“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses , and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food;
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again in spite of which we call this Friday good.
T. S. Eliot “The Four Quartets.”
T. S Eliot’s verses from East Coker the second of The Four Quartets is astonishingly relevant to a world struggling to deal with the corona virus. The bringing together of this awareness for readers with the Easter message is very powerful. Images that might at another time mean little -for example “The whole earth is our hospital Endowed by the ruined millionaire”- now seems omnipresent in a world where we are either patients or potential patients. How potent is the image of the “wounded surgeon” in times when we are aware of the heroism of the caring professions doing their work while vulnerable to or unbeknown suffering from the disease. In Britain too our Prime Minister with the responsibility of dealing with the effects of the disease at the national level has been in intensive care. “That to be restored our sickness must grow worse” is the actual truth that makes us consent to the restrictions on our freedom.
How about the theology of the poem? Some of it might puzzle us. But clearly we are confronted in a boldly immediate but apposite analogy with the meaning of the Crucifixion. Arrogant humanity has worked on the assumption we are self-sufficient, well able to look after ourselves:””That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood”. The virus has made it abundantly clear how vulnerable we are and the poem demonstrates how open we are to God’s judgement. How is God challenging humanity this particular Easter? That is the question the poem presents us with.
(The word “prevents” in the poem means “comes before us in anticipation” (O.E.D) )