want to have to reconcile his ideas of salvation with his reactionary prejudices or to explain how a person could write both the holy music of Four Quartets and a series of scatological pornographic rape poems about a dark race with oversized genitals. I didn’t want his personal flaws to sully the clear window of his faith, since I believed in his art. I didn’t even think to doubt him.
I came to believe a couple years later that he’d doubted himself all along, and that his doubt, as a counterweight to his faith, gave the poems what lasting beauty they have. Doubt was a way for Eliot to fuse in his poems his ideas of transcendence to the mess of himself that he longed to transcend. His method was transfusion, not confession. His feelings aren’t there for analysis but are synthesized with his ideals, as I discovered in a mediocre and unpublished poem of his written right after he dropped out of grad school, “The Death of Saint Narcissus.” The poem shows that he knew how to doubt his faith, even if he didn’t always do it, and that he could let his readers feel the warps and woofs of his faith and his doubt—even if some might be lost on nineteen-year-olds.
The poem is a character study whose tension is there in the title, concerning whether the saint’s saintliness absolved him of his narcissism or was itself narcissistic. Does the Narcissus of the poem, who comes to feel the pain of others as his own, have genuine visions of suffering, or does he just imagine their suffering as a way to live out his violent desires while denying their source in himself? He envisions a tree and a caught fish and a girl raped in the woods by a drunken old man, coming through the course of the poem either to intuit others’ suffering more and more deeply or to have his fantasy cohere. Does he then martyr himself on the beach for the victims, shouldering the sins of their aggressors, or does he go to get shot with burning arrows to rid himself of his own guilt and feel good about himself? Should we have faith in him? Eliot offers no clues either way. All the lines that seem to point to self-love could point to self-surrender just as well. “He could not live men’s ways” because of his predatory temperament or his visionary empathy; his death “satisfied him” because of his guilty masochism or his sense of peace in his mission. It all depends on his faith, which to the reader feels the same as moral monstrosity.
The poem is more instructive than good—alternately stale and grotesque, a balance of desires I doubt Eliot ever felt, conveying a crisis of faith that wasn’t quite his. But it is a simplified model of the best of his work in the way it lets us feel, simultaneously, how much depends on our faith and how hard it is to know whether to trust it. We can hardly approach the ideals of the poem without wondering whether they might be only base desires masquerading as ideals, or feel these desires without suspecting that there might be more to them. Read through Eliot’s prose, and you’ll notice how often he looked for ways for art to do just this: feel its way through the full complexity of thought and vice versa, offering a type of reflection that in his case was always bound up with his faith. When that faith guided him, it could be a front for his most hateful and reactionary feelings. But the strictures of doubt could make his emotional life into beautiful art, indistinguishable from his hope of answering to something greater than himself and his fear that it was all a great lie—his being, as he says of Saint Narcissus, “a dancer to God.”
The first thing to understand about Eliot is his image, and his image makes him hard to understand—Eliot the voice of tradition, the invisible poet, the classicist royalist Anglo-Catholic agèd-eagle Nobel laureate. The genius. And then, to those he let down or pissed off, Eliot the fussy, fusty fraud. What made him so polarizing, the object of hatred when not of veneration, wasn’t just that he was so conservative and rebarbative or that one falls hard from on high or that he presented his art as impersonal enough that any intrusion of personal prejudice looks like a mark on a white canvas (and some of the stains were just awful). His problem was that the air of authority with which he carried himself as a man of letters made his ideas seem at once more and less substantiated than they were. He’d denounce Milton, or Tennyson, or all of the British Romantics, as though these were the judgments of the age. He’d introduce the ideas every survey course now teaches—the impersonal theory of poetry, the objective correlative—as if from stone tablets, so that they seemed either divined or ad hoc.
Eliot’s ideas can get lost in his sweeping opinions—on the relative merits of various centuries, say, or on “the mind of Europe”—so that it’s hard to know whether they’re there just to prop up his preferences and his weird metaphysics. But one can see the substance of his ideas and their continued importance by looking back and forward from his first book of essays, The Sacred Wood (1920), to his grad school dissertation (1916) and his lectures on metaphysical poetry (1926 and 1933), his most sustained work of philosophy and his most sustained literary criticism. Both of the works have been reissued online by Johns Hopkins, annotated by the incomparable Ronald Schuchard along with almost all of Eliot’s other prose writing from between 1905, when he was in high school, to 1926, when he was acclaimed enough to give one of the most prestigious series of lectures in England.
The Sacred Wood is named for an ancient ritual in which a prospective priest-king has to do battle with a regnant elder before he gets to take office. The book is accordingly erudite and warlike, with the first third being devoted to showing that virtually no one in the history of English literature has ever been a critic, as opposed to something inferior that you might mistake for one. Matthew Arnold was “a propagandist for criticism,” Swinburne an appreciator, Paul More a moralist, Charles Whibley a showman, George Wyndham a hobbyist aristo “riding to hounds across his prose.” Americans, with their ties to universities, were simply hopeless. Eliot follows his broadsides with his own program for criticism in his most famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” presenting his perspective as a reasonable alternative to the imbecilic options he’d recently surveyed (this was his favorite rhetorical trope, one he developed, unsurprisingly, in his grad-school philosophy training). Laying down arms, the priest-king pronounces the law. The essay and the rest of the book, a short tour of his canon, appeal to principles he’d turn to again and again: that thinking and feeling deeply aren’t opposed but rather reliant on one another; that the emotional poverty of modern life consists in our feelings being divorced from our thoughts; that difficult poetry has the power to reshape our sentimentalized and intellectualized habits of mind; that this art should both demand the mastery of tradition and offer the effortless appeal of entertainment, as thoughtful as philosophy and as primal as the beating of a drum.
Tall order—and one that’s hard to see in the thicket of barbs and bloviation. But the roots of his aesthetic are in his dissertation, whose prose is, as it were, all gnostic and no gospel. Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley—Bradley being a prolific, influential and largely forgotten late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British idealist—argues for a view of human subjectivity at loggerheads with modern common sense. Our sense of ourselves as subjects, as I’s, who experience private thoughts and feelings about both ourselves and a world of objects that exist independently of how our inner lives represent them—all of this is wrong, a set of misleading abstractions. The abstractions emerge in experience as partial ways of representing to ourselves the unified bundle of feeling and thought that is present before an experience comes to seem ours. Although the world of objects seems independent from the subjects perceiving it in day-to-day life, that world is really a product of our representations—and therefore of our language. One can see why Eliot thought that poetry could reshape our world (at least in part) by translating thought into feeling, drawing together experiences that we habitually sunder.
Eliot’s fullest expression of what this meant for his aesthetic was his handful of “Lectures on the Metaphysical Poetry of the Seventeenth Century with Special Reference to Donne, Crashaw and Cowley.” To sum it up, they ruined everything. Dante and the stilnovisti had managed to “[translate] ideas into sensible form” in a way that “[extended] the frontiers of this world,” involving “the analytic intellect” in harmony with the feelings that express it. It was an “enlargement of immediate experience”—Eliot’s term for the experiential bundle before subject and object emerge—and so “the Word made Flesh.” They could write this way because of their shared systems of belief, which let them not fuss about their own psyches or worry that their visions, as in the Vita Nova, were any less real than tables and chairs. Donne had no such luxury, coming of age in the heart of the conflict between Catholicism and various sects of Reformers. Eliot credits this conflict of perspectives, along with Donne’s Jesuitical mysticism, for his self-consciousness; his self-consciousness for making his poetry more about his psyche than the nature of being; and his psychologism for the rhetorical rambles that lack the conviction of belief and fail to make the thoughts he feels a sensible part of his world. Later poets grow even more attached to the false sense of themselves as subjects, with consequent trains of thought that have only the most tenuous connections to the feelings they developed alongside and represent reality with. So the intellect disintegrates, and we have modern life.
Much of this is doubtlessly hooey. But you don’t have to think much of Eliot’s metaphysics or history of metaphysical poetry to think that they made for a respectable aesthetic, a way to find art that shows the whole of reflective and emotional life attuned to what it’s like to be alive. If Eliot found this life in an old idea of order, saw that his task was to help impose that order, found fault with the disorderly poets and found a surfeit of “free-thinking Jews” undesirable in Christian society, it was values other than his aesthetic that narrowed the scope of his judgment. His insistence on restoring dogmas like those of the Florentine thirteenth century is rather ironic, given that he gave life to his own aesthetic most in the double helix of his feelings and thoughts of faith and doubt.
I am thinking of Prufrock’s song, and the fleeting vision of Christ in the “Preludes”—“the notion of some infinitely gentle, / infinitely suffering thing”— both with their exquisite emotions and dubious speakers. Or the way that emotional articulateness casts doubt on the supposed hopelessness of Gerontion, the heroic bag of wind, and on the hollow men full of the feeling of loss. Eliot’s poem of conversion, “Ash Wednesday,” shows a whole anatomy of doubtful faith—the confident nonsense explanations, the assured self-surrender, the luxuriant longing and desperate longing and the longing for despair and the hope against hope of the very first lines of the poem:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Think of these lines as fragments of thought, as fragments of a mind’s trying to pray. Eliot hopes to peel away his hopes to their foundation in a faith without desire—hopes not to hope—but is turned back to hope when he hopes not “to turn.” As he strains to experience something he can know but not clearly experience, the whole poem hovers between transcendence and mawkishness, between the awe of experiencing faith and the vague distastefulness of an abject and fervent delusion. The poem is full of puns that hover between incantatory and incompetent: