Twice a week all last spring I rode a screeching Chicago elevated train south for 85 blocks. When I boarded, I shared the car with yuppies, the men decked out in all-cotton shirts and three-piece suits, the women anomalously attired in business suits and athletic shoes (clutching their dress shoes in a bag under their arms).

Along the route various ethnic types joined us, headed for factory jobs just south of downtown. Then would come a 30-block ride through the underbelly of Chicago—old houses sagging and peeling, with garbage piled high against them. A war zone, under siege. Dudes with oversized radios roamed the train cars, hawking jewelry and candy and children’s toys.

At last I would transfer to a bus for my destination: the imposing Gothic towers of the University of Chicago. For the next two hours I sat in a room with 11 others and studied the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

The poems, written half a century before, still had a haunting immediacy about them. Chicago commuters, detached and silent, their faces seamed with tension, were the very characters Eliot had described in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and in his plays. And his poetic images of urban squalor matched precisely what my train had just sped past.

In one poem especially, Eliot, the strange American expatriate, changed forever the way this century looks at itself. People are still debating the meaning of The Waste Land, but that epic of confusion and despair came to define the mood of a generation between world wars.

It was hard to be a poet in those days, when vigorous communism and vigorous fascism were spreading across Europe. How could a mere artist stand against such forces? Soon Eliot grew tired, asking, “Of what use is this experimenting with rhythms and words, this effort to find the precise metric and the exact image to set down feelings which, if communicable at all, can be communicated to so few that the result seems insignificant compared to the labor.”

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of T. S. Eliot on existentialism, which built upon such images as the “waste land” and the “hollow men.” But it would be harder still to overestimate the shock of what happened next, when T. S. Eliot, the urbane prophet of doom, became a Christian. It was as if a Norman Mailer had converted—or a Saul of Tarsus.

At first friends explained his conversion as “just an intellectual thing,” a longing for order that found refuge in the Anglican church. And indeed, Eliot then spoke in abstractions, noting that Christianity offered the best hope against the decline of Western civilization. But whatever his initial motivation, faith took root and came to dominate his thinking and his work.

How did Eliot’s faith affect his writing? Some complained it ruined him, and indeed, the next 15 years’ output lacked the depth and genius of the early works. The questions Eliot asked himself are questions I still hear today: Is there any room for art in a world gone mad? How can a Christian work on fiction or poetry? Shouldn’t we do something more useful?

Finally, burdened by the world crisis, Eliot turned away from poetry toward economics and sociology. As a Christian citizen, he felt he had no choice. He contemplated schemes for redistributing wealth. He met regularly with two Christian groups that included such luminaries as Dorothy Sayers, Alec Vidler, Karl Mannheim, Nevill Coghill, and Nicholas Berdyaev. Influenced by them, he developed his own apologetic for the Christian faith, an apologetic of culture. He wrote three books about the state of the West, books of urgent warning that called for an actively Christian society.

Eliot saw a fatal flaw in the humanism that was emerging as a fresh new breath of hope. Unless the values a nation lived by came from outside—from above, he said—they would be vulnerable to any form of tyranny. History soon proved him right.

Meanwhile, his writing took an odd turn: he began accepting assignments from the church. Virgina Woolf and Ezra Pound grumbled that their friend was turning into a priest. England’s artistic community watched in horror as T. S. Eliot, arguably the century’s greatest poet, wrote a play for a church fund raiser, composed captions for a patriotic exhibition of war photos, and tried his hand at Christmas verse.

Somewhere along the way, however, Eliot recovered his poetic voice. In The Four Quartets, written at the height of World War II, he managed to blend the music and the message. These poems show the sharp, probing eye of the early work, but are tempered with insights from Eliot’s own religious pilgrimage.

Today, in 1986, I had to work to find the results of T. S. Eliot’s years of thinking about society and economics. I nosed around in the corners of a large university library, and even rummaged in the rare-book room before I found Eliot’s more baldly propagandistic work: yellowed, musty books printed on the cheap paper of the war years.

Meanwhile, in my class, bright graduate students of all religious persuasions were poring over the meaning of words like these:

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The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease

If we obey the dying nurse

Whose constant care is not to please

But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,

And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

Four Quartets

Like many Christians in the arts, T. S. Eliot questioned the inherent value of what he was doing. Is art worth it? Is it useful enough? At times it hardly seemed so, in light of global crisis. Yet, perspective changes as time goes on. I doubt there would even be a class on Eliot at the University of Chicago if all we had were his papers on social theory and his church plays. And I know I would not travel 85 blocks on an elevated train to attend such a class if it did exist.

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