The Cultures of Life and Death in Poetry

The Culture of Death in Poetry
We are all familiar with Blessed John Paul II’s description of the Culture of Death in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.  The good Pope, of course, was not the first to notice and give expression to this phenomenon.

In 1922, T. S. Eliot released to the world his account of the Culture of Death in the form of a modernist poem of 434 lines.  He called it “The Waste Land.”  Despite the fact that its message is cloaked in obscurity, scholars regard it as perhaps the most important poem of the 20th century.

The epigraph (though written in a mixture of Latin and Greek) makes plain the essential meaning of the poem.  It refers to a prophetess known as the Sybil who had been granted any wish she desired.  Unfortunately for her, she made the mistake of choosing not to die rather than for eternal youth.  This poor creature continued to shrink as she aged until she was small enough to fit into a jar.  In this tiny, confined environment, she was crying out in a barely audible voice.  When asked what she wanted, she replied, “I want death.”

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The Sybil’s predicament mirrors what Eliot sees in the form of a decaying 20th century culture that is withering, but has not yet expired.  His vision is made all the more poignant because he can recall glories of the past that the “Waste Land” has now buried.

The epigraph feeds perfectly into the poem’s famous opening line:  “April is the cruelest month.”  April signals the beginning of Spring and, with it, the regeneration of life.  But the unhappy residents of the “Waste Land” do not want life.  Like the Sybil, they want death.  They do not want the “stirring” of “dull roots with spring rain.” They prefer lifeless “Winter” that “kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding a little life with dried tubers.”

The “Waste Land” suffers acutely from the lack of both water and rock:  water that gives life, and rock that symbolizes authority.  What life can emerge, “Out of this stony rubbish?”  “And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.”

It is helpful in attempting to understand this extremely complex poem to recognize that Eliot portrays two types of characters in accordance with the two fundamental ways in which human beings relate life and death to each other.  There is the typical citizen of the “Waste Land” who sees “death-in-life.” In this instance, death is the dominant force.  The other is the Christian type who sees “life-in-death.” Here, despite the presence of death, it is life that is paramount.  This is to be expected of the Christian who, in accepting the Resurrection, accepts the sequence of life-death-and Resurrection.  The Christian can accept death because it is a gateway to life, akin to the way that Spring follows Winter.  He can accept the “little deaths,” like the various mortifications he practices during Lent, because he knows that they lead to a higher life.

The “death-in-life” character is overwhelmed by death and sees not hope in it.  Consequently, he becomes pessimistic and adjusts to the death that surrounds him.  The purview of such a person is indeed bleak:  “‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout?… Or has the sodden frost disturbed its bed’?”  And his environment is macabre:  “I think we are in rats’ alley Where the dead men lost their bones.”

Eliot alludes, throughout the poem, to a myriad of specifics that characterize his own Culture of Death.  A woman named “Lil,” (presumably an allusion to “Lilith,” the anti-Eve who destroyed her offspring) attempts to abort by taking pills.  She is chided by a friend:  “What you get married for if you don’t want children?”  There are allusions to homosexuality and its implications of infertility.  There are also allusions to suicide.  In  addition, there are references to mechanical, meaningless sexual relations:  the man “bestows one final patronizing kiss, And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit …”  Sex is not followed by life, but separation of darkness.  Meanwhile, the woman “smoothes her hair with automatic hand, And puts a record on the gramophone.”  Sexual activity is sterile, perfunctory, and mechanical.

The image of “dry sterile thunder without rain” serves as a reference to contraception.  “If there were only water” is a cry of desperation from people who have lost hope in life:  “But there is no water.”  There is nothing but “voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.”

In Evangelium Vitae, Blessed John Paul II referred to the “eclipse of God.”  For Eliot, “There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.  It has no windows, and the door swings.  Dry bones can harm no one.”

Both John Paul and T. S. Eliot, despite the difficulties that surround them, want to give people something to hope for.  Blessed John Paul speaks of a new Springtime on the horizon signaling the emergence of a Culture of Life.  Eliot ends “The Waste Land” on a hopeful note, although one that is cryptic:  “Shantih  Shantih  Shantih.” In Sanskrit, these words represent “the peace that passeth understanding.”  Eliot’s use of this exotic language indicates that hope for the regeneration of life must come from some source other than the Western world.  Eliot, the Anglo-Catholic, and Blessed John Paul agree.  The source of hope for the regeneration of life—The Culture of Life—must come from God.

The Culture of Life in Poetry
Blessed John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae is more about the Culture of Life than the Culture of Death, though the latter has received more Media attention.  Although John Paul is an internationally recognized poet, his encyclicals, of course, must be straightforward and clear.  Nonetheless, poetry does enrich prose.  Thomas Carlyle defined poetry as musical thought, a form of thought that caught the music that can be heard in the depth of nature and reality.  The American poet, James Russell Lowell put it this way:

I believe the poets; it is they
Who utter wisdom from the central deep,
And, listening to the inner flow of things,
Speak to the age out of eternity.

What have the poets said about Life?  First, let us think of Christ as the wisest of all poets.  He tells us:  “I am the bread of life” (John 6: 35);  “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10: 10);  “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6).  St. John the Evangelist tells us that, “In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1: 4) and St. Paul states that “The gift of God is eternal life” (Romans  6: 23).

“This is what Christianity is for,” exclaimed an unidentified author, “to teach men the art of Life.  And its whole curriculum lies in one simple phrase, ‘Learn of me’.”  Life is both meaningful and fulfilling not only when it is united to God, but also when it is directed to its final end.  “Life is real!  Life is earnest!  And the grave is not the goal,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  His compatriot, Herman Melville added, “Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.”  “Life, like the waters of the sea, freshens only when it ascends toward heaven,” added the German poet Jean Paul Richter.  And his compatriot, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe added, “Life is the childhood of our immortality.”  For Robert Browning, “Life is probation, and the earth is no goal/But the starting point of man.”  Sir Richard Francis Burton expressed it as follows:

Life is a ladder infinitely stepped, that
Hides its rungs from human eyes;
Planted its foot in chaos gloom, its
Head soars high above the skies.

In his epic novel, War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes: “Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in consciousness of the divine. To love life is to love God.”  Life, especially its continuation, was also everything for Dostoevsky, Russia’s other pre-eminent writer:  “If you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of life in the world depended, would dry up at once.”

Many honorific adjectives have been applied to life.  For George Bernard Shaw, it is luminous:  “Life is no brief candle to me.  It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”  For Alfred Lord Tennyson, life is inexhaustible:

Whatever crazy sorrow saith,
No life that breathes with human breath
Has ever truly longed for death.

Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant,
O, life, not death, for which we pant;
More life, and fuller, that I want.

For Henry van Dyke, life is an adventure:  “Let me but live my life from year to year, with forward face and unreluctant soul.”  The 19th century American clergyman William Merrill Vories found life too great to be wasted on trifles:

Life is too great
Between the infant’s and the man’s estate,
Between the clashing of earth’s strife and fate,
For petty things.
Lo! We shall yet who creep with cumbered feet
Walk glorious over heaven’s golden street,
Or soar on wings.

The label “pro-life” hardly begins to do justice to the rich poetic expressions of life. Yet “the fine art of Life,” as the contemporary poet, Edwin Leibreed has said, “is to make another Soul vibrate with a song of joy.”  God is the author and paragon of life, which, in its pilgrim form, becomes a challenge, an adventure, a sublime and luminous possession, a great gift, an inexhaustible treasure, and the way to heaven.  We should live out our lives with the full understanding of how infinitely valuable life is.  Then, when we have completed our lives and the preacher concludes his eulogy, members of his audience will not think that they have attended the wrong funeral.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts “The Birth of Venus,” the mythical goddess of love painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1485.


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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