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T. S. Eliot. LIFE Collection.
Article Poetry

T.S. Eliot and Temporal Eternity

Katie Branigan

Time rules over man. It propels him through life, which is short when compared with eternity, and ushers him through life’s events, which often seem inconsequential beside history’s kings and wars. All of man’s experiences exist in and through time, and the means by which man communicates these experiences and thoughts—language—is also temporally bound. The nature of a novel, a poem, a sentence, or even a word, signals its mortality. It exists in time; it begins, and it ends. Each line makes space for the next word, the next thought.

T.S. Eliot is perhaps best remembered as the Modernist poet responsible for “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland.” One of the major poets of the 20th century, he had a lasting impact both on poetic style and literary theory. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a series of four interconnected meditative poems published between 1936 and 1943, each of which explore man’s relationship with time and that desire for the eternal that is inherently tied to any earnest appreciation of temporality. Eliot is acutely aware of poetry’s temporal nature. His works—Quartets in particular—are heavily influenced by John Donne, whose own poetic depictions of time are somewhat fraught. In particular, Donne’s later works are burdened by the idea of time being a kind of oppressor:

Poore cousened cousenor, that she, and that thou,
Which did begin to love, are neither now;
You are both fluid, chang’d since yesterday;
Next day repaires, (but ill) last dayes decay.[1]

Here, Donne portrays time as a destructive force; in altering the lovers, it has damaged their love. Indeed, time often seems to dominate man, to limit and challenge him, to provoke and rule him. Especially as we age, time takes on an ever-increasing weight. Eliot’s supple poetry is effectively a response to the Donnean fear of the relentless march of time, and his poems—at once heartbreakingly simple and dizzyingly complex—present the majesty and the beauty of time as the medium through which human beings live and of a temporality that is not accidental to our humanity.

Eliot asks his reader to enter into the history of the present, for this is the way to redemption. It is not that man must be redeemed from time, but that he is redeemed through time.

Famous—or perhaps infamous—for the literary references that pepper his poetic corpus, Eliot is particularly interested in the metaphysical poets. Donne is the metaphysical poet par excellence, but the movement is also well-represented by George Herbert and Richard Crashaw, among others. In the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, M. Schoendfeldt comments that “at its best” metaphysical poetry “aspires to rigorous exploration of the complex continua between physical and metaphysical existence.”[2] This is precisely the point that Eliot will explore in his Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, where he discusses the merits of the metaphysicals and undertakes the task of defining “metaphysical poetry.” Eliot distills the project of the metaphysical poets, highlighting prominently the unification of opposites. He looks at the way in which opposing concepts intersect with each other as the crux of the metaphysical ethos; how these poets poetically marry ideas together. Eliot’s theory begins with the way the metaphysicals treat the intersection of thought and feeling, but it extends to the way they—particularly Donne—see the relationship between time and the eternal. Eliot sees the poetic unity of opposites—thought and feeling—as a reflection, outgrowth, and even an incarnation of the meeting of temporality and eternity.

Eliot writes that “any definition of metaphysical poetry will be only a partial success, and this is in the nature of the subject matter” because,

if you define a school of poetry by the spirit, you will probably find either that your definition is so large as to include more than that school [and] therefore will be useless, or that it is so narrow as to exclude almost everyone but the master.[3]

As he sees it, the definition of metaphysical poetry per se begins with a “common language” linking the poets together.[4] However, the language of the metaphysicals—which accounts for the resemblance between the work of Donne, Crashaw, Herbert, and others—is not itself the “principle of unity,” but rather the a sign of it.[5] Eliot seeks this principle which unites the metaphysicals (particularly the aforementioned Donne, Crashaw, and Herbert) and he locates it in the unity of intellect and feeling which informs the metaphysical ethos.[6] This metaphysical maxim that seemingly opposed ideas—such as thought and feeling—can be reconciled is an inherently Christian maxim. Indeed, the Christian faith unites life and death, shame and glory, suffering and joy, God and man, the finite and the infinite, and asserts that these are eschatologically reconcilable. On earth, we cannot fully understand the glory of the Cross, for example, but in the light of the beatific vision the truth of it will be clear. From the eschaton, all will be rightly understood.

Eliot’s poetry addresses the unity of opposites in many ways, but Four Quartets focuses largely on its pertinence to the “‘metaphysical shudder’—the preoccupation with death and its more unpleasant association,”[7] with which Donne is so preoccupied, particularly as a consequence of temporality. Eliot applies the metaphysical ideal of reconciled opposites to the perceived bifurcation of the temporal and the eternal; his poetry evokes an experiential knowledge of the tension between the desire of man for the eternal and the temporal nature of his being. Even the nature of poetry itself, for Eliot, is the intersection of time and eternity in that it is a temporal medium used to express truths that transcend time. Rajendra Verma writes of Four Quartets that Eliot captures “the paradox of a temporal situation shining forth in an eternal instant,” which “touches the quintessence of a faith which [holds] that eternity and historical time bisected when the Word became incarnate.”[8] Eliot often works in phrases calculated to articulate ideas that by their very nature transcend temporality. Eliot writes:

Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The walls, the wainscot, and the mouse.[9]

This passage describes Eliot’s time in London during the Second World War, and much of “Little Gidding” articulates the specific experience of working and living during the Blitz, in what was, for Eliot, the collision of the personal and the historical, for “while the light fails / On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel / History is now and England” (LG, V.24).[10] It is often easy to think of the history which will eventually be recorded in books—the history of kings and wars and great men—as intrinsically distinct from the history of one’s own life, but Eliot proposes—obliquely, as he is often wont to do—that the personal and the historical conceptions of time and meaning are inextricably connected. He writes that “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.” [11] Eliot asks his reader to enter into the history of the present, for this is the way to redemption. It is not that man must be redeemed from time, but that he is redeemed through time. The temporality of man’s life—indeed, of all creation—is not accidental to his being. It is his mode of living.

Enchanting in his appreciation of temporal reality precisely as a means of formation for the eternal soul, Eliot writes that,

only in time can the moment in the rose garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.[12]

Eliot’s delicate appreciation of his own history as it is attached to cultural history extends an invitation for the reader to participate both in Eliot’s experience of time and in the reader’s own. Indeed, while the reader does not have the same personal history as the poet, his words evoke a nuanced response, the sense of the encounter between one moment and another; his poem is at once a recreation of moments of his personal history and an experience that becomes for his reader a moment of personal history in itself. Eliot articulates here the intimacy of change, the feeling of collision between one moment and the next. This is the feeling of autumn, when the leaves blush halfway through changing, of seeing one’s child grow up. It is the reason friends bond in times of maturation and over adventures. It is even the feeling of very little things, like a child captivated by a sunbeam, “caught in the form of limitation / Between un-being and being. / Sudden in a shaft of sunlight / Even while the dust moves.”[13] This is the way time enchants the soul, changes it, molds it, and makes it ready to receive as it seeks “the still point of the turning world.”[14] The eternal truth—even the eternal soul of any individual human being—is dimly illuminated when held up against the temporal moment. Precisely in its inability to contain the entire truth of being, it is saturated with the sense of the eternal.

This “still point,” for Eliot, is “the intersection of the timeless moment.”[15] The movement of the world is reliant on, while also being juxtaposed against, the eternal still point. Eliot posits the still point as a place, a moment, wherein eternity and time bisect, where “the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual, / Here the past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled.”[16] In one of Eliot’s more explicit passages in Quartets, Eliot names this place of encounter “Incarnation.”[17] The entrance of the eternal Word into time does indeed bisect all of history, filling temporality to bursting with the infinite, and renders all of time significant. For though words and music “[move] only in time,” it is still true that exclusively temporal movement tends toward death—“that which is only living / Can only die.”[18] To render the temporal qualitatively significant, the entrance of the eternal is necessary. This is the “hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood,”[19] the Incarnation of Christ the Lord, in whom the finite and the infinite are one, as are the “fire and the rose.”[20]

Eliot’s interest in the metaphysical unity of opposites coalesces around his incarnational theology. In a general audience from December 10, 1997, St. John Paul II comments most poignantly that “In becoming man, the Word of God brought about a fundamental change in the very condition of time. We can say that in Christ, human time was filled with eternity.” The magnitude of this observation cannot be overstated. The Christian faith holds that Christ’s very person is the intersection of time and eternity, of the finite and the infinite. This reality characterizes His whole life—indeed, it characterizes all human lives from the moment of the Annunciation until the end of time. In a sense, the world conceives with Mary the eternal Word, and Christ conquers time through time, as Eliot suggests in “Burnt Norton” II.44. Thus, it truly is the case that “the end and the beginning were always there / Before the beginning and after the end,”[21] for it is Christ Who is both the beginning and the end. The unifying principle of metaphysical poetry, Eliot claims, is not to be found in the stylistic similarities of Donne, Crashaw, Herbert and others. In Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, Eliot begins with his shortlist of metaphysical poets including Abraham Cowley. He eliminates Cowley from his treatment, however, stating that he “does not satisfy [his] definition of metaphysical poetry” because he “fails to make the Word Flesh, though he often makes Him bones.” This, for Eliot, is the principle of unity linking the metaphysicals, and it is a powerful statement, for it suggests that the metaphysicals are successful at precisely this, making the Word Flesh. Eliot’s understanding of the metaphysicals is highly attuned to the integration of opposites, particularly in John Donne, and his writings highlight the ultimate union of opposites in the person of Christ: time and eternity, humility and glory, humanity and divinity. Metaphysical poetry, then, is an image of the intersection of these poles, so often held in tension, and Eliot’s Four Quartets places him as the heir to this poetic tradition.

[1] John Donne, Poems I, 262; cf. Montaigne, Essayes, trans. John Florio, ed. A. R. Waller (1910), III, 369.

[2] M. Schoendfeldt, “Metaphysical Poetry,” Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 872.

[3] T.S. Eliot, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, ed. Ronald Schuchard (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company), 1993, 60.

[4] Varieties, 60.

[5] Varieties, 60.

[6] Varieties, 60.

[7] David Morris, The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot in the Light of the Donne Tradition: A Comparative Study (Switzerland: Arnaud Druck Berne, 1953), 80, 103.

[8] Rajendra Verma, Time and Poetry in Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979), 1.

[9] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” in The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Volume 1: Collected and Uncollected Poems, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), II.54–59.

[10] “Little Gidding,” V.24.

[11] “Little Gidding,” V.22–23.

[12] “Burnt Norton,” II.40–44.

[13] “Burnt Norton,” V.31–34.

[14] “Burnt Norton,” II.16.

[15] “Little Gidding,” I.55.

[16] “The Dry Salvages,” V.34–37.

[17] “The Dry Salvages, V.33.

[18] “Burnt Norton,” I.1-3.

[19] “The Dry Salvages,” V.33.

[20] “Little Gidding,” V.36.

[21] “Burnt Norton,” V.11-12.

Posted on September 14, 2023.

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