T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian


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To critique an entire civilization is one thing; to present a reasonable alternative is quite another. In these books, which show a progression from virulence to tolerance, Eliot gave some indication of why he had come to believe so strongly in tradition. Christian tradition, for him, was a counterweight to the emptiness of liberalism and the rigidity of conservatism.

Chesterton defined tradition as "democracy extended through time," and for Eliot, tradition offered the advantages of democracy -- diverse viewpoints and a protection against tyranny -- nestled in the cocoon of time. Apart from tradition, democracy could too easily degenerate into hysteria. Eliot saw this as a particular danger in industrial society, which creates "people detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words a mob.

And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined" Idea, p. Eliot thought the ruling class should not be determined by lineage or by economics but by common interests. Yet these elites must be attached to some class, for Eliot thought the family was the primary channel for transmitting cultural values; he doubted whether education or political institutions alone could transmit.


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In a BBC interview in , Eliot concluded that "when one considers the classless society, even so far as it has adumbrated itself in the present situation of the world — its mediocrity, its reduction of human beings to the mass. But how could Christian values be disseminated by a Christian upper class apart from some form of oppressive rule?

The most practicable idea Eliot set forth on this score was what he called the Community of Christians. He noted the peril of specialization in modern culture, which tends to isolate religious thinkers from those in philosophy, art, politics and science.

T.S. Eliot - Christian Themes in Famous Literature (Part 2)

The Community of Christians would bring together the most fertile minds from various fields for the express purpose of defining Christian values for society at large. It would serve as a "Church within the Church. Eliot participated in several groups that attempted to be a Community of Christians, and in them he learned the limitations of such a plan.

His own groups could rarely agree on practical programs, or even whether it was desirable for them to discuss practical programs. Commonality of Christian commitment did not guarantee any kind of consensus agreement on ethical issues. As the years passed, Eliot grew increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of reaching a Christian consensus in the West, resigning himself to the prospect of "centuries of barbarism.

For example, he traced many economic problems back to the moral problem of avarice. Our economic system, he wrote, encourages acquisitive rather than spiritual instincts. He questioned, too, the ethics of the most common investment procedures. The real issue, he concluded, "is between the secularists and the antisecularists, between those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth, and those who believe also in values realized only out of time.

The danger, for those who start from the temporal end, is Utopianism; settle the problem of distribution -- of wheat, coffee, aspirin or wireless sets -- and all the problems of evil will disappear. The danger, for those who start from the spiritual end, is Indifferentism; neglect the affairs of the world and save as many souls out of the wreckage as possible. Oddly, however, Eliot paid little attention to previous attempts to create a Christian society -- in the Netherlands, for examole.

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Each of these examples reveals some of the inherent dangers that Eliot tended to minimize in light of what he saw as the more immediate threat of paganism. In After Strange Gods he hinted darkly at the kind of oppression his society might lead to: "What is still more important [than homogeneity of culture] is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of freethinking Jews undesirable.

Similarly, his ideal version of secular education, though it allows for a "proportion" of persons professing other faiths, and for some disbelievers, recommends that these people conform to public Christian values, presumably as determined by the Community of Christians. History gives little reason for optimism. Eliot was particularly elusive in discussing the interaction between church and state, the normal contact point between Christian ideals and society. He himself admitted that his observations on this point had limited value outside of England. Eliot believed a state of tension would, and probably should, always exist between church and state, and that individual Christians would feel a dual allegiance.

To accomplish its goal, the church needs a hierarchy: one level to maintain official relations with the state, and another structure in direct contact with the smallest units of the community and also with its think-tank, the Community of Christians. But they have doubted the relevancy of his proposed cure. Could the church really enliven society and provide the moral capital to combat its ills?

Some have also wondered whether a secular, neutral society might provide better soil for growth in Christian life and values than a uniformly Christian one. Perhaps Christianity works better, and in its purest form, as a minority religion. For him, normal day-to-day apprehension is like a fog, but occasionally he feels that just beyond his field of vision there is a different order of reality — a parallel universe. What first strikes us is that Eliot very often has a peculiar tendency to express religious ideas in predominantly secular terms. Both poems could be described as apocryphal, reminiscent of other written accounts of the life and works of Jesus during his life on earth, such as The Gospel of St.

Thomas and others, which were seen by Church authorities as being of questionable provenance. Matthew begins his Gospel account with an elaborate genealogy that places Jesus as an ancestor of King David and Abraham. Here already Matthew shows his special interest and the intended audience for his Gospel. He is writing for a Jewish audience and presents Jesus as a King, better than David and a teacher greater than Moses.

Matthew, in his powerful birth account, presents Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecies and hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures, as the King of the Jews who has been given all authority in Heaven and Earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

Matthew, however, is making a powerful distinction for his Jewish audience — the Magi represent those outsiders, those wise men, magicians, or astrologers from the East, from Persia who will now be saved by this Christ child. Eliot sees in the Magi a metaphor for his own conversion — he too has made a long and tortuous journey and has finally made his decision to bow down before the Christian God.

The poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time, and it emphasizes this pivotal moment in human history. This is an apocryphal account of the journey made by the Three Wise Men which eventually led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem where the Christ Child lay.

T. S. Eliot

It is narrated to us by one of their number, perhaps over a glass of wine, after their return home. The story, and it is a beautifully told story, is told not in Biblical language, but in the language of everyday speech and with an amount of detail not found in the Gospel story of St. The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ. The hardships of the journey are recounted in some detail.

The details underline the absurdity of the journey in the first place but stress the strong impulses that made them undertake the journey in the middle of winter. Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The description of the valley is akin to a movie still — the camera pans slowly over the landscape lingering on sharply etched details such as the running stream, the watermill, the three trees, and the old white horse. Then the camera moves on and picks out the gamblers and the empty wineskins.


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The poem ends with its narrator reflecting on the journey some years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it all again, but he remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived. Was it the birth of a new world Christianity or the death of an old one i. Jesus himself, however, is absent from this poem.

Another possible reason is that the focus here in this account is on the journey, the quest, and the hardship of the search. Eliot places himself here among and alongside the Persian astrologers as they seek out the face of the baby Christ.

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No study of the poem would be complete without reference to the imagery used by the poet. Sadly, it seems, the Magi miss the significance of almost all the images mentioned in the poem! Even though the narrator is a priest or astrologer, someone trained to look for the significance in the things around him, to read and interpret signs as symbols or omens, he fails to pick up on what they foreshadow.

Indeed, the purpose of the religious references is not to analyse religious experience into a series of logical or dogmatic statements, but to reflect a state of mind. The poem, therefore, has considerable realism.

T.S. Eliot on Society and Religion « Catholic Insight

He just wants to die peacefully, with no heroics and no rhetoric. Throughout the poem, the coming of Christ is seen as a victory over the powers of darkness. Yet, characteristically, the advent of Christ is also seen as involving a painful transformation of attitude. The quiet strength of the poem enables the allusions to suffering to be used in such a way that the reader is forced to pause and to consider.

T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian
T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian
T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian
T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian
T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian
T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian
T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian
T.S. Eliot : the Poet as Christian

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