T. S. Eliot

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 1

What can I possibly learn from T.S. Eliot, and why does it matter?

To some, the asking of the question itself is offensive. The answers are obvious.

To others, considering such a question is a waste of time. There are more important questions to be asked, after all. “Given the economy, will our finances stretch far enough?” “What if the medical test results bring bad news?” “Is there any chance for healing of that painfully damaged relationship?” Or perhaps most commonly, “How can I rearrange the upcoming week to grant some relief from the frantic pace of life?”

With such “real world” problems, could it possibly be worth the time invested to consider the poetic works of one man who spent most of his life in academia ?

Over the next few weeks, a group of us will be reading through Helen Gardner’s The Art of T.S. Eliot. Please consider joining us. The schedule is as follows:

Jan 7 – I. Auditory Imagination
Jan 14 – II. The Music of the Four Quartets
Jan 21 – III. Poetic Communication
Jan 28 – IV. The Dry Season
Feb 4 – V. The Time of Tension
Feb 11 – VI. The Language of Drama
Feb 18 – VII. The Approach to Meaning

My hope is that in reading along, or in following written responses to each chapter, we may all discover that exploring Eliot’s Four Quartets is worthy of the time and energy invested. Here are a few thoughts to consider from the first chapter:

“The dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” Gardner, p.9

All good art tells the truth about life. It gives us fresh eyes through which we can view ourselves, others, our world, and our Maker. We leave our experience of that art with a greater awareness of what it means to be human. I’d suggest that’s time well invested.

~ Our own tendency toward law over grace is exposed when we watch Les Miserables unfold on stage.

~ We’re given a rich portrait of the One who came to save us, as we read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

~ The battle between darkness and light within the world (as well as within each of us) is illuminated in the paintings of Rembrandt.

Eliot was an astute student of the classics. He drew from and built upon the works of those who had come before him including Dante, Milton, and French Symbolists. The Four Quartets, often considered his most significant work, marks a shift in Eliot’s development as a poet.

“From now on, he will try to speak in his own voice, which will express himself with all his limitations, and not try to escape those limitations by imitating other poets.” Gardner, p.20

Eliot found freedom, not in disregarding the past, but in learning from it. He took the knowledge and experienced gained from those who came before him and built upon it. In doing so, he found his own limitations. Those limitations became the turning point from which his most prolific works were created. In Isaac Newton’s words, Eliot was “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”

So are we.

In considering the past, most of us err on one side of the spectrum or the other.

Some tend to disregard the past.  We don’t see value in doing the work of exploring the classics, understanding prior civilizations, or even considering the impact that our individual family’s history has upon the present. Our focus is on securing a better future. We miss the lessons learned and the truths revealed through the ages.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can get stuck in the past. We spend our days living vicariously through the lives of others.  We may appreciate literature, history, and art, yet are content to be solely consumers. We take without giving back. We live a life of imitation rather than creativity.

A creative life is a messy life. It learns from the past, then moves forward to give to others in unique, specific ways.

If you’re joining us in reading The Art of T.S. Eliot, here are a few questions to consider:

“The Dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” p. 9

1. What are some practical applications of that statement? Can you think of other laws in the arts (music, dance, painting) to which this principle applies?


“Any attempt to analyze the diction of a passage must murder to dissect, for the life of a passage is in its rhythm.” p. 15

2. In what other areas of life would this statement apply? Where do we murder when we dissect (rather than appreciating in context and as a whole work)? Why do you think our tendency is often to dissect rather than know fully?


“Avoidance of the obvious is not the mark of the highest originality or of the genuinely bold artist.” p. 16

3. What does that mean to you? What examples come to mind?


For further reading:

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (in particular, the chapter Pentecost)
Walking Backwards Into the Future
by Makoto Fujimura
Q Ideas: Learning for the Common Good by Byron Borger




If you liked this post, you might like these:

Join Us - Refractions by Makoto Fujimura
Notes From a Toilet Paper Tube
Catching Up: Conferences, Cliffhangers, and a Movie Critic

7 thoughts on “On Shoulders of Giants

  1. On “murdering to dissect” — when I first read this in the book, it was an “aha” moment for me, and immediately brought to mind a dissection I had done with some of my children years ago of a cow’s eye.

    We had gotten the cow’s eye from a local slaughterhouse — so, indeed, it was murdered so that we could dissect it. I had brought home this rather disgusting package which the children gathered around to see. The best thing I remember from the dissection was holding the lens in my hand. The lens was just fascinating to me, and when you look someone in the eye, you can’t really see the lens. It had to be murdered and dissected for me to see and appreciate it. I’m sure that a skilled ophthalmologist looks at lenses all the time, but for a mom with a bunch of kids, it was kind of a thrill.

    The second thing that came to mind as I read that phrase was Dvorak’s 9th and Mozart’s 40th, two symphonies I have had on repeat for months now. I know every note — well, not quite — and anticipate each passage with great delight. As I read Gardner’s words, I thought, it’s time for me to draw on my music theory knowledge and dissect the symphonies. I love them, but I can appreciate them even more if I begin looking for the motifs and counter melodies. As much as I love these pieces of music, I will love them more when I dissect them and gain an understanding of the genius of Dvorak and Mozart in how they put it all together.

    My tendency of late has not been to dissect, but to just take things at face value. There is a balance between dissecting to look at minutiae and never digging deeper in the appreciation of any work of art.

    Does that make sense?

    1. Sally – Yes! It does. I was struck by how we do the same thing relationally. We can draw conclusions about another, looking at limited data (regardless of relationship, we all have limited data), and analyzing… rather than taking a step back and trying to see the person as a whole – past, present, and having vision for their future. I can so easily miss the essence of the whole person. That may be a stretch from the original intent of the quote, but that’s where I went with it.

      1. I’ve been pondering this murder/dissection thing for a couple of days now. I love how you have taken it to apply to interpersonal relationships because it fits so well. In anything, whether it be art, poetry, music, science, or relationships, we must have some sort of understanding of the whole before we murder it and dissect it. Don’t you think this can be one of the failings in formal education — forcing information onto the unsuspecting student before they are really ready for it? In the cow’s eye dissection, I probably learned the most from it because I had studied science for years. I understood lenses and refraction of light, corneas and retinas and their roles in the eye. The boys may have just been more awed by the fact that their mother was willing to cut open a cow’s eye than really learn much more than that.

        So I go back to my original slogging post. I really need to familiarize myself with The Four Quartets before I dissect it.

        And the same could be true of relationships. Since we can never really know another person, as you point out, we should avoid over-analyzing and just appreciate the wonderfully unique people God places in our lives.

        1. Sally – I know- I keep chewing on that principle. I’ve read through The Four Quartets twice. Ever. There is a bit of irony as Gardner lays out this principle, yet much of the book is dedicated to dissecting the poem. I loved your point – we need both. I guess we fall at one end of the spectrum or the other, and knowing ourselves well enough to be aware and self-correct is important.

  2. This is a first for me. My first plunge into the world of a reading club online. So here it goes. I read or rather listened to Four Quartets three times (in order to really grasp its meaning) and I have yet to get my hands on The Art of TS Eliot. Keeping the aforementioned in mind, I might be extracting something out of your first quote that is not relevent to its context. We cannot escape truth, in every sense of the word: truth of scripture, truth in mathmatical operations, truth in the law of physics. They are all in obeisance to the Creator of all things visible and invisible. We can live in denial of the truths revealed but they are there, like air.

    1. Laura – Great thought. I agree. I think that Gardner was saying there is ultimate truth, and all (life, music, art, poetry, etc.) is subject to the Maker’s natural laws. If you haven’t read Dorothy Sayer’s Mind of the Maker, I’d highly recommend it. For your older kids as well. Sayers does a masterful job at clarifying the difference between natural law (ultimate truth) and arbitrary law (cultural/popular opinion). She says, “The more closely the moral code (of a church or society) agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behavior; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called ‘judgements of God’.” She was speaking specifically about war in that last phrase (indeed, it could be misused). But the principle is the same. It think it was the Natural Law (ultimate truth) to which Gardner is referring. Hope that helps. I’m glad you’re reading with us 🙂

  3. I think by “murdering to dissect” Gardner means that a poem is meant to be taken and appreciated as it is. Poems and works of art aren’t primarily created to be dissected in analysis–they are created to be experienced all at once. So sometimes analysis really kills the pleasure or life of the poem. I know I have run into this tension at times teaching literature to students. Sometimes the scholarly world gets quite ridiculous in its attempts to dissect a work.