“I have learnt not to hate the human race,” wrote T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Waste Land.” It is a striking statement, one that resonates with many upon first read, for it is a rare talent indeed to be able to write about what you know and care about. But what exactly does Eliot mean by this? Is it possible that he is advocating for a complete embracing of humanity and all that it represents? Or does he mean that he has learned to recognize and appreciate the value and beauty in all aspects of life?
Reading Eliot’s poetry, it is difficult to arrive at a concrete answer to this question. Like many of his contemporaries, Eliot displays a keen interest in the darker sides of human nature, often depicting the ugliness, evil, and decay that can manifest itself even in the most sacred of spaces. In his 1925 essay, “Notes On War Poetry,” Eliot writes:
“In spite of its limitations, I think that poetry is one of the great forms of the modern age; at any rate it is an important and influential form, and it can still stir men’s minds as much as it can their feelings…. It is a fact that one effect of war is to make the ugly conspicuous; people no longer hide away their meanness, their moral and mental as well as bodily defects. So in poetry one can sometimes succeed in striking and shaming evil by its very excesses.”
It is a fact that war exposes and brings to the fore all that is base, wicked, and ugly. But it is also a fact that war allows for the flourishing of all that is good, noble, and beautiful; it makes these qualities and values apparent and accessible to all who participated in the struggle and those who were touched by it. Or, to put it into the words of Eliot’s own characters, Christopher Morgan and Vivienne Eisenbaum, who meet in Eliot’s short story “The Journey Down,” “Poetry must deal with the human race. The problem is to find out what is evil in the minds of men and women, and what is good. To judge by what appears on the surface, it is easy to assume that most men and women are good, and most social problems can be blamed on the few that are bad. But this, I think, is a great mistake. There is much that is good and noble in the average man, and much that is evil and base in the man who is consciously and actively bad. In reality, it is always the man or woman who is actively seeking evil that one has to watch out for; the innocent and guileless are the least dangerous. This is why I find it important to warn children of the dangers that lurk in the world, of the temptations that are always present, of the traps that are set by the Evil One himself. Children must be taught not to love darkness and secrets, and they must learn to recognize evil whenever they see it.”
The Root Of All Evil
Many believe that modern war is the root of all evil and that it was only through the sufferings and sacrifice of the Great War (more formally known as World War I) that humanity was able to overcome the dangers and miseries associated with armed conflict. In his poem “The Hollow Men,” Eliot refers to this as the “Great War,” the “Hundred Years’ War,” and the “Last Night of Mankind” in the same breath; each of these references allude to a single horrific event that altered the course of human history — the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, the First World War, and the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, respectively. It is a tragedy that this one event and the suffering that it caused were not sufficient to prevent future wars; armed conflict continues to plague the world even a century later.
While the events and experiences of World War I had a profound impact on the course of history, it is possible to argue that this impact was far from negative. It is true that the Great War was responsible for the deaths of about 100 million people in what is commonly known as the “First World War,” but it also paved the way for the Greater Economic and Social Integration of the Greater European and Western Civilization that we see today. The events of World War I also revealed the existence of a global conspiracy of the most powerful and wealthy individuals in the world, the “Junta of Paris,” which aimed to perpetuate and intensify the rivalry between England and France, and ultimately rule Europe and the world through an Anglo-French condominium. This group of aristocrats and industrialists, many of whom were English or French, were responsible for the deaths of about 16 million people in the course of their various coups d’état and counter-coups over the course of the 20th century.
The Search For Good
What is good? What are we to look for? The Christian Church has given us a simple but powerful rule of thumb to help us in our quest: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a moral rather than an empirical guideline, but it is an excellent place to start. The Christian community, like any group of moral and spiritual seekers, has found it very difficult to define and measure goodness in objective terms; we cannot say, for instance, that good people are peaceful and that bad people are warlike. (This, by the way, is how the world sees us: as a nation of moral and physical cowards who run from danger, constantly looking over our shoulders, waiting for the other shoe to drop.)
As previously stated, the aim of poetry is to deal with human nature and what is true of human nature is that it can be both good and bad. It is therefore a useful tool in our quest for discovering what is good because we can use it to both praise and blame the actions of individuals. This is what makes poetry such an effective and significant literary form; it affords us the opportunity to discover the beauty and ugliness, the strengths and weaknesses, the noble and ignoble aspects of human nature. In order to do this, we must turn to the work of great poets who were both celebrated and reviled for their ability to illuminate the darker sides of human nature and expose the inner workings of the heart. One of the great tragedies of modern times is that the 20th century was not blessed with a sufficient number of great poets.
T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wilfred Owen are three poets whose work, when taken together, form an indissoluble trio; together, these three men shaped modern poetry and defined its purpose. Although they were all steeped in Christian beliefs and their work often reflects this, it would be wrong to suggest that their writings are simply the product of their faith. They were not only passionate poets but valued human life and worked tirelessly to ensure that the Great War was never again fought with such destructive force. Many have lauded their efforts and work continues even today to find a way to redeem the wrongs of the past; the 20th century was not a mere blip on the timeline of human history but a period that changed the world forever.