06 November 2022

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG
and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:
Sunday 6 November 2022

The poet TS Eliot in a portrait by Gerald Kelly

Patrick Comerford

This is the Third Sunday before Advent (6 November 2022). In many parts of Ireland today is also the Feast of All the Saints of Ireland. Later this morning, I hope to be present at the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford.

But, before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection based on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ first published 100 years ago, in 1922;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘Now there were seven brothers’ (Luke 20: 29) … Seven Brothers Taverna on the harbourfront in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Luke 20: 27-38 (NRSVA):

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

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

The Waste Land (Introduction):

TS 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).

In 1915, Eliot moved to Merton College, Oxford, which I was writing about in this prayer diary yesterday (5 November 2022). However, he 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.

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 ‘The Waste Land.’ a description of Eliot’s pilgrimage from the Unitarianism of his childhood to his life-lasting Anglo-Catholicism.

In 1925, Eliot 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 in Oxfordshire, by the Revd William Force Stead, a fellow American, a poet and chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. Stead had encouraged Eliot 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.

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.

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.’

‘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. His 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.

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 seeks to deal convincingly with the accusations of antisemitism.

‘And went on in sunlight, … And drank coffee, and talked for an hour’ … coffee and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ in the Rectory garden in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘The Waste Land’, which I am reflecting on throughout this week, was first published 100 years ago at the end in 1922. It is a masterpiece of modern literature and one of the greatest poems in the English language. Its opening lines are often quoted, even by people who have never read all five sections and 434 lines of the poem.

‘The Waste Land’ was published in Eliot’s The Criterion in October 1922 – this was the same year James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris. ‘The Waste Land’ was then published in the US in the November issue of The Dial, and was published in book form in December 1922.

Well-known and oft-quoted phrases in ‘The Waste Land’ include ‘April is the cruellest month,’ ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust,’ and the mantra in Sanskrit, ‘Shantih shantih shantih.’

The poem draws on the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King and on the thoughts of Saint Augustine and Dante, shifts between voices of satire, prophecy and judgment, and constantly changes speaker, location and time.

The poem has long been read as a statement on the post-war atmosphere, although Eliot claimed it was not. He wrote most of ‘The Waste Land’ in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world.

Between 1918 and 1920, as many as 100 million people around the globe died from the Spanish flu, far more than were killed in World War I. In England, a quarter of the population was infected with the disease, and more than 200,000 people died.

Eliot and his wife Vivienne caught the Spanish Flu in December 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery. Literary critics are only beginning to explore the profound influence that the global pandemic had on ‘The Waste Land.’

Eliot’s case of influenza was not a serious one, but he recorded that he was ‘very weak,’ Vivien noted that afterwards he was haunted by the fact that ‘his mind is not acting as it used to do.’ The heavy death toll did much more than even war to shape this masterpiece.

The first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair. Re-reading ‘The Waste Land’ in the light of that pandemic a century ago sheds new light on lines such as:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson! “You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

If Eliot did not have the pandemic in mind as he wrote these lines, he certainly evokes the atmosphere of the time, and the sense that the dead were so plentiful that they overflowed the boundaries of the living, while the physical and emotional senses could believe the living were only the walking dead.

But, by the end of ‘The Waste Land,’ we catch a glimmer of the faint possibility of hope. By 1930, the glimmer of hope becomes a bright flare in ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), Eliot’s first long poem after becoming an Anglican and described as his conversion poem. Even when April seems to be the cruellest month, pandemics end, rain falls again, and Spring rains renew the earth every year.

‘The Waste Land’ is divided into five sections:

1, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair.

2, ‘A Game of Chess’, employs alternating narrations, in which vignettes of several characters address those themes experientially.

3, ‘The Fire Sermon’, offers a philosophical meditation in relation to the imagery of death and views of self-denial in juxtaposition, influenced by Augustine of Hippo and Eastern religions.

4, ‘Death by Water’, includes a brief lyrical petition.

5, ‘What the Thunder Said’, the culminating fifth section, concludes with an image of judgment.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, and I plan to dip in and out of these five sections of The Waste Land in this prayer diary each day this week.

Inside the chapel in Merton College, Oxford … Eliot left after a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Sunday 6 November 2022):

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of all:
govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘A New Commandment.’ This theme is introduced this morning by Sue Claydon, chair of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. She writes:

Two of the definitions of armistice are ‘a state in which there is no war’ and ‘peace’. This week, Armistice Day remembers not only the ending of war in 1918, but also all the victims of wars in the 104 years since. When we look at what ‘peace’ means, it is more than the absence of war.

An essential factor in peace-making is reconciliation, which takes full account of justice and is built into all aspects. This is not an easy or quick process. It takes commitment and time. 2022 has seen war in many places. The victims of war have filled our media but have we the commitment to work to see the tragic consequences of war cease?

While the impact on humanity of violence is clear to see, the work of those who are following the call to be peacemakers around the Anglican Communion is rarely emphasised. Jesus gave a new commandment, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ This week let us think about how as individuals and churches we can truly follow this commandment.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

‘Though the mountains be shaken and
the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you
will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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

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