Monday, 12 January 2015

Half a century after his death, TS Eliot
remains the greatest Anglo-Catholic poet


Patrick Comerford

The American-born English poet, playwright and literary critic, Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), is perhaps the most important poet in the English language of the 20th century. He is one of the greatest examples of how Anglican spirituality is expressed in poetry and drama, and he died half a century ago, on 4 January 1965.

Many readers know TS Eliot for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats (1981). But he was first recognised as a poet 100 years ago with the poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (1915). It was followed by some of the best-known poems, including ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925), ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), and the four poems in his Four Quartets (1943).

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the youngest child in a prominent Unitarian and academic family. He studied philosophy at Harvard (1906-1909) and at the Sorbonne (1910–1911) before returning to Harvard (1911-1914). He then moved to Merton College, Oxford, but left after a year, remarking: “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.” By 1916, he had completed a PhD in philosophy for Harvard, but he never returned for his viva voce exam.

Meanwhile, in 1915 he had been introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Their tragic marriage was a catalyst for ‘The Waste Land,’ and inspired the movie Tom and Viv (1994). Eliot held several teaching posts, including one at Highgate School where his pupils included John Betjeman. By 1917, he was working at Lloyd’s Bank.

TS Eliot is the greatest poet in English in the 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Conversion to Anglicanism

In 1922, the same year as the Irish writer James Joyce published Ulysses, Eliot published ‘The Waste Land.’ The poem includes well-known phrases such as “April is the cruellest month,” and “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

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.


Recent studies now see in ‘The Waste Land’ poem a description of Eliot’s pilgrimage from the Unitarianism of his childhood to his life-lasting Anglo-Catholicism.

In 1925, he joined the publishers Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, and spent the rest of his career there. His major poem that year, ‘The Hollow Men,’ is indebted to Dante and wrestles with the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and with his failed marriage.

The Cocktail Party: TS Eliot (centre) with the poets Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, WH Auden and Stephen Spender at a Faber and Faber cocktail party in the 1960s

On 29 June 1927, Eliot was baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Finstock, outside Witney, by the Revd William Force Stead, a fellow American, a poet and the chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. Stead had encouraged him to read the poems of George Herbert and John Donne and the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes. A day later, he brought Eliot to be confirmed by Bishop Thomas Banks Strong of Oxford in his private chapel.

In his recent study of Eliot’s theological opinions and contributions, Professor Barry Spurr of the University of Sydney argues that Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927 was the culmination of his intellectual, cultural, artistic and spiritual development. He also how the doctrinal, devotional and social principles of Anglo-Catholicism influenced Eliot’s life, thinking and writing, including his poetry, drama and prose.

Soon after his baptism, Eliot also became a British citizen, and he served as a churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road, London. He would describe himself as a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.”

What did Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism mean socially in 1927? Virginia Woolf said of his conversion that “a corpse would seem to me to be more credible.” EM Forster claimed that Eliot had “no trace of religious emotion. He has not got it; what he seeks is not revelation, but stability.”

Eliot’s conversion may have been shocking at the time, if not revolutionary. But the response of his contemporaries, whatever it may have been, was not going to turn him: “No one ever attempted to convert me; and, looking back on my pre-Christian state of mind, I do not think that such a campaign would have prospered.”

His conversion to Anglicanism was encouraged through reading the prayers and sermons of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester. His poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927), the first of the Ariel Poems and written shortly after his baptism, begins with a quotation from a sermon on the Epiphany by Andrewes in 1622:

“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.


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.”

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)

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.”

Merton College, Oxford … Eliot left after a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He was influenced too by Nicholas Ferrar’s life at Little Gidding, and by the works of Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor.

‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), Eliot’s first long poem after becoming an Anglican, has been described as his conversion poem. But he regarded the Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and the collection earned him his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. It comprises four poems: ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936), ‘East Coker’ (1940), ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941) and ‘Little Gidding’ (1942).

Childhood nurse from Co Cork

Many biographers suggest Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism may have been helped by his childhood experiences in the company of his Irish nurse, Annie Dunne from Co Cork. He wrote in 1930: “The earliest personal influence I remember, besides that of my parents, was … Annie Dunne, to whom I was greatly attached.”

She took the young Eliot with her “to the little Catholic church which stood on the corner of Locust Street and Jefferson Avenue when she went to make her devotions,” and also took him to Mass in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Writing in the Criterion in 1927 shortly after his baptism, Eliot recalled that when he was a six-year-old, Annie had discussed with him about the ways of proving the existence of God. She gave him a glimpse of a liturgical Christianity that was very different from his Unitarian background. James E Miller suggests that the seeds for his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism “had been sown by Annie Dunne and the impressive Catholic services to which she took him.”

Ash Wednesday … a conversion poem

‘Ash Wednesday’ was published in its complete form in 1930, three years after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927 and it appears in his Selected Poems before his other first Christian works, the ‘Ariel Poems,’– ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927), ‘A Song for Simeon’ (1928) ‘Animula’ (1929) ‘Marina’ (1930) and the much later ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’ (1956).

The complete ‘Ash Wednesday’ was first published in April 1930 in a small book with a limited edition of 600 signed copies, followed by two print runs of 2,000 each in Britain and the US.

The title, of course, refers to ‘Ash Wednesday,’ the first of the forty days of Lent, and the poem deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards God. It is a richly but ambiguously allusive poem and deals with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. The poem is concerned with personal salvation in an age of uncertainty, where the weariness of giving up to a creed weighs heavily on the speaker:

(Why should the agéd eagle stretch its wings?)
“Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?


Eliot’s journey to Christianity was along a long and winding path. Yet this poem, which is not so much about God as a prayer to God, displays a great spiritual maturity in a relatively new convert.

No 24 Russell Square, London, where TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber, is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘Ash Wednesday’ constitutes the greatest leap in Eliot’s verse and life and the greatest pause in his poetic writings before the hiatus between his plays and The Four Quartets.

In ‘Ash Wednesday,’ his poetic persona has somehow found the courage, through spiritual exhaustion, to seek faith. That faith demands complete submission, including the admission that faith must ultimately come from without because what is within has been exhausted. If ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) admits powerlessness over damnation, ‘Ash Wednesday’ admits powerlessness as a prelude to, or a requirement for, salvation.

Yet if ‘Ash Wednesday’ is about penitence, it is also about repentance. The opening lines, from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX, use the verb “turn” three times. “Turn” echoes the Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metanoia), literally “changing one’s mind” – as the prophets called on Israel to “turn back, turn from your wicked ways.”

‘Ash Wednesday’ forms a personal liturgy. It is a song of death and hoped-for rebirth, a song of hope while doubting hope, a song of faith while seeking faith, a song of love for one who has known little love, a prayer for mercy that acknowledges mercy as undeserved.

Merton College, Oxford … Eliot said later: “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead” (Photograph: Patrick Cmerford)

A poet’s reputation

Eliot’s reputation has been plagued by accusations that he held anti-Semitic and anti-Irish views. In a study of Eliot’s impact on Anglican theology, Professor Barry Spurr deals convincingly with the accusations of anti-Semitism. But it is difficult to imagine that someone who was so close to his Irish nurse in childhood could hold negative opinions of Irish people.

In ‘The Waste Land,’ Eliot quotes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and his reference to the Irish princess. The couple are sailing from Ireland to Cornwall, and a sailor sings a song with lines that translate:

The wind blows fresh
To the Homeland
My Irish Girl
Where are you lingering?


Sweeney is a baffling person who, in the words of TH Thompson, “runs in and out [of Eliot’s] poems like a naughty boy, with bad manners and rude behaviour.” He is the main character in three poems written in 1917-1919 – ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales,’ ‘Sweeney Erect’ and ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’ – and appears in the fragments of ‘Sweeney Agonistes,’ and in ‘The Fire Storm’ in ‘The Waste Land.’

There is little consensus on what Sweeney represents, and it ranges from a stereotypically drunken, Irish Catholic brute to an appealingly unsophisticated “natural man.”

A plaque at 24 Russell Square, recalling TS Eliot’s working days (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another Irish figure created by Eliot is Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, the psychiatrist in The Cocktail Party who merrily sings a refrain of the bawdy song, ‘The One Eyed Riley.’ The character’s part-blindness may have been partly inspired by James Joyce’s sight problems.

Four Irish friends

Perhaps the best way to evaluate Eliot’s attitude to Irish people is to look at his friendship with four key Irish contemporary literary figures: the writers WB Yeats, James Joyce and Louis MacNeice and the Jesuit Martin D’Arcy.

Through his contacts with Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound, Eliot mixed with a group including the aging Irish poet William Butler Yeats. At first, Eliot expresses distaste for Yeats, and even mocked Yeats’s membership of the Theosophical Society. Later, following his attendance at the first performance of Yeats’s one-act play, At the Hawk’s Well, in 1916 and after the publication of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ in 1919, Eliot softened his opinion of Yeats’s poetry.

In his review of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1923, Eliot favourably mentions Yeats. But it was not until 1935, in the Criterion, that Eliot publicly praised Yeats, when he called him “the greatest poet of his time.” Eliot continued to praise Yeats, who was born into a prominent (Anglican) Church if Ireland family; however, in a lecture in Dublin in 1936, Eliot regretted that Yeats “came to poetry from a Protestant background.” After the death of Yeats, Eliot was invited to give the first annual Yeats lecture to the Friends of the Irish Academy in 1940.

Eliot and Joyce first met at the Hotel de l’Elysee in Paris on 15 August 1920. They dined in Joyce’s favourite restaurant, and Joyce extended his hospitality several times. Their friendship blossomed after ‘The Waste Land’ and Ulysses were published around the same time in 1922.

‘Now the light falls ... I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope’ (TS Eliot, ‘East Coker’) … dusk turns to darkness at Minister Pool in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1923, when Eliot reviewed Ulysses, he said: “It is a book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape.” It marked a major shift in literature, he said. “It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”

Eliot would look to Joyce for support when he separated from his wife, and Eliot continued to visit Joyce whenever he was in Paris. In his Dublin lectures in 1936, Eliot said Joyce “seems to me the most universal, the most Irish and the most Catholic writer in English of his generation … What is most truly Irish … is most truly Catholic.”

‘At the first turning of the second stair’ ... the stairs to my rooms in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, from 1932, Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was sending poems to Eliot at Faber and Faber. MacNeice was the son of an Anglican bishop, John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel, Emly, Waterford and Lismore (1931-1934) and until his death Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore (1934-1942). Eliot did not feel these poems by MacNeice were worth publishing in a single volume, but he used several of them in his journal The Criterion.

In 1934, MacNeice sent Eliot the long poems that were published as the book Poems (1935). In 1939, Eliot helped to plan MacNeice’s tour of the US, arranging engagements in Princeton, Harvard and Wellesley. The developed a firm friendship, and when MacNeice died in 1963, Eliot wrote in The Times of his grief and shock at “his unexpected death” just as Faber was about to publish a new volume of his verse. He said MacNeice was “a poet of genius,” who “had the Irishman’s unfailing ear for the music of verse, and he never published a line that is not good reading.”

Lifelong friendships

Father Martin D’Arcy, a Jesuit with Irish parents, may have secured TS Eliot’s invitation to Dublin

Eliot also had a lifelong friendship with the Jesuit philosopher, Father Martin Cyril D’Arcy (1888-1976), whose literary circle also include Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy L Sayers and WH Auden and whose parents were born in Ireland.

It was perhaps at D’Arcy’s suggestion that the Irish Jesuits invited Eliot to Dublin for the first time in January 1936. During that visit, Eliot lectured in University College Dublin, attended a lecture by Father Roland Burke-Savage, the Jesuit editor of Studies, and twice addressed the English Literary Society at UCD in Earlsfort Terrace.

Later, D’Arcy’s major work, The Mind and Heart of Love, was published by Eliot at Faber and Faber in 1945.

Later life

A statue of Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury, London … she said of Eliot’s conversion that “a corpse would seem to me to be more credible” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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’s plays included Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949).

In 1958, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury appointed Eliot to a commission that produced The Revised Psalter (1963). CS Lewis, once a harsh critic of Eliot, was also a member of the commission, and 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. He died in London on 4 January 1965. His ashes were buried at Saint Michael’s Church, East Coker, the Somerset village from which his ancestors had emigrated. A commemorative plaque in the church quotes from ‘East Coker’:

In my beginning is my end ... In my end is my beginning.

The plaque in Saint Michael’s Church, East Coker, Somerset, commemorating TS Eliot

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. He is a regular contributor to Koinonia.

This paper and these photographs are published in Koinonia, Christmas/Epiphany 2014-2015, Vol 8, No 27, pp 13-17.

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