It is a mark of Eliot’s peculiar importance to us—that is, of his major status as a poet of our time—that he should have had his distinctive preoccupation with language. I am thinking of the preoccupation that, with the pressure behind it, is expressed here, in the opening section V of ‘East Coker;:
So here I am in the middle way, having had twenty
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in
One is no longer disposed to say it
The poet of ‘The Hollow Men’ was clearly a man driven by a desperate need; a need to apprehend with sureness a reality that could compel belief, claim allegiance and create a centre of significance. The association, or identification, of the quest driven by such a need with the unendingly resourceful struggle to ‘get the better of words’ determines the way and the sense in which Eliot’s later poetry is religious.
Now the mode of Ash-Wednesday differs very obviously from that of Four Quartets. Nowhere in it is that anything that challenges the full attention of the waking mind in the blunt, prose-like way of the opening of ‘Burnt Norton’, where we seem to be starting on a metaphysical essay. You might be inclined to say that the insistently liturgical element and the accompanying character of the rhythm—isn’t it incantory?—make a thinking attention to the sense impossible; at any rate, that they don’t demand it; rather, they discourage it. If you said that, you would be showing that, though you might sincerely say that you enjoyed the poetry, you hadn’t really read it. There would be no reason why you should quarrel with Anglo-Catholic expositors who make the poetry something utterly different from what it is, which is something utterly different as religious poetry from (say) Herbert’s. For it is in answering the question, ‘In what sense is this religious poetry?’, that one has to take account of its insistent challenge to the thinking–the pondering, distinguishing, relating–mind.