DOVE DESCENDING: A Journey into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets,
by Thomas Howard
(Ignatius Press, 2006, 148pp, $29.95. ISBN 978-1-58617-040-0. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Dove Descending by Thomas Howard is essentially a line-by-line companion for T.S. Eliot's poem, the Four Quartets, and is intended to be read alongside it.
Thomas Howard has a background not dissimilar from that of T.S. Eliot: an American from an East Coast evangelical family who became a Catholic at the age of fifty, has taught in many tertiary institutions in the USA throughout a long academic career, and has written numerous books on both English literature and his own faith journey to Catholicism.
T.S. Eliot is considered by many to be the most significant and influential poet of the 20th century and Four Quartets is his finest poem, the work of his latter years.
Eliot's early poem, The Waste Land, released in 1928, made him the spokesman for a 20th century angst which was fashionable in the years between the two World Wars.
The background is World War I, which destroyed many of the best and brightest of a whole generation. In The Waste Land, modern men are dramatised as beleaguered, overwhelmed by the ambiguities of existence. This fitted the mood of the times.
However, T.S. Eliot, the American agnostic from the East Coast Ivy League intelligentia, moved to England and converted to the Anglican faith, in its Anglo-Catholic wing. He was also politically conservative.
The Four Quartets was written after his conversion and draws the reader to the centre of the Christian mysteries. The once-agnostic T.S. Eliot, who had vast influence into the 1960s, extolled an unashamedly Christian vision of things and in an increasingly secular society he would become politically incorrect. The agnostic Eliot had been popular; the Christian Eliot was not.
As his change of stance gradually dawned on most academics, Eliot was 'exiled' from many tertiary English departments, especially in the United States.
Nevertheless, Four Quartets deserves a place alongside other great artistic monuments infused with the Christian vision: Dante's Divine Comedy, Chartres Cathedral, Johann Sebastian Bach's B Minor Mass and van Eyck's painting, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb".
The poem is difficult and hence the commentary by Thomas Howard is a must for those approaching Eliot's work for the first time.
Dr Barry Coldrey taught in Christian Brothers colleges for many years and is currently a writer and lecturer and active in youth ministry.