‘April is the cruellest month’ … words that have come to mind constantly this time last year during the search for two fishermen off the shore of Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context
Saturday, 12 January 2013:
4.2:: Is there a way of talking about an ‘Anglican Culture’?
Part 1: Anglican culture and the poetry of TS Eliot;
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
These are the opening lines of TS Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land (1922), which is regarded a one of the most important poems of the 20th century.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
These words came to mind constantly two years ago as I thought again and again of the people in Skerries who were searching desperately for two missing fishermen:
April is the cruellest month …
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Throughout the poem we find allusions to The Book of Common Prayer, and Old Testament allusions, where the narrator finds himself in a summer drought that has transformed the land into a desert, who is referred to as the “Son of Man,” with references to Ezekiel, and to the Gospels.
The American-born English poet, playwright and literary critic, Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), was perhaps the most important poet in the English language in the 20th century. And he is one of the greatest examples of how Anglican spirituality, Anglican liturgy, Anglican memory and Anglican history have been conveyed through the generations through the arts, particularly through poetry, drama and fiction.
The calendars of Anglican churches throughout the world recalls the saintly memory of some of the great creative figures in Anglicanism over the generations.
For example, the calendar in Common Worship commemorates the poets George Herbert (27 February), Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy “Woodbine Willie” (8 March), John Donne (31 March), Christina Rossetti (27 April) and John Keble (14 July), and writers like Julian of Norwich (8 May), Evelyn Underhill (15 June), John Bunyan (30 August) and Samuel Johnson (13 December).
To that list we might, perhaps, add writers such as CS Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. Or if we were to think of writers who been conduits of Anglican spirituality and Anglican thinking we might think of Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), author of the Chronicles of Barchester, or, today, Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox.
Is there an ‘Anglican culture’?
A mural on a wall in Lichfield commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Anglican culture has been expressed in architecture, poetry, literature, novels, and music.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is often remembered as the compiler of his great Dictionary, but forgotten as a spiritual writer.
In his last prayer, on 5 December 1784, before receiving Holy Communion and eight days before he died, Samuel Johnson prayed:
Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and his mercy; enforce an accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption. Have mercy on me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men. Support me, by the grace of thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lichfield’s Market Square and Johnson’s statue viewed from Johnson’s house in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
This morning, as we conclude this module in Anglicanism, I want to suggest that there is an “Anglican culture” that conveys and carries through the generations an Anglican approach to spirituality and theology. For those who are entering Anglican ordained ministry but who are not cradle Anglicans, I believe it is important to be sensitive to this, to grasp this but even more importantly to be enriched by this.
I want to look at this through the poetry and the writing of TS Eliot, one of the greatest poets of the last century, and later – if we have time – to look at it through the eyes of one novelist and one novel in particular, Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) and her final novel and masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)
TS Eliot as an Anglican poet
The poem by TS Eliot (right) that made his name as a poet, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock (1915), is regarded as a masterpiece of the modernist movement. It was followed by some of the best-known poems in English, including The Waste Land (1922), The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and the four poems in Four Quartets (1943).
Of course, many know him since schooldays or childhood for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), a collection of light verse that inspired Cats (1981), the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Eliot also wrote several plays, including Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949), and he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
Although he was born in the US, he became a British citizen in 1927 at the age of 39, a few months after his conversion to Anglicanism. When he renounced his US citizenship, he said: “My mind may be American but my heart is British.”
Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the youngest child in a prominent Unitarian and academic family; his mother was a poet and social worker.
He began to write poetry at the age of 14 under the influence of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but he destroyed those early poems, and his oldest surviving poem dates from January 1905. He studied philosophy at Harvard (1906-1909), where the Harvard Advocate published some of his poems.
After working as a philosophy assistant at Harvard (1909-1910), Eliot moved to Paris, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne (1910–1911), before returning to Harvard (1911-1914) to study Indian philosophy and Sanskrit. He then moved to Merton College, Oxford, but left after a year, commenting: “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.”
By 1916, he had completed a PhD dissertation for Harvard on Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of FH Bradley, but he never returned for his viva voce exam.
Meanwhile, in 1915 he had been introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and they married within weeks. Their marriage was a catalyst in his writing The Waste Land, and was the subject of the movie Tom and Viv (1994).
24 Russell Square, where TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber, is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
He took up several teaching posts, including teaching at Highgate School, where his pupils included John Betjeman, and lecturing at Birkbeck College, London. By 1917, he was working at Lloyds Bank, and on a visit to Paris in 1920 he met James Joyce. But in 1925, Eliot joined the publishers Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, where he spent the rest of his career, eventually becoming a director.
On 29 June 1927, Eliot was baptised and confirmed an Anglican; a few months later he would become a British citizen. He became a churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road, London, and specifically identified with the Anglo-Catholic expression of Anglicanism, describing himself a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” Later, he would say his religious views combined “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.”
When he was offered the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard (1932-1933), he left his wife Vivienne in England. On his return, he filed for divorce, and she spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital until her death in 1947.
Eliot first published his poems in periodicals, small books or pamphlets, and then collected them in books. His first collection was Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). In 1920, he published more poems in Ara Vos Prec (London) and Poems: 1920 (New York).
In 1925, he collected The Waste Land and the poems in Prufrock and Poems into one volume and added The Hollow Men in Poems: 1909-1925.
The Hollow Men was written when Eliot was going through difficult times in his work and with his first wife’s health. Writing about his earlier poem, The Waste Land (1922), Eliot concluded that “some forms of illness are extremely favourable to religious illumination.” This sets the background for the circumstances surrounding The Hollow Men, which was written when Eliot was going through a wilderness experience.
From then on, Eliot updated this work as Collected Poems. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) is a collection of light verse. Poems Written in Early Youth, posthumously published in 1967, is mainly poems published in The Harvard Advocate (1907-1910). Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (1997) includes works he never intended to publish but that were published posthumously.
Although the main character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) seems to be middle-aged, Eliot wrote most of the poem when he was only 22. It is well known for its opening lines, comparing the evening sky to “a patient etherised upon a table” – an image that was considered shocking and offensive. The poem follows the conscious experience of Prufrock, lamenting his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and his lack of spiritual progress.
In 1922, the same year as James Joyce published Ulysses, Eliot published The Waste Land at a time of personal difficulty: his marriage was failing, and both he and Vivienne were suffering from nervous disorders. The poem slips between satire and prophecy, and is marked by abrupt changes of speaker, location and time. Yet it is a touchstone of modern literature. Among its well-known phrases are: “April is the cruellest month,” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” and the Sanskrit mantra that ends the poem: “Shantih, shantih, shantih.”
While earlier commentators tended to read ‘The Waste Land’ as a secular commentary on life in London in the inter-war years, more recent studies see in this poem a description of Eliot’s pilgrimage to faith from the Unitarianism of his childhood and youth, through his readings in Hinduism to his preparation for his eventual Baptism in 1927 and his subsequent, life-lasting Anglo-Catholicism.
In a recent study, (‘Liturgical influences of Anglo-Catholicism on ‘The Waste Land’ and other works by TS Eliot,’ Fordham University, 1999), A. Lee Fjordbotten says ‘The Waste Land’ reveals a spiritually searching and developing Eliot who is anticipating his formal conversion in 1927. He points out that the structure of the poem is similar to the traditional process of conversion, especially as seen in the season of Lent.
In this way, the poem becomes the chronicle of Eliot’s own spiritual journey to conversion, and he analyses the five sections of ‘The Waste Land’ liturgically, in relation to the five Sundays of Lent and their respective themes.
In a study last year of ‘The Waste Land’ (‘The Prefiguration of TS Eliot’s conversion in ‘The Waste Land’,’ in the Saint Austin Review, January/February 2012, pp 19-20), Paula L. Gallagher, says the beginning of Eliot’s conversion is prefigured in this poem and begins with his recognition of the emptiness of modernity.
She argues that the poem – far from being just the apogee of modernist despair – significantly prefigures his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism: “Eliot’s personal journey through the Waste Land – from the rejection of modernity, to the search for Christ, to the arrival of rain – contains imagery, allusions and ideas that prefigure that conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.”
Eliot’s major poem of the late 1920s, The Hollow Men (1925), was written in the context of post-war Europe. It is deeply indebted to Dante and wrestles with the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and with Eliot’s failed marriage. It concludes with some of Eliot’s best-known lines:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Not long before he reached the age of 40, Eliot made a decision that influenced his poetry and drama for the rest of his life. On the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, 27 June 1927, he was baptised and so began a life-long commitment to Anglo-Catholicism. Eliot was probably converted through reading the prayers and sermons of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester.
The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral ... “his prayers and sermons were critical in TS Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and had an abiding influence on his writings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In his essay, For Lancelot Andrewes: an Essay on Style and Order (1928), published the following year, Eliot argued that Andrewes’s sermons “rank with the finest English prose of their time, of any time.” Eliot spoke of his indebtedness to the bishop’s writings: he is “the first great preacher of the English Catholic Church,” he had “the voice of a man who had a formed visible church behind him, who spoke with the old authority and the new culture.”
For Eliot, “The intellectual achievement and the prose style of Hooker and Andrewes came to complete the structure of the English Church as the philosophy of the thirteenth century crowns the Catholic Church … the achievement of Hooker and Andrewes was to make the English Church more worthy of intellectual assent. No religion can survive the judgment of history unless the best minds of its time have collaborated in its construction; if the Church of Elizabeth is worthy of the age of Shakespeare and Jonson, that is because of the work of Hooker and Andrewes.
“The writings of both Hooker and Andrewes illustrate that determination to stick to essentials, that awareness of the needs of the time, the desire for clarity and precision on matters of importance, and the indifference to matters indifferent, which was the general policy of Elizabeth … Andrewes is the first great preacher of the English Catholic Church.”
On the other hand, he was deeply disparaging when it came to John Donne:
“About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive; and impure motives lend their aid to a facile success. He is a little of the religious spellbinder, the Reverend Billy Sunday of his time, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy. We emphasize this aspect to the point of the grotesque. Donne had a trained mind; but without belittling the intensity or the profundity of his experience, we can suggest that this experience was not perfectly controlled, and that he lacked spiritual discipline.”
Eliot was influenced too by the monastic life of Nicholas Ferrar’s community at Little Gidding, and admired the works of Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Jeremy Taylor – and the churches of Christopher Wren.
Eliot’s writings after his baptism reflect how much an impression Andrewes’s sermons had made on him. His sermons on the Nativity were a special favourite of Eliot. His poem, Journey of the Magi (1927), the first of the Ariel Poems and written shortly after his baptism, begins with a direct quote from Andrewes’s sermon on the Epiphany at Christmas 1622. In that sermon, “Of the wise men come from the East,” Andrewes opens with the words:
“It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter’.”
Eliot opens his Journey of the Magi with similar words:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
There are other references to Andrewes’s sermons in his poems. One phrase from Andrewes that figures in Eliot’s poetry – “Word without a word” – occurs three times in Andrewes’s Nativity Sermons in which he refers to “the eternal Word” as having always existed and the co-creator of the universe but now as a babe not “able to speak a word.”
Ash Wednesday marked TS Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism
Ash Wednesday (1930) was his first long poem after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, and has been described as Eliot’s conversion poem. It deals with the struggle that arises when one who has lacked faith acquires it, and with the aspiration to move from a spiritual barrenness to the hope for human salvation.
In Ash Wednesday, Eliot took that “flashing phrase” from Andrewes, “Word without a word,” to highlight that the world still lives in darkness as the Word is still unheard:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
In his sermons, Andrewes was critical of contemporaries who followed their own spirit rather than the Holy Spirit. He believed parish church is where the local community assembles to offer up their prayers and praises. Eliot lamented also that church community life no longer existed as families spent Sundays as a day off from religion, and so bells were no longer necessary in the city to summon people to church, as he expressed it in Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934):
That the country now is only fit for picnics,
And the Church does not seem to be wanted
In country or in suburb.
The Four Quartets ... regarded by TS Eliot as his masterpiece, led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature
Eliot regarded the Four Quartets as his masterpiece. This is the work that led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is not one poem but four long poems, each published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942).
Each poem has five sections, each begins with a meditation or reflection on the place that gives the poem its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in a theological, historical or physical respect and its relation to the human condition. In addition, each poem is associated with one of the four classical elements, air, earth, water or fire.
Burnt Norton asks what it means to consider things that might have been:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
A terrace of almshouses in East Coker ... the village that inspired TS Eliot was his ancestral home and his ashes are buried at the parish church ... “In my beginning is my end”
East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, is set in late November and ends: “In my end is my beginning.”
But it opens:
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation …
In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane …
Wait for the early owl.
‘Now the light falls ... I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.’ autumn sunsets turn to winter at Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Out of darkness, Eliot offers a solution in East Coker:
Now the light fails … I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.
East Coker ... TS Eliot’s ancestral village in Somerset (Photograph: The Guardian)
The Dry Salvages treats the element of water, drawing on images of river and sea. It strives to contain opposites:
... the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled.
Julian of Norwich ... All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well
Little Gidding treats the element of fire, drawing on Eliot’s experiences as an air raid warden during the Blitz in London. This is the most anthologised of the Four Quartets. In Little Gidding, the Four Quartets end with the well-known affirmation by Julian of Norwich:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
‘To make an end is to make a beginning’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In Little Gidding, Eliot exposes the expression of the Catholic faith in Andrewes’s time. There are paradoxical lines that crystallise the significance of the Incarnation:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
… A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.
The community at Little Gidding maintained 24 hours of prayer, including long hours of night vigils. Little Gidding was a place “where prayer has been valid” and where “prayer is more/than an order of words”:
… You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
The Four Quartets must be understood within the framework of Christian thinking, tradition, and history. Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics like Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration that inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road of sanctification.
Eliot directed much of his creative energies after Ash Wednesday to writing plays. A pageant play, The Rock (1934) was first performed to raise funds for churches in the Diocese of London.
A former Dean of Canterbury, Bishop George Bell (1883-1958) of Chichester, asked Eliot to write his best-known play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935) for the Canterbury Festival in 1935. The play tells the story of the murder and martyrdom of Saint Thomas a Becket.
The Cocktail Party (1949) was Eliot’s modernising of Alcestis by Euripides. Professor Guy Martin once offered a course at Harvard Divinity School on the writer as theologian, focussing on the poetry, prose and the plays of TS Eliot, examining the way he contributed to the relationship between religion and literature. As part of their final examination, the members of the class produced The Cocktail Party.
Eliot was a member of a group that produced the report Catholicity (1947) as a contribution to the process that resulted in the Church of England’s Report on Doctrine (1948).
In 1958, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury appointed Eliot to a commission that produced The Revised Psalter (1963). Another member of the commission was CS Lewis, who had once been a harsh critic of Eliot. In 1935, Lewis wrote to a mutual friend that he considered Eliot’s work to be “a very great evil.” However, during their time on that commission their antagonism turned to true friendship.
In 1957, at the age of 68, Eliot secretly married his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, then aged 32, who had been his secretary at Faber and Faber for almost eight years.
The wall plaque in Saint Michael’s Church, East Coker, Somerset, commemorating TS Eliot (Photograph: John Snelling)
Eliot died in London on 4 January 1965. His ashes were taken to Saint Michael’s Church in East Coker, the Somerset village from which his ancestors had emigrated to New England in the 17th century. A wall plaque in the church commemorates him with a quotation from his poem East Coker:
In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.
He is also commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where a stone quotes from Little Gidding:
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond
the language of the living.
Part 2: Is there an Anglican culture? Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
We have been asking whether there is an ‘Anglican Culture’ that acts as a conduit for Anglican history, theology and spirituality, and for the Anglican story.
We have looked, as an example, at the writings of TS Eliot. As a second example I would like to introduce the writer Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) and her novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956). It was the last of her novels, and the most successful, and for it she received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
The book was described in The New York Times: “Fantasy, farce, high comedy, lively travel material, delicious japes at many aspects of the frenzied modern world, and a succession of illuminating thoughts about love, sex, life, organised churches and religion are all tossed together with enchanting results.”
The famous opening sentence is:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
For months after the publication of this novel in 1956, guests at London cocktail parties could be heard quoting those opening lines.
Dame Rose Macaulay (right) was the author of 35 books – 23 of them novels – and is best remembered for Potterism, a satire of yellow journalism; a biography of Milton; her haunting post-World War II novel, The World My Wilderness; two travel books, They Went to Portugal and Fabled Shore; and her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond.
Rose Macaulay was born in Rugby in 1881, the second of seven children in a family of Anglican clerics and eminent academics. She spent her early childhood in Varezze, a small Italian seaside town. In 1894, her family returned to England, and after studying modern history at Somerville College, Oxford, she began a career as a writer, supporting herself as a novelist, journalist, and critic.
After a time of spiritual questioning as an adolescent, she grew into a young woman with a serious approach to religion. After attending a retreat at Saint Alban’s, a High Church parish in Holborn, around 1909, she undertook the disciplined practices associated with Anglo-Catholicism, regularly going to confession at Saint Edward’s House in Westminster, which was the London headquarters of the Cowley Fathers.
During World War I, she worked as a nurse and as a civil servant in the War Office before taking up a position in the British Propaganda Department. There, in 1918, she met Gerald O’Donovan (1871–1942) from Ireland, a former Roman Catholic priest, a novelist, and a married father of three. O’Donovan was 45 and the married father of three; she was 36. They fell in love and eventually began a long affair that lasted until his death in 1942.
By 1922, Macaulay felt that she could no longer make her confession or receive Holy Communion. Her separation from the Church lasted for almost 30 years, during which time she continued to feel “Anglican,” as she put it, but she was “an Anglo-agnostic,” for whom Anglicanism had dwindled down to “a matter of taste and affection . . . rather than of belief.”
This long period of estrangement began to come to an end on 29 August 1950, when out of the blue received a letter from Father Hamilton Johnson. Less than five months later, on 12 January 1951, she went to Saint Edward’s House and made her confession to a priest.
In her 70th year, Rose Macaulay returned to the Church of England as a communicant. She adopted a rule of life, and each morning she attended the early Eucharist at Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street, a liberal Anglo-Catholic church with dignified services – high but not extreme, and a church later celebrated in poetry by John Betjeman.
In a letter to Father Hamilton Johnson in 1952, Macaulay spoke of the experience of “being in the Church” as “a wonderful corporate feeling of being carried along, being part of the body ...” The post-1950 Macaulay appears to represent the full, committed life of faith that follows on the stage that Austin Farrer called initial faith. Like Augustine, she knew that the strand of surety is an elusive beach; its shifting sands mean that Christian conversion is never complete and final.
Towards the end of her life, she told her sister Jean that “religious belief is too uncertain and shifting a ground (with me) to speak of lying or truth in connection with it. One believes in patches, and it [“believe”] is a vague, inaccurate word. I could never say ‘Ι believe in God’ in the same sense that I could say ‘Ι believe in the sun & moon & stars’.”
As Augustine makes clear in the Confessions, his conversion did not mean that he had now arrived safely in port; the harbour of the convert is regularly buffeted by storms.
Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity.” During the 1930s and 1940s, when CS Lewis, Austin Farrer, Dorothy L. Sayers and others were writing books that were imaginative yet consistently orthodox, Macaulay was a lapsed Anglican, alienated from the church. Even after her return in 1950-1951, she writes The Towers of Trebizond, whose heroine is to some extent her alter ego, and who occupies a place at the border or beyond Christianity.
She was sceptical about much that the Anglican tradition deemed essential, and for a long period described herself as an “Anglo-agnostic,” never certain of her unbelief, or free of spiritual guilt, or unable to appreciate a good sermon. Her brand of Anglicanism was high and broad – liturgically Catholic and intellectually engaged. She admired the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century and in her personal devotions often used the Great Antiphons.
A mentor to Elizabeth Bowen and a friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rupert Brooke, EM Forster, and Rosamond Lehmann, Macaulay was a well-known figure in London’s literary world and a fabled wit. She was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) shortly before her death in 1958.
The book abounds with historical references, including Saint Paul’s fourth missionary journey, the Fourth Crusade, English Christianity since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, 19th century travellers to the Ottoman Empire, World War I, and the archaeological search for the ruins of Troy.
The scene moves from Turkey when the two senior characters elope to the Soviet Union, and Laurie meets her lover and her semi-estranged mother in Jerusalem.
Gerald O’Donovan suffered serious head injuries in a car accident with Rose Macaulay in the Lake District, and the accident may have inspired the fatal accident on the return journey in The Towers of Trebizond. The final chapters raise multiple issues such as the souls of animals.
Back in London, Laurie is at the wheel of the car in which Vere dies. Her own pride and impetuosity cause her to reject her lover’s caution and to assert her rights against a bus that has crashed a red light. Now, without Vere, Laurie feels that she must live “in two hells, for I have lost God” and lost, too, “the love I want.”
Against an Anglo-Catholic backdrop, the book deals with the attractions of mystical Christianity and the conflict between Christianity and adultery, a problem Macaulay faced in her own life because of her 22-year affair with Gerald O’Donovan.
The Towers of Trebizond is part satire, part travel book, part comedy, part tragedy ... and at all times a spiritual reflection on the pilgrimage of life. It starts off as a comic novel, and there is scarcely a line in the first third of the book that fails to provoke laughter or, at the least, a pleasurable sense that someone is tickling your brain.
The book is largely autobiographical. It follows the adventures of a group of people travelling from Istanbul – or Constantinople, as Father Chantry-Pigg insists on calling it, – to Trebizond. In this book, Trebizond is not simply the old name for Trabzon, the former Byzantine port on the shores of the Black Sea in north-eastern Turkey. Trebizond is the “fabled city” that the heroine Laurie feels cut off from; Trebizond can be read as symbolising the Christian faith, or the church; Trebizond could be Bunyan’s Celestial City, Augustine’s City of God, or ultimate, unattainable Truth.
● Laurie, the narrator, is a woman in her mid-30s. Like Macaulay, she too has a long-term love affair with a married man.
● Dorothea ffoulkes-Corbett is the otherwise the eccentric Aunt Dot. Barbara Reynolds suggests she is based on Rose Macaulay’s friend, Dorothy L Sayers. A hale, elderly woman, Aunt Dot justifies her love of world travel by claiming it to be in the service of Anglican mission work and a project to emancipate the women of Turkey by converting them to Anglicanism and popularising the bathing hat.
● Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, Aunt Dot’s friend, is an Anglo-Catholic priest who keeps his collection of sacred relics in his pockets, and who is “better at condemning than at loving.” Barbara Reynolds has suggested this character has elements of Father Patrick McLaughlin (1909-1988), the Dublin-born Father Gilbert Shaw (1886-1967), Vicar of Saint Anne’s, Soho, and Father Gerard Irvine.
● Dr Halide Tanpinar is a Turkish feminist doctor. She had once converted from Islam to Anglicanism, and she now acts as a foil to these main characters.
● Xenophon is a Greek-speaking, over-indulged young man.
● Aunt Dot’s addled camel was a present to her from a rich Bedouin tycoon. The anxieties over the half-crazed camel’s love-life are in contrast to the subsequent nurture of an ape named Suliman in advanced Anglo-Catholic ritualism.
● Vere, Laurie’s lover, is always in the background although not in the touring party.
On the way, they also meet magicians, Turkish policemen, juvenile British travel writers, and a BBC broadcasting team following Billy Graham on tour.
“I wonder who else is rambling about Turkey this spring,” wonders Aunt Dot at one point. “Seventh-Day Adventists, Billy Grahamites, writers, diggers, photographers, spies, us, and now the BBC.” As Compton Mackenzie writes, at times it feels as if Macaulay has blended love and lunacy to produce a kind of Alice Through the Looking Glass of modern life, or, as another reviewer says, has re-staged the Mad-Hatter’s tea party and has taken it on the road.
The Turkish woman doctor says in the book of Aunt Dot, “She is a woman of dreams. Mad dreams, dreams of crazy, impossible things. And they aren’t all of conversion to the Church, oh no. Nor all of the liberation of women, oh no. Her eyes are on far mountains, always some far peak where she will go. She looks so firm and practical, that nice face, so fair and plump and shrewd, but look in her eyes, you will sometimes catch a strange gleam.”
Reading the book:
The first half of The Towers of Trebizond reads as a satirical picaresque that lampoons Anglican narrowness, and the back-biting competition within English literary society. Set in what was once called “the Levant,” the book crawls with literary tourists, each determined to get their travel book out first. Dot is writing one, too, with Laurie providing the illustrations.
Aunt Dot is both adventurous and provincial. When Father Chantry-Pigg says one ought not to go to Russia because it would mean condoning a government that persecutes Christians, Aunt Dot replies: “If one started not condoning governments, one would have to give up travel altogether, and even remaining in Britain would be pretty difficult.”
When Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg slip over the border into the Soviet Union, leaving Laurie alone, the novel undergoes a subtle but complete tonal shift.
In the last half of the book, as Laurie wanders Turkey on her camel, running into acquaintances and making do as best she can on the little money she has, the novel becomes a serious, though never heavy-handed, study of a crisis of faith, although Laurie knows herself too well to be thrown into a tizzy over her inability to give herself over to a faith, any faith:
“Nothing in the world, for instance, could be as true as some Anglicans and Calvinists and Moslems think their Churches are, having the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I suppose this must be comfortable and reassuring. But most of us know that nothing is as true as all that, and that no faith can be delivered once for all without change, for new things are being discovered all the time, and old things dropped, like the whole Bible being true, and we have to grope our way through a mist that keeps being lit by shafts of light, so that exploration tends to be patchy, and we can never sit back and say, we have the Truth, this is it, for discovering the truth, if it is ever discovered, means a long journey through a difficult jungle, with clearings every now and then, and paths that have to be hacked out as one walks, and dark lanterns swinging from the trees, and these lanterns are the light that has lighted every man, which can only come through the dark lanterns of our minds.”
Here we find a mature acceptance of uncertainty and confusion as part of our natural condition.
Yet neither Macaulay – who was reconciled with Anglicanism shortly after the book was published and before her death – nor her fictional counterpart can be fully content with that. Reassurance that hangs just out of reach is always a tempting thing, even when you know that the only way to accept it is to short-change your intellect and your own messy experience. Her lover accepts what he calls her “church obsession ... So long as you don’t let it interfere with our lives.”
Macaulay never denies the appeal of belief, the longing for reassurance, but like any adult, she never denies that life is a trade-off either.
While Father Chantry-Pigg is in most respects not a model of ministry to be closely emulated, sometimes his perceptions are accurate. One Sunday morning, he celebrates the Eucharist on the deck of their ship as they are approaching Trebizond. Afterwards, he finds Laurie alone and forces her to confront the seriousness of the dilemma in which she is caught.
‘Later in the morning, when I was on deck looking through glasses at the first sight of Trebizond, Father Chantry-Pigg came and stood by me and said, “How much longer are you going on like this, shutting the door against God?”
This question always disturbed me; I sometimes asked it of myself, but I did not know the answer. Perhaps it would have to be for always, because I was so deeply committed to something else that I could not break away.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It’s your business to know. There is no question. You must decide at once. Do you mean to drag on for years more in deliberate sin, refusing grace, denying the Holy Spirit? And when it ends, what then? It will end; such things always end. What then? Shall you come back, when it is taken out of your hands and it will cost you nothing? When you will have nothing to offer to God but a burnt out fire and a fag end? Oh, he’ll take it, he’ll take anything we offer. It is you who will be impoverished for ever by so poor a gift. Offer now what will cost you a great deal, and you’ll be enriched beyond anything you can imagine. How do you know how much of life you still have? It may be many years, it may be a few weeks. You may leave this world without grace, go on into the next stage in the chains you won’t break now. Do you ever think of that, or have you put yourself beyond caring?
Not quite, never quite. I had tried, but never quite. From time to time I knew what I had lost. But nearly all the time, God was a bad second, enough to hurt but not to cure, to hide from but not to seek, and I knew that when I died I should hear him saying, “Go away, I never knew you,” and that would be the end of it all, the end of everything, and after that I never should know him, though then to know him would be what I should want more than anything, and not to know him would be hell. I sometimes felt this even now, but not often enough to do what would break my life to bits. Now I was vexed that Father Chantry-Pigg had brought it up and flung me into this turmoil. Hearing Mass was bad enough, hearing it and not taking part in it, seeing it and not approaching it, being offered it and shutting the door on it, and in England I seldom went.
I couldn’t answer Father Chantry-Pigg, there was nothing I could say except “I don’t know”. He looked at me sternly and said, “I hope, I pray, that you will know before it is too late. The door won’t be open for ever. Refuse it long enough, and you will become incapable of going through it. You will, little by little, stop believing. Even God can’t force the soul grown blind and deaf and paralysed to see and hear and move. I beg you, in this Whitsuntide, to obey the Holy Spirit of God. That is all I have to say.’
Possessing a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the Church, Laurie is better at loving than at praying: her affair with a married man has kept her away from the Church of England for ten years. “From time to time,” she says, “I knew what I had lost. But nearly all the time, God was a bad second, enough to hurt but not to cure, to hide from but not to seek.” She acknowledges the other pole of her ambivalence toward Christianity when she remarks that, although “the Church met its Waterloo . . . when I took up with adultery,” Anglicanism was still “in the system,” and, once in, “I think one cannot get it out.”
In a conversation in Jerusalem with a sceptical acquaintance named David, Laurie searches for an answer. After telling him that she has not got the answers and that he should take his questions to the bishop, she suggests that he read “some of the liturgies and missals.” Like a good Anglican, she reaches into liturgy for her answer.
Her reply comes by way of the Great Antiphons, recited during the seven days leading to the Christmas Vigil. Laurie quotes for David the Advent hymns to the divine wisdom (O Sapientia) and to the divine light (O Oriens, O Dawn of the East).
What holds Laurie back from a fully committed Christian faith is, in large measure, her attachment to her lover, Vere, who brings her great joy and contentment.
Laurie’s Augustine-echoing resistance to being delivered just yet is only one of the reasons behind her disinclination to rejoin the Church. There are also the faults of Christian institutions down the centuries. She observes how the Church “grew so far, almost at once, from anything which can have been intended.” It “became ... blood-stained and persecuting and cruel and war-like and made small and trivial things so important.”
Laurie’s objections are intellectual as well as moral. The church, she says, began “with a magnificent idea,” but that idea had “to be worked out by human beings who do not understand much of it but interpret it in their own way and think they are guided by God, whom they have not yet grasped.” She questions the historicity of the gospel accounts: “I wonder what was really said, how far the evangelists got it right, and how much they left out, writing it down long after.” She is aware that “some of the things they forgot and left out might have been very important, and some of the things they put in they perhaps got wrong, for some sound unlikely for [Jesus] to have said.”
She sees that “no Church can have more than a very little of the truth,” and therefore she finds it impossible “to believe, as some people do, that one’s Church has all the truth and no errors, for how could this possibly be?”
The book ends with Laurie in what she describes as a dual hell, though there is more acceptance than torment in her description. The revelations in The Towers of Trebizond are all of the earthly variety, and Macaulay makes that seem, if not everything, then enough for any reasonable person.
The impact of the book
Constance Babington-Smith writes that “many Anglicans, and also many would-be believers” responded to The Towers of Trebizond in a manner that Macaulay found profoundly moving. “Some weeks after the book was out she wrote ... that she was beginning to feel ‘almost like a priest,’ for so many people were telling her how much she had helped them in their religion.”
Macaulay delighted in pointing out that The Towers of Trebizond helped to convince many readers to turn toward the Church and what it stands for. Her novel had, she said, decided a young woman at a crucial moment in her life for the right course, and clergy read parts of it to ordinands besieged by doubt, without plunging them into deeper anguish. David Hein says many clergy and laity found their faith reinvigorated by reading The Towers of Trebizond.
The paradox of its popular reception by Christians and would-be believers is part of the mystery of The Towers of Trebizond. The book presents dilemmas and reveals their attractions, but it declines to provide easy answers and solutions.
The capacity of Anglicanism to hold together contradictions increased Macaulay’s appreciation of Anglicanism. She wrote The Towers of Trebizond after her return to the Church of England, but does not mark out for her readers the steps on the journey of faith they only they could take for themselves. She said it was “meant to be about the struggle of good and evil, its eternal importance, and the power of the Christian Church over the soul, to torment and convert.”
The ending is gratifyingly indeterminate, reassuring in its refusals. What makes the author of this book worthy of consideration as a spiritual mentor for 21st century seekers has much to do with her willingness to acknowledge difficulties.
In the days following Vere’s death, Laurie, stricken with grief and remorse, rejects what he rejected, giving up what he mockingly called her “church obsession.” She turns her back on the Church and all that it stands for, “knowing that God is leaving us alone for ever; we have lost God and gained hell.”
At the end of this novel, there is still much that restrains Laurie from moving toward the shimmering towers of Trebizond, and it is impossible to say in which direction she will eventually turn. As one literary scholar wrote: “It is the highest of ironies that a novel which ends on such a note of – perhaps even unchristian? – despair should be hailed as one of the twentieth century’s most luminous Christian novels.”
The Towers of Trebizond ends in silence and in waiting. It is an honest reckoning with the cognitive obstructions of Christian faith, and it throws out a line – albeit one that in the darkness might be hard to recognise – to all who struggle with doubt.
TS Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1935 (London: Faber & Faber, 1953).
TS Eliot, Selected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1954/1976).
TS Eliot, The Complete Poems & Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969).
High Kenner (ed), TS Eliot, a collection of critical essays (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962/1963).
Steve Ellis, TS Eliot, A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2009).
David Hein, ‘Faith and Doubt in Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond,’ Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2006.
David Hein (ed), Readings in Anglican Spirituality (Cincinnati, Ohio: Forward Movement Publications, 1991).
Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (London: Collins, 1956).
Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (London: Fontana, 1962, 3rd impression, February 1970), the edition I have used while preparing this essay.
Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (New York: New York Review Books, 2003).
Richard H Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002).
Constance Babington-Smith, Rose Macaulay (London: Collins, 1972). Alice Crawford, Paradise Pursued: The Novels of Rose Macaulay (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995).
BVarry Spur, ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’ TS Eliot and Christianity (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2010).
BC Southam, A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of TS Eliot (London: Faber & Faber1968/1971).
George Williamson, A Reader’s Guide to TS Eliot, a poem-by-poem analysis (London: Thames and Hudson, 1955/1976)/
Next: (additional posting):
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is an extended version of notes prepared for a lecture on the part-time MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, on Saturday 12 January 2013