T.S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) began his spiritual enquiry as a young man. At university he studied comparative religions and the medieval mystics. His thinking was greatly influenced by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the poet Ezra Pound. Eliot?s experimentation with forms of poetry were a kind of literary journey which may have reflected something of his spiritual journey. Termed ?one of the major Christian poets of the 20th Century?(1), Eliot?s work on spiritual matters greatly appeals to me. I take pleasure from his ability with words and I am interested in the subject matter. The poem, The Hollow Men (1925) and two poems from The Ariel Poems collection (written and published 1927-30) are examined for evidence of Eliot?s pilgrimage towards a Christian faith and his membership of the Anglican Church. The earlier poem, The Hollow Men, was published when Eliot was experiencing extreme personal difficulty in his work and with his first wife?s poor health. Writing himself about an even earlier work, The Waste Land (1922), Eliot concluded that ?some forms of illness are extremely favourable to religious illumination?. I have not had personal experience of this but I am aware that serious illness and death can often make people focus sharply on the meaning of life. This could be said of the circumstances surrounding the writing of The Hollow Men, even if the ?illumination? simply highlighted a very dark time in Eliot?s life. The overriding image of humankind as ?hollow men? is powerful and depressing. In the context of a spiritual journey I would liken it to a ?wilderness experience?. Like the children of Israel who came out of Egypt, Eliot seems to be without direction or hope. While the ?hollow men? are not totally empty, even their stuffing is dead grass: ?Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!? and they are lifeless: ?Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion.? Life is meaningless and Death seems to be the master of both life and death: ?death?s other kingdom? I like the strength of the poetry here. Eliot juxtaposes strong ideas together, e.g. ?paralysed force? in such a way that they appear to cancel each other out, leaving an emptiness. Throughout the five sections of the poem, Eliot uses many words and expressions that reinforce an atmosphere of emptiness and decay: ?cactus?..stone images?..fading star?.broken stone?.dying star?.hollow valley?.broken jaw?..lost kingdom?, etc. In Eliot?s world nothing seems whole, nothing seems to move or function, all is lost or being lost. I can sense his absolute despair when he writes: ?There are no eyes here in this valley of dying stars?? where ?we grope together ?? on this beach of the tumid river.? Here, he is sightless, unable to move forward with any understanding or insight. I think that Eliot feels trapped by his circumstances, which appear like a sinister swollen river, threatening to overwhelm him. There are similarities here with the experiences of the Psalmist in the Old Testament, who often felt trapped, surround by threatening enemies: e.g. ? O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; Many are saying of me, there is no help for him in God. Psalm 3 Eliot?s The Hollow Men finishes with some of his most quoted lines: ?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.? Here Eliot seems to be at an all time low. He is sad and cynical about life and his spiritual journeying could well have ended here. In Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon we find Eliot continuing on his spiritual quest. He seems to be slowly stepping forward, climbing and carefully building on previous experience. Both poems cover aspects of the journeying of biblical characters who are concerned with the arrival of the Christ-child, the Messiah. Both poems deal with the past, with a significant event, with the future (as seen from the time of that event) and with a time beyond time - death. I believe that these are some features common to a personal spiritual journey as experienced by T.S.Eliot. The Journey of the Magi is spoken by an old man. In the poem Eliot devotes much of the first two stanzas to describing an actual physical journey. This was a long, hard journey which took the Magi through foreign environments