I pulled out an old volume of T. S. Eliot's poems. So old the price on the cover was 95 cents! I bought it used and it was complete with some one else's margin notes. The first poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", was not marked at all. Perhaps the original owner did not read it or she did not understand it. I can empathize. First time through (I may have read it before but it was so long ago I had forgotten), I didn't get it. It was not much of a love song; it seemed kind of depressing. I found out Eliot wrote it when he was only 23 and he spent years working on it. So why was a teenager writing about old age and dying? It seemed to me that's what it was about, anyway. Eliot had some great lines in it like, "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons"." Coffee drinker that I am, I could relate to that way of looking at your life. But, you see, who would want to?
I read the poem several more times. I picked up on references to Shakespeare (Hamlet), the Bible (Ecclesiastes, "a time to murder and create and a time for all the works and days of hands"), and other literary references. The poem begins with a quote from Dante as if to say, here we are in hell. Depressing, but I don't really think Eliot was writing about hell, perhaps, hell on earth. Is that what growing older seemed like to him?
I googled the poem. Students today are fortunate to have so much help online! Too much help it seemed to me. It was confusing to read so many different interpretations of the lines of the poem. After sampling a few, I went back to simply reading. And reading. I am starting to like it.
It reminded me of the parts of the Bible that seem so foreign and all the questions we have about Genesis and Isaiah and the stories about the prophets, or Joshua or the Kings. How many commentaries are there on the Gospels? How many study Bibles that seek to explain verse by verse what the Bible means? Why don't they all agree? Some times I am more confused after reading a few of them. There is literary criticism, and historical criticism and cultural background to keep in mind to help you interpret correctly just like there is with Eliot. Sure it helped to know a little bit about the background of the poem. But knowing too much about what so many experts thought got in the way of my experience of the writing. That happens with the Bible, too. The internet has brought an explosion of information about the Bible. Everyone can know what the experts say each word means even if they don't agree all the time. We have become expert at proof - texting. We know where to go to prove our points. Donald Trump pointed to Two Corinthians when he spoke at Liberty University just to show he had Christian bona fides.
What did Christians do before there were verses? Just a story. Eliot took a lot of time to say what he said. Each of us can get what he meant but it will take some time, too. Reading online shortcuts won't do it. God has a story for us in the Bible, as well. It took a long time to come together; it takes a long time for us to make some sense out of it. We will never get it exactly right. That's not the point; the point is to keep reading and in time God's story becomes our story.