Reviewed by Francis Etheridge
Having studied T. S. Eliot in my late teens, almost early twenties, when I had tried, yet again, to make sense of my life, it never really got into my system to read commentaries along with the text; and, indeed, I was both far too immersed in my own preoccupations and far too little read to really make sense of his work. This book, then, by Fr. John O’Brien, which comes nearly forty-five years later to my “green” introduction to Eliot, comes with a whole wealth of confluences, other sources which, together with O’Brien’s own commentary, fill out and elaborate a few, but primarily two of Eliot’s works: “The Waste Land” and “The Four Quartets”.
In honesty, even after reading and re-reading “The Waste Land”, the combination of many voices and different languages almost puts me in mind of scrolling through a media platform where, amidst the multi-layered images are key moments in people’s lives, dressing up and rubbish. Was Eliot in advance of our times in touching the up-and-coming culture of impressions, passing cameos of significant events in people’s lives and lingering images of relationships treated like glimpses of voyeurism? Alternatively, in the “Four Quartets”, there is a mention of marriage, of more abstract, philosophical musings, a pointed contrast to the accompanying impressions of life and religious experience and God. Then there is a very long meditation on water and its marvelous creatures and its multiplicity of associations, including a more frequent mention of prayer and the seeping in, as it were, of the Christian understanding of being loved and prayed for. And, as we go, there is a kind of meditation on evaluating life as it has been lived which widens and, as it were, opens upon death and the promise of eternal life.
So O’Brien’s commentary, equally drawing on many sources, yet makes more intelligible the journey from being one of the many dead (in “The Wasteland”) to being taken up into a history of a living love ‘Costing not less than everything’ as we are plunged ‘Into the crowned knot of fire’ (“Four Quartets”). Thus O’Brien spells out for us the encounter with God and the various ways that Eliot reflected upon it.
Finally, in an enriched dialogue with St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, we come to see that there is an aloneness with God which makes sense of our longings going beyond all that may have passed for their purpose and fulfilment – for really they are the “place” of that interior “Passover” between all that we thought our lives to be about and what becomes of us through being taken through a dark night’s stripping to be ready to rejoice in being redeemed.
Francis Etheredge is an author of numerous books, the latest of which