T.S. Eliot and Shelley Offer Clues About the Meaning of Life

“What the Thunder Said” — T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land

According to the book 501 Great Writers, T. S. Eliot was one of the great ones. Poet, essayist, critic, playwright and children’s book author, his influence on the cultural landscape was extensive. I remember studying his works in high school with profound lines from at least two of his poems staying tethered to me now more than 50 years. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock made a powerful impression as did The Hollow Men, which begins thus…

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
in our dry cellar.

What powerful images and a worthy read.

Eliot, who was St. Louis-born with strong New England roots, had three relatives who were U.S. presidents. Igor Stravinsky called him “A great sorcerer of words… the very key keeper of the language.”

One of his greatest poems was The Waste Land. The bio here describes it as “a fractured, disjointed journey through a landscape exhausted both ecologically and culturally, inhabited by fragmented, almost ghostly voices that are connected by the yearning for rebirth.”

Interestingly enough on Easter Sunday a few years back, our pastor cited another poem of Eliot’s which was also a profound commentary on the modern world. Eliot had been a protege of Bertrand Russell, the brilliant mathematician, activist and notorious atheist. But in seeing the futility of this line of thinking, he turned to another path and became a Christian. Ironically he gives credit to Russell for this profound life decision.

The lines our pastor shared were from his poem The Rock. Here is an excerpt from that poem.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust . . .

The Word of the Lord came unto me, saying:
O miserable cities of designing men,
O wretched generation of enlightened men,
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities,
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions:
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust . . .
In the land of lobelias and tennis flannels
The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit
The nettle shall flourish on the gravel court,
And the wind shall say:
“Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls . . .”

I immediately think of Shelley’s Ozymandias, which offers a similar judgement on the vanity of man.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Life is more than the things we accumulate and the monuments we build for ourselves. Despite the injustice and suffering we see in this world, we can take comfort that there will one day be an accounting… along with the promise of better things, the foundation of our hope.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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