T.S. Eliot's Marian Transformation of the Bhagavad Gita

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

—T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

In The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer proposes, as the truest epitome of “the perfect resignation, which is the inmost spirit of Christianity, as of Indian wisdom,” the “Face, especially the eyes,” of a Renaissance Madonna.[1] The transcendent peace that clothes Mary as represented by the old masters distills the detachment at the heart of that perennial philosophy which Schopenhauer claimed to have discovered in the Upaniṣads and in the great texts of the Western tradition alike.

Like Schopenhauer, T.S. Eliot saw a kind of detachment from one’s actions as central to both Eastern and Western philosophies, and he takes up this theme in works from The Waste Land to the Four Quartets. Also like Schopenhauer, Eliot explored this resignation by meditating above all on the figures of Mary—especially as she appears in Dante’s Paradiso—and of Kṛṣṇa, hero of that honorary Upaniṣad, the Bhagavad Gīta. Although Eliot’s earliest attempt, in The Waste Land, at bringing together Eastern and Western accounts of detachment proceeds, like Schopenhauer’s, by way of simple juxtaposition, his later poetry—and particularly “Dry Salvages,” the third of his Four Quartets—takes up the more ambitious task of allowing Kṛṣṇa’s insights to harmonize with the theme given in Mary's fiat mihi

I. Eliot’s Allusions

Eliot’s earliest poetic depiction of ascetical detachment from one’s actions comes in The Waste Land’s[2] (hereafter, WL) third section, titled “The Fire Sermon,” after a discourse attributed to the Buddha, in which the sage maintains that all sensible experiences, indeed every act of consciousness, are aflame with the fire of passion and heedless desire. The Buddha insists that only by becoming averse to such experiences, and so divesting oneself of passion, might one escape this cataclysm.[3] Fittingly, this section of the poem deals largely with the perverted sexual mores of the modern West, with the androgynous Tiresias standing as a kind of synecdoche for the confusion and despair of the young (WL, l. 215-256).

At the end of this section, Eliot alludes to the “Fire Sermon” with a simple, “burning, burning, burning, burning,” a word that punctuates the Buddha’s sermon, but he sandwiches this line between two allusions to Augustine's Confessions (WL l. 308). “To Carthage then I came . . . O Lord, Thou pluckest me out, / O Lord Thou pluckest / burning” (WL, l. 307, 309-11). In his “Notes” to the poem, Eliot writes, “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident” (WL, 74).

Of course not, but what is he getting at? We have to look beyond the lines quoted to see. As early critics of The Waste Land well understood, its chief literary device is allusion. Conrad Aiken called it, “A poem of allusion all compact,”[4] and I.A. Richards suggested, “‘The Waste Land’ is the equivalent in content to an epic. Without [its allusions], twelve books would have been needed.”[5] Eliot’s quotations simply pluck a thread; the reader has to work to see the larger tapestry.

The Waste Land’s first citation of Augustine comes from Confessions 3: “To Carthage I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves bubbled up all around me . . . my soul was far from well, and, full of ulcers, it miserably cast itself forth, craving to be excited by contact with objects of sense” (Conf. 3.1.1). Augustine, like the Buddha, is describing the soul set aflame by passion, boiling in a cauldron of loves, addicted to sensible delights. The second quotation comes from Confessions 10: “I resist seductions of the eyes, lest my feet with which I advance on Your way be entangled; and I raise my invisible eyes to You, that You would be pleased to pluck my feet out of the net. Thou dost continually pluck them out, for they are ensnared” (Conf. 10.34.52). Here again, the resonance with the “Fire Sermon” lies just beyond the frame of the quotation; Eliot expects the reader to supply the missing material. Nonetheless, I suspect Eliot recognized that the phrase “plucked out” is an uncommon one in Scripture, appearing in Ps 25:15, from which Augustine quotes in Confessions 10, but also in the closely-parallel Amos 4:11 (“Ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning”) and Zechariah 3:2 (“Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?”). Eliot truncates his quotation from Augustine (excluding “from the net”) in such a way that the biblical material evokes the Amos/Zechariah image as readily as the one from the Psalms; here again, the one protected from the “seduction of the eyes” is rescued from the raging fire that is love of sensible world.

These figures are not mere allusions, however, but rather a deliberate braiding together of texts which themselves allude to further texts, each illuminating the others. Eliot does not spell out the connections he envisions, but rather dashes off a few bold strokes that suggest the lineaments of a picture he has in mind, which we must complete. Indeed, the very incompleteness of Eliot’s allusions contributes to the reader’s sense that they are simply part of the now mostly illegible mass of traditions of which The Waste Land is a palimpsest. As such, Eliot’s use here of these “representatives of Eastern and Western asceticism” betrays no allegiance to either. By the time Eliot takes up the Gīta in “Dry Salvages,” his relations to these two canons will have changed significantly.

II. Marian Detachment in Ash Wednesday

In the poetry and drama of Eliot’s Christian period, his interest in the ideal of detachment from the fruits of one’s actions becomes increasingly prominent, and takes on a distinctively theological, and specifically Mariological, valence. This concern is clearly evident in Ash Wednesday (1930, hereafter AW).[6] Consider the first poem, whose narrator concludes his long threnody for lost time with a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, first pleading, “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still,” and then ending with the concluding line of the Hail Mary: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death / Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” (AW I.40-41). The owl of Minerva rises only at dusk: his youth spent, his glory faded, his great achievements past (AW I.1-15), the narrator finally can ask to learn how to care and how not to care, an education apparently coincident with learning to sit still. How are these two petitions related, and what do they have to do with Mary?

Eliot’s “Teach us to sit still” is almost certainly an allusion to a passage from Pascal’s Pensées: “I have often said that all the unhappiness of humanity comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to remain at rest in a chamber.”[7] We fail to still our desires, and they drag us into a perpetual quest for “divertissement,” for one distraction after another, whether gambling, court intrigue, or war.[8] To learn to sit still is to learn to care as we ought to care, to see that our attempts at wringing peace from finitude are doomed to fail, and so to cease caring for the fruits of our actions. But why ask this from Mary? Why is she an appropriate model for the kind of renunciation the narrator has just outlined?

The prayer, “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still” recurs in Ash Wednesday VI, and once again, the narrator addresses Mary, now as “Blessed sister, holy mother.”[9] Here, however, we find a new detail: “Teach us to sit still / Even among these rocks” (AW VI.28-29). Which rocks? Presumably, these are the “blue rocks,” referenced earlier.[10] Why are the rocks blue? Recall Mary’s constant presence in these poems, and that we hear earlier yet of “white and blue . . . Mary’s colour” (AW IV.4): a blue-and-white-clad Mary situated among blue rocks is quite a noisy allusion to a particular intertext, this time not a work of literature, but rather a painting, da Vinci’s famous “Virgin of the Rocks.”[11] How might thinking of this painting as the setting for the narrator’s learning to sit still shape our interpretation of it? The most significant detail for our purposes is the painting’s setting, an apocryphal story of a meeting between John the Baptist and the Holy Family on the road to Egypt.[12] She is fleeing for her son’s life from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, but Mary’s face is filled with a solemn peace.

And, of course, Mary’s peace nowhere comes more fully to the surface of Scripture than in the story of the Annunciation, a story at the heart of the “Hail Mary,” whose last lines (“pray for us sinners”) surface in Ash Wednesday I.40-41. When Gabriel informs Mary of what is to come, she responds with trust, relinquishing any claim to determining her future: “Behold the servant of the Lord: may be to me (fiat mihi) according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Pascal’s prayer is appropriately addressed to Mary, because Mary is a paradigmatic figure for the Church of one who had learned to sit still before the Lord’s works.

III. Renunciation in Four Quartets

Shortly after publishing Ash Wednesday, Eliot wrote that some of Beethoven’s late string quartets conveyed to him a sense of “the fruits of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering,” an attitude he said he hoped to get into poetry.[13] The fruit of that aspiration was Four Quartets, poems which are centrally occupied with depicting the attitude of peaceful resignation or detachment from the fruits of action in a suffering world.

As we will see below, this theme is portrayed in many images and in the voices of many sages from whom Eliot had learned, most importantly for our purposes, those of Kṛṣṇa from the Bhagavad Gīta, and of the Virgin Mary, especially as she appears in Dante’s Paradiso. Before we consider Eliot’s use of the latter two in the “Dry Salvages,” we should take a brief, and necessarily incomplete, tour of the ways in which he develops the theme of renunciation in the other three Quartets. Our progress through this complex poem will take the form of an increasingly tight spiral, first skimming over Burnt Norton, East Coker, and Little Gidding, before returning for a more detailed exploration of the Dry Salvages,” and then concluding with a longer meditation on the harmonizing of Kṛṣṇa and Mary in Dry Salvages” III.

Kenneth Kramer suggests that each of the Quartets begins with a “landscape meditation,” a tableau which then gives way to “a sudden temporal illumination” in the second section.[14] In “Burnt Norton” (hereafter BN), the first movement finds the narrator recalling a visit to the rose-garden of a decaying English estate, where he and his companion were suddenly overcome by the vision of a lotus rising from an empty pool suddenly “filled with water out of sunlight” (BN I.35), suddenly revealing the “one end” of all our action, an end “which is always present” (BN I.46).

By contrast, the moment of vision in “East Coker” I (hereafter EC) is starkly deathbound, coming in a field at midnight, as the speaker finds himself drawn across the centuries to witness the celebration of the “dignified and commodious sacrament” of marriage (EC I.29), finding himself confronted with the fact that those who lived and loved so long ago are now merely “dung and death” (EC I.46), a plangent reminder that “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Finally, in “Little Gidding” (hereafter, LG), the speaker warns visitors to the site of Nicholas Ferrar’s religious community,[15] “You are not here to instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid” (LG I.43-46). The pilgrim has “no purpose / Or the purpose is beyond the end [she] figured” (LG I.32-33), and so there is no point in her coming with an outcome in mind; only in ceasing to think at all of the fruits of our action can we act rightly.

In the “temporal illumination” of the second movement, the veil is drawn for a moment, and we see that the vision just past was “both a new world / And the old world made explicit” (BN II.75-76). In “Burnt Norton” II, this takes the form of a meditation on that contemplative moment in the rose-garden, a moment “at the still point of the turning world” which seemed to promise “the inner freedom from the practical desire / The release from action and suffering, release from the inner / And the outer compulsion” (BN II.62, 70-71). In “East Coker” II, the poet’s sudden anxiety about the triteness of his poetry gives way to a renunciation of the pretended wisdom of experience and of age, and ends with him clinging to a simple truth: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (EC II.82-98).

Kramer further suggests that the third section of each Quartet is a meditation on “spiritual discipline,” on the terrifying and agonizing via negativa which the pilgrim must tread in this life.[16] Burnt Norton III is the first of three third sections which take the reader into the dark night of a London tube station, a world that is on its face antithetical to that moment in the rose-garden, a “twittering world,” whose denizens, as Pascal so grimly foresaw[17], are “distracted from distraction by distraction” (BN III.101). Nonetheless, the darkness of the tube station might prove to be purifying, a true dark night of the soul, if one could only “descend lower . . . into the world of perpetual solitude” (BN III.115).

“East Coker” III sends us back into the tube station once more, into that great democratic fleshpot of a wartime air-raid shelter, where we plebs join the “eminent men of letters,” interred in a “silent funeral” (EC III.103, 110), condemned to die that we might live, left without hope or faith or love in the hope that we might learn true hope and faith and love (EC III.123-28). In words taken almost verbatim from John of the Cross,[18] the poet tells us to “go by the way of dispossession” “in order to possess what you do not possess” (EC III.140-41, cf. 1 Cor. 7:30); to act rightly, think of your action as no different from inaction.

By “Little Gidding” III, we have left the tube station behind, but not the via negativa it embodied. Here, we are confronted with a stark realization: indifference, attachment, and detachment “often look alike,” and indeed “flourish in the same hedgerow,” but yet “differ completely” (LG III.150-51). Detachment is the purification of attachment, not into mere indifference, but into “love beyond desire” (LG III.153-59), a love which, “by the purification of the motive,” comes to truly see, with Dame Julian, that “all shall be well,” with or without or vain endeavors to take charge of the world (LG III.197-98).

The motif of renunciation appears as well in the fifth sections of the Quartets. In “Burnt Norton” V, we read, “Desire itself is movement / Not in itself desirable; / Love is itself unmoving, / Only the cause and end of movement, / Timeless, and undesiring / Except in the aspect of time” (BN V.161-66). Here is the same paradox we encountered in Burnt Norton II: desire is a movement which we do not desire, excited by, and aspiring to, the perfectly unmoving rest of love.[19] “East Coker” V, like the second section of that poem, begins with the poet’s frustrations and failures in “getting the better of words” (EC V.176), a legacy of loss that leaves him grimly determined to act without thought of success: “There is only the trying. The rest is not our business” (EC V.189).

“East Coker” concludes with an evocation of Dante’s wandering Ulysses,[20] exhorting “old men . . . to be explorers,” bound “for a further union, a deeper communion / Through the dark cold and the empty desolation, / The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters / Of the petrel and the porpoise” (EC V.203-209).[21] As his reappearance at the end of Little Gidding suggests, however, this is a new and very different Ulysses from the one damned by Dante and exalted by Tennyson,[22] bent not on the endless conquest of new places and new knowledge, but rather one who is both “still and still moving,” whose detachment from “here and now” frees him for a love that finds “a lifetime burning in every moment” (LG V.201, 194). Eliot here reprises the Ulyssean themes of the earlier Quartet, but here bringing out more fully than before the redemptive “rose” of this journey, “one” though it is with the dispossessing “fire” of purgation highlighted in “East Coker” (cf. LG V.259): “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (LG V.239-242).

IV. Marian Renunciation in “Dry Salvages”

The Quartet most decisively focused on the idea of detached action is “Dry Salvages” (hereafter, DS), to which we can now turn at somewhat greater length. This poem brings us back to the sea, and back as well to Ulysses, most clearly with the lines, “The sea has many voices / Many gods and many voices” (DS I.24-25), which picks up Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (“the deep / Moans round with many voices,” l. 56). And following hard on this is a second, albeit fainter, allusion to the story of Ulysses, in the reference to “anxious worried women,” who, like Penelope with her loom, are “trying to unweave, unwind, and unravel the past and the future” (DS I.39, 41-42).

These allusions are not merely decorative; they alert us to the fact that this first section of “Dry Salvages” continues Eliot’s appropriation of Ulysses’s wanderings. Tennyson’s Ulysses depicts the sea as a place of limitless possibility, the domain of “a newer world,” whose “sounding furrows” his sailors boldly “smite,” heroically surmounting obstacles even in old age.[23] The rivers and seas of “Dry Salvages” by contrast, are synecdoches for the chaos that rages beyond human control, “keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder / Of what men choose to forget” (DS I.8-9). The sea certainly has “many gods and many voices” (DS I.25), but each is always repeating, “Memento mori,” speaking in the wind and waves that wash back “the shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar / And the gear of foreign dead men” (DS I.23-24).

Moreover, the sea does not keep time by human hopes and fears; like the sleepy, civilizational rhythms of the countryside around East Coker, “keeping time . . . The time of the seasons and the constellations” (EC I.39, 42), the sea’s timepiece is “the unhurried groundswell” (DS I.37), and it barely notices the frenzied calculations of “anxious worried women,” new Penelopes, desperately but futilely seeking some means to secure their loved ones’ safe return, “trying to unweave, unwind, unravel / And piece together the past and future” (DS I.39, 41-42).

Mortals struggling to learn to relinquish control over their past or their future can have no better teacher than the sea; it is thus a fitting place to learn that “what was believed in as the most reliable” is “therefore the fittest for renunciation.”[24] The sea is this world—Dante’s “great sea of being (lo gran mare dell’essere, Par. 1.113),” but perhaps also the Vedantin’s or Buddhist’s samsara, “the bitter ocean of mortality”[25]—and amid its “drifting wreckage,” each of us is a “bone on the beach,” struggling and failing to say “the unprayable / Prayer at the calamitous annunciation” (DS II.53-54), “the hardly, barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation” (DS II.84). We turn to the sea, in short, to learn to say Mary’s “Fiat mihi.”

In “Dry Salvages” IV, the poem’s interest in Mary, heretofore allusive and the evocative, moves into the foreground, as the speaker beseeches the Virgin for the men set adrift on the sea, the women who anxiously await their return, and the dead swallowed in its depths, who can no longer hear the prayer the sea is ever teaching them, namely the Angelus, with its repeated invocations to Mary to “pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death,” and its repeated admonitions to meditate upon the mystery of the Incarnation, which will move to the fore in the fifth section (DS IV.169-183).

“Dry Salvages” IV offers a rarity in the Quartets, a quotation marked as such by its untranslated form. In this case, the line—“Figlia del tuo figlio” (DS IV.178)—comes from the concluding canto of Dante’s Paradiso, and is spoken by St. Bernard as he implores Mary’s aid in securing for Dante “sufficient power to lift his eyes higher, toward his ultimate salvation” (Par. 33.25-27). It is surely not incidental to Eliot’s interest in evoking this canto that Bernard beseeches Mary, not for any particular good—no changed outcome, no altered course for Dante’s life—but rather for a particular mode of vision, now transfigured to disclose the only good that truly matters. This, of course, is the labor undergone by the speaker (and, if we dare, the readers) of the Quartets: to learn to see the world (the rose-garden, the long-dead ancestors, the tumid air of London) aright, and so neither to cling to it nor to fly from it, but rather to hold it gently with love’s open hands.

The fifth canto of “Dry Salvages” is a kind of meditation on the relation of the active and contemplative lives, exemplified in the journalist and the saint respectively. The former occupies and narcotizes himself in seeking “to communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, / To report the behaviour of the sea monster,” and other ill-advised occupations (DS V.184-185), whereas the latter has learned that there is but one thing needful, “to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless with time,” something which is not so much labored at as suffered, “in a lifetime’s death in love” (DS V.200-204). Most of us “cannot bear very much reality” (BN I.42-43), and so experience this point of intersection fleetingly, in “the music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts” (DS V.210-12).[26] We encounter that intersection in such “hints and guesses,” but the greatest grace is that “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation,” where “past and future / are conquered, and reconciled,” and that this reconciliation makes possible “right action,” which is simply “freedom / From past and future” (DS V.212-19, 224-25). It is possible, Eliot here suggests, for you and I to participate in Mary’s fiat, submitting to the LORD’s will and so conceiving in ourselves the intersection of time and eternity, the God-man.

V. Mary’s Gīta

This survey has brought us, at last, to the heart of this study and of Four Quartets alike, namely Eliot’s arrangement in “Dry Salvages” III of this theme of renunciation as a harmony of Dante’s and Kṛṣṇa’s voices. On one level, it is not surprising that this passage, which Donoghue describes as the “dogmatic center of a dogmatic poem,”[27] should be so centrally occupied with the Bhagavad Gīta (hereafter cited as BG), and in such close proximity to allusions to the Paradiso; Eliot claimed, after all, that these were the two greatest philosophical poems ever written.[28] Their collocation, as Eliot said earlier of the Buddha and Augustine, is surely not accidental, as their “different but mutually completing voices deepen the insight that their coupling invokes.”[29]

The entire third section constitutes a meditation on “what Kṛṣṇa meant” in his words to Arjuna on the Kuru plain (DS III.124), a battlefield which was equally the “field of dharma,” the scene of every soul’s struggle to live well (BG 1.1). The narrator wonders if “what Kṛṣṇa meant” is not, in some sense, that “the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back” (DS III.129). In the first instance, this evokes the paradox of detached action we have seen before, of “be[ing] still and still moving” (EC V.201), arriving at knowledge by way of ignorance, and so on.

These phrases also, however, evoke the philosophy of Heraclitus, which has haunted the poems since the epigraphs to “Burnt Norton,” one of which (“the way up is the way down”) is repeated here. Heraclitus looms large in this section, brought in for the interesting twist his famous flux doctrine (“all things are flowing”) gives to the Gīta’s conception of personhood: “Time is no healer,” the speaker warns, since “the patient is no longer here” (DS III.130-31). In every moment we die and are born anew; the traveler who embarks and disembarks is a new person. Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna, “You and I have passed through many births” (BG 4.5), but the speaker here maintains that we die and are reborn in every moment.

The spiritual significance of this radicalized notion of reincarnation comes to the fore later in this section, as the speaker—now perhaps Kṛṣṇa himself, as a disembodied “voice descanting (though not to the ear . . . and not in any language)” (DS III.147-48)—maintains,

At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: ‘on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death’—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward (DS III.155-62).

Kṛṣṇa maintained, “Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying” (BG 8.6), but exhorted Arjuna to remember him, to meditate, and to “repeat . . . the divine name, the syllable Om,” so that “you will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal” (BG 8.12-13).

Eliot, reinterprets the Gīta’s conception of reincarnation in two directions, first radicalizing it by means of Heraclitus, so that “the time of death is every moment,” and the exhortation a reminder that all that essence of right action is intention, “the purification of the motive” (LG III.198). Those who have learned such purity of heart can have no interest in the fruit of their action—they will not survive to see it in any case!—and so they need no blessing to “Fare well.” They need only “fare forward,” considering “the future / And the past with an equal mind” (DS III.153-54). But Eliot equally expands the Gīta’s doctrine of reincarnation into a fundamentally social doctrine, in which the fruits of my action’s influence, not my next life, but the lives of others (DS III.60).

The detached action which the speaker enjoins is also a major topic in the Gīta, with Kṛṣṇa repeatedly emphasizing that, while both “selfless action” and “the renunciation of action” are praiseworthy, the former is the better path (BG 5.2-6, cf. also 17.1-2, 9-11). Kṛṣṇa insists, “You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work,” since “those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do” (BG 2.47, 49). And later, he maintains, “The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action [cf. DS III.155] . . . The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results; all his selfish desires have been consumed in the fire of knowledge . . . Even while acting, they really do nothing at all” (BG 4.18).

Eliot is also certainly right to see a connection between the Gīta’s insistence on “selfless action” and the passage to the “supreme goal” in Bhagavad Gīta 8.13. Elsewhere, Kṛṣṇa teaches that “all actions are performed by the modes [gunas] of finite existence [prakriti] . . . The illumined man or woman understands the domain of these modes and is not attached. Such people know that the modes interact with each other; they do not claim to be the doer,” whereas “those who are deluded by the operation of the modes become attached to the results of their action” (BG 3.27-29). The detached actor rightly recognizes that “every selfless act . . . is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead” (BG 3.15), and so enter into “yoga,” leading to “the unitive state” with God (BG 6.3-4).

Nonetheless, Eliot undertakes a genuine development, and perhaps even transformation, of the Gīta’s teaching in his interpretation of the doctrine of metempsychosis in terms of a kind of communio sanctorum, with every moment as the time which is either redeemed or lost in one’s intention.[30] Eliot here is no longer a magpie collecting stray twigs from the world’s heritage, but rather, a Christian poet finding the conceptual resources in another’s thought for a distinctively Christian notion: our works bear fruits in the lives of others because we are bound with them in one body, the Church (1 Cor 12:26). Though Eliot’s training in Indian philosophy long preceded his conversion to Christianity, by the time of the “Dry Salvages” he was no longer simply juxtaposing Eastern and Western sources, as he seems to have done at the end of the “Fire Sermon,” but rather was self-consciously inscribing the Gīta, among other pagan philosophies, into his Christian vision of the world.

He was, as Newman would put it, assimilating the resources of a rival belief system,[31] and so fulfilling the biblical injunction to “plunder the Egyptians” (Exod 3:22). Foster is thus wrong, at least as a matter of emphasis, to see the Quartets as “both a synthesis of religious values, and, at the same time, an expression . . . of the enlightened state of mind,” “of illumined religious experience, the common denominator . . . of all religion.”[32] Even “Dry Salvages” III retains a fully Christian vision, though one eager for instruction in the truth wherever it is found.

Given the distinctively theological twist put on the Gīta’s doctrine of selfless action, and given the Marian frame placed around “Dry Salvages” III by the references to the Annunciation and Angelus (cf. DS II.84, IV.183), we should not be surprised to hear a distinctively Marian echo in Eliot’s appropriation of the Gīta itself. We saw above that one of Eliot’s earliest poetic articulations of this attitude of detached action came in the first part of “Ash Wednesday,” where the speaker asks Mary to “teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still. / Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” (AW I.40-41).

In the “Dry Salvages,” Eliot echoes this thought in the idea that the crucial moment of intention is the “time of death,” the time when Mary’s intercession for our transfigured vision is most crucial. Here, as in the Paradiso, the time for which Mary’s counsel is sought is the time in which we must set our thoughts on the highest “sphere of being” (DS III.156),[33] or “ultimate salvation (l’ultima salute)” (Par. 33.27). And it is doubly significant that Bernard also prays to Mary, “Keep his affections whole (sani), after seeing so much. Your gaze (guardia) conquers human movements” (Par. 33.35-37). Robuschi glosses these lines as a prayer to the Virgin “to obtain, following the beatific vision, purity of heart for Dante”[34]—the Virgin’s prayer for us at the time of our death is besought precisely to secure that “purification of the motive” by which we might see that “all shall be well” (cf. LG III.198). Kṛṣṇa’s admonition to Arjuna cannot be fulfilled apart from the example and intercession of Mary, who is “so great and so mighty, / that whoever wants grace and has no recourse to her, / desires to fly without wings” (Par. 33.16-18).”

VI. Conclusion

We have traced the development of one of Eliot’s crucial themes, detached action, from its early appearance in The Waste Land to its theological maturity in Four Quartets. I emphasized the way that Mary, alone or braided together with the Gīta, embodies this ideal for Eliot. Why do these voices assume such importance for Eliot? Well, he maintained that philosophical poetry, exemplified by the Commedia and the Gīta, serves, not so much to expound a particular system of beliefs, as to show what it was like to believe them.[35] This is perhaps why, when Eliot sought to expound the kind of loving detachment which he saw as central to the Christian calling to holiness, he was drawn to the Gīta’s hero, Arjuna, one of “a few highly civilized individuals” able to “maintain” “balance of mind . . . in action,”[36] and above all to the figure of Mary, who has ever served for Catholics—“English” or Roman alike—as the exemplar of true obedience to her son and Lord.

[1] Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, book III, §48, 294. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

[2] T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, in Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1991 [1963]). All quotations from and citations of Eliot’s poems are taken from this edition.

[3] For the text of the “Fire Sermon,” cf. The Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 54-5.

[4] Conrad Aiken, “An Anatomy of Melancholy,” in The Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, op. cit., 149.

[5] I.A. Richards, “The Poetry of T.S. Eliot,” in The Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, op. cit., 171.

[6] According to Kirk, part I was written in 1927, parts 2-3 between 1928-1929. The first stanza thus almost exactly coincides with his conversion (Eliot and His Age (Wilmington, DE, 2008 [1971]), 143).

[7] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, in Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963), §136, my translation.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Daughter of your son (figlia del tuo figlio),” as Eliot puts the same point, with help from Dante (Par. 33.1), in the “Dry Salvages”.

[10] cf. Ibid.,V.33, VI.22

[11] That is, the version of the painting hanging, in Eliot’s time and in ours, in London’s National Gallery, rather than its red-hued sister in the Louvre, a painting Eliot already referenced in The Waste Land (“Belladonna, Lady of the Rocks / Lady of situations,” (l. 49).

[12] Frank Zöllner, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519 (Cologne: Taschen, 2000), 30.

[13] Quoted in Kevin Hart, “Eliot's rose garden: Some phenomenology and theology in ‘Burnt Norton,’” in Christianity and Literature Vol. 64, No. 3 (2015), pp. 243-265, here 246.

[14] Redeeming Time: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, 70.

[15] Ibid., 135.

[16] Ibid., 70

[17] cf. Pensées §136

[18] Ascent of Mount Carmel 1.8.59, cf. Kramer, Redeeming Time, 91-92.

[19] We are surely meant to think here of “the love which moves the son and the other stars” (Paradiso, in La Divina Commedia (Milan: Bietti 1966) 33.145).

[21] I have found few critics who have noticed the allusions here to Ulysses, and none who engaged them at any length. Two who make note of the allusions are F.B. Pinion (A T.S. Eliot Companion: Life and Works [Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986], 226), and Jorge Luis Borges (Nueve Ensayos Dantescos [Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1982], 12).

[22] Cf. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is effectively a sustained endorsement of the heroic reading of Dante’s Inferno 26 (cf. “Ulysses” in A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895 (Cambridge: Riverside, 1895).

[23] Tennyson, “Ulysses,” line 58-59

[24] “Dry Salvages,” II.59-60

[25] Prajna-Paramita-Hrdaya Sutra, qtd. in Foster, The Golden Lotus: Buddhist Influence in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (Sussex: Book Guild, 1998), 122.

[26] Eliot perhaps thought here of how the aging and nearly deaf Beethoven would have experienced the late string quartets which inspired his own poems.

[27] Denis Donoghue, Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot (New Haven: Yale, 2000), 237.

[28] T.S. Eliot, “Dante,” (1929), in The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: Literature, Politics, and Belief, 1927-1929 (eds. Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli, and Ronald Schuhard; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2015), 718.

[29] Kramer, Redeeming Time, 118.

[30] “Action fructifying ‘in the lives of others’ is Eliot’s reconciliation of Karmic cycles with Christian belief in one life” (Amar Kumar Singh, Eliot and Indian Philosophy [New York: Sterling, 1990], 64).

[31] John Henry Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1909 [1875]).

[32] Foster, The Golden Lotus, 64.

[33] “Dry Salvages,” III.156.

[34] From the notes in Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia (eds. A. Chiari & G. Robuschi; Milan: Bietti, 1966), 644.

[35] Eliot, “Dante,” 718-19.

[36] Quoted in Amar Kumar Singh, Eliot and Indian Philosophy (New York: Sterling, 1990), 63.

Feature Image: Leonardo Da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (London Version), 1506; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Brendan Case

Brendan Case is Associate Director for Research in The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

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