T.S. Eliot “Choruses from the Rock” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I was wrong about T. S. Eliot, or my teachers were. As an adolescent, I was taught that Eliot’s greatest poems were his early, bleak ones: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland.” I wasn’t ready for “Choruses from the Rock,” written seventeen years after “Prufrock” and seven years after Eliot‘s conversion to the Anglican Church. I wasn’t ready to connect the dots of Eliot the Harvard boy and Eliot the old soul in search, who finally found what he was looking for in the Christian Church. Now that I’m pretty old myself, however, this strikes me as a beautiful poem:

“Choruses from the Rock”
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change,
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

You neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.

Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks

Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore
I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city ?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is shall shadow
The man that pretends to be.

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of
the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self seeking as always before, selfish and
purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on
the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened
before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no God; and this has
never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.

What have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms turned
upwards in an age which advances progressively backwards?

There came one who spoke of the shame of Jerusalem
And the holy places defiled;
Peter the Hermit, scourging with words.
And among his hearers were a few good men,
Many who were evil,
And most who were neither,
Like all men in all places.

In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.

Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And moderate vice

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.

Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the
place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.

The work of creation is never without travail

The visible reminder of Invisible Light.

O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

    This is incredible. As a college English major I read plenty of Eliot. But the profs always implied he went off the deep end in his later years.Hm.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Which is similar to how historians said Blaise Pascal went "off the deep end" too. Let's all go swimming!

  • Wendy

    Great post! Thanks! God is always there for those who look for the truth!

  • http://amothersminute.blogspot.com/ Ann

    I took a few English classes at our local community college years and years ago but never read TS Eliot. Thanks for the introduction. This is really powerful and I could clearly see the world of today. When was this written? Love you blog too!

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    There are a number of other authors and thinkers who, according to the Enlightenment-Postmodern entente that rules the West, "went off the deep end," which usually means they became serious about the Christian faith.

  • Anonymous

    I like these lines best:And the wind shall say: "Here were decent godless people:Their only monument the asphalt roadAnd a thousand lost golf balls."

  • Anonymous

    Choruses from the Rock will be performed at Fordham/Lincoln Center on Thursday, December 16th in New York City, as part of the Crossroads Cultural program. It features some of NY's leading Catholic theatre artists.

  • Stanley

    I am confused. Reading above you have
    Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
    All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
    But nearness to death no nearer to God.

    I just finished reading – Waste Land and other Poems, published by Harcourt it has:
    All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, All our ignorance brings us nearer to death

    Both work and could or could not mean the same thing. Depending on how you were contemplating it at the time. Which one is the original?

    Peace be with you

    • Frank Weathers

      This post was written by my former partner, Webster Bull. But from numerous sources, such as here, and here, it appears that Webster transcribed the poem as it was originally published.

  • Terence Smith

    There is a much longer CHORUsES from THe Rock” in “T.S.Eliot;The Complete Poems and Plays,1909-1950″, pp. 96-114. As written there,there are 10 long choruses, I-X. I am a renascent old guy myself and a recovering English major, veteran of classes in the 1960s. The longer version has some sections I know your readers will like. I liked some of it so much I typed &sent to friends this AM I am going to try to use the paste function to post here (my computer is on blink):
    “O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked…”
    AND ” It is hard for those who have never known persecution,/and who have never known a Christian/ To believe these tales of Christian persecution./it is hard for those who live near a Bank/ to doubt the security of their money./It is hard for those who live near a Police Station / To believe in the triumph of violence./ Do you think that the FaITH HAS CONQUERED THE WORLD/And that lions no longer need keepers?/ Do you need to be told that whatever has been, can still be? Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments as you can boast in the way of polite society/ Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?”…and there is much, much more. Thanks for your blog and commentary. Some of the sections of the longer Eliot version have inspired me to go back to the Bible for some of the references, esp,IV and V sections. I am new to your website. If you have not yet read/discussed, I recommend Paul JoHnson’s “Jesus: A biography from a Believer”
    Also, I once read an obscure poem by a poet named Thomas Whitbread, which seemed to describe the spiritual journey of T.S. Eliot. Does anyone know it? I am going to try to find and send an excerpt…THANKS FOR YOUR POST

    • Frank Weathers

      Thanks for bringing that to my attention Terence. Much obliged.

    • Olga L

      terrence, hi. I stumbled upon your post as I was searching for the full text of “The Rock,” so far fruitlessly. Is there any way you could e-mail me what you have typed from “The Choruses”? or even the full text if you have it. I live and work in Russia, so even with the Internet and bank cards getting books is a litle problematic. thanks in advance!

      • Frank Weathers

        Olga, here is the complete poem: Choruses from “The Rock.”

        • Jessop Sutton

          Thai you, Frank, I have been looking for that for sometime.