T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 3)

One of the greatest differences between Eliot’s early works and his later works, however, is the introduction in those later works of a potential solution to the evasion and misunderstanding of self and other. In the Four Quartets, four poems published together for the first time in 1943, Eliot several times raises the possibility of attaining a true, even if partial, understanding. In East Coker (1940), the second of the Four Quartets, written nearly twenty years after the Waste Land, for example, Eliot meditates on the insurmountability of the inability to articulate and to clearly communicate the events in the life of one’s inner world even to oneself:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. . . .

(CPP, 128)

Each attempt to articulate is a fresh attempt to describe internal phenomena. As words appear with the temporal realm, however, the phenomena which they seek to describe have already passed and been replaced by new phenomena. In this sense, language itself acts as part of the chasm between that separates the self from understanding. Language is not the bridge over the chasm, but is itself an aspect of the separation, a widening rather than a narrowing influence in the gap that separates the self from the other. Human thought occurs within the realm of words, but the words themselves refer to an event that has already passed into the past and so can no longer can be accurately applied as a description of one’s internal state. The chasm between the self and the other is even wider, requiring the use of a body and mind which are always already in the process of becoming less agile and more forgetful through age.

There is, however, some hope, continues Eliot.

. . . And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition—

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

(CPP, 128)

The poet’s lack of ability to be entirely original because what he hopes to articulate “has already been discovered / Once or twice, or several times” is, in fact, a positive sign. “There is no competition” between poets because each, in seeking within himself, is able to bring to the fore again and again in a new way what all share in common. There is a hint of renunciation to the forces of inevitabile inarticulation and forgetfulness here as Eliot declares that “there is only the trying” and “the rest is not our business.” If it is in any sense to be interpreted as submission to these forces, however, is a robust, rather than a despairing, submission. As Eliot’s proclaims in the following stanza:

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation.

(CPP, 129)

Though the problem of inarticulation continues, this is not the Waste Land. While a full understanding may be perpetually elusive, there is always “a further union, a deeper communion” that may be achieved within oneself and with others.

As Eliot wrote in his 1921 essay on the Metaphysical Poets, the poet must look “into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracks.” Poets, whom Eliot envisions as “old men” in East Coker, no doubt with reference to himself, “ought to be explorers.” There is no limit to the what they may uncover within themselves and within the world, if they will delve deep into every part of their being, including “the heart” as well as “the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracks.” And through this, they may attain ever greater understanding and clarity.

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