Oh, Eliot, You Wonderful, Infernal, Old Dog of My Heart

       (c) Copyright 2014, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved

eliot book jacket

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T.S. Eliot

I received a jolt, as I always do, when I opened my well-thumbed, binding-sprung copy of Eliot’s Complete Poems and Plays the other night. What was I thinking? I knew better. One’s reading should be more cautious and less challenging late at night if one hopes for a peaceful sleep! Eliot is just not the thing, the glass of milk and a warm cookie, to send you drifting off to a blissful slumber.

Books might be tagged or color coded, you know, just a thought, by recommended hour of the day and circumstances for consuming them?  They might carry warnings on their jackets or spines concerning their likelihood of disturbing or waylaying-distracting-upending certain susceptible types under certain circumstances.

Eliot was perhaps the greatest poet in the English language of the Twentieth Century, but he was a difficult, troubled man who wrote difficult troubling verse. Virginia Woolf, a close friend and admirer, remarked several times in her letters how pinched, tense and anxious “Tom” (T.S. Eliot) always was when he visited her in Bloomsbury or at her home in the country. She and Leonard took the bold step of publishing several of his longer works in their private publishing company, Hogarth Press.

Anyone who wrote “The Wasteland” and “The Hollow Men” would have to be pinched and anxious.

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
T.S. Eliot



 “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
T.S. Eliot

He was an event in modern poetry, the event; he elevated it, challenged us at every turn, and baffled us, while seducing us nevertheless, on and on, teasing out the finest tissues of image and language, but always to one end. Even if you hate him with all of his footnotes, all of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Italian epigraphs, all of that pompous mess, you cannot ignore the changes he wrought in poetry. Wallace Stevens finally challenged him on the poetry scene as a contemporary; he had the rare juice and talent necessary to be a credible contender. He crowed his own erudite and beautiful answers to Eliot’s positions and values in an entirely different key and from an entirely different angle, resounding and memorable, but I honestly think Eliot had the last word. Today Stevens may seem more contemporary, but I think that’s because this is an age of drifting, frantic faithlessness, a time when faith itself has become difficult for many and “unfashionable.”

The faith thing, you know, cycles historically, in and out.  The same cycling appertains to one’s own faith journey in one’s own life.

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
T.S. Eliot

Eliot was a believer, a High Church Anglican, which is very close to Catholicism. When I read him, as I did the other night for the umpteenth lovely time, I am a better and more firm believer. His collected poems are such a beautiful apologia for faith that if you have just a shred of it left or in a dry season in your faith journey, it’s difficult not to come away from reading him feeling refreshed and restored. I re-read his “Ash Wednesday,” well, every Ash Wednesday that comes around, and I feel it more deeply each time I do.  And I still stand amazed at his amazing linguistic virtuosity and range, his vast reference, allusiveness and stunning erudition.

Today there are new vaguely similar, superficially and somewhat inscrutable luminaries, Amy Campbell (maybe) among them, who are remotely similar in their daring and putative profundity, who are equally intriguing, though generally faithless, but only time will tell if they continue to speak to us – over time.

I’ll end this idle rumination, the residue of my latest Eliot encounter that cost me sleep, with a short passage from “Ash Wednesday” that illustrates some of the qualities I have mentioned above:

From “Ash Wednesday”

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent

If the unheard, unspoken

Word is unspoken, unheard;

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,

The Word without a word, the Word within

The world and for the world;

And the light shone in darkness and

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

About the center of the silent Word.


[ helpful links

Virginia Woolf –  http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VirginiaWoolf

T.S. Eliot – http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._S._Eliot  ]

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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2 Responses to Oh, Eliot, You Wonderful, Infernal, Old Dog of My Heart

  1. roughghosts says:

    Oddly this reflection upon the poetry of TS Eliot has put me in mind of a book I read after my last serious breakdown and found as a major source of insight and comfort. Karen Armstrong, who is a well known writer about religion and God, is also a huge Eliot admirer. Her memoir The Spiral Staircase recounts her experience as a young novice trying to find God and eventually leaving the convent. Throughout this time she struggled with depression, panic and blackouts that would not be diagnosed as epilepsy until many years later. I remember desperately hunting down my Selected Poems of TS Eliot while reading her wonderful book because he was such an important inspiration on her journey.

    I think it’s time to revisit both.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have great respect, immense respect, for Karen Armstrong’s work (towering!) and her own faith journey, and although I was unaware of the role Eliot played at that juncture of her life, it does not surprise me that she would seek him out. Eliot is ruthlessly honest about the ups and downs of life and faith, the lean dry hopeless months as well as those few infrequent times of ecstasy and complete calm and assurance. The beauty of his poetry in dealing with these issues and afflictions (for he was a tortured soul himself) is redemptive and healing for the reader who is also a seeker looking for some relief. “Four Quartets” and “Ash Wednesday” are two of my own favorites. I don’t think Eliot will disappoint you; I think you will be surprised at the consolation you find in his work


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