Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is considered the pioneer of modern twentieth-century poetry, as he was one of the first to write with free expression, rejecting conventional verse forms and language.
Born in St. Louis, he attended Harvard University and received a Master's Degree in 1910. He moved to England in 1914 to study at Oxford, and never left, becoming an English citizen in 1927. Quite proud of his English citizenship, he wrote in Choruses from the Rock, "But our King did well at Acre," referring to King Richard the Lionheart.
His early poems, such as The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock (1917), The Wasteland (1922) and The Hollow Men (1925), created an uproar, as they catalogued the spiritual bankruptry of the twentieth century.
Perhaps it was the pessimism of his early works that led him to conversion and join the Anglican Church of England in 1927. His writing subsequently reflected his spiritual growth as a Christian, with poems such as Journey of the Magi (1927), Ash Wednesday (1930), and the deeply religious Four Quartets.
A noted playwright, perhaps his two most famous plays are The Rock (1934), and Murder in the Cathedral (1935) about the 1170 martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the provocation of King Henry II of England. Thomas of Becket (1118-1170) was born in London of Norman parents. Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, sponsored him to study canon and civil law in Europe and upon his return to England named him Archdeacon of Canterbury. He became great friends with King Henry II (1154-1189) and was appointed Chancellor of England in 1155. When Theobald died, King Henry II appointed Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. However, Thomas dreaded the appointment, for he knew that in defense of the Church, he would have to oppose Henry, because the King wanted to place controls on the Church. Thomas fled from England following a confrontation over the restrictive Clarendon Constitutions. He returned to England December 2, 1170 after nearly seven years in exile and was greeted by popular acclaim. However, in an outburst of anger, King Henry II cried out to his knights: "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Part I of Murder in the Cathedral begins December 2, 1170 at Becket's return; an Interlude includes the Archbishop's sermon on Christmas Day; and Part II ends with his martyrdom in the Cathedral of Canterbury on December 29, 1170.
In Four Quartets, Eliot explores questions of time and eternity and their unity in Christ through the Incarnation. His mystical contemplation brings together the thought of both Eastern and Western literature. Four Quartets was written as four related poems, Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941), and Little Gidding (1942), named after places visited by Eliot. The four meditations were published in a unit as Four Quartets in 1943. Burnt Norton is an estate in Gloucestershire. He repeats a line from Murder in the Cathedral: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." He refers to Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) in Part V: "The Word in the desert is most attacked by voices of temptation." In "the figure of the ten stairs," he refers to the concept of spiritual ascent by St. John of the Cross. East Coker is in Somerset, visited by Eliot to view the burial place of one of his ancestors. T. S. Eliot was eventually buried there at St. Michael's Church. In Part V he personally notes that he is "between two wars." The Dry Salvages are a group of rocks with a beacon off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. In Part III he refers to Krishna from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. In Part IV, he refers to a line from Dante's Paradiso of the Divine Comedy: "Figlia del tuo Figlio, Queen of Heaven." Little Gidding had been the home of a religious community established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637). In 1646, during the English Civil War, Parliamentary troops, in pursuit of Charles I, destroyed the Church and the community. In Part III and V he quotes the English mystic Julian of Norwich: "And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."
T. S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. This page includes a vignette from The Rock, which describes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in Eliot's unique way; part of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Sermon on Christmas Day from the Interlude in Murder in the Cathedral; and brief selections from each of the Four Quartets.
Then came at a predetermined moment,
a moment in time and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:
transecting, bisecting the world of time,
a moment in time, but not like a moment of time,
A moment in time but time was made through that moment:
for without the meaning there is no time,
and that moment in time gave the meaning.
Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being.
Christmas morning Mass from the Interlude
"Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So at the same time we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross.
Consider also one thing which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.
A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it, but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God."
from Part II
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
from Part IV
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
from Part V
Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
from Part V
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.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
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.