Eliot presented a post-Christian world, despairing of human and divine love or redemption from its despair. The best expression of this diagnosis, in his verse, came in “The Hollow Men” (1925), where Eliot’s speakers are discovered hopelessly – but, paradoxically, with an extraordinary lyrical beauty – on the brink of Hell.
Here was a poet, according to Eliot’s contemporaries, who had evoked the nihilism of modern lives and societies. Phrases from these poems still resonate powerfully, nearly a century later: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” and so on.
It might have been expected, after Eliot’s conversion a few years later, that his recognition of the promise of salvation which Christianity proposes would have been reflected in revolutionary changes in his poetic subjects and techniques. Instead, it is the consistency of Eliot’s poetry, from 1927 onwards, with what he had been writing before that most often strikes us. Several powerful metaphors remain, such as, for example, that of the journey (which we encounter, for instance, in “Prufrock” and in the quest-motif in The Waste Land).