“…In the Vacant Places” by T.S. Eliot

ts eliot speakingIt is the weekend, and I am in the mood for a little treat. C.S. Lewis was a slow convert to T.S. Eliot’s poetry. In fact, Lewis was part of an entire club dedicated to mocking the modern poetry movement that Eliot led. Slowly, the common ground between Lewis and Eliot became greater and greater. First they shared some thoughts (and good disagreements) on literary criticism. Then they were both very close friends with Charles Williams. Later in life, their 1920s conversions and love for poetry came to the point of working together on a new English translation of the Psalms. In the end, they were friends. When Lewis anonymously submitted his memoir of the loss of his wife, T.S. Eliot knew immediately that it was Lewis. He kept the secret, and published A Grief Observed under the name N.W. Clerk.

Lovers of 20th century poetry will be no strangers to Eliot. I am a slow convert, but never have had the distaste for Eliot that Lewis had. I’m just a weak reader who needs better poetry muscles. But even in my weakness, there are moments in T.S. Eliot that I find sublime. Here is one of them, pulled from Eliot’s Choruses from The Rock. Here Eliot talks about today’s scattered world, how we are all “dispersed on ribbon roads.” We need one another, Eliot reminds us.

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.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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40 Responses to “…In the Vacant Places” by T.S. Eliot

  1. Doug Todd says:

    “Choruses” is great — But I still maintain that his absolute best was “The Four Quartets”!


  2. traildustfotm says:

    Thank you for treating me to a fresh look at T.S. Eliot. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sharonpaula says:

    I also was a slow convert to Eliot’s poetry. I recently bought his complete works and have enjoyed them very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A heartening post! Thank you!

    See if you can find a library with a copy of The Rock: it is uneven, and you can (sort of) see why it was not reprinted regularly – it’s not all as good as the Choruses – but I’m glad I tracked it down – it’s well worth reading!

    I think the ‘Ariel Poems’ are especially good, too – and Murder in the Cathedral! (There’s a marvellous old Caedmon lp audio out there with Paul Scofield as Thomas (and Judi Dench in a minor role, among many other fine voices), and the lovely 1951 flim adaptation, scripted by Eliot and in which he voices one of the Tempters!)

    (At Roger Pearce’s blog I’ve just read a fair horror story about the state of Inter-Library Loan in the UK, and have no idea how it is in other countries – the one time we tried it in the Netherlands we hit a book that was ‘reference only’ in the Royal Library… but that may be a way to The Rock, if it’s still o,k, in Canada, or wherever other readers are.)


  5. loritischler says:

    Reblogged this on Lady Lorraine and commented:
    Thank you B.D. Needed this to pass on to a confused young adult.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. WriteFitz says:

    Poignant and beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was not aware of that connection between Lewis and Eliot. It’s always a great story when distaste turns to grudging admiration, and then to love.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I heard the late Dr. Gisbert Kranz read a very interesting paper about Lewis and modern poetry, not least that of Eliot, but am not sure where it is published in English, or even if it is. (I think “Ein Dinosaurier? C. S. Lewis und die moderne Literatur” in volume 7 of the Inklings-Jahrbuch (1989) is a German version of it.) I think he quoted from Warnie Lewis’s diary entry of 25 September 1947 about “Some enjoyable talk arising out of T.S. Eliot, one of whose poems J[ack = C.S. Lewis] read superbly, but broke off in the middle, declaring it to be bilge”! (See the whole entry, notably Christopher Tolkien’s contribution.)

    I think I remember reading some more detail about the Psalter-revising committee where Eliot and Lewis worked together in Margaret Pawley’s biography, Donald Coggan: Servant of God (SPCK, 1987), as the late Lord Coggan was the chairman of the committee.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just read that Warren Lewis entry the other day! I was struck by it. I think Lewis limited himself with old prejudices in not reading Eliot.
      I didn’t know about the Pawley bio.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        And he “read it superbly” (whichever it was: I wish I knew!) – before abruptly breaking “off in the middle”!

        Fascinating (and mysterious) that he refers to David Jones’s Anathemata in his “De Descriptione” lecture not so many years later – if anything is ‘High Modernist’ and, stylistically (though not in tone) like a book-length analogue of Eliot’s “Waste Land”, I’d say it was!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Funny, I’m just reading that now. I hadn’t connected the three….


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Wow, great! Williams read Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (in think in proof, somehow: it’s mentioned in a letter, but my notes are buried…), and Jones comments on Williams’s Arthurian poetry (reprinted in Epoch & Artist) – but I’ve never found anyone who knows exactly what Jones’s acknowledgement to Tolkien is specifically concerned with! (I think it’s in the Anathemata acknowledgements…) Dr. Kranz wrote one thing and another about Jones, too, but I’m not sure if any of it’s in English.

            Liked by 1 person

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  10. L.A. Smith says:

    This is lovely. Thanks for sharing!


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