journal of undergraduate research

MOLLY KRING is a senior English and Sociology major. Her interest in the intersection of religion and modernity began when she read classic sociological theory on the changing role of religion in modern capitalist societies and later while conducting research with Dr. Christian Smith on the subject. The fact that secularization was not occurring at the level predicted (if at all) by sociologists led her to take a class with her thesis advisor, Romana Huk, entitled “The idea of ‘God’ in Postmodern Poetry.” After graduation, Molly will work for the government and later hopes to teach English. She would like to thank her parents for their neverending support and Romana Huk for her direction.

journal of undergraduate research

Purifying Words to Revive Images: Sensory Intimations of God in Eliot’s “Four Quartets”

“Purifying Words to Revive Images” explores how T.S. Eliot draws on Eastern religious practices to approach a God beyond logic without once mentioning his name. Upon Wittgenstein’s declaration that human language cannot touch the divine and Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God is dead, a gap opened between the logical and the spiritual. Talk of God largely left the academic scene and the written word was left to only hint at the divine, for words, as human-constructed forms, were deemed necessarily inadequate for the communication of God. Eliot addresses this issue by unintentionally aligning himself with a neo-Thomist position where he engages the spiritual by circumventing the problem of language altogether. By employing musical forms and Zen-like sensory images, the words on the page become transubstantiated and transcend their potential limitations to intimate feelings of the divine.

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When Nietzsche famously proclaimed that God is dead, and Wittgenstein followed with the declaration, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” talk of God was largely relegated to theological studies. 1 Influenced by the French Symbolist literary movement—especially Mallarmé, who emphasized the sound of each word in poems and left the meaning intentionally ambiguous—T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets broke this silence. Eliot realized, as Wittgenstein did, that language is inevitably limited because the divine is necessarily greater than any human ideas and constructions. He therefore circumvents the problem of language proposed by Wittgenstein by going beyond the literal denotations of words to their sensory capabilities to communicate meanings that are not explicitly written. Eliot turns from words to music, emphasizing the auditory quality of his poetry and speaking through the unspoken cracks between paradoxical images. In Four Quartets, Eliot draws on the mystical tradition of communicating God without once mentioning the name “God.” By doing so, he unintentionally aligns himself with neo-Thomist thought—in particular with Jacques Maritain’s model of the soul—to intimate an idea of God by engaging the mind, spirit and senses. This holistic approach to religious poetry resists classification and denotation, as two-thirds of its content goes beyond the rational sphere of human understanding. Because of the ambiguity and bursts of sensory experience that result from communicating God outside of logic, contemporary theologian David Tracy convincingly argues that the quartets function similarly to Zen koans, puzzles in the Zen Buddhist tradition that seek to communicate God outside human logic. Both discover God outside human constructions without reducing His vast complexity and ambiguity merely to language. The simplicity of Eliot’s language, however, has led literary critic Shira Wolosky to term Eliot a “linguistic ascetic” who is part of the apophatic tradition. 2 This tradition renounces any


positive ideas of God and instead defines God in terms of what He is not. Such a reading overlooks the fact that so much of the poem’s meaning lies between or beyond its literal content. When the neo-Thomist features of Eliot’s work are taken into account, his poetry becomes quite clearly cataphatic, meaning that it expresses God through positive terminology. Four Quartets builds up images through sensory language and raises paradoxes whose meaning goes beyond the mere words on the page. Moreover, the way in which previously stated images return in the final stanza of Little Gidding to create a new spiritual whole where “the fire and rose are one” challenges Wolosky’s claim that Eliot is doing away with excess language to achieve a concise, purified meaning. Eliot is indeed paring down words, but in doing so he builds up sensory images that evoke feelings of the divine not present in the words themselves. A formal analysis will show Eliot’s apophatic tendencies, but this analysis misses the felt images that his words evoke; the spiritual feelings are part of the poem even though they are not in Eliot’s actual words. The words combine to create these divine moments, but the moments cannot be pinned down to any single word. Unlike an apophatic writer who defines God in terms of what He is not, Eliot cycles through experiences and arrives where he started with a new spiritual wisdom, and an image of God. He strips down his language to build up a new model of God. Four Quartets therefore exemplifies the transposition of neo-Thomist thought onto Eliot’s poetics and consequently falls into the cataphatic tradition, for Eliot’s poetry, like the Zen koan, builds up spare images that point toward God through both the intellect and senses.


I. The Death of Religion In Hebrew, there is no word for religion. Before modernity there was never a reason to separate religious experience from any other part of life to the Hebrews. Knowing via mystical experience was just as valid as knowing via logic. It was only with the birth of the Enlightenment that God began to die and a gap opened between the religious and the secular; our tight hold on the movement’s proclamation that reason is the only real, true thing in this world meant that God was eventually subjected to the same logical scrutiny that was applied to everything as a test of its validity. As John Caputo notes, the modern world has dramatically redefined “God”: Instead of beginning on our knees, we are all seated solemnly and with stern faces on the hard benches of the court of Reason as it is called into session. God is brought before the court, like a defendant with His hat in his hand, and required to give an account of Himself, to show His ontological papers, if He expects to win the court’s approval. In such a world, from Anselm’s point of view, God is already dead, even if you conclude that the proof is valid, because whatever you think you have proven or disproven is not the God he experiences in prayer and liturgy but a philosophical idol. 3 In our modern minds, we are on a mission to root out that which is not “real,” drawing lines between the real and the imaginary, the true and the false, the believer and the non-believer. We live in a world of binaries, where emotion is barred from the academic sphere for fear that it cannot be proven, codified, or objectified. In such a world, the modern sense of isolation and alienation is rampant, as evidenced in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” “Waking alone / At the hour when we are / Trembling with tenderness / Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone” (47-50). The repetition of the eerie chant in the last lines of the poem bolsters this sense of hopelessness: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper” (94-98). In a world that validates only reason, Eliot sees us as hollow, dead beings, for all our vitality is deemed subjective, unreal, and therefore, unacceptable.


Ideas of God garner no respect in a world that only views truth as that which can be logically proven. All personal experiences of the divine become just that—personal events that must be dealt with in the privacy of churches and homes. Eliot’s poetry was also heavily influenced by his having lived through the two World Wars. The observation that the world seemingly progressing in its rational thinking could commit atrocities so horrific exacerbated Eliot’s feelings of hopelessness. The exclusion of God from all serious academic discussions had not led to progress, but rather destruction. It is out of the rubble of these wars and the Enlightenment period that Eliot writes of a God that is beyond our rational thinking and language. Eliot thus closes the perceived gap between the religious and secular, objectivity and subjectivity, the mystical and the real, that he believed had never really existed. Caputo agrees that the “crisis of faith” in the post-Enlightenment era never really was a crisis at all. He states, “Religion was reported missing mostly by the intellectuals; no one outside the academy thought that it had gone anywhere at all” 4 and that “in making these discriminations [between the real and the imaginary, the religious and the secular], [the intellectuals] made or invented the very categories they were discriminating, none of which had existed, and certainly not in these precise terms, before modernity.” 5 Eliot’s challenge in communicating “God” is complicated by the fact that the language he employs creates the gap in the first place. By Anselm’s definition, God is inaccessible to the human mind; He is “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” 6 He therefore also lies outside the human language. John MacQuarrie lays out the problem when he asks, “How can we talk meaningfully of God in a language that is tied to finite experience?” 7 Wittgenstein’s


writings respond to these questions and conclude that any theological talk of God must be silenced, since God can only be revealed to us, not spoken of: What Wittgenstein objects to, then, is a certain human tendency to extend beyond our limits, and to talk of things about which we should rightfully be silent and respectful. The Tractatus can thus be read as a modern via negativa. The picture theory of meaning, with its resultant banishment of theology to silence, is designed to protect “what is higher” from the perverting, all-too-human encroaches of language. It is not philistinism, then, that informs Wittgenstein’s silence. No, just as Kant famously “found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith,” so the Tractatus sets a limit to what can be spoken (and therefore thought) in order to respect the awesome power of the mystical. 8 Eliot realizes, as did the Existentialist school of philosophers, that “[w]hat we as finite creatures know is known through our finitude. Hence what we can know and say about God is always symbolic, that is, consists of statements that point beyond themselves.” 9 Our language can only circle around the idea of God, never communicate His essence. Therefore, Eliot moves outside of language and communicates God through our senses, thereby circumventing the problem of language entirely. In an essay entitled “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot writes that poetic expression is best conveyed through an “objective correlative,” i.e. a “set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” 10 Such a correlative can be seen in “Little Gidding” when Eliot writes, “The voice of the hidden waterfall / And the children in the apple-tree / Not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea” (250-254). The poet’s invocation of these images—a waterfall, children playing in an apple tree, and waves in the sea—evokes a feeling of nostalgia for innocence and lost time, a feeling of calm in relation to the sea, and the gentleness of words echoing through time (“half heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of


the sea”). Communication has transcended the realm of the rational where words communicate a logically progressive narrative. The verse has moved towards generating an inexplicable feeling of the divine experience. David Perkins agrees that Eliot intentionally aims for ambiguity when he notes that “[s]pecific lines and passages activate the semantic suggestions and emotional overtones of words while precluding determinate meaning.” 11 Such is the case in the aforementioned passage. Moreover, the first word in every line of Four Quartets is capitalized, producing the effect of distinct individual thoughts forming a sensuous, musical whole. Each line creates a discrete image that is connected to that before it and after it, but wholly its own experience. To use the previously quoted passage from “Little Gidding,” it is not clear how “The voice of the hidden waterfall” is connected to the following line, “And the children in the apple-tree,” but Eliot’s use of a conjunction here links the two distinct thoughts. Moreover, the next line, “Not known, because not looked for,” refers to both of the previous lines, once again establishing a link between seemingly disconnected thoughts. The reader is left asking, “What is not looked for?” Similarly, the line “But heard, half-heard, in the stillness” is itself poetic and when followed by “Between two waves of the sea,” we connect the children playing in the apple tree and the hidden waterfall as being experiences contained in this image of two waves in the sea. While the connection between the thoughts is not logically clear, the distinct, yet conjoined phrases create a feeling of calm, childhood innocence. Comprised of these objective correlatives, the poem engenders a flood of sensory experience that cannot be paraphrased, but only felt. The meaning of the poem is found in the reader’s reaction to these combinations of words, not in the narrative Eliot weaves, for there is no logical “plot” to the poem. Aiding this sensory experience


are not only the objective correlatives, but the individual words of which they consist. Within Eliot’s poetry, language itself is both an end and a beginning. Eliot circumvents the limiting power that Wittgenstein saw in traditional words by employing mantras. Central to the Buddhist tradition, mantras render his poetics sensuous. They extricate from conventional language meanings that are unbound by the limits of its artificiality. Mantras are chosen in Buddhist meditation for their sound, not for their meaning. In “The Wasteland,” Eliot ends the 433-line poem with “Shantih shantih shantih” (433). Before this point, the poem presents different speakers whose connection to each other is unclear. The reader is left feeling lost in a crowd of competing voices, unsure which way is forward. The multitude of sources that Eliot draws on reinforces this effect of displacement; a glance at his extensive footnotes to “The Wasteland” demonstrates this. That Eliot chooses to end a poem of fragments with a meditative mantra in a foreign language is therefore of some significance. It combines all the fragmentary elements previously appearing in the poem and condenses them into one sound. Eliot does not seek to explain the poem, but rather to point to a meaning beyond the words, in the auditory quality of “shantih.” The poem is thus elevated to the realm of the mystical, refusing to resolve confusion and paradoxes raised in earlier parts of the poem. By using mantras and incorporating unique sounds into his poetry, Eliot extirpates poetry from the realm of rationality and makes the act of reading a sensory experience, one that is free from the limits of language proposed by Wittgenstein. Moreover, by leaving behind English words whose familiar connotations and denotations would prevent the reader from appreciating the auditory quality of the word itself, Eliot is able to hone in on an idea of God outside familiar linguistic constructions. His use of mantra-like words and phrases speaks to this transcendence of language so that the words themselves become


transubstantiated; in face of Wittgenstein’s declaration, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” Eliot establishes a new beginning in a different sphere of knowing but contradictorily uses language to take the reader there. 12 In doing so, Eliot takes part in the contemporaneous neo-Thomistic retrievals of the sensory in academic thought. The notion of sensory knowledge merging with rational thinking to find Truth is elucidated by prominent Neo-Thomist thinker Jacques Maritain in his essay “Creative Intuition and Poetic Knowledge” where he argues for a tri-fold model of knowing. In the “quest for being,” he writes that the mind passes through three stages: scientific knowledge, metaphysical knowledge, and supra-rational knowledge, which is the knowledge through mystical experience. 13 Maritain uses a diagram of three cones stacked on top of each other, the bottom being sensation, the middle imagination, and the top, reason. At the tip of the cone lies the soul. Because all three areas touch the soul, it follows that to communicate feelings of the soul, the poet must engage all three faculties. Maritain writes: Poetry is the fruit neither of the intellect alone, nor of imagination alone. Nay more, it proceeds from the totality of man, sense, intellect, love, desire, instinct, blood and spirit together. And the first obligation imposed on the poet is to consent to be brought back to the hidden place, near the center of the soul, where this totality exists in the state of a creative source. 14 And this is precisely what Eliot’s poetry does. The ideas of time and love put forth in Four Quartets appeal to Reason—perhaps this is why Eliot’s poetry remains so quotable today. Such famous lines as “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” posit philosophical ideas of time and experience, possibly influenced by Eliot’s dissertation on philosopher Josiah Royce (241-243). His emphasis on fantastical experiences (the rose garden, children playing in apple trees, waterfalls) engages the spirit through images that transcend beyond reality to render a


dream-like world where God is present (the rose garden is an allusion to the Garden of Eden). The images of children frolicking in apple trees and voices hiding in waterfalls are not earthly ones, but belong to a storybook where human pain and suffering are absent. His use of words for their sounds and meditative properties, and employment of vivid imagery engages the senses. In the case of Eliot, then, poetry engages the totality of our human faculties and recognizes the impossibility of separating the mind from the spirit. While Maritain’s soul and Eliot’s God are not the same, both men seek to communicate ideas outside of human rationality, and recognize the need for the three-pronged approach to do so. Just as Maritain sees the unconscious as composed of our intellect, senses and imagination, so Eliot believes that to apprehend God, a being necessarily beyond our language, poetry must combine sensory experience with rational thought.

II. The Transubstantiation of Words into Music The sensory aspect of Four Quartets is most pervasive in the musical structure of the poem. Influenced by Mallarmé and the French Symbolist movement’s embrace of music as a means to communicate most purely, Eliot adopts this sense into his own poetry, as the title of Four Quartets suggests. Of his philosophy of poetry, Mallarmé writes, “Poetry is the expression, by means of human language brought back to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious sense of existence: thus it endows our stay on earth with authenticity and constitutes the only spiritual task.” 15 This notion that music could elevate poetry to the level of the spiritual especially appealed to Eliot, as his mission in writing Four Quartets was undeniably religious. Four Quartets could easily be described as a spiritual journey, one that goes through discrete experiences to create a harmonizing end where the “fire and the rose are one” (261). Music, then,


acts as a medium through which the evocations of his words are transubstantiated from that of an earthly essence to the spiritual. Sounds, he believed, allowed the poet to communicate ideas that the limiting human language could not touch. In the introduction to Valery’s The Art of Poetry, Eliot writes, “Music itself may be conceived as striving towards an unattainable timelessness.” 16 While words are inevitably tied to historical connotations that cause their meaning to potentially change, music allows the artist to evoke the same feeling in different eras. Eliot describes the way in which a poem’s structure can transport words from the realm of the real to that of the supernatural: Words move, music moves Only in time; but that which is only living Can only die. Words, after speech, reach Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern, Can words or music reach The stillness, as a Chinese jar still Moves perpetually in its stillness. 17 The “silence” he speaks of is perhaps that which Wittgenstein declared must be employed when addressing spiritual concerns and the “stillness” is the idea of God in a harmonizing whole that his poetry strives for. Eliot uses Music extensively in his poetry because it can communicate what words cannot. Eliot writes the entire Four Quartets as a musical composition. As the title suggests, the poem is divided into four quartets, each with its own character and musicality. Musically, a quartet is characterized by four different instruments with four different parts—traditionally the violin, viola, cello and bass—coming together to create a single musical composition. Similarly, Four Quartets consists of four separate tunes, represented in the four elements of air, earth, fire and water. Unifying each of these sections (“East Coker,” “Burnt Norton,” “Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding”) is the rhythm of the poet’s language. Each quartet is characterized by a strict


rhyming scheme within five-stress lines. Furthermore, the last quartet, “Little Gidding,” finds traces of the three previous quartets. Mirroring a traditional musical quartet, each part interweaves with the others to create a unifying whole. In the last stanza, the poet harkens to “the hidden laughter / Of children in the foliage” in “Burnt Norton,” the “whisper of running streams, and winter lightning” in “East Coker,” and the “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all” from “Dry Salvages.” Just as a symphonic quartet would end on a harmonizing note, so also do Four Quartets, when “the fire and the rose are one” (261). The musical quality of Four Quartets thus creates a unity from discrete sound elements and causes the reader to leave the poem with emotions, not necessarily codified ideas. In this form, words become music notes and draw upon the reader’s emotions, just as a string quartet would.

III. Raising Paradoxes Eliot’s use of juxtaposed, paradoxical images further detaches the words of his poetry from their denotative meanings and communicates ideas that are inexpressible solely with words. In fact, the entire first quartet of Four Quartets is marked by contradiction. The phrases “Midwinter spring” and “frost and fire,” lay the ground of contradiction for the poem that follows (1,4); also notable is the destructive yet simultaneously purifying power of fire. As the quartets progress, however, these contradictions are drawn closer together to eventually form a final resolution in the image of the fire of the rose, echoing the aforementioned musical structure of the poem. Eliot ends Four Quartets with the words, “And the fire and the rose are one,” representing the Buddhist and Christian traditions merging at the end of the journey (i.e. the end of life) (261). The rose represents the lotus flower that is a prevalent symbol in the Buddhist tradition and the fire symbolizes the Christian Holy Spirit. By connecting the two religions’


dominant symbols, Eliot seeks to merge the rational Western and intentionally ambiguous Eastern thoughts. Eliot’s use of paradoxes to illustrate God harkens to Simone Weil’s notion of finding truth in contradiction. Arguing that contradiction is necessary to all Truth, she writes, “The contradictions the mind comes up against—these are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real.” 18 In fact, Weil argues that to resolve these contradictions is to lose the real. Like Weil, Eliot writes that the meaning is found between the images and can only be communicated in paradox: The poet may juxtapose incompatible images so that the mind will not rest on any single one, but see through all of them to what lies beyond; in somewhat familiar fashion words may be detached from their normal referents and have their senses modified by their relationships with those which surround them. Mallarmé uses the analogy of music, which can suggest without tying the mind to irrelevant peculiarities, and Symons echoes him in describing his best poetry: “every word is a jewel...every image is a symbol, and the whole poem is visible music.” 19 Eliot’s cyclical notion of time, a concept Eliot partially borrows from Hinduism, suggests that there is no past, present, or future, but all time is eternally present. Our lives move through a cycle and return to previously occupied points at which time we gain wisdom. If we read this final passage with this notion of cyclical time in mind, the reader is forced to view the paradoxes as two points on a connected circle. God, then, is found in-between the words and paradoxes themselves. He is the irreducible experience, the being towards which the mantras point, and that which cannot be described. That Eliot ends the poem with an image of paradox (“And the fire and the rose are one”) is a sign that he does not seek to merge the contradictory images, but find truth in the paradox itself, in the very fact that paradox is necessary and the contradiction cannot be resolved. Far from a freedom from uncertainty, it is this very uncertainty in paradox that creates spiritual freedom and unity for Eliot.


The initial confusion ensuing from these paradoxes causes David Tracy to draw parallels between Four Quartets and Zen koans. In the Zen tradition, koans are seemingly nonsensical stories, questions, or statements that are meant to be inaccessible to rational understanding, comprehensible only through intuition. Their purpose is to shock the mind into awareness and break the habit of rational thought. One famous koan asks, “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” Similarly, in Eliot’s poetry, the paradoxes force us to focus on the poem’s auditory and visual qualities, as logically, there is little to be explained. Connotations and definitions are left behind for the very essence of each word as it is spoken out loud. While I do not argue that Eliot’s poetry can be called “nonsensical,” I do think the Quartets obfuscate an understanding of a rational story within the poetry. Eliot’s tendency to raise discrete images in each line without always explaining their interconnectedness also parallels Zen koans’ goal to avoid denotation. David Perkins writes that “Eliot impedes denotation by verbal contradiction, vagueness, ambiguousness, failure of logical sequence, and paradox.” 20 And in fact, Thomas Merton describes Zen in similar language: “The whole aim of Zen is not to make foolproof statements about experience, but to come to direct grips with reality without the mediation of logical verbalizing.” 21 Zen is an “awareness of the ontological ground of our own being here and now, right in the midst of the world.” 22 Just as Buddhism “does not seek primarily to understand or to ‘believe in’ the enlightenment of Buddha as the solution to all human problems, but seeks an existential and empirical participation in that enlightenment experience,” so also I argue that Eliot’s goal is to bring the reader back to the ground of sensory experience. This ground is the base of the unconscious for Maritain. 23 Zen is purposefully meant to be incommunicable through language, as rationality cannot explain the presence of God. The goal, rather, is to communicate the divine by bringing the


reader back “to the pure unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience,” an idea which has Heideggerian undertones. 24 Zen is not a revelation like Christianity; it is not an experience communicated, but the experience of being itself. As mentioned earlier, Eliot presents vignettes of experiences in the quartets that are not meant to be part of any overarching narrative. They are rather examples of what he termed “objective correlatives,” images meant to evoke a certain emotion. Tracy agrees: Such close attention [in Four Quartets] to the fragments of meaning become like the nosense, not-nonsense, of the great Zen Koans. Any careful reading, like Eliot’s own in his recording, can render problematic any commonsense or ontological, perhaps more exactly, onto-theological categories by destabilizing all Western ideas… [t]he syntax of The Quartets, more subtly but just as insistently as the syntax of “The Wasteland,” continually breaks down and renders ambiguous and polyvalent, perhaps even overdetermined, the subject, verb, object pattern by which the English language is usually spoken. 25 Eliot and Zen seek similar ends, but I argue that koans are far more explicit in their mission to avoid logical constructions. The objective correlatives that compose the quartets present definite images, but the reader is able to tell what the correlatives represent; koans, on the other hand, usually sound completely absurd. Eliot engages the rational part of Maritain’s conception of the unconscious along with the sensory, whereas koans avoid logic completely. Therefore, the crossover between Zen koans and Eliot’s poetry lies in their wish to go beyond the realms of language to communicate a complex divine presence. Eliot’s Four Quartets also bear a striking resemblance to Murray’s description of meditation. He writes that meditation is “aided by the senses, the memory and the imagination... In the act of contemplation, however, such vision comes, as it were, more intuitively, and without a laboured process of reasoning.” 26 As argued earlier, Eliot’s objective correlatives are meant to evoke feelings, not necessarily reasoned ideas, and his use of mantras insists that the reader meditate upon the words themselves. However, the philosophical ideas of time in the 14

quartets do require a “labored process of reasoning.” Eliot invites the reader to meditate on his poetry and ideas, to feel the emotions his objective correlatives evoke and reason to the same wisdom he arrives at. Similarly, Murray argues that Four Quartets acts as a meditative tool that allows the reader to experience the divine: The dialectical process of statement and counter-statement in the poem, the discovery together, for example, of intense intellectual concentration with more than usual emotional distraction, the placing side by side of the abstract and the concrete, of the dogmatic and the exploratory, and the continual lively attempt to subordinate one faculty to the other — finds a most illuminating and close parallel not only in the art of music but also in the traditional practice and art of meditation and meditative poetry. 27 Kearns notes in T.S. Eliot and Indic Traditions that Eliot had definite links to the practice of meditation. In 1921, Dr. Roger Vittoz formally trained the poet in the art of meditation. Vittoz himself was well-known for combining meditative “training with a living example of personal austerity, Christian practice, and Catholic faith that made him, for many, a kind of living saint,” making him a role model for Eliot. 28 Kearns argues that Vittoz’s lessons made a mark upon Eliot’s poetry. She writes that “we hear an echo both of Vittoz’s simplifiez-vous and of his technique of concentration on a single word when Eliot speaks of a ‘condition of complete simplicity’ in which ‘the fire and the rose are one.’” 29 Vittoz instructed his patients to use the word “one” as “a mantra-like point of concentration in order to calm the mind. 30 Like the last lines of “The Wasteland,” Eliot ends Four Quartets with a mantra and therefore draws parallels between his work and meditative practices. Because Eliot’s connection to Indic thought and meditative practices are quite well-established, it is not surprising that we see echoes of it in his poetry. All of Eliot’s techniques thus far discussed—namely, objective correlatives, music and paradox—establish Four Quartets as a work that engages faculties outside the realm of logic; however, they tell little of Eliot’s personal theology. I argue that Eliot’s personal theology can be 15

considered cataphatic. Eliot’s notion of time as cyclical is essential to holding this position. The circular nature of the quartets themselves and Eliot’s belief in time as eternally present prevents a wholly cataphatic reading of his text because in cyclical time, nothing is ever lost or forgotten, but rather constantly returned to. Interwoven throughout the quartets is Eliot’s insistence that ends are beginnings, in reference to both language and time. He writes, “What we call the beginning is often the end /And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from” (216-218) and “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable” (1-5). Just as the fire in “Little Gidding” is both destructive and purifying, so language kills God and then reincarnates him in Eliot’s poetry. Bergsten argues that the progression of the poem itself mirrors this move from rational, linear thinking and conceptions of time to one where the end is the beginning and returns are constant. He writes, “Eliot attempts to move from the ‘Midwinter spring’ of the opening stanza to the ‘unimaginable Zero summer,’ a season when life is apprehended not as movement or decay but as a perpetual pattern of rebirth and renewal.” 31 Moreover, Eliot’s second quartet, “East Coker” opens with the line, “Midwinter spring is its own season” (1). Starting the poem at the midway point between two equinoxes, a turning point in time, is indicative of Eliot’s desire to complicate the notions of an end and beginning, for to him, they are identical. Linked to the Hindu notion of time as a cycle, a constant train of death and rebirth, Eliot’s time is neither linear nor able to be located at any one moment. Eliot sees time through an Indic lens: it is cyclical, meaning that we are never solely in the past, present, or future, but always on the path of arrival and departure. Even the poem itself ends where it begins, in the rose garden. Under these temporal constructions, Eliot suggests that all of our experiences are present at all times: time


past is both time future and time present. In the progression of life, therefore, nothing is lost, only re-arrived at and re-figured into bits of wisdom. Eliot believes that it is upon the returns to previously occupied moments that we find wisdom. At several points throughout the poem, Eliot’s voice comes through the poetry and he makes definitive statements about the nature of humanity. In “Little Gidding,” Eliot definitively states, “Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age,” “Who then devised the torment? Love.” and “The end is where we start from” (134, 218, 230). In the first, Eliot deems himself the provider of universal wisdom; in the second, he poses and answers his own question, positioning himself once again as an authority on matters of Truth; and in the third, he gives us a piece of his own wisdom. Such instances are examples of what A.D. Moody has termed as Eliot’s “wisdom mode.” 32 Kearns writes that “Eliot intends ‘Four Quartets’ as wisdom poetry, participating in that ‘wisdom we can all accept,’ quite apart from any ‘ideas’ we may find in it or to which we must assent.” 33 In fact, Eliot universalizes his spiritual ideas in a few instances. He writes in “Little Gidding,” for example, that “If you came this way, / Taking any route, starting from anywhere, / At any time or at any season, / It would always be the same” (41-44). The poet argues that all experiences, for all people, communicate the same truths. Eliot notes that while the experience must be individually felt, the universal wisdom accumulated through one’s life can be communicated to others: “And the wisdom which we shall have acquired will not be part of the argument which brings us to the conclusion; it is part of the book but is written in pencil on the fly-leaf.” 34 Harkening back to Maritain’s model, the senses and the imagination compose two-thirds of the soul, but these parts can only be felt (for Eliot, by using musical poetry to engage the senses), whereas only reason can be communicated. Eliot’s wisdom voice follows the images he


invokes, for the wisdom must come after all has been experienced. To arrive at this wisdom, the ultimate goal for Eliot, one must pass through all of the experiences that came before it, just as his most extensive wisdom is found in “Little Gidding,” the end of his poem. This arrival at wisdom undermines Wolosky’s argument that Eliot is a mystical ascetic who jettisons all attachments to arrive at an idea of God. 35 Eliot in fact relies on the images throughout the quartets: he re-evaluates them in his poetry, constantly finding new meaning in that which preceded him. Without these experiences, he may attain no wisdom. The final stanza of the final quartet, “Little Gidding,” is meant to signal the end of the spiritual journey and foreshadows the spiritual unity that arises from the paradoxes raised in the earlier quartets. Just as Four Quartets ends on the convergence of the fire and the rose, Eliot suggests that our own spiritual journeys will arrive there as well, despite our varied starting points. Bergsten writes that “[t]he last paragraph of the last of the ‘Four Quartets’ is clearly devised as a ‘musical’ finale, in which are gathered the symbols that have recurred throughout the whole sequence of poems” (164). The last stanza references images from the past three quartets, resulting in a final image of unity. The only new image in this paragraph, Bergsten argues, is “‘the crowned knot of fire.’” 36 This snowballing of previous images to create a new picture of unity is symbolic of Eliot’s notion that we return to the same points with new wisdom and “know the place for the first time” (257). Out of the fragmented pieces of experience is revealed a unified whole that embraces contradiction and a singular Truth. Without the death of the elements (earth, air, fire and water), the death of the poem itself, and the use of human constructions to communicate God, this unified whole would not be possible. Union of the four elements is achieved only through their deaths. The poet systematically announces the death of each, writing, “This is the death of air,” earth, fire, and


water after three separate stanzas (63, 71, 79). It is at their deaths that they will cease to be separate contradictory entities, but rather small parts of the same Truth found between the fire and the rose. Such deaths have ties to the apophatic mystical tradition, in that the elements must die in order for the reader to grasp at the essential being of the poem, or the unity achieved in the last stanza. Eliot’s systematic killing of each element is symbolic of his purification of an idea of God: like apophatic writers, he is telling the reader what God is not. He is not in the air, earth, fire or water, but rather in “the fire and the rose,” the new image Eliot arrives at once he has pared down all the experiences he has cycled through in the quartets. Because each quartet represents one of the four elements, the death of each symbolizes the final death of our human experiences and a point where they all will come together to form a new whole. The element of fire in “Little Giddy” is therefore significant: Eliot takes all the wisdom gained in the previous quartets and uses the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit to arrive at his final image that constitutes the last line of Four Quartets. Wolosky argues that Eliot is undeniably an apophatic writer who draws on mystic traditions: “Eliot’s negative way, that is, follows John’s [St. John of the Cross] particularly in its ascetic emphasis, its concern with the mystical purgation of the self as an ascetic approach to ultimate things.” 37 And in fact, lines in Four Quartets, such as “You must go by the way of dispossession. / In order to arrive at what you are not / You must go through the way in which you are not,” along with the death of the elements, corroborate Wolosky’s claim that Eliot is, in fact, drawing on mystical asceticism to illuminate the negative way towards God (East Coker III, 138-43). Troubling to this reading, however, is the presence of reincarnated images in the final stanza of “Little Gidding”: Through the unknown, unremembered gate When the last of earth left to discover 19

Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea. Quick now, here, now, always— A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything) And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one. (258-274) Here, Eliot reincarnates images of the previous quartets to create the new image of a “crowned knot of fire.” That the knot of fire immediately follows the flood of images which came before it suggests that it is born from their remembrance. The poet has drawn on experiences from different points on the cycle of time (his life) and has now arrived where he began, but with new wisdom, evidenced by the “crowned knot of fire.” The future tense of this passage, however, suggests that this new image will only exist in the afterlife; here and now, we must merely raise fragments of meaning, bits of wisdom but never unified truths. Eliot’s use of the phrase “When the tongues of flame are in-folded,” meaning when the “fire and fire” of line 215 merge, suggests that this moment of unity is yet to come. The last word of the poem, “one,” lies at the end of this future-oriented stanza, suggesting that the unity of these fragments will only come once we are free from the constrictions of human language and mortality. Through these fragments, Eliot suggests that a piecemeal, paradoxical existence is a prerequisite to any sort of final unification. He is using the cacophonous and fragmented elements of the poem to illustrate the impossibility of containing


God within human constructions and the unifying wisdom found in discrete experiences that resist classification. Eliot is thus aligning himself with the cataphatic tradition, as he is building up an idea of God that will manifest its full form in the afterlife. After purifying his experiences, he has created a new bit of wisdom that contains all that came before it. That the new image is of fire is not a coincidence. The fire paradox pervades the entire poem, with fire representing both a destructive and purifying element. Now the two apparently contradictory forces have become knotted together in a new image that unites the former paradox. This is not an instance of Eliot illuminating the negative way: he does not say, “This is not God, That is not God,” etc. Instead, he creates a new image that points towards God. On earth, he suggests, his language must be restrained and its connotations controlled (leading Wolosky to see him as a linguistic ascetic), but in the afterlife the false paradoxes written in the quartets will reveal themselves as part of the same united whole, which the crowned knot of fire hints at in the last stanza. Moreover, if we accept the parallels between Four Quartets and Zen koans, it becomes obvious that “linguistic asceticism” does not necessarily equate to apophatic tendencies. Neither koans nor Eliot’s paradoxes and images attempt to jettison worldly connotations. Rather, as Eliot states in his definition of an objective correlative, he tightly controls his diction so that the exact feeling he wishes the reader to experience is evoked. Eliot is conscious of the role his linguistic asceticism plays in his overall mission. At the end of Four Quartets, he writes that “...every phrase / And every sentence that is right where every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others, / The word neither diffident nor ostentatious” (218-221). The more words Eliot uses in his poetry, the greater the potential for unwanted connotations attaching to his ideas. Therefore, Eliot sacrifices word count for image clarity. Eliot’s poetry only seems apophatic


because of its uncomplicated nature and rejection of elaborate linguistic constructions. Within its simplicity, however, there is a great complexity, an idea of God that goes beyond the mere words. The richness of Eliot’s visions is found beyond the paradoxes, within the reader himself. The sensory and spiritual aspects of his poem, while not visually evident, constitute created images that Wolosky ignores in her conclusion that Eliot is an apophatic poet. Thus Eliot is both building up an idea of God and honing in on God; he eliminates that which God is not (the elements) through a purifying fire, but also reincarnates their respective images (i.e. the children in the foliage, waterfall and rose garden) that evoke spiritual emotions. To see him as a linguistic ascetic is to ignore the importance of cyclical time to his poetry; while a purification and stripping down occurs, it is only one part of the whole circle. The next moment finds him building up new images, then returning to his “wisdom mode” yet again. Through this cyclical structure of Four Quartets, Eliot suggests that the only way back to the rose garden (Eden), is to purify with fire both one’s soul and the words and ideas presented in his poetry. Words function to strip experiences down to their essential worth and communicate wisdom, but are not used to build images; this happens with the feelings evoked by the simplicity of his words in objective correlatives. With this approach, Eliot verges on a sort of divine ignorance; he seeks to learn all to purify it into a condensed spiritual wisdom, mirroring the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century work Eliot references in the quartets. Thus Eliot can be deemed a linguistic ascetic, but within a cataphatic tradition, one who approaches God by building complex images within the simple language of objective correlatives and then stripping down his experiences to essential wisdom. Eliot has achieved what Wittgenstein deemed “wordless faith” in the quartets by reaching at a picture of the divine, but leaving Him unspoken, finding God only in-between the fire and


the rose. The last stanza of the Quartets points to the world to come, when this paradox will be united to form Truth, but even Eliot does not attempt to voice what this will be; all he can do is intimate the divine via his communication of individual experiences through musical language. Such an approach epitomizes what Wittgenstein was speaking of when he wrote, “If we speak of a thing, but there is no object that we can point to, there, we may see, is the spirit.” 38 Clack writes: Engelmann has written that Wittgenstein’s life and work suggests “the possibility of a new spiritual attitude,” an attitude summed up by the term “wordless faith.” In this faith of the future, there will be no verbal doctrines, for these become the source of misconstructions. Intimation of the divine, rather than talk of the divine, will be the heart of wordless faith. Wittgenstein’s remark that the “religion of the future will have to be extremely ascetic; and by that I don’t mean just going without food and drink.” The religion of the Tractatus, then, is ascetic in the sense of denying oneself the rich tapestry of doctrinal expression. In place of that, it encapsulates a stoic attitude and a particular way of looking at the world, seeing it as a “miracle”. 39 Eliot seeks to close the gap between the religious and secular, objectivity and subjectivity, the mystical and the real, that for him had never existed. Wisdom for Eliot is discovered between the words and paradoxes, so that God still is that which cannot be explained, only reached at through sensory experience. In a time when humanity is confronted with the overwhelming awareness of death, Eliot’s transcends accepted forms of knowing into a world where the words themselves become transubstantiated through their sounds and image-provoking qualities. Out of the utter despair Eliot conveys in “The Wasteland” comes Four Quartets, illustrating the hope modernity has found in Nietzsche’s proclamation of God’s death. With what Wolosky calls a linguistic asceticism, Eliot “kills” words, just as the elements in the Quartets die, and finds meaning in the paradoxes themselves. In this unwritten space lies a legitimate form of truth-seeking that emphasizes sensory experience in place of logic. Eliot thus turns away from Western binary thinking to embrace Eastern, particularly Buddhist, conceptions of truth which


shy away from the rationality taking root in the West. Like the Hindu god Shiva who possesses a third eye of wisdom, Eliot refuses to see through the lenses of dichotomies. His poetry is a mix of philosophies, fragments of language that communicates through both logic and the senses. In this life of exploring, Eliot suggests that paradoxes can only be raised and felt; the complete wisdom of their unity only comes in the after-life when the destruction of our constructed language and time will allow us to dissolve the apparent contradiction and see each thing as part of a unified whole. This constant cycle of building images, stripping them down to bits of wisdom, then rebuilding again that weaves throughout Four Quartets evinces Eliot’s cataphatic tendencies and the shortsightedness of Wolosky’s claims. By ending Four Quartets at Little Gidding, a remote place of spirituality in the English countryside, Eliot suggests that in the death of God, as illustrated in “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” new life can be built through words, but not in their literal denotations. Like the church of Little Gidding itself, this way will be difficult to locate, a remote haven that asks us to reconsider our normal ways of knowing to experience, feel and hear our way to new images of the Divine.


Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York: Routledge, 200), 74. Shira Wolosky, Language Mysticism: The Negative Ways of Language in Elio, Beckett, and Celan (Palo Alto: Standford UP, 2001), 45. 3 John Caputo, “How the Secular World Became Post-Secular,” in On Religion (New York, Routledge, 2001), 46. 4 Caputo, 99. 5 Caputo, 47. 6 Anselm of Canterbury, “Anselm’s Proslogium or Discourse on the Existence of God,” from Medieval Sourcebook, trans. Sidney N. Deane, Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies. Web. (accessed March, 15 2010). 7 John MacQuarrie, “Neo-Thomism and Roman Catholic Theology,” in Twentieth Century Religious Thoughts (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002), 289. 8 Brian Clack, “The Mystical,” in An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999), 200. 9 James Livingston et al, “Christian Existentialism,” in Modern Christian Thought: The Twentieth Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 147. 10 T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Word: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2009), 7. 11 David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1987), 27. 12 Wittgenstein, 149. 13 MacQuarrie, 289. 14 Jacques Maritain, “Creative Intuition and Poetic Knowledge,” in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953), 11. 15 Stephane Malarmé, Correspondance, 1862-1871, ed. Henri Mondor (Paris, Gallimard, 1959), 1. 16 Paul Valery, The Art of Poetry (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), 2. 17 Ibid., 42. 18 Weil, Simone, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 1952), 98. 19 Eliot, The Sacred Wood, 117. 20 Perkins, 27. 21 Thomas Merton, “A Christian look at Zen,” in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, ed. Lawrence Cunningham (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 403. 22 Ibid., 411. 23 Merton, 36. Maritain, 402. 24 Merton, 403. 25 David Tracy, “Fragments: The Spiritual Situation of Our Times,” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999), 175. 26 Paul Murray, T.S. Eliot and Mysticism: The Secret History of “Four Quartets” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 43. 27 Ibid., 53. 28 Cleo McNelly Kearns, T.S. Eliot and Indic Traditions: A Study in Poetry and Belief (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1987), 153. 29 Ibid., 157. 30 Ibid., 266. 31 Staffan Bergsten, “The Later Quartets,” in Time and Eternity: A Study in the Structure and Symbolism of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (Stockholm: Svenska, 1960), 153. 32 Kearn, 18. 33 Ibid., 231. 34 Kearnes, 230. 35 Wolosky, 49. 36 Bergsten, 165. 37 Wolosky, 14. 38 Clack, 45. 39 Ibid., 47.



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