Monday, July 28, 2014

Thomas Merton & T.S. Eliot (Merton's Love of Books - part 3)

Merton acknowledged the fact that his life as a young man was one of “a great rebel.”[1]  He believed his intelligence allowed him to rise above the pettiness of an average life and spent this time drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, listening to records and reading modern literature.  “Popular literature of the time was centrally occupied with the analyses of the loss of the individual self.”[2]  

One such modern writer he approached who focused on this culture was T.S. Eliot, a popular poet and cultural critic.  In an effort to stay above modernity, Merton recalled selling T.S. Eliot’s essays “in a conscious reaction against artiness”[3] as if he had surpassed the writers of the day.  

Nonetheless, Merton still wanted Eliot’s opinions and prepared an article for his magazine Criterion which stopped publication during that time.[4]  His impact held steady regardless of what Merton thought of the poet, which infiltrated Merton’s own future writing.

Though Merton was drawn to Eliot’s writings in his life prior to conversion, he later critiqued the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century because it was “deeply concerned with authenticity and the problem of finding one’s ‘true self’ in an artificial and inauthentic society.”[5]  As a more mature Christian at the time of this critique, he recognized the problems with Eliot’s use of “traditional spiritualities and symbols to rise above identity”[6] and to find freedom through oneself.  Nevertheless, the poetry of T.S. Eliot still influenced Merton’s spirituality.  

According to Lawrence S. Cunningham, after entering the monastery Merton “treasured the quiet moments when he could find a quiet place to sit while he read slowly something like Eliot’s Four Quartets which “had profound influence on him.”[7]    His attempts at crafting complex poems like, Cables to the Ace, was heavily influenced by Eliot and even utilizes similar imagery of urgency.  Later in life he even had correspondence with Eliot, yet did not heed advice given to “write slowly and with great care and publish less.”[8]  Merton was less invested in polished pieces of work, but rather focused his efforts on getting his thoughts down on paper to share with others.  

Still, his interactions with T.S. Eliot influenced the way he wrote whether he acknowledged it or not.

[1] Ibid, 103.
[2] Cunningham, 83.
[3] Merton, Seven Storey, 152.
[4] Ibid, 235.
[5] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 37.
[6] Ibid, 37.
[7] Cunningham, 43.
[8] Ibid, 159.

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