Anglican Notables – T. S. Eliot – 4 January

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

T. S Eliot

Born 26 September 1888 (St. Louis, Missouri) – Died 4 January 1965 (London, England)

Poet, Essayist, Playwright, Publisher, Literary Critic.

[The photo of T. S. Eliot was taken by Walter Stoneman in 1948 and is now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.]

That T. S. Eliot’s annual mind falls on 4 January is propitious for several reasons.  First, it is close to the Solemnity of the Epiphany (or falls on the feast day where it is transferred to the closest Sunday).  This gives us added reason to read again Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” (or to listen to it, whether read by Eliot himself, or, even better, by Sir Alec Guiness).

The second favorable reason for remembering Eliot on 4 January is that it follows so closely on the annual remembrance of Edward Caswall, about whom I wrote on 2 January.  Dissimilar though the poetic idioms of these two men are, the writers themselves were alike in being formed, in their respective ways, by Anglicanism’s “literary … tone.”  Indeed, had Eliot been only a literary critic, his contribution to a deeper understanding of the seventeenth century’s Metaphysical Poets and the writings (as both theology and literature) of the Caroline Divines would have been contribution enough to this aspect of the Anglican patrimony.

And the third reason I am glad Eliot is remembered close to the date of Caswall’s annual mind is that Eliot is yet another individual whose accomplishments can obscure the fact that he, as did Caswall, quietly, faithfully, and even in relative obscurity, carried out his role in the Church according to his state in life.  Eliot served as church warden of St. Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, for twenty-five years.[1]  He was an almost-daily communicant.[2]  He also exemplified humility.  If anyone could have been excused for being full of himself, it might well have been Eliot, one of the leading lights of the early twentieth-century’s intelligentsia.  But what other than the grace of that most cherished of Christian virtues, humility, can explain Eliot’s reply to such critics as the censorious Conrad Aiken concerning Eliot’s _For Lancelot Andrews_: “You may be right. Most of these criticisms I had anticipated or made myself. Thrice-armed is he who knows he is full of humbug.  My progress, if I ever make any, will be purging myself of a large number of impure motives.”  Eliot also refrained from re-marrying until well after his first wife, Vivienne, who had been institutionalized for many years because of mental health issues, had died.[3]  Though a divorce in civil law might well have been possible, especially given Vivienne’s condition, Eliot refused to divorce her both because she refused to accept that the marriage was over[4] and because his Anglo-Catholic faith would not have allowed it.[5]

It was not until Eliot was in his late thirties that he converted to Christianity and to Anglo-Catholicism in particular.  He had been raised Unitarian, though by the time he went to Harvard as a young undergraduate he felt no allegiance to that tradition.  But even in his pre-conversion years, there were moments, influences, and realizations that already pointed towards his becoming Christian.  In fact, literary critics find Christian themes in his pre-Christian poetry.  But it is mostly the interrelation of Eliot’s professed Christian faith with his place as a Modernist writer on which I wish to focus in what follows.

“I hate spectacular conversions!” wrote Eliot to one of his friends[6] on the occasion, in 1927, of Eliot’s baptism and, the next day, his confirmation into the Church of England.[7]  This is one in a number of ways in which Eliot exemplified, I believe, that multi-valent sense of the term “Anglican reserve.”  So much of his poetry, especially the Four Quartets, is in line with what any number of mystics, going back to St. Paul himself, have been compelled to express while, paradoxically, shying from doing so.  As St. Paul put it, these are things “which man may not utter” (II Corinthians 12:4).  But as many mystics express it, not being permitted to utter such things is connected with an awareness of the futility of trying to do so.  Words, mere words, wrote Eliot “strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.”[8] 

This reserve can also contribute to the cultivation of—and in the soil of English spirituality, has done so—a shying from the grandiose in religious matters generally.  It nurtures an ethos in which sensible shoes fit in with the beauty of holiness and in which quietly kneeling is done not “to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report” but is done in the confidence that here “prayer has been valid.”[9]  Accounts of Eliot’s personality confirm this impression of a reserved bank clerk (which is what he was for a time at Lloyds) rather than the revolutionary poet whose “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) is considered “the first masterpiece of Modernism in English.”[10] 

But Eliot was indeed the leading voice of Modernism in the anglophone world.  And an aspect of the Modernist aesthetic is to shock.  Eliot managed to shock the literary world as a Modernist, and he managed to shock the shocking Modernists themselves (the Lytton Stracheys and Virginia Woolfs) by not only converting to Christianity but proceeding to build his oeuvre within a Christian context.  After all, another aspect of Modernism was atheism or irreligion.  Virginia Woolf predicted Eliot would “drop his Christianity with his wife, as one might empty the fishbones after the herring.”[11]  Though Woolf proved somewhat close to the mark about Eliot’s first marriage (as noted above), she was dead wrong about the depth of Eliot’s conversion.

Eliot serves as an example of how Christians who value the life of the mind can, in the modern world, face a kind of martyrdom of isolation.  As the examples of the lives of many un-educated saints remind us, holiness is not measured by one’s intellectual abilities and/or accomplishments.  But among the saints are also some of the finest and most adventurous minds known to human history.  Which in turn is a reminder that many of these minds were formed in a culture that regarded the love of learning as integral to the desire for God.  This culture was much less secure in Eliot’s day and is perhaps even less secure now.  But Eliot embraced this challenge and encourages us to do the same.  “Anyone,” wrote Eliot in a letter to a friend, “who has been moving in intellectual circles and comes to the church may experience an odd, rather exhilarating feeling of isolation.”[12] 

Regardless of whether Eliot’s work will survive Post-Modernism’s dismissal of Modernism, my sense is that Eliot has also proved to be too challenging and sometimes shocking for Christianity, especially in the Anglo-Catholic context, which is the tradition he famously professed as his own in his Preface to For Lancelot Andrews (1928).[13]  Perhaps by now, his revolutionary poetic techniques are relatively tame.  But what continues to challenge us, I believe, are his claims about the role of tradition in civilization and in Christianity.  Eliot points to a kind of intellectual asceticism that demands more than dabbling in the past but allows us to both dwell in the richness of the past while fully embracing the opportunities of the present.  This can even mean re-claiming the “sensibilities” of earlier periods or, at a minimum, recognizing that ours is a world of “dissociated sensibilities.”  Though Eliot was a Classicist, a Royalist, and an Anglo-Catholic, all of which would have made him seem rather reactionary to the literati of the twentieth century, he, like Newman, was committed to the place of tradition (and Tradition) as an ever-developing reality.  “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time.”[14]

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


[1] St. Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, London | Christine Sunderland

[2] Lord Harries of Pentegarth, “The Conversion of T.S. Eliot” (18 June 2018) – The Conversion of T.S. Eliot – Lord Harries of Pentregarth – YouTube – at ca. 21 minutes.

[3] Dwight Longenecker, “T. S. Eliot’s Long Lent” – T.S. Eliot’s Long Lent (catholiceducation.org)

[4] Diaries of TS Eliot’s first wife reveal her torment at end of their marriage | TS Eliot | The Guardian

[5] Dwight Longenecker, “T. S. Eliot’s Long Lent” – T.S. Eliot’s Long Lent (catholiceducation.org)

[6] Lord Harries of Pentegarth, “The Conversion of T.S. Eliot” (18 June 2018) – The Conversion of T.S. Eliot – Lord Harries of Pentregarth – YouTube

[7] Eliot’s baptism took place at Holy Trinity Church in Finstock, near Oxford, which is where the underappreciated Anglican novelist Barbara Pym worshiped some decades later.  Finstock – Holy Trinity Church – Church / Chapel in Finstock, West Oxfordshire – Oxfordshire Cotswolds

[8] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Burnt NortonT.S. Eliot – Four Quartets: Burnt Norton | Genius

[9] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Little GiddingT.S. Eliot – Four Quartets: Little Gidding | Genius

[10] T.S. Eliot – Later poetry and plays | Britannica

[11] Barry Spurr, “T. S. Eliot’s Extraordinary Journey of Faith” – a T.S. Eliot’s extraordinary journey of faith – ABC Religion & Ethics 

[12] Lord Harries of Pentegarth, “The Conversion of T.S. Eliot” (18 June 2018) – The Conversion of T.S. Eliot – Lord Harries of Pentregarth – YouTube – at ca. 26:30 minutes.

[13] Eliot declared he was “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”  David Naugle, in “The Intellectual and Religious Development of T. S. Eliot Reflected in Selected Readings of His Poetry with Emphasis on Ash Wednesday” (Research Ppr on TSE (dbu.edu)) comments: “Eliot later regretted at least the manner if not the substance of this pronouncement. Babbitt, he said, when the two of them met in London had chastised him for not making his positions plain to the public and this rapprochement led to this proclamatory expression. See Elisabeth Schneider, T. S. Eliot: The Pattern in the Carpet, p. 112 for the background to and nature of this statement and its impact on Eliot’s poetry, especially Ash Wednesday.”

[14] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Little GiddingT.S. Eliot – Four Quartets: Little Gidding | Genius

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