Religion and Search for Spiritual Values in Modernist Poetry of T.S Eliot

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The poetry of T. S. Eliot is memorable in nature as he is able to resonate with both his immediate context, and future contexts by formulating a detailed illustration of human life, presenting one’s modern-day turmoils within an atmosphere fueled by anxieties yet is futile. This modern era saw an age of heightened anxiety and the collapse of traditionalism. With industrial advancements and technological developments came spiritual and moral uncertainty, creating breakdown and disorder within society. Eliot’s insightful poems - the ‘Hollow Men’ (1917) illuminates the modernist struggle to find spiritual certainty and the anxiety of existential isolation in response to the mechanized post‐war world. Additionally, ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) , a post‐conversion piece, draws on the same themes as ‘Hollow Men’, capturing the zeitgeist of the early 20th century. Through his use of a cyclical structure, pervasive imagery, fragmentation of textual form, experimentation and subversion of traditional mediums he provides a strikingly detailed illustration of human life which becomes memorable. Through his ability to present a detailed illustration of human life, his works take their stance as a canonical text and thus, become memorable. Eliot’s poem ‘Hollow Men’ illustrates the anxious, directionless state of the human condition which brought to question the relevance of religion.

This questioning of religion arose out of the loss of spirituality following the losses of the war that prompted people to question what they had done to receive such hardships from ‘god’. Through Eliot’s use of the objective correlative, 5-point structure, repetitive phrases, symbolism that he is able to portray a particular detailed illustration of our bleak condition. As such, Eliot pervasive imagery and objective correlative in the simile “quiet and meaningless/ As wind in dry grass” liken the barren wasteland inhabited by modern humanity to the psychological state of shell-shocked soldiers and families void to emotions following World War I. In such an illustration of both the setting and the mental state, he brings a familiar and memorable image to his responders. Eliot conveys the lack of spirituality in the modern world, “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams” the ‘eyes’, symbolic of spiritual insight are unable to be met and as such, indicate the lack of spirituality within the persona that leads to one’s deterioration. This deterioration of man is furthered through the poems 5 stanza structure, following the progression of man’s decaying self which is reinforced through the monotonous tone of the chant-link “We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men” again, stimulates a bleak despondency and offers a realistic presentation of human life post-war. The contradiction of ‘hollow’/ ‘stuffed’ is reiterated in “Headpiece filled with straw” and through the collective ‘we’, he symbolically suggests that we, as responders are plagued by anxieties and restless thoughts causing them to ironically be empty and futile if not bound by spiritual connection nor belief in the higher figures. Thus, Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’ is able to illustrate images of the modern world in a detailed manner, expressing the inevitable bleak futility of life of arising from a lack of spirituality - Eliot achieves through his unified language and form choices to produce a realistic vision of modern human life that allows his works to become memorable.In a similar manner, T.S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ through its exploration of man’s painful, futile search of meaning through religion and sacrifice, details the alienation of his immediate world. Akin to ‘Hollow men’, the emphasis upon religion in ‘Journey of the Magi’ is a direct result of Eliot’s own baptism into the Anglican Church whereas there was a general shift away from religion in populace.

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Eliot’s search for greater meaning to life is inherent to all, yet it is his unconventionally negative depiction of this journey that allows the poems memorability. Through Eliot’s use of dramatic monologue, allusions and insert techniques etc. he is able to portray a particular detailed illustration of man literal and metaphorical journey from life to death. Eliot parallels the experiences of himself to the journey of the persona through the dramatic monologue form to express the changing course from the old way of life to a new way through Christianity. Yet this course is prefaced by the allusion to Bishop Andrewes’ 1622 sermon in “a cold coming we had of it” to remind responders of the difficulty of the journey. The ultimate utility of the Magi’s quest and thus, the uncertainty of its endeavor is unconventionally alludes to the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ in “three trees hanging on the low sky” and “hands… dicing for pieces of silver.” Eliot keeps up with the concerns of futility and bleak realities but now, he relays that religion does not offer solace as suggested in the ‘Hollow Men’ and instead expresses that the changing course of religion has an isolating effect upon individuals. As society undergoes a dramatic shift from Christianity to Paganism, Eliot and his parallel, the Magi experience a reverse of such beliefs and thus, become isolated which is emphasized through the primitive imagery of religious individuals as “alien people clutching their gods” to convey this sense of existential isolation.

Although Eliot’s poetry, to an extent, paints a dark picture of despondency and turmoil of the modern era that either arises from a lack of spirituality, or alienation as a result of an individual upholding faith in religion among a secular society, it is arguable that he ponders the possibility of hope and wisdom within his poems. Despite his seemingly weary and disconsolate poetic tone, Eliot’s multitude of biblical references are used to illustrate that there is always an underlying sense of hope to be gained as part of our human lives. The symbolism of a water mill “beating the darkness” in ‘Journey of the Magi’ suggests that over looming sense of doubt is being driven away and foreshadows the eventual victory of Christ and, the galloping away of 'the white horse' symbolizes the upward movement of the spirit and is an image of triumph as a biblical allusion. Akin to this, ‘The Hollow Men’ indicates that there will be salvation in the future through its repetition of an intertextual reference to the Lord’s prayer “for Thine is the Kingdom.” Even the promise of ‘that final meeting in the twilight Kingdom’ suggests the possibility of a transcendent afterlife, and the motif of stars within the poem is used to suggest hope. In ‘The Hollow Men’, the allusions to Mistah Kurtz’ death “he dead” alludes to the passing of his colonialist values and the lack of guiding principles for those who survive him. Juxtaposed again, with another epigram, “a penny for the Guy”, Eliot’s allusion to the Gunpowder Plot refers to men, like Guy Fawkes, with misguided beliefs, but in doing so, also suggests the possibility of certainty and of commitment to a cause. Likewise, “Death’s dream kingdom” can, by extending upon his unconventional methods of illustration, be viewed as a promise rather than a picture of despondency. Likewise, although the Magus’ holds regret for the past hedonism and materialism of his old world - longing for “silken girls bringing sherbet” to reflect his grief - they too, can be interpreted as the persona’s appreciation for the optimism and faith that human lives have the ability to regain.

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Religion and Search for Spiritual Values in Modernist Poetry of T.S Eliot. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
“Religion and Search for Spiritual Values in Modernist Poetry of T.S Eliot.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023,
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