Time and Faith within the Urban and the Rural, Part 1

Over the past year, my transition from the car horns and sirens of Philadelphia to the call of seagulls in St Andrews has put me in a contemplative mindset to scribble ideas about the importance of faith and how it interacts with different surroundings. I decided to revisit T. S. Eliot, a literary and philosophical mentor to many, including myself, to aid me in this task as the metaphorical Virgil to my thoughts. Eliot, too, once navigated busy city streets, eventually finding himself in the quiet ruins of remote British towns of his ancestral past. The similarity in the geographic destinations of our intellectual journeys led me to ponder what it is about England—its history and setting—that is so spiritually moving. I realized that England was just one important example demonstrating the interconnectedness between spirituality and the rural setting. Although some might think only of the city of London when they think of England, others might think of the iconic British landscapes that provided the backdrop for some of mankind’s best literature. Sometimes wild, sometimes bucolic, the English landscape has been used as a means to deliberate on and discover faith in all its dimensions, in its glory and its sorrow.

Joining the efforts of Britain’s greatest writers, Eliot, an adopted Brit, undertook a similar endeavour to explore this ‘scepter’d isle’ and its spiritual history. He started, however, in the city. How Eliot eventually came to faith through his journey in Europe’s grandest cities is a long story to tell, but suffice it to say that he was disappointed by what he found—or rather, what he didn’t find—while living in the so-called capitals of civilization. Between the cities in which he dwelled and the small towns that he occasionally visited, Eliot conveyed in his poetry the notion of seeking spirituality in different residential ambiances, through their distinct sensory experience. One of the sharpest dichotomies that we often make is that between people who live in cities and those who live in towns—the urban versus the rural. I chose to begin my analysis here with the urban.

The history of Eliot’s poetic timeline displays a transition from the urban to the rural that is worth exploring as he answers the question about how faith is felt in different settings. Many of Eliot’s earlier poems demonstrate how life progressed in the city. It is plausible that his experience living in large cities made him question the pacing of his own life and the meaning (or lack thereof) he was deriving from it. The fictional first-person speaker in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, for example, explores a similar ‘overwhelming question’ (10) about the inevitability of time, of age, and of loneliness. [1] His ‘song’ takes place in the refuge of nighttime, a moment’s escape from the crowded city. It is worth considering that Prufrock’s moment of meditation occurs when he finds the greatest amount of isolation possible within ‘half-deserted streets’ (4), ‘narrow streets’ (70), where lonely men in shirt-sleeves lean outside of their windows and smoke (72). Time is distorted in Prufrock’s city, since he assures himself that there will be time for temporal things: ‘evenings, mornings, afternoons’; time for measuring out his life with coffee spoons (50-51), spitting out the butt ends of the cigarettes he’s smoked during the passing of his days (60). It appears that there is no time, however, for him and his old age: Prufrock hesitates to ‘disturb the universe’ (46), to disturb the progression of time, with himself.

Prufrock only loosely flirts with the idea of God while he reflects on his busy though meaningless life. He admits to feeling fear (86) at the thought of death and an afterlife. The majority of ‘The Love Song’ focuses on time, what there was and wasn’t time for in his life, and what there will and won’t be time for in his remaining years. Amidst all these considerations, Prufrock envisions a time ‘for all the works and days of hands’ (29)—a reference to Hesiod’s Works and Days, which describes rural life in the 8th century BC. In the Works and Days, Hesiod explains that the immortal gods kept the means of life hidden from men (II. 42.). Due to this unfortunate fact, Hesiod outlines through his understanding of justice and good conduct the necessity of work to dissuade men from idleness. But why did the gods decide to keep an easy livelihood from mankind? Hesiod’s response is the story of Prometheus and Pandora, because before this famous myth unravelled, ‘the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil’ (II. 90). [2]

Eliot’s reference to this Greek poem introduces an important element to his problem with the city, because the city for Eliot is an example of human labour gone awry, where men no longer lead meaningful lives because they’ve become so estranged from the idea of spirituality and faith. For Hesiod, work and the rural life were a way to accept fate; hardship kept men at the mercy of their gods. An important part of Hesiod’s poem discusses the ‘Myth of the Ages’, which outlines a degradational five ages of mankind: the Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron ages. The Golden Age, as the name implies, is when man was most at peace and one with the earth, and in that age man never aged. The German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder depicted this time in his painting Goldenes Zeitalter (1530). But the following ages became gradually worse for man and culminated in the Iron Age, where man was forced to work to the end of his days. Certainly having been familiar with this myth, Eliot might have been compelled in ‘The Love Song’ to compare his current age and his urban life with what Hesiod described as an Iron Age, where man is distracted from the higher, permanent things in life because of his never-ending toil.

Goldenes Zietalter, 1530. [3]

Indeed, in his longer poem The Waste Land, Eliot makes numerous references to decay in the city, and the poem at large can be considered a critique of the urban way of life that he initially explored in ‘The Love Song’. The Waste Land did, however, arrive at a closer understanding of Eliot’s struggle with faith in an urban setting: the third part of this poem, titled ‘The Fire Sermon’, is where he most directly addressed his problem with the city as a place of constant change that forces man to abandon tradition. Thinking about London, namely the dirt and pollution of the River Thames, Eliot mentions that ‘the nymphs are departed’ (179), the metaphorical traces of an age of wonder and folklore in British culture. Also departed are ‘the loitering heirs of city directors’ (180), who do not care for their city and instead contribute to its decay alongside other inhabitants. The only place where Eliot finds a moment of hope is within the walls of the church of Magnus Martyr, which contains ‘inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold’ (265). As for the rest of the city, Eliot commends the problems of society’s moral decay to St Augustine, whom he considers a promoter of the asceticism that will repair the damage of his age. I have written before on how ‘The Fire Sermon’ is Eliot’s foray into Christian salvation, and how ‘the city’ acted as a gateway that first allowed him to see a spiritual problem in society before contemplating the solution. The influence of the rural on Eliot’s faith, however, remains to be explored in next week’s installment.

[1] All quotations from Eliot’s poetry come from T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1963).

[2] Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library vol. 57 (London: William Heinemann, 1914). Available online at http://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodWorksDays.html.

[3] National Gallery, Norway. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucas_Cranach_d.Ä._-_Das_Goldene_Zeitalter_(Nasjonalgalleriet,_Oslo).jpg.


  • Nayeli Riano is a former Editorial Assistant for Transpositions. She completed an MLitt in Intellectual History at the University of St Andrews. She is originally from Bogotá, Colombia, but grew up in New Jersey in the United States. Nayeli completed her undergraduate degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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