Sunday, 4 January 2015
TS Eliot remains one of
the great Anglican poets
50 years after his death
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. 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.
Conversion to Anglicanism
In 1922, the same year as 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.” Recent studies see in this 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.
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.
Eliot soon became a British citizen, and 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.”
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. 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). 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.
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.”
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.”
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 ageing Irish poet William Butler Yeats. At first, Eliot expresses distaste for Yeats, and even mocks 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, although in a lecture in Dublin in 1936 he 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.
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.”
Meanwhile, from 1932, Louis MacNeice, the son of a Church of Ireland bishop, was sending poems to Eliot at Faber and Faber. Eliot did not feel these poems 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 (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.”
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.
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.
Patrick Comerford is a lecturer and an adjunct assistant professor at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Trinity College Dublin. This essay and these photographs were first published in January 2015 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).