Aethereal Rumours: T. S. Eliot’s Physics and Poetics,
by Benjamin G. Lockerd, Jr.
Bucknell University Press, 1999.
320pp., $48.50 cloth.
The title of this book, intriguing though it is, may seem forbidding and suggestive of recondite subject matter. Certainly, it is a substantial, learned, and closely‑argued study, but, happily, so lucidly written that it is as welcoming of the general reader as it must be satisfying to the expert scholar. Rarely does a work of specific scholarship resonate so deeply and widely in a number of fields of knowledge, all of which will be of concern to readers of this journal. The author touches (with sure judgment) on the meaning of some of Eliot’s most elusive and suggestive poetry; on the philosophy and theology that underwrote it; on the wider background of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophical and scientific assumptions; and on the complete picture of reality that grows out of the sense of undivided wisdom. That he manages to do all this in language that never repels with jargon, or reduces to the point of absurdity, is no small part of his achievement.
It has become customary for readers of Eliot to trace through the collected works a journey from the heart of darkness to the heart of light. It is a search for meaning and truth in a fragmented and etiolated world, a search that is ultimately a religious quest finding its completion in orthodox Christianity and a perspective of the wider culture as springing from it. Benjamin G. Lockerd is concerned to trace another theme, one that started in Eliot’s postgraduate philosophical studies at Harvard, and culminates in Four Quartets. It is a crucial facet of the central theme of spiritual quest, and may be seen as the incarnation of it. The question addressed is how does Eliot’s sense of the spiritual heart of the universe relate to its material embodiment? Or, how does human life cohere in its physical and spiritual aspects? A significant part of the answer involves the way we understand the nature of matter itself.
Lockerd’s first chapter outlines his broad thesis. To begin, we see the young Eliot in the context of the criticism of scientific materialism by Bradley, Bergson, and Whitehead. F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893) was the prime text for Eliot’s doctoral dissertation, and Eliot was sympathetic to Bradley’s attack on the attempts to make physics replace metaphysics. For Bradley, poetry and religion, in contrast to science, deal with “direct experience,” and Eliot, like Bradley, concluded that “when science is taken for the whole of truth, one misses essential elements of the truth.” Nonetheless, Eliot held scientific inquiry and those who practice it in high regard, and wanted to bring the rigor of science to poetry; it was scientism—belief that the whole of reality can be encompassed by science—that Eliot opposed. Essentially, however, as Lockerd puts it, “What Eliot seeks is not to appropriate scientific authority but to discover ways of knowing that transcend the dualism of objectivity and subjectivity.” This becomes the central theme of this fascinating study.
Eliot’s oft‑cited idea of the “dissociation of sensibility,” an unnatural divorce between thought and feeling that Eliot first laid at the door of Milton, finds its philosophical roots in his criticism of the Cartesian split between mind and body. From Descartes onwards, Western philosophy has been made up of those who emphasize the exclusive reality of matter and those who emphasize that of subjective experience. In symbolism, Eliot found a poetics that could express the continuity of subject and object, and which would reflect the notions of reality that Eliot had absorbed in his study of the pre‑Socratic philosophers, and also Aristotle. Symbolism implied the unity of the signifier and the signified; the supreme example, and one which foreshadows Eliot’s later conversion, is the Eucharistic sacrament, in which the Host does not merely represent the body of Christ, it is the body of Christ. The connection between the natural world and the spiritual, implied in a sacramental symbolism, places a gulf between Eliot and post‑structuralism, in which all signs are arbitrary. Though he would have agreed that words are arbitrary signs, he knew that symbols point to a continuity in relations within the natural world.
The most important figure in pre‑Socratic philosophy so far as Eliot was concerned, and one who was to undergo a kind of modern renaissance, was Heraclitus. This is a book about physics as well as poetry, and it considers the relation of the four (or five) elements of the ancient philosophers to the modern attempts of scientists, poets, and religious thinkers to escape the limitations of nineteenth‑century materialism. In the Newtonian universe, with its causational laws of thermodynamics, force (or energy) acts upon inert matter; it is essentially dualistic. Eliot was aware that Einstein, with relativity theory, and Planck, with quantum theory, were showing that at the extremes of the physical world matter and energy are the same. This new physics, in which “the physical world became mysterious again,” resonated in Eliot’s mind with Heraclitus, for whom physics and metaphysics were not separate. Indeed, as the first epigraph from Burnt Norton shows, for Heraclitus not only were the elements not wholly separate, but also neither were people: “Although the Logos is common, the many live as if they had a private understanding.” For the ancients, as for Eliot, knowledge is one in an objective natural law ordained by the divine Logos.
The pre‑Socratic philosophers debated which was the primary element, and for Heraclitus it was fire, corresponding to energy in modern physics. The ancients sometimes spoke of a fifth element, or quintessence, a kind of rarefied air (or sometimes fire) known as the aether. With this idea, Eliot is able to oppose the atomistic notions in materialism which held that between atoms there is only a vacuum, an emptiness at the heart of things. It is an idea that lends itself to nihilism, but paradoxically turns atomistic materialism into a kind of idealism: as Evelyn Underhill put it in Mysticism, for the atomistic materialist matter “is no more solid than a snowstorm.” For Eliot, not only is materialism hopeless, it is essentially flawed as a way of looking at the physical universe, and as Lockerd shows, it is the subject of Eliot’s satiric eye in the early volumes of 1917 and 1920. Lockerd is persuasive in his reading of these poems not as evidence of the young Eliot’s misanthropy or social alienation but rather of certain states of mind that arise when we see ourselves in terms of scientific materialism.
Lockerd’s relation of Eliot’s philosophical studies, using unpublished Harvard notebooks among other wide‑ranging sources, is highly illuminating not only of the earlier poetry but also of The Waste Land and Four Quartets. Most of the book is devoted to an explication of these works, and though the place of the elements in these poems was noted some time ago by Helen Gardner, their importance not only as structural devices, but also as informing the meaning of these poems, has not before been so fully detailed. The idea of the aether as being a quasi‑divine substance alluded to in the fifth part of The Waste Land, helps us to see this poem as being rather more hopeful than it is sometimes considered, and helps to make sense of some of the most difficult passages of Four Quartets. It provides an image of unity between matter and spirit, and of reality as a continuum rather than a duality. Though the idea of the aether is not now entertained by modern physics in quite the way it was by the ancients, Einstein’s theory of curved space and more recent scientific notions of “dark matter” show that our understanding of the universe may be more in tune with ancient philosophy today than it has been for centuries.
As Benjamin Lockerd makes clear, Eliot’s understanding of the science of his time enabled him to make poetry rooted in a vision of reality in which art, religion, philosophy, and science are integrated. Although Eliot’s political outlook is beyond the direct scope of this book, the reader may easily see how the emphasis on “the permanent things” proceeds from the same philosophical source as the other branches of knowledge with which Eliot was so intimately familiar. This book is a major contribution to the understanding and appreciation of one of the most important writers of this century, a writer whose ideas remain no less significant than his poetry.
Andre Gushurst‑Moore is author of The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk. At the time of writing, he was teaching English at Kingswood School, Bath, England.