Words and the Word

First published in Maria Kuteeva (ed.), The Ways of Creative Mythologies: Imagined Worlds and their Makers (Telford: The Tolkien Society, 2000), pp 39-44

Words and the Word: Kenneth Burke’s Logology and T. S. Eliot’s Mythology

Laurence Coupe

ABSTRACT: This essay is based on the assumption that the Bible may be defined as the expression of the Word of God in the words of human beings. It also assumes the converse of this definition: that is, though the book offers itself as a direct apprehension of the sacred and though much of its authorship seems to have the authenticity of divine inspiration, it needs to be borne in mind that the Biblical text, like any other literary text, carries the traces of its human, linguistic origin. I propose to translate this latter insight from scriptural theology to secular criticism, and to apply it to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, which works within the distance between words and Word. Eliot relies heavily on mythology in order to suggest a privileged understanding of this distance, which in turn conveys the impression that he speaks for the Word despite being limited to words. Here I place his achievement in the context of the theories of his contemporary, Kenneth Burke, particularly as they demonstrate that any use of mythology may be explained in terms of ‘logology’, or `words-about-words’.



The American critic Kenneth Burke’s lifelong study was the human being as the ‘symbol-using animal’, the linguistic creature. We will return to that definition, but first I want to indicate the main outline of the argument which he sets forth in his influential work, The Rhetoric of Religion. In his preface he explains:

… in this book we are to be concerned not directly with religion, but rather with the terminology of religion; not directly with man’s relationship to God, but rather with his relationship to the word `God’. Thus the book is about something so essentially rhetorical as religious nomenclature – hence, the subtitle, `Studies in Logology’, which is to say, `studies in words-about-words’. (1)

Thus, Burke’s premiss is not that of scriptural theology, that God is identical with the transcendental Word, which then gets expressed in the human words which comprise the Bible, but that God is the product of the human activity of word¬making. As he further explains in his first chapter:

We are to be concerned with the analogy between `words’ (lower case) and The Word (Logos, Verbum) as it were in caps. `Words’ in the first sense have wholly naturalistic, empirical reference. But they may be used analogically, to designate a further dimension, the `supernatural’. Whether or not there is a realm of the ‘supernatural’, there are words for it. (2)

A liberal, sceptical cast of mind may be inferred from that phrase, `Whether or not’; but we should also appreciate Burke’s belief that human beings are inherently disposed to religious thinking, in that their language seems to be oriented inevitably to the Logos. Religion may be the result of rhetoric; but rhetoric is more than a set of rules for public speaking. Language defines humanity, and humanity always seeks to go beyond itself. A yearning for the supernatural is natural.

Yet Burke, who owes much to the tradition of North American pragmatism, never forgets that, in constructing our theologies, we humans are improvising an idea of transcendence from out of the condition of immanence. Hence, a major part of The Rhetoric of Religion is devoted to a demonstration that the whole story of salvation which the Bible recounts is, in a sense, a huge elaboration of one basic term, `order’. For `order’ (good) implies `disorder’ (bad), just as `grace’ implies `sin’, `blessing’ implies `curse’, `obedience’ implies `disobedience’, and `salvation’ implies `damnation’. The complete narrative structure, from the fall of Adam to the redemptive death-and ¬resurrection of Jesus Christ, ‘the second Adam’, is contained in the complex of terms which is implicit in `order’. (3) From the need to organise the immediate environment, the power of words has taken us to the idea of an absolute Word which contains and resolves all oppositions.

While applauding the linguistic ability that makes such grand schemes possible, Burke has reservations about the drive of terminology towards termination. These are best expressed in the definition of the human being to which I have already referred:

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal …
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by a sense of order)
and rotten with perfection. (4)

He is suggesting that `perfectionism’ is an ambiguous characteristic of humanity. On the one hand, it is the inevitable product, or at least effect, of discourse, we are all subject to `perfectionism’ by virtue of being linguistic creatures. On the other hand, it may become a dangerous delusion: it may tempt us not only to attribute independent existence to the absolutes which our own language has created but also to pursue them at the expense of human well-being. We need always to bear in mind the difficult and potentially dangerous relation between words and the Word.

The danger is especially evident in the interpretation of mythology. Originally, myth’ meant `speech’ or `word’; but in time what the Greeks called mythos was separated out from, and deemed inferior to, something called logos (lower case). The former had come to denote `story’; the latter was used to indicate a supposedly higher level of discourse, that of `rational argument’. Thus the `idea’ came to be celebrated apart from its `narrative’ source, and mythology was subordinated to philosophy. With the rise of Christianity, it was subordinated also to theology, but the consequence was the same: mythos, the basis of both logos and the Logos, was now the husk to be dispensed in favour of the kernel of non-narrative `truth’. In the era of modernity – the centuries of the Enlightenment and of positivism – this process of `demythologization’ was taken as far as it could go. Indeed, it was in reaction against this that there arose the aesthetic movement we know as modernism, validating mythopoeia, the very act of mythmaking, once more. Poets such as Eliot made a show of using particular kinds of archaic narrative in order to give their work primitive credibility – a kind of primal charge. This refusal of modernity and `demythologization’ may be applauded, but in Burke’s perspective we might still want to ask whether a dubious kind of `perfectionism’ is not at work within this same strain of modernism. In particular, we might consider how the mythos, or narrative source, of the former’s work is effectively denied even as it is deployed. What the poetry is really about is the affirmation of logos – or even, with the poet at this time tending towards Christian faith, the Logos itself. His words, far from trusting to the narrative, are dedicated to the affirmation of the Word.

‘Myth’, of course, is not uniform. There are many paradigms from which to choose: creation myth, hero myth, apocalyptic myth, and so forth. Eliot himself favoured the paradigm documented by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough (twelve volumes, 1890-1915): that of fertility myth, thought to originate in the ritual of the dying and reviving god of vegetation. The centrality of this paradigm was further demonstrated for Eliot by the researches of Jessie L. Weston, spelt out in From Ritual to Romance (1920). There the `myth and ritual’ approach was applied to the legend of the Holy Grail – the roles of the dying god and the reviving god being paralleled by those of, on the one hand, the wounded or impotent Fisher King, and on the other, the questing knight who heals the monarch, redeems the Waste Land and assumes the kingship in his turn. According to Weston, the `Mystery Cult’ adhering to the Grail was simply a more esoteric version of the `Life Cult’ documented by Frazer.

The notes provided by the author to The Waste Land confirm that his exercise in `mythopoeia’ is informed by the sources we have already named. Frazer’s and Weston’s works are explicitly acknowledged, and the reader is told to expect `certain references to vegetation ceremonies’. (5) Inspired by the `myth and ritual’ school, then, The Waste Land is, despite appearances, a story; and the tale it tells is a deliberate fusing and updating of two other stories – that of the dying and reviving god (as in Frazer), and that of the quest for the Grail (as in Weston). Once this is realised, apparently disconnected images and incidents assume their mythic meaning; negative phenomena imply positive essences; confusion implies the need for coherence. However, the triumph of reviving god and of completed quest remains tragically elusive.

The unnamed narrator glimpses, early in the poem, a vision of beauty associated with a `hyacinth girl’ and a ‘hyacinth garden’. He feels himself to be looking into `the heart of light, the silence’. In seeking to regain this vision, and to understand its meaning, he is forced to confront also Conrad’s `heart of darkness’, a vision of negation tending towards `horror’. Much of the poem takes place in the wilderness and the metropolis, each symbolising the Waste Land of modernity. The question implicitly posed is, in Frazer’s perspective, what sacrifice could redeem this and world and reaffirm the fertility cycle? In Weston’s, it is a matter of whether the quest hero, our unnamed protagonist, can reaffirm the sacred link with the Grail and so cure the Fisher King, in a land which does not even know itself to be waste.

Taking Frazer’s perspective first, we may say that the reader of the poem is left in no doubt that the fertility god has died. But the community depicted here is hardly ready for his revival. Spring brings only anxiety not rejoicing. April is `the cruellest month’ precisely because it is then that `lilacs’ emerge from `the dead land’, disturbing the habitual death-in-life of the inhabitants, winter having covered earth in `forgetful snow’. These people may well be asked what `roots’ they know, for they are, spiritually, in a desert. But they can give no answer: the `crowds of people walking round in a ring’ glimpsed by the clairvoyant Madame Sosostris are oblivious to the need for true ceremony. Theirs is an empty ritual. A corpse is buried in a garden, suggesting a link with the ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris, but there is no mention of any rebirth. `Phlebas the Phoenician Sailor’ drowns, suggesting a link with the cults of both Osiris and the Mediterranean god Adonis, but the waters of death are not transformed into the waters of life. As for Weston’s perspective, the role of the Fisher King has been denied and degraded. Where once the fish symbolised fertility – abundant life brought out of the waters – it is now associated chiefly with desolation. Thus at the very end of the poem, the Grail monarch is still waiting to be healed: he sits `upon the shore / Fishing, with the and plain behind me’.

However, to remain with Weston’s perspective, it should be stressed that, though Eliot’s quester does not discover the healing knowledge of the Grail, its symbolism is a consistent and informing presence. Further references to the legend, such as a quotation from Verlaine’s poem ‘Parsifal’, though juxtaposed ironically with the bawdy refrain of a music-hall ballad, do remind us that in the traditional romance the king is cured. Though we have lost all assurance of that healing moment, and though we do not even hear the ritual question of the Grail (`Whom does it serve?’), we may begin to intuit the distant rumour of some new way of life. Indeed, this is suggested, albeit desperately, by the words quoted from the Book of Isaiah: `Shall I at least set my lands in order?’

Returning to Frazer’s perspective, though the poem offers no decisive transition from dying god to reviving god, the invocation of effective sacrifice is too strong for the poem to be merely a documentation of `boredom’ and ‘horror’ – to use the terms of Eliot’s 1933 lecture on Matthew Arnold. (6) Though the inhabitants of the Waste Land are without their proper `vegetation ceremonies’, The Waste Land itself is deeply informed by them. Though Madame Sosostris cannot find in her Tarot pack the card of The Hanged Man, the sign of sacrifice, the noted absence of the card has its resonance. Moreover, in both Frazer’s and Weston’s perspective, the Tarot image suggests not only a `Life Cult’ but also a `Mystery Cult’, and not only a `Mystery Cult’ but also Christianity itself. Thus later in the poem, we hear of `frosty silence in the gardens’ and `agony in stony places’, of `shouting’ and `crying’ in `Prison and palace’: allusions to the crucifixion narrative. Though the inhabitants of the Waste Land can only reflect that ‘He who is living is now dead’, thus failing to understand that what matters about the crucifixion is the resurrection which follows it, the Gospel story is still able to be invoked to telling effect.

Eliot’s poem, then, while conveying `boredom’ and `horror’, gains its power from its reminder of the `glory’ which has been lost and which needs to be regained – to cite the lecture on Arnold once more. According to Burke’s thinking, this ideal is only implicit in language itself, which is `rotten with perfection’. More particularly, it is the very nature of words to suggest the one, perfect, universal Word. And indeed, The Waste Land, on first sight a bewildering array of fragmentary discourses, does insistently gesture towards some absolute, if absent, term. By the end of the poem it has even been named: it is the Sanskrit ‘Shantih’, translated into Judaeo-Christian terms in Eliot’s notes as `The Peace which passeth understanding’. Gesturing towards this final, pure utterance, the poem invites us to lament the very distance between words and Word which it itself enacts. Thus the poem may be seen as a tragic indictment of an age that seems content to leave the Word unheard. It is against the spirit of that age that the poem works: despite its demonstration of chaos, The Waste Land is really about the desperate need for order. It uses the paradigm of fertility as the framework for a transcendent vision. For, no matter how lacking the age may seem in hierarchical principles and in ideas of perfection, the aesthetic ordering of words which the poem achieves is intended to stand as a reminder of the power of the all-¬embracing Word.

It is worth noting that, when Eliot reviewed another major work of modernist mythopoeia — James Joyce’s Ulysses — the year after its publication (and, of course, that of The Waste Land), he used the occasion to promote his own kind of `perfectionism’. In an article entitled `Ulysses, Order and Myth’, he reflected on the possibilities of `the mythical method’. This is defined as `a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’ Or again, it is `a step toward … order and form’. But by way of warning to any who might think the `mythical method’ is easily adopted, the following proviso is added: `only those who have won their own discipline in secret and without aid, in a world which offers very little assistance to that end, can be of any use in furthering this advance.’ (7) We have no space to indicate just how misleading this is as an approach to Ulysses. All we need emphasise is how insistent is Eliot’s terminology: `order’ and `discipline’, as opposed to `futility’ and `anarchy’. There is a complex of terms at work here, and it seems to be doing a lot of Eliot’s thinking for him. His words are jumping to their own conclusions. In the process, the richly humane narrative of Joyce’s work is overlooked, and an extremely strict theology is being asserted under the guise of a disinterested reflection on a contemporary writer’s use of mythology. Just as much as The Waste Land, then, Eliot’s article exemplifies what Wallace Stevens calls the `rage for order’. (8) However, where Stevens allows for this to be a `blessed’ rage, implying that the human urge towards perfection of language is in itself a mode of redemption, with the beauty of poetry revealing the sacredness of earthly existence, the impression that lingers after reading these writings of Eliot is that of the desire for release from words and world alike. `Perfectionism’ here is a matter of negation rather than fulfilment.

However, it would be regrettable to conclude our juxtaposition of Eliot’s poetry with Burke’s theory by seeming to put the former too neatly in its place. That would be a most un-Burkean thing to do. Rather, we might end by referring to a later work, Four Quartets (1942): this is Eliot’s meditation on time and eternity, poetry and belief, language and the Logos. That is, here the poet is much more explicit about the relation between words and the Word, and he is much more honest about the rhetorical nature of religion. Whereas in The Waste Land, `the mythical method’ consisted of the appeal to an entirely other `order’, a transcendent `form’, beyond all the ironies and the ambiguities, here it consists of the heroic engagement with language itself (‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’). Despite the reputation of the poem as a move out of mythology into pure theology, it is very much a reworking of Eliot’s earlier narrative patterns – those of death and rebirth and of the quest for the spirit – in a new context. That context is, of course, his subscription to the Christian faith. But now, paradoxically, acceptance of a certain set of beliefs liberates the poet from the habits of contempt and rejection which went with his previous gestures towards the absolute. It is as if the doctrine of the Incarnation has saved him from the aridity of his previous `perfectionism’.

In the closing poem, ‘Little Gidding’, the rebirth and the completed quest are understood as effective even within the terms of the human struggle: for though `the purpose’ is always `beyond the end you figured / And is altered in fulfilment’, and though `to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time, is an occupation for the saint’, it is possible to find peace within the dialectic of words and the Word. ‘The detail of the pattern is movement,’ we are told, even while its principle is the `Love’ which `is itself unmoving’. Hence in his `movement towards that `Love’, stopping to utter a prayer `while the light fails / On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel’, the poet can say without discontent or disaffection that `this is the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England.’ (9) The search for the eternity of the Word brings us back to the temporal status of words, from which all ideas of perfection proceed. Eliot’s mythology and Burke’s logology may yet turn out to be two ways of looking at the same miracle, that of human language itself.


Laurence Coupe, Myth , 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)

Laurence Coupe, Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology (Anderson, Carolina: Parlor Press, 2013)



(1) Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), p. vi.

(2) Burke, Rhetoric, p. 7.

(3) Burke, Rhetoric, pp. 183-96.

(4) Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 16.

(5) T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), p. 80. (All words and phrases quoted subsequently from the poem itself are taken from this edition: pp. 61-79.)

(6) T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber & Faber, 1964), p. 106.

(7) T.S. Eliot, `Ulysses, Order and Myth’, Selected Prose, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber & Faber, 1975), pp. 177-8.

(8) Wallace Stevens, `The Idea of Order at Key West’, Selected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1986, pp. 65-6.

(9) Eliot, Collected Poems, pp. 215, 222-23.