We may find the spirituality of this great work questionable, but the humanity behind it and his continuing brilliance, is not
By Roz Kaveney
Eliot at his best is one of the greatest of poets, but it is impossible to divorce much of the best of his work from the most despicable or disturbing parts of his life.
We have to accept that art is alchemy, that memories, reading, love and fear fuse together, and are transmuted in the process. The rapist Byron, the whoremonger Rochester and the Stalinist quasi-plagiarist Brecht were contemptible human beings, and yet I love their work, and have been changed and influenced by it often for the better. So it is with Eliot. Even if, in the end, we turn our face away from the particular kind of mystical spirituality that in his last and greatest poems he expresses, it is not because of any thinning of his poetic powers.
It is important to disagree profoundly with George Orwell on this point. In a review of the first three of the Four Quartets, Orwell saw their poetic language as a falling off from the work that he loved – Prufrock, the quatrain poems, The Waste Land – as lacking their tense memorable language and fascinating despair. Because Orwell regarded religious belief as childish and nonsensical, rather than sustainable but wrong, he could not properly respect work to which a sense of the spiritual life is central.
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.