The Gospel According to Eliot

words words words

In the upcoming weeks, a few folks from the Greener Trees community will be sharing their personal responses to The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner. I’m grateful for the opportunity to peer through the eyes of others. We have so much to learn from one another. Today’s guest post was written by Carolyn Givens.

Carolyn Clare Givens is a freelance writer and editor. She works at Cairn University and edits and publishes the University’s magazine. Carolyn lives outside of Philadelphia. Visit her blog to discover her thoughts on everything from art, music, and writing to pie and international soccer.   

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 3: Poetic Communication

 “Words, words, words.”
          –Hamlet (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)

 “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
          –The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (John 1:14)

As one who works in words as my medium, I’ve always been a little bit offended by the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I want to argue with it, point to writers who say more in a single sentence than I think anyone could get from staring at one of Monet’s Water Lilies for an hour. Words are my lifeblood, my oxygen. They are my method; my way of expressing the ideas, feelings, and experiences I want to share.

When the pieces all come together, words are the strongest and most poetic means I can think of to express ideas. When the pieces all come together. When the sentence is “right,” as T.S. Eliot puts it,

                         (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
-Little Gidding, V.217-223

And yet, time and again throughout my life, I’ve found them to be useless as a means of expression: nothing but words, and words upon words, straining, cracking, and sometimes breaking under the burden, decaying with imprecision (Eliot, Burnt Norton, V.149-152). They cannot do what I wish them to do. There is, within me, something that cannot be contained in letters and sounds. By the time I have found a way to put it into words, it is passed, or finished, or changed:

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of  l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
-East Coker, V.173-178

T.S. Eliot knows what I mean, even if I’m having trouble communicating it to anyone else.

And in spite of all this, Eliot chooses to write. He attempts to use words to communicate. Not only that, but in Four Quartets Eliot attempts to communicate ideas which are spiritual, deep, broad, and resonant. He compounds his own struggles, reaching – as those of us too timid to try it might say – perhaps higher than he should. Helen Gardner puts it this way: “He is not intentionally writing obscurely in order to mystify, or to restrict his audience to a few like-minded persons with a special training, but is treating a subject of extreme complexity, which is constantly eluding formulation in words. Mr. Eliot is, in his own words, ‘occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist’” (p. 57). Later, Gardner continues: “He is writing of religious experience, of how the mind comes to discover religious truth: truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” (p. 61).

And here is the crux of it – for Christians are people of the Word. Our “religious experience” is shaped by the Word. The “truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” is text: words.

Gardner points to a dilemma facing the religious poet: “This predicament is glanced at in the Greek quotation from Heraclitus, which stands as one of the epigraphs to Four Quartets, and which I have put at the head of this chapter: ‘Although the Word is common to all, most men live as if each had a private wisdom of his own.’ If the poet speaks from his private wisdom, how can his readers each with their own private wisdoms find in him ‘the Word which is common to all’?” (p. 61). She points out that this problem is not just that of the religious poet, but it is a problem of communication in the modern era: mankind no longer speaks the same language. “The reading public is far larger, the output of printed matter incomparably greater, and the content of education has expanded so enormously that there is now no general cultural tradition to which the poet can refer or be referred. The divisions do not only run between those who are trained in the scientific disciplines and those trained in the humanities; but between science and science and between one branch of the humanities and another” (p. 69).

(In 2013, we chuckle reading those lines. Helen Gardner, writing in 1949, could not have imagined the public would carry scores of libraries in their pockets; that historic events would be live-blogged; that 140 characters would be considered great thought, but not a quarter of the population would read Virgil.)

Gardner examines, in the third chapter of her book, the ways in which T.S. Eliot overcomes his predicament with cautious use of religious words and his choice of simple and common symbols. The wordsmith finds a way to express the “truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” without using words and symbols that would only confuse his audience. “It is not the poet’s business to make us believe what he believes, but to make us believe that he believes” (p. 68).

Gardner points out how, in The Dry Salvages, Eliot even takes words that typically have Christian significance and steps them back, using them in common speech before bringing out their religious use. It seems to be a sound method, based upon all we have learned so far about his audience. Oughtn’t we to contextualize the Gospel, after all? Shouldn’t we learn to speak the languages of science and mathematics and agriculture and art and business? Are we not encouraged to “become all things to all men, so that by any means we might save some?” (1 Cor. 9:22). Is this not the heart of evangelism?

But there is one theological word which Eliot does not reappropriate. Gardner writes that he uses it “without preparation, but with extraordinary force” in the fifth movement of The Dry Salvages: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (V.215).

Incarnation. The Word become flesh.

Flesh. Even in English it has a slightly disgusting sound, as if we’re trying to spit it out of our mouths. In Greek it is σαρκος (sarkos), with its hissing ends and harsh center. Flesh. It rots. It decays. Flesh.

Strange as it may seem, for the people of the Word there’s no getting away from the Incarnation. It is the center point of history; it is the moment when the Speaking Creator chooses a medium beyond words. But without it all the words in the world are “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5).

There is Someone that cannot be contained in letters and sounds. Yet in Him, all words find meaning.

We are a people of the Word limited by language. We are the children of a Speaking God. So we continue to wrestle: How do we proceed? How do we communicate the God of the Universe? How do we join Eliot in his “perpetual effort towards communication, a desire to speak plainly”? (p. 73). Is it even worth the effort?

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
East Coker, V.189



Questions for you to consider:

1. How do the questions and ideas raised above play out for the Christian artist whose medium is not words? In what ways do these artists face the same struggle to communicate as the poet? What solutions are there to this dilemma?

2. What other “languages” do the people you interact with on a daily basis “speak”? How can you present the message of the Gospel in ways that they will hear and understand?


Overview of plan (and link to Eliot reading Four Quartets): From Telescope to Microscope
Thoughts from Week 1: On Shoulders of Giants
Thoughts from Week 2: You are the Music


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4 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Eliot

  1. Carrie —

    This may be way off topic, but I keep thinking of Gary Chapman’s book on Love Languages every time I read through your post, especially the final question. I live with someone whose love language is most definitely physical touch — and the introvert hermit-side of me needs to be reminded all the time that I need to be sure to express my love to this person in terms of touch.

    The funny thing is, in my quiet time this morning, I read the account of Jesus healing the leper in Matthew 8. In it, Jesus reaches out and touches the leper, a physical touch which the leper had probably not experienced in a long time because of his uncleanness. Perhaps that touch was as much an act of love as the healing itself.

    I know this doesn’t really relate to artists and “creatives” — but it is very much a mom thing, figuring out the love language of those in your family and communicating with it.

    • Sally – Good insights. You’ve gotten me pondering on the connection of Eliot’s big ideas in Four Quartets and love…not sure if that is absolutely one of the spiritual concepts he is working to communicate, but in some ways it inhabits all the others – the Incarnation not least.I think there is certainly more to consider there. Eliot did, after all, write: “Love is the unfamiliar Name/ Behind the hands that wove/ The intolerable shirt of flame/ Which human power cannot remove.”

  2. “There is Someone that cannot be contained in letters and sounds. Yet in Him, all words find meaning.” I think that expresses a great paradox that’s healthy to keep in mind. Some Christians prioritize word over image. Others go the opposite way. But there is a balance in that relationship we need to find.

    In regard to your first question, one of the books on the Hutchmoot reading list, “Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts” had a lot of great discussion on what this meant for various art forms.

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