By Lucia Mudgway
When I was a young girl, around eight years old, my father said to me, You don’t need friends. All you need are books, books, books! They can be your friends. He had said this in the context of a situation at home in which I was upset because instead of spending one Saturday morning playing with my school friends outside, I was cooped up at home helping my mother clean those notorious Venetian blinds which surely are the best dust collectors ever created. As I looked out the window, I could see my friends playing and having fun as a tear trickled out of my eye.
I was brought up in a home full of books, and parents who encouraged me to read from an early age. A love of literature was something I grew up with, and as the years went by, I realised that although I had a need for friends, most friends came and went. Books became a far more permanent fixture in my life than any friendship. Maybe, my Dad was right in some way about books.
It was from this realisation about books having a real value in my life, that I discovered that I not only enjoyed reading books, but that I also wanted to write them. Thus, I have arrived at a place in my life where my journey is all about books.
During the course of my research this semester, into how poetry and literature can attest to a Christian world view, I have gained an insight into how poetry, even that of a non-believer, can still intersect with religious themes and biblical imagery. It became evident to me that literature, broadly speaking, and poetry especially, entails, wittingly or not, a search for the sacred. In her acclaimed book, Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle helps explain this by telling her readers that artists/writers work in God’s time, which is called Kairos time, as opposed to Chronos time which is clock time, such as minutes and seconds. Thus, working in Kairos time – which is qualitative, as opposed to Chronos time which is quantitativ – inspires the artist to be guided by a force other than themselves, a spiritual force that guides one into a search for truth and something sacred. Many artists have felt that something transcendent overcomes them as they work on painting a picture or writing a poem. L’Engle points out that artists “become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation”.
I found examples of this search for the sacred in many poems written throughout the ages, especially by poets such as George Herbert and Yeats. I was especially surprised to see evidence of this yearning for transcendental meaning in the work of Allen Ginsberg, a secular poet of the counter-culture of the fifties Beat Generation, who in his masterpiece Howl revealed connections to religious themes, biblical imagery and prophetic speech. In the footnote to Howl, Ginsberg takes on the voice of the psalmist when he cries out, “Holy! Holy! Holy! …The world is holy! The soul is Holy! The skin is Holy!” I found it interesting to read that Ginsberg considered his own work divine, and that his decision to become a poet was inspired by a vision he had about William Blake whose work he admired.
Since the Age of Enlightenment, Christian writers, including poets, have tried to connect with an increasing secular audience. One of the most important, and most discussed and studied poems, written in post Enlightenment times, would surely be T.S.Eliot’s, The Wasteland. One of the significant features of Eliot’s classic poem is the vision it presents of our contemporary “life without God”. For Eliot, the experience is that of wandering through a wasteland. This insight is something that we can relate to in present secular times as we observe the consequences of life without God. For without God in the picture, we are all just wandering through the Wasteland, which according to Eliot is an empty desolate place full of despair and hopelessness.
T.S.Eliot describes The Wasteland as a terrible place, a godless world, full of spiritual dryness and unfulfilled hopes. For me personally, this reminds me that when we abandon God, life becomes a desolate and bleak place, just as Eliot describes it in Part V, What the Thunder Said.
The question is How do we escape from this Wasteland which is evident in a secular life which at times does not even acknowledge the existence of and the presence of God? The answer is clear. We need God to restore this world into a place where there is hope, and love and peace. How long will we witness wars and death, and rumours of wars around us creating more Wastelands? For Christians, any answer to such questions and our response to sin and suffering, is always informed by a wider, eschatological viewpoint. This viewpoint is based on the belief that Jesus will return again at the Second Coming and restore the world and mankind to the way in which God intended us to be in the first place before the fall of man through sin. This belief enables Christians to look beyond the temporal suffering and conflicts we encounter here and now. Through suffering there is an opportunity to live out, rehearse and proclaim that saving love of Jesus Christ. For Christians, Jesus empowers us to live as transformed beings who through the power of God’s grace and love and forgiveness are able to find our ultimate fulfillment in Him. Without God we are just wandering through the Wasteland.
I believe that Eliot’s poem, with its symbolism, as well as biblical themes and religious imagery, alerts us to the fact that we need God, and that without him, we are truly lost in the hopelessness of the Wasteland. This poem is certainly a great work of literature that uncovers so many truths and reveals the desolation of life in a sterile, spiritually bankrupt world. Written after WW1 when Europe was spiritually, intellectually and psychologically as well as morally exhausted, Eliot describes a place that shows us that: Here is no water but only rock.
What I discovered in researching this poem was how Eliot used complex symbols and intricate imagery to give us a labyrinth of messages and meanings for the turbulent times we live in. For example, he talks about the decay of Eastern Europe when he writes, Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London Unreal.
We also hear about the horrifying music of damnation: Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
With a quick succession of brilliant images, Eliot shows us that hope has been abandoned in the past and the present life in which he lived. He writes: In this decayed hole among the mountains In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home. It has no windows, and the door swings, Dry bones can harm no one.
However, Eliot finally gives us a glimpse of hope towards the end of the poem when he writes: Only a cock stood on the rooftree Co co rico co co rico? In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust Bringing rain. The cock appears to symbolize the betrayal of Jesus when Peter denied Him. Then suddenly the Wasteland has a rebirth by the appearance of rain from a flash of lightning. There is some very powerful symbolism and imagery taking place here which reminds us that only Jesus and His presence in our lives can create a rebirth of the Wasteland.
The poem ends hinting that Jesus will set the land in order: I sat upon the shore Fishing with the arid plain behind me Shall I at least set my lands in order? There are layered meanings here, as the fisherman pictured here could be the mythological Fisher King. However, it is more likely than not the fisherman is symbolic for Jesus and His end plan of restoring His lands.
And so it has been through the magic and power of books written by past writers that I have been able to research poetry and in particular this poem this semester. My father’s words seem to have had a ring of truth about them after all. When we look back on life we realize that we may have many acquaintances, but very few real friends. Books, however, can be a much more permanent fixture in our lives. Books can impart knowledge and truths that are essential to providing us with knowledge, meaning and personal growth. It is through poems such as the Wasteland that we are able to see the world as it was in Eliot’s time. And we can see that today many people feel the despair that Eliot felt as he surveyed a world ripped apart by war and moral decadence.
We are still wandering through the Wasteland. In many war-torn countries today innocent lives are lost on a daily basis and hope for peace remains as elusive as the rain in Eliot’s poem. The lack of world peace and the accompanying decline of morality has had a huge negative impact on our lives wherever we live. But most important of all, is the insight which this poem reveals under all its complex layers, that unless we turn back to God, and live lives that include and thus glorify Him, we will continue to be lost and wandering in the empty desolation of the Wasteland.