Madness or Mysticism: Eliot’s Dream-Crossed Twilight
INVESTIGATIONS OF ELIOT’S POETICS CITE HIS 1927 RELIGIOUS CONVERSION AS A definitive shift in his epistemological speculations, and thus in his art. This move is the culmination of a long process of private speculation, image-making, indirection and ambivalence. As Eliot abandons his reliance on science and philosophy in favor of the metaphysics of orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, he envisions his poet as a masochistic mystic. At the same time, Eliot’s impulse to regard the poet as an androgynous priest or prophet-a “witness” of cultural disintegration and an advocate for spiritual rebirth on a grand level-yields to a more private purpose. After The Hollow Men, Eliot’s apocalyptic imagery and his arch pronouncements slip from the public sphere; his poet s torment seems private, personal, and his relationship to God speaks of individual rather than cultural atonement. And so his crazy-quilt arrangements of broken images, and his scathing comments on urban blight, give way to a sobering “confessional” mode in Ash Wednesday and his final Four Quartets. Eliot’s confirmation to the Church of England signals a disavowal of several crucial factors in his early poetic persona. It serves to negate, once and for all, his humanistic, Unitarian upbringing-Eliot strikes against his family’s, particularly his grandfather’s and mother’s, emphasis on Protestant social reform as the single pur pose of any “good” citizen. Eliot’s conversion further separates him, physically and spiritually, from his “hysterical” wife and the Bloomsbury set that described their married social life. It also severs him from other fashionable modernists. Last, and certainly not least, Eliot rescripts the artist’s relationship to “his” audience, casting the cultural purpose of art in religious
terms. In the process, Eliot changes the medium of his public communication, as this series of turns ends-at long last-in the ritualistic, even “classical,” drama that Eliot proposes as the most effective mode of “ceremony” for the arts. Thus, Eliot’s conversion marks his cruelest and most satisfying failure. In quest for a “deeper union,” that is, Eliot sacrifices poetry en route.