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Glimpsing the Transcendent within the Temporal in T.S. Eliot’s Later Poetry

By: Rahma Wiryomartono

T.S. Eliot was preoccupied with the subject of transcendent experience, and frequent references to epiphanic visions and spiritual revelations characterize his body of work. The different stages of his career reflect the evolution of his beliefs. Eliot’s early poetry often lays out the consequences of a life devoid of transcendental orientation. In the early-career poems “Gerontion” (1920) and The Waste Land (1922), characters are trapped in a condition of spiritual dispossession and alienation, being “neither living nor dead” (CPP 62)—numbed in their own lives in time. Endless circling and meaningless repetition characterize their existence. Although Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927, powerful expressions of existential dissatisfaction continued to dominate his later writing. In the later works Ash-Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1936-1943), poetic speakers experience moments of epiphanic illumination that transport them outside the realm of time and history—yet these moments are never sustained. As the speakers plummet back to Earth, their mystical visions haunt them, fueling their skepticism about the value of life in a transient world. Nonetheless, due to Eliot’s continual resistance to oppositional ways of thinking, faith and skepticism are not in tension in his life and work. Instead, the two sustain each other. As Eliot negotiates his orientations toward his faith, transcendent glimpses and everyday experience become intertwined in his later poetry. Throughout the progress of spiritual labour, his speakers gradually overcome oppositional modes of thought and grow to accept their human limitations with humility.

In his commentary on Four Quartets, Edward Lobb emphasizes that humility “enables one to go beyond limitation: knowledge is limited, but humility is endless” (26). Reason and logic have their limits. Since the transcendent lies beyond human understanding, it escapes reason and the possibility of adequate expression in language. Due to their non-rational nature, epiphanic visions appear illogical or paradoxical when communicated. The insufficiency of life on Earth propels Eliot’s later speakers to become more aware of all that they do not, and cannot, know. Even though the state of existence within time and history seems to oppose a state of transcendent experience, confinement in temporality allows a person to recognize their limitations. Thus, time and history become necessary channels for the attainment of humility in Eliot’s later writings, as they allow the speakers to achieve an adequate sense of their limits and place within a greater cosmic scheme. From there, one can accept a greater will, overcome oppositional modes of thought, and continue onward on the journey toward belief—concerns which were at the forefront of Eliot’s mind, especially during his later career. 

Barry Spurr stresses the importance of Anglo-Catholicism in Eliot’s life and work following his 1927 conversion, arguing that “we cannot enter fully into the mind of this great poet or into his work . . . until we have learnt of his faith, the ground of his being” (200). Although theological concerns underpin Eliot’s major post-conversion works, he remained a lifelong skeptic. Eliot’s conversion did not signify a turn to unwavering, unquestioning belief: it was a conversion to the continual effort to believe (Spurr 189). After his conversion, Eliot began to regard his own spiritual journey as a worthy subject for his writing, which explains the development of a personal voice in his later poetry. In the early-career essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot argued that, in order to communicate ideas of universal significance, a poet must commit to “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (CPTSE Vol. 2 108). In other words, the poet’s personal experience is not relevant to their work. Later, Eliot modifies this stance to accommodate his religious worldview. In the 1940 essay “Yeats,” Eliot defines the impersonal poet as one who uses intense personal experience “to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol” (CPTSE Vol. 6 81). Personal experience can thus become universalized. In his post-conversion works, Eliot transforms his wavering belief into a “general symbol” of a skeptic’s journey toward faith.

Ash-Wednesday adopts a personal voice, marking a shift from Eliot’s early impersonal poetry—the speaker sounds like Eliot himself, a remarkable artistic turn given the poet’s  previous commitment to impersonality in his writing. The poem opens with three different spiritual conditions: “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn” (CPP 89). In the first line, the speaker has “turned,” presumably in reference  to his religious conversion. Here, conversion does not signify a definitive end to skepticism: belief requires sustained effort, but the speaker struggles to maintain his dedication. In a slight variation, the second line communicates a condition of total hopelessness wherein the future holds no promise—a sentiment reflected in the speaker’s flat, straightforward language. The last line represents a step backward from the first line, as the step “Because I do not hope to turn” would logically come before “Because I do not hope to turn again.” Human lives are understood through time, but glimpses of transcendence interrupt temporality. By placing these lines in reverse chronological order, Eliot introduces the reader to the logical contradictions and vacillation of belief that characterize Ash-Wednesday. These first three lines introduce the condition of the speaker: he has had a transformative spiritual experience, but he discovers that he is unable to hold on to it. Caught between despair and belief, he stumbles. 

Part II of Ash-Wednesday offers more paradoxes and invites the reader to entertain the idea that oppositional binaries are, in fact, illusions—something the speaker comes to comprehend after experiencing his own transcendent visions. The Lady of silences is “calm and distressed / Torn and most whole / Rose of memory / Rose of forgetfulness” (CPP 91). As a beatific vision, the Lady lies outside of human understanding, defying the laws of logic. She embodies conflicting conditions simultaneously. A rational mind cannot apprehend her because she exists beyond reason and logic, beyond the categories of ‘either/or.’ In “The Mind of Modernism,” James McFarlane argues that “the defining thing in the Modernist mode is not so much that things fall apart but that they fall together” (92). Qualities which seem opposed do not work against each other; instead, they work with each other. Thus, the categories of ‘either/or’ arguably “belong so inseparably together that they ought really to be written as one word” (88). In Ash-Wednesday, transcendent experience is aligned with paradoxical states, as exemplified by the Lady. The glimpses of illumination afforded to the speaker allow him to overcome oppositional modes of thought, which impede spiritual understanding.

In the climax of Part IV, the speaker’s vision is inundated by colours and light, symbols of epiphanic experience. An ambiguous voice declares: “Redeem / The time. Redeem / The unread vision in the higher dream” (CPP 94). Understanding floods the speaker. He tries to obey  the voice’s command to “redeem,” to remind himself of what he has come to comprehend—that oppositional binaries are illusory— so that such illumination will not escape him. Yet it does. In Part V, language fails him, symbolizing his inner regression: “Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard, / The Word without a word, the Word within / The world and for the world” (CPP 96). Caught up in the distinctions between the religious Word and the linguistic word, his thoughts spiral, and his syntax becomes difficult to follow. The speaker laments the wretched condition of his people, as the “right time and the right place are not here” (CPP 96). As he forms a hierarchy between the transcendent realm and the earthly one, he designates the latter as a place of disaffection and insufficiency. What he longs for is out of reach—out of temporality. Amid his hopelessness, the remains of the speaker’s transcendent glimpses convince him of the meaninglessness of life on Earth. In Part VI, however, the speaker amends this negative orientation, when he reconciles the transcendent and the worldly, and accepts his limitations with humility. 

The opening of Part VI echoes the start of Part I, but makes a small yet significant change in phrasing: “Although I do not hope to turn again / Although I do not hope / Although I do not hope to turn” (CPP 98). By recalling the beginning of the poem, Eliot creates a circular journey. The spiritual conditions have not changed, yet the speaker’s orientations toward these conditions have—though only slightly. The word ‘because’ denotes a cause and effect relation: as a result of the listed conditions, the speaker finds it difficult, and at times impossible, to sustain belief. In comparison, the word ‘although’ is more liberating: in spite of his disaffected spiritual states, the speaker can choose another route—that is, a route of exultation. Thus, the journey depicted in Ash-Wednesday is not endlessly circular; rather, it spirals upward incrementally. While the speaker does not minimize his losses, he comes to welcome his limited human condition with humility: “the lost heart stiffens and rejoices / In the lost lilac and lost sea voices” (CPP 98). The stiffening of the lost heart indicates how it has hardened and lost hope, but by rejoicing, it resurrects itself on Earth. “The lost lilac and lost sea voices” are earthly images which are nonetheless mysterious and elusive. By the conclusion of Ash-Wednesday, meaning can be found outside of transcendent experience. Glimpses of transcendence highlight the speaker’s overarching limitations, but through his journey of incremental climbing, he comes to embrace the beauty and mystery of his surroundings on Earth, in time.

Four Quartets grapples with concerns that are similar to Ash-Wednesday in its sub-poems “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” The speaker of Four Quartets finds his faith continually challenged as he oscillates between transcendent heights and despair. Steve Ellis describes the Four Quartets as “a work of purification and purgation” which “strives to ‘dispossess’ itself of the world and its ‘distractions’ in its quest for the absolute” (103). The opposition between this world and the absolute reappears but becomes increasingly complicated as Four Quartets progresses, reflecting the speaker’s increasing comfort with paradoxical modes of thought. Even though the speaker expresses anguish over his inability to hold on to an epiphanic experience from the beginning of “Burnt Norton,” by the end of “Little Gidding,” he rejoices in his limited human condition. However, time in Four Quartets is not chronological—the poem also resists the opposition between beginnings and endings. Thus, as in Ash-Wednesday, the speaker’s non-linear journey toward belief relies on overcoming oppositional ways of thinking and accepting human limitations, all the while seeking transcendental understanding.

The first quartet “Burnt Norton” opens with an epiphanic moment that the speaker continually reinterprets in the later poems. In 1935, Eliot visited the manor house Burnt Norton with Emily Hale, a woman from his past whom he might have married (Donoghue 2). She is presumably the figure who walks beside a projection of the speaker in the rose garden where the transcendent vision takes place. According to Ronald Schuchard, “Burnt Norton” reads “as a love poem of great regret, expressed with an emotional resignation that is relieved only by a timeless intersection in the rose garden” (59). In the “first world” (CPP 171), the Edenic higher reality of the garden, the speaker observes two figures: “There they were, dignified, invisible” (CPP 171). These figures can be interpreted as idealized emanations of Eliot and Hale, projections of what their future together could have been; after all, “the leaves were full of children” (CPP 172). When the epiphanic moment ends flatly, a bird urges the speaker to “go, go, go,” for “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” (CPP 172). If the “reality” the bird speaks of is the higher reality of the garden, then the sentence implies that humanity cannot bear to sustain transcendent experience, perhaps due to some inherent deficiency or inability to comprehend metaphysical truths. Conversely, if the “reality” refers to everyday, worldly existence, then the sentence implies that humans cannot bear the insufficiency of a life in time, and thus long for unattainable transcendence. Either way, the speaker grieves the loss of his vision, faltering in his journey toward belief.

The following poem “East Coker” justifies the value of humility, given the transience of life and the extent of all that cannot be known. The speaker’s fall from transcendent experience offers him perspective. He devalues human wisdom, declaring: “Do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God” (CPP 179). The speaker prefers to hear about the failings and afflictions of old men because their folly teaches him more about human nature than their wisdom ever could. Rather than revering wisdom, the speaker considers it more important to recognize human shortcomings—especially as they relate to the scope of what can be known —and accept limitations. The speaker even submits to despair: “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God” (CPP 180). Instead of resisting darkness, he lets it pass through him as an expression of a divine will, committing himself to belief despite internal deprivation. In “Limitation and Transcendence in ‘East Coker,’” Edward Lobb stresses the importance of humility, writing that “the recognition of our powerlessness enables us to accept grace and transcend our limitations; we cannot free ourselves by ‘thinking of the key,’ but we can be freed . . . when we acknowledge a higher power” (26). Though it seems counterintuitive, submission is liberating; this realization is catalyzed by the speaker’s fall from transcendent experience.

By representing dance as a sacrament in “East Coker,” Eliot complicates the binary of the physical and the spiritual and reworks his ideas about the worth of flesh. In his early poetry, Eliot portrayed the body as spiritually confining and debased, as reflected in the 1920 collection Poems. In “The Hippopotamus,” the titular animal is portrayed negatively as “merely flesh and blood” (CPP 49)—an earthly and primal being who ascends to heaven as a mockery of “the True Church” (CPP 49). The hippo is unthinking, “weak and frail” (CPP 49), subject to calls of “mating time” (CPP 49) and other base instincts. The insensible Sweeney in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is similarly animalistic: “Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees / Letting his arms hang down to laugh, / The zebra stripes along his jaw / Swelling to maculate giraffe” (CPP 56). Though incredibly physically present, Sweeney is hardly present in any other way. In these early poems, Eliot presents the body as base and degraded. Following his conversion, however, Eliot had to grapple with the Christian tenet of Incarnation, the belief that God took on physical form in the flesh of Jesus Christ (McKim 140). Accordingly, Eliot had to rework his ideas about the value of the body, as flesh could embody divinity in the Christian belief of Incarnation. In “East Coker,” dance is “a dignified and commodious sacrament” (CPP 178). Dance has the ability to impart divine grace, despite being a pure bodily expression. The body is no longer disgusting; instead, it is dignified. As Four Quartets progresses, the boundaries between the spiritual and physical realms gradually dissolve.

The third quartet “The Dry Salvages” communicates that skepticism and stumbling characterize a good traveller in the context of a spiritual journey. Wavering belief indicates that one has repeatedly and meaningfully grappled with concerns of belief. Only saints can achieve sustained transcendent illumination and “apprehend / The point of the intersection of the timeless / With time” (CPP 189-90). The rest of humanity receives “only hints and guesses” (CPP 190) of spiritual understanding, moments which Steve Ellis states are “often imaged as an interval, or pause, in our habitual lives” (109). The speaker proposes a nearly heretical idea when he proclaims that “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (CPP 190). In Christian theology, Incarnation refers to the union of divinity and humanity in the embodiment of God in the flesh of Jesus Christ. In Four Quartets, however, Incarnation refers to any moment when the divine embodies itself on Earth in a passing transcendental vision. Following this logic, the epiphanic experience with the Emily Hale-figure in “Burnt Norton” would qualify as an instance of Incarnation. Through its treatment of the Incarnation, “The Dry Salvages” implies that, in moments of transient spiritual illumination, the absolute takes form in time and history. The divine is not out of this world but contained within it. 

The final poem “Little Gidding” develops these ideas further, but arguably with a more daring attitude. The speaker, now in an explicit war context, suggests that a divine will is realized in history through the 1940-41 German bombing campaign of the Blitz. The Blitz ravaged the entire landscape of London and brought forth unthinkable destruction and suffering, yet the speaker proposes that through such ruination, renewal becomes possible. History is corrupt and in need of purgation. In the Second World War context of “Little Gidding,” everyday life is characterized by an apocalyptic atmosphere of death: “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” (CPP 192). Nightly air bombardments shroud the air with “ash” and “dust” in a climate of aridity. The state of London in “Little Gidding” echoes the geographical and spiritual barrenness of The Waste Land: “This is the death of air” (CPP 192); “This is the death of earth” (CPP 193); “This is the death of water and fire” (CPP 193). The four classical elements of air, earth, water, and fire were long thought to form the basis of all reality; their deaths therefore imply the end of the world as people know it. Nonetheless, the speaker also attests that “what we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning” (CPP 197). The end of a classical composition of reality enables radically different understandings of the world. To the speaker, the apocalyptic scene of London represents a new beginning directed by a transcendent will. 

Horrors of history become an ultimate test of faith as the speaker proposes the idea that the fires of the Blitz are, in fact, Pentecostal flames. The Pentecost is evoked as the bombs descend: “The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror / Of which tongues declare / The one discharge from sin and error” (CPP 196). Bombs are compared to doves; instruments of violence are equated with symbols of peace. The dove is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit: after Jesus is baptized, “he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove” (Matt 3:16). In Acts, the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost and manifests itself as tongues of flame, and the Apostles start to speak in tongues. In “Little Gidding,” bombs are manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and the Londoners below the bombs are the Apostles whose “tongues declare” a divine presence operating within time and history. Again, oppositions are resisted: “History may be servitude, / History may be freedom” (CPP 195). If history is servitude, then people are trapped in a deterministic fate. If history is freedom, then people can choose the meaning of their lives, despite the conditions of their historical contexts. They may be able to apprehend a divine purpose in the flames and death sweeping throughout their homes. The transcendent may come in the form of the rapturous; it may come in the form of the horrific. Being infinite, it contains all possibilities, even paradoxes. Having faith requires the speaker to sustain paradoxical modes of thought in demanding tests of belief.

A tone of reconciliation marks the last lines of Four Quartets, reflecting the speaker’s final embrace of paradox: “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” (CPP 198). Layered theological references characterize the passage. Its first two lines are quoted from the English theologian Julian of Norwich, whose transcendent visions distinguished her from other Medieval mystics (Leyser 219). The phrase “the tongues of flame” calls to mind the Holy Spirit and Pentecostal fires, which in the previous stanzas are represented as purgatorial. “The crowned knot of fire” evokes Dante’s portrayal of Guido da Montefeltro in Inferno of the Divine Comedy (Brooker 70). As a work that details the progress of spiritual labour, the Divine Comedy profoundly influenced Eliot’s writing; the poem is quoted and referenced throughout his entire career (Aresi 398). In Inferno, the damned da Montefeltro is depicted as a crowned flame: when he ceases speaking, “the flame, in grievous pain, departed from us / gnarling and flickering its pointed horn” (Inf.XXVII.132-3). Hence, fires can be infernal or purgatorial. In the final line of Four Quartets, the fire unites with the rose, the latter of which is a symbol of Paradise and transcendent understanding. The rose garden of “Burnt Norton” is where the first epiphanic moment of Four Quartets takes place. Similarly, the climax of the Divine Comedythe Pilgrim’s experience of overwhelming transcendental illumination—occurs within a celestial Rose. Thus, the unification of the fire and the rose can represent the state in which Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise exist all at once. By the end of Four Quartets, transcendent understanding and paradoxical states become intertwined as seemingly opposed spiritual conditions meld into each other seamlessly.

The speakers of Ash-Wednesday and Four Quartets long for transcendent illumination after their passing glimpses into a higher world. Although they all struggle to recover from their falls, in these poems, hopelessness is presented as an integral part of the effort to develop spiritual belief. Skepticism and religiosity are not in tension with each other—indeed, many other traditional binaries are questioned and eventually dissolved. Time and history do not oppose transcendence; the physical realm is not closed off from the spiritual one. Glimpses of transcendence allow the figures of Eliot’s later poetry to become aware of all that is outside their scope of understanding. Passing mystical visions fuel their wishes to apprehend a higher reality, but in order to satisfy their longing for spiritual understanding, they must welcome their human limitations by embracing time, history, and faith. The effort to believe requires humility, trust, and acceptance of a divine will: to Eliot, the journey on Earth—not the unknown destination beyond time and history—is where meaning rests.

Works Cited

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Ellis, Steve. “Four Quartets,” The New Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot ed. Jason Harding. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 

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Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Phoenix Press, 2002. 

Lobb, Edward. “Limitation and Transcendence in ‘East Coker,’” Words in Time: New Essays on Eliot’s Four Quartets ed. Edward Lobb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

McFarlane, James. “The Mind of Modernism,” Modernism 1890-1930 eds. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

McKim, Donald K. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 1996.

Schuchard, Ronald. “‘If I think, again, of this place’: Eliot, Herbert, and the Way to ‘Little Gidding,’” Words in Time: New Essays on Eliot’s Four Quartets ed. Edward Lobb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Spurr, Barry. “‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T. S. Eliot and Christianity,” The New Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot ed. Jason Harding. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.