Analysis of the theme of God in the poetry of T. S. Eliot
Among the fragmented layers and voices of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land there is a distinct cry for humanity to accept the comfort of a greater level of intelligence – God. This is dramatically reinforced in the lamenting howl of The Hollow Men. References to religion and differing cultures is a consistent theme within Eliot’s work, but the idea of God is one raised through Eliot’s internal murmurs, bred from his self doubt that eventually surfaces to draw the reader to the underlying necessity for belief in God. It should be made clear that both Eliot’s private torment and emotional turbulence appear in The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, a testament to the fact that the poet was indeed unsure as to his own personal beliefs prior to their appearance in his work, which acted as a forum for him to vent his opinions.
The Waste Land leads to the dramatic conclusion that one must accept, regardless of the reasoning of logic and the routine of the ‘seals broken by the lean solicitor,’ ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.’ In this moment of surrender Eliot leads the reader into understanding that in an era where the literary world was refuting God and religion, it was again acceptable to put blind faith in such a belief. Eliot’s use of language and form is critical to shaping his ideas, allowing him to blend the concept of God into his poetry. In terms of assessing his accomplishment in achieving this objective, one must acknowledge that Eliot’s personal relationship with Anglicism was one only established after the publishing of The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. Both these two poems present Eliot not as an indoctrinating preacher, but instead as a man troubled by personal tragedy, ultimately seeking resolution to his problems. He does indeed succeed in bringing out humanity’s need for God, arguing that in the industrial and increasingly faithless world, God was fundamental in ensuring we exist not as ‘sightless,’ ‘hollow men,’ but with direction and purpose.
The impact of the historical and literary period in which Eliot wrote his poetry is of paramount importance. Contextually, the world was emerging from the Great War – a war of devastation and aimless brutality, whilst a post war depression was strangling economic recovery. However, on a more individual reading of Eliot’s life, in the early 1920’s, he was undergoing a phase of serious health concerns, as well as grave troubles within his marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. The negative backdrop of post-war society drove Eliot to a great deal of his references to both the human condition and death in The Waste Land, important as Eliot’s values are created from the degenerate environment he found himself to be residing in. Eliot’s belief that humanity was in need for God manifests from Eliot’s own personal need for emotional comfort.
The negative imagery of the Burial of the Dead is poignant in reflecting what initially seems to be a lack of faith in God or religion in Eliot’s mind. His ‘heap of broken images’ include lilacs breeding ‘out of the dead land,’ the ‘Unreal city’ [London] ‘under the brown fog of a winter dawn,’ and an army of the dead, marching over London Bridge, according to Eliot ‘so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.’ Indeed the influence of the war on Eliot is crucial in understanding his disillusionment and, alike to the mood of a ravaged Europe, a collective shock at the cruelty that had taken place. This is later reinforced in A Game of Chess, when the speaking voice moans ‘I think we are in rat’s ally / where the dead men lost their bones.’ This reference to the harsh nature of trench warfare in World War One exemplifies Eliot’s realisation that society was still to recover from the impact of the war. As Rickwood comments, ‘Mr. Eliot is has been able to … explore and make palpable the more intimate distresses of a generation.’ This is certainly true in acknowledging Eliot’s success in tapping into the post-war psyche. The continuous negative and war-related topics within The Waste Land exemplify Eliot displaying the miserable side to society, provoking the reader to seek an answer to the problems – answers that soon appears in Eliot’s ramblings.
Amongst the negative images and verses of the opening two books in The Waste Land, there are indeed references not directly to God, but to Jesus. Eliot enforces his technique of allusion – the technique whereby he assumes the reader to have background knowledge as to what he, the poet is referring to, in order to transmit his idea. Lines 48 and 125 refer to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ‘(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)’ and ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes.’ These lines have connotations with the resurrection, as in the Shakespearian play the character of Arial, a half nymph, prophesises the resurrection from supposed death of Alonso, Prince Ferdinand’s father – who does not realise he is in actual fact alive. Although one should notice that the link is indeed tenuous, as Richards claims, ‘The truth is that very much of the best poetry is necessarily ambiguous in its immediate effect.’
A stronger, more substantial link to Jesus is established in book V, What the Thunder Said. Referring to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24, the speaking voice questions, ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ The figure is described as ‘Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded.’ James E. Miller, Jr. believes there is a personal element to the text, ‘It is a safe assumption that Vivienne Eliot learned early in her marriage that she was in some obscure sense competing with someone whose presence was more felt than seen.’ It seems that this presence is indeed Jesus Christ.
Christ and the Church seemed to be declining in value to many in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the western world there was shift away from the decadence of old, which valued religion as the utmost importance, towards the financially-orientated booming commerce of capitalism. Ezra Pound’s 1923 poem, ‘Ballad of the Goodly Fere,’ attempted to make Jesus more relevant. The poet’s colloquial language and basic structure enables Pound to succeed in his effect of labelling Jesus a ‘brave’ ‘man o’ men.’ It is certainly true that, like Pound, Eliot accepts Christianity as a release from the routine and monotony of ‘the thousand sordid images’ of the ‘burnt out ends of smoky days’ (Preludes) in interwar Britain and America. This is confirmed within The Waste Land, but dramatically expanded on in The Hollow Men.
The Hollow Men is a criticism of those who live without faith. Eliot labels their ‘whisper’ as ‘quiet and meaningless.’ There is no anger within the poem – ‘the empty men’ simply request, ‘remember us – if at all – not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men.’ Eliot calls on humanity to reject the hollow nature of atheism, where ‘death’s twilight kingdom’ – hell – is ‘the hope only of empty men.’ Two important techniques help in uncovering Eliot’s call for humanity to accept God – the objective correlative and fragmentation.
The objective correlative – the technique whereby a series of images, objects or chain of events are used to evoke a particular emotion – helps shape the allusive and fragmentary nature of Eliot’s work into meaning. For example, the repetition of the image of ‘a fading star’ evokes the emotion of sorrow and loss. Meanwhile, the use of fragmentation – the technique whereby seemingly unrelated phrases, stanzas or speaking voices are assembled together, appears when Eliot introduces the Lord’s Prayer to the poem, ‘For thine is the Kingdom.’
Indeed, the worthlessness of atheism has led to a depraved and corrupt society as Eliot points out both in his earlier work – Prufrock and Other Observations, and in the Waste Land. In Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy night the institutionalised customs of the urban workers is attacked as their souls are ‘trampled by insistent feet / at four and five ad six o’ clock.’ Eliot calls on them to ‘put your shoes on the door, sleep, prepare for life’ – a criticism on the empty repetition of life. This is further explained in The Waste Land’s The Fire Sermon, Book III. The female character, the typist, is shown to live her life merely as a function of her husband’s sexual desire, as well as her endless household chores. They eat, ‘she is bored and tired,’ yet ‘The time is now propitious, as he guesses,’ for loveless sex. He ‘assaults’ and ‘gropes’ away at her, whilst his ‘Exploring hands encounter no defence.’ She has not been raped, but simply acted out one of her usual jobs of the marriage, just like the cooking and cleaning. She carries out the act as if it is an ‘automatic’ response, and says to herself, ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’
It is notable that Tiresias connects the typist’s story. Indeed Eliot himself comments, ‘Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.’ Tiresias unites ‘all the rest’ as his genderless form and unique foresight seem to re-enact Eliot’s role in condemning the damage that the present can and will cause in the future. Eliot presents the contemporary as a soulless, weak world. The hollow men ‘avoid speech’ – they are too heartless to experience ‘the existence,’ ‘the creation’ and the ‘desire,’ and according to J. Hillis Miller ‘they are detached from nature and live in a land devoid of spiritual presence.’
Eliot criticises his immoral society to such an extent that he, after all his experiences and encounters with faith and religion, bemoans all to accept God once again, after so many had lost faith with the horrors of the Great War. In the penultimate stanza of The Waste Land, the speaking voice, which now appears to be Eliot himself, calls on the reader to realise that ‘we have existed / which is not to be found in our obituaries.’ Eliot now emerges from his bitterness and doubt, urging his audience to ‘surrender,’ or release oneself from the troubles and emptiness of a faithless life, where one is destined to die ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’ Eliot predicts that ‘your heart would have responded gaily / when invited,’ juxtaposing the idea of the beating heart and oar of the boat. He summarises the fullness of God and his effect by describing the oar and your heart as ‘beating obedient / to controlling hands’ – the controlling hands of God.
Eliot has described the emptiness of a Godless society. He has presented the world as a ‘hollow valley’ of ‘dying stars’ – loveless, patterned and devoid of verve. Eliot does indeed successfully harness his view of the integral nature of God to humanity. His appeal and demand that his readers strive beyond the faithless and ‘hollow’ ‘whispers’ of scepticism is a message that resounds to an audience that was, alike to Eliot, very much in search of guidance.
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Among the fragmented layers and voices of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land there is a distinct cry for humanity to accept the comfort of a greater level of intelligence […]