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Faith and Doubt in Beckett and T.S. Eliot

Faith and doubt,undoubtedly lie at opposite ends of the belief continuum,yet both find avenues for thematic expression and presentation in Beckett's Waiting for Godot and the Selected Poems of T.S.Eliot.These interesting but diverse studies created by two giants of modern literature,possess a striking and unique commonality:both works were written in a genre which represented,at the respective time,a break in the canon of traditional literary style.

   Robert H, Canary attempts to put into proper perspective the belief philosophy of Thomas Stearns Eliot[1888- 1965],when he writes that:-

      Few of its early readers regarded  The Wasteland as religious poetry.It wasread as expressing

      the disillusionment of a generation,and its poet was assumed to share the avante garde

      disillusion with religion.Eliot's later public declaration of faith was a shock to many and

      seemed a betrayal to some.His most secular-minded critics still regard the religious

     character of his later poetry and drama as a serious defect.

As dis Byron before him,T.S.Eliot became disenchanted and disillusioned in the post World War 1 dispensation.He had seen the great influx of refugees piling into England from Europe.During his tenure in France he had seen many corpses and it is this kind of thinking and imagery that he brings to The Wasteland,written around 1922.The reader,therefore,possessing a knowledge of this background,is in a better position to appreciate Eliot's predisposition.Still,it might be somewhat shocking to encounter,face to face, the sombre and somewhat macabre images which are presented:

        April is the cruellest month,breeding

        Lilacs out of the dead land.....

        ....................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.

  The influence of death and the dying had had such a profound and negative impact upon the poet that it had driven him to allude to Dante's underworld:''I had not thought death had undone so many''.The carnage that was World War I,where millions perished,might not have acted as a perfect bedding ground to strengthen Mr,Eliot's faith.

     The astute reader,though,on reading the work more closely,might perceive that Eliot the poet,though disillusioned,and weak in faith,is carrying his narrator through then ordeal of search,inquiry and experimentation in his quest for his ''Holy Grail''-the faith of the fathers.Whether he achieves this objective is another question,but at least the odyssey in the poem breaks the stasis in his quest to obtain the dynamics of faith-his ephiphany.The picture of Eliot as a spiritual searcher[according to Canary],delving in the occult tradition may gain some credence from The Wasteland's syncretic mix of Christian imagery,Indic wisdom,tarrot cards and vegetation myths.Others might see it as a gross manifestation of the poet's own doubt and its subtle presentation.

  In  The Love Song of  J.Alfred Prufrock  Eliot presents us with the classic anti-hero of modern times when his protagonist exclaims for the world to hear:''I am not Prince Hamlet'' Doubt seems to haunt this self proclaimed anti-hero for he cannot sum up enough courage to approach the woman he is so clearly interested in.Doubt feeds the furnace of procrastination as he reasons that he has ''time yet for a hundred indecisions'',then asks himself:''Do I dare?''But surprisingly he has faith to ''roll the universe into a ball'' and contemplates saying:''I am Lazarus,come back from the dead.''

  Here in The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock,T.S.Eliot is presenting faith alongside doubt,and is asking some deep philosophical questions about the universe,just as Samuel Beckett would do years later in Waiting for Godot.

    Faith,it seems, does not come too readily to Eliot, and so he turns to parody.His parodying of the Anglican Church is expertly done in the Sunday Morning Service and the ''Burial of the Dead '' section of The Wasteland.Gerontion and Sweeney Among the Nightingales                                                                                                          

are works where the Anglican Mass is parodied.A closer reading of Gerontion may reveal to the astute reader the underlying meanings of the poem.Gerontion's loss of his sight, smell,hearing,taste and touch along with his rapidly deteriorating physical condition is a perfect type of the spiritual decline of the Anglican Church in Eliot's time.Christ,the Tiger,coming in'' the juvescence of the year'' is a bold and powerful sign of possible judgement,for such judgement,according to the Biblical account''must begin at the house of the Lord.''

    ''I do not hope'' appears four times in the first nine lines of Ash Wednesday[published,1930].Perhaps,by this time Eliot still had not overcome his negativity and doubt.Eliot writes quite confidently,the affirmation of his faith:

             Because I know I shall not know

             The one veritable transitory power

         .....Because I know that time is always time

               And place is always  and only place

               And what is actual is actual only for one time

               And only for one place.

               I rejoice that things are as they are.

 A mocking tone seems to enter the poem,though,when he says:''Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death/Pray for us now and at the hour of our death''. This prayer is an important one in the scheme of things in Anglicanism,and its use here by the poet,hints at the serious dilemma of doubt and scepticism which possessed Eliot at the time.It was also, to the listening audience,a clear indication of the poet's fearlessness in baring his soul on such important and fundamental issues.

 T.S.Eliot was quite familiar with the ''stream of consciousness'' technique that had entered English letters after 1890.This is evident in Prufrock's Love Song. The Lexicon Universal Enclyclopedia    gives us further enlightenment:

           A term coined by William James in 1890,''stream of consciousness'' is used to refer to a technique by which modern writers render the flow of their characters' thoughts.By recording a character's half-formed perceptions,shifting perspectives and seemingly illogical associations,the novelist enables the reader to get inside a character's mind.The possibilities of the technique were first fully demonstrated by James Joyce...............Joyce's Ulysses   [1922];Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway[1925]   and William Faulkner's Sound and the Fury[1929],are good examples of this technique.       

An understanding of the ''stream of consciousness'' gives us a better insight of how Eliot is able to present the themes of faith and doubt in his poetry.Thus Prufrock's ''shifting perspectives'' and his ''indecisions'' begin to make more  sense.