Seeking Transcendence in a Time of War: Theology and "Saving Civilization" in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets Open Access

Wells, Maggie (Spring 2021)

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T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is celebrated by scholars for its acute depiction of cultural disillusionment following World War I. Eliot’s last poem, Four Quartets, on the other hand, receives criticism for disengaging with society and politics in part due to the poem’s focus on theology. Surprisingly, Eliot explicitly mentions war, and even World War II throughout the Four Quartets. Looking specifically at places where Eliot explores war in the text, this study aims to closely examine how Eliot engages with politics and society within the frame of his recent conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. These sections of the poem reveal that Eliot’s faith frames his cyclical interpretation of war and his civic-minded impulse towards “saving civilization,” or the affirmation of a communal identity that upholds a moral order. At the same time, Eliot cynically describes poetry’s inability to change human action and focuses instead on transcendent experiences accessed by those who refine their souls. Comparing Eliot to W.H. Auden’s “Spain” and H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall highlights the poetic tools Eliot employs to make an argument for “saving civilization” as opposed to explicit political action. Moreover, this comparison emphasizes Eliot’s ultimate focus on human experience in the Four Quartets to offer transcendence as a mechanism to find meaning in human life. 

Table of Contents

Introduction … 1 

Chapter 1: Surveying Theology and Politics in Literary Modernism … 10 

Chapter 2: “Saving Civilization” in Eliot and Auden … 25 

Chapter 3: Making Meaning Amidst the Blitz in Eliot and H.D. … 43 

Coda … 61 

Works Cited … 66 

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