T.S. Eliot: …the dead tree gives no shelter

Dead Tree. Photo by Jan Arendtsz at Flickr. Creative Commons License

2020 has pretty much been a wasteland — uncharted territory marked everywhere with signs of death and the potential for despair. When T.S. Eliot wrote “The Wasteland” (edited by his friend Ezra Pound) 100 years ago in the early 1920s, Europe was such a place — lying in waste, devastated by the horrors and destruction of World War I. And the image was also personal for the poet. Eliot himself was recovering from a nervous breakdown, while also dealing with his wife’s poor physical and mental health.

I have always found the second stanza of Part I of The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead,” to be a profoundly accurate statement of “disorientation,” the wilderness experience of aloneness, dryness of spirit, lostness, “fightings without and fears within.” With allusions to Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes, Greek myths, and quotes from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” Eliot mixes images and language to paint a picture designed to “show [us] fear in a handful of dust.”

Last week’s poem by Mary Oliver was hopeful, a reminder that every new day, with its ponds and blooming lilies, is a reminder that God answers our prayers without us even praying.

Today, we consider the desert expanse where the divine seems absent, life is barren, and not even love nor the gods can move us from feeling suspended helplessly between living and dying.

• • •

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning, striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
— Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.

• T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

41 thoughts on “T.S. Eliot: …the dead tree gives no shelter

  1. Well, so is the righteous indignation on display here. But wrestling is more entertaining. Now, a throwdown between Mule and Eeyore (the donkey twin-bill promotional possibilities are endless) is entertainment gold.


  2. We aren’t contemplative because we know what we’ll find, and we put a lot of our energies into hiding or ignoring that.

    It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you realize that you’ve been lying to yourself the whole time, loathing and killing your very salvation.

    But, heck, there ain’t nuthin’ that a beer can’t fix.


  3. I won’t argue, but Eliot’s most mature work presents a paradoxical kind of hope:

    “I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing…” —- T.S. Eliot — Four Quartets: East Coker


  4. Most good stories not only allow but require multiple interpretations to communicate their full creativity. Sacred architecture must also be multiple to communicate the richness and creativity of the divine.


  5. That reminds me very much, to bring this discussion down a bit from theology and architecture, of a friend of mine. When you ask “How was your day?” she will often answer “I don’t know what I did all day, but I did a lot of it.” Nothing much accomplished, but she was busy all day. “Busyness is next to Godliness,” indeed.


  6. “Everything communicates. Being the kind of creature we are, we cannot mean ‘nothing’ by anything.”

    I agree. I just dispute that what Orthodox church architecture communicates is something culturally transcendent.


  7. Everything communicates. Being the kind of creature we are, we cannot mean ‘nothing’ by anything.

    Unless we intend to.

    Your church architecture, even the fact that you have separate buildings for church will say something about what you believe. Proper Orthodox church architecture preaches Orthodoxy. There is no need to say it with a church building, but if you do choose to have a church building, it should preach Orthodoxy as much as is possible.

    If you want me to say something significant about culture, you should say something like ‘culture is the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of material, verbal, physical, artistic expressions of a group of people who self-consciously identify as sharing a common life, mostly unconscious.’ The way you use and Stephen use the word ‘culture’ is a hand-wave.

    The filioque is either true or it isn’t. There isn’t some higher truth that generates one Creed for Russians and another for Portuguese.


  8. Where does “culture” come from?

    Are there ‘right’ thoughts and ‘wrong’ thoughts?

    Careful, you don’t want to give me permission to shoot swarthies with a smile on my face like a Rhodesian farmer.


  9. I think you are correct, Burro. What the people I speak of value isn’t really hard work, it’s constant motion, often busyness for no real purpose. They do hold to the old saying “Busyness is next to Godliness” so they make themselves busy, busy, busy, flitting about, go, go, go, even when it really serves no purpose other than to make themselves feel like they are contributing to, well, who knows. They don’t contemplate that.


  10. “We aren’t contemplative because we know what we’ll find, and we put a lot of our energies into hiding or ignoring that.”

    Careful, you’re starting to sound like that heretic Pascal. 😉


  11. There is no “correct” church architecture. It’s all cultural.

    And that’s assuming God even *wants* us to have separate buildings for “church”.


  12. I know very few White people who work extremely hard, in the sense that they come home exhausted. Our machines now do that work for us, now, increasingly, even the mental work. Most of us just congratulate ourselves on our industry and diligence, when in actuality the daily routine of a Bengali woman in a fabric shop would wring us out like a dishrag.

    We aren’t contemplative because we know what we’ll find, and we put a lot of our energies into hiding or ignoring that. There was a Greek priest who said that we won’t find any answers to the problems of drug abuse until we answer the question of why the people in our lives have to stupify themselves to tolerate our presence.

    Lemme kick the can a yard or so further down the road…


  13. ” It’s that we have lost the mentality where that would matter…”

    I have been thinking about this so much. As I read article after article, book after book, in vain attempts to understand those who, for example, refuse to wear masks, so many authors bemoan the thought processes involved but I more and more believe that the issue is the non-thought processes. I live in middle America. Hard work is valued; deep thinking or introspection is not. It absolutely is not. It’s a society full of Marthas who look down on the Marys.


  14. Your point? That the Orthodox have wrong theology? We actually have less theology that you imagine. 🙂

    Perfect theology is no defense against aberrant behavior, but correct church architecture is a result of contemplating things correctly, not a cause of it.

    Nevertheless, any time you want to argue point to point on Orthodox dogmatics, I’m ready to go. Although I doubt Chap Mike would let us do ti here.


  15. It was three or four years ago when Fr. James Strickland pointed out that “orientation” was a liturgical term. It was used originally in Latin translations of St. Basil to translate the saint’s term ‘prosanatolismos’, meaning the construction of church sanctuaries to face the east, or the rising sun.

    Interestingly, the same Greek term is used in Modern Greek to refer to political orientation, but not sexual. The term there is more ‘predisposition’.

    So, the use of the term ‘disorientation’ by Eliot speaks volumes to me. It’s not so much that our churches no longer face the east, or that they look like warehouses, or barns, or concert halls, or convenience stores. It’s that we have lost the mentality where that would matter, and we’d rather bitch and bitch and bitch incessantly about having a stone in our shoe.


  16. Eliot later became a Christian, and began writing poetry with an equally mysterious and melancholic but slightly less hopeless tone. (His _Four Quartets_ are a good example.)


  17. I just commented on Robert’s poem, Susan, and I was moderated.

    It seems the way administrators can cope best with the times, I suppose, as emotions in the states are on edge likely until the election on Nov. 3rd.

    You are not alone, Susan. I’m always in trouble. 🙂


  18. T.S. Eliot’s entire life seems to have been one of disorientation. I guess that’s why I like so much of his poetry, in it I hear my own experience given the expression I’m incapable of articulating.


  19. I’ll try again,
    My son is a lawyer in London where he lives with his family.
    We are very close and he video calls me twice a week.


  20. My son and I have always been so close. He is now a lawyer in London with a beautiful family, but he video calls me twice a week.
    Such a blessing.


  21. you have a wise son, Susan

    ‘pathos’ – that we come to be able to ‘feel’ the impact of the forlorn and yet survive and be able also to find ‘the quiet optimism’ – that is a wonder indeed

    we humans are capable of so much when pain has carved out room in us for compassion to come and dwell

    sometimes the only thing that makes sense in this world to me is a crucifix


  22. ” . . . So lonely, too, so more than sad,
    So droning-lone with bees –
    I wondered what more could Nature add
    To the sum of its miseries . . .
    And then – I saw the trees.

    Skeletons gaunt that gnarled the place,
    Twisted and torn they rose –
    The tortured bones of a perished race
    Of monsters no mortal knows,
    They startled the mind’s repose. . . . ”

    (Madison J. Cawein, 1913)


  23. The quiet optimism of Mary Oliver contrasts to the ever present pessimism of T.S.Eliot.
    Both of these authors/poets have played a big part in my soul searching.
    My first Counselor focused a lot on T.S. Eliot and I still read his works from my library shelves.
    It is strange that these two writers still give me so much focus on the daily trudge through each day.
    Such a dichotomy. Such is life.
    ’twas ever thus’, as my son quotes to me.



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