07 November 2022

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG
and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:
Monday 7 November 2022

‘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)

Patrick Comerford

Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Saint Willibrord of York, Bishop, Apostle of Frisia, 739, with a lesser festival.

Saint Willibrord was born in Northumbria and educated at Ripon but the main part of his life was dedicated to his missionary work in Frisia and northern Germany. He built many churches, inaugurated bishoprics and consecrated cathedrals: the Cathedral of Utrecht, with a diocesan organisation based on that of Canterbury, is his most well-known foundation.

Together with the younger Boniface, he began a century of English Christian influence on continental Christianity. Alcuin described him as venerable, gracious and full of joy, and his ministry as based on energetic preaching informed by prayer and sacred reading. He died on this day in 739 and was buried at Echternach monastery in Luxembourg, which he founded. He is the patron saint of the Netherlands.

Later this morning, I have an appointment later this morning at the Open University in Milton Keynes for my next Covid-19 vaccination. 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.’

‘… breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire …’ TS Eliot (‘The Waste Land’) … Lilacs in Spring in a garden in York Road, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Luke 17: 1-6 (NRSVA):

1 Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’

5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6 The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.’

Dante’s meeting with Virgil (Truro Cathedral) … Dante’s ‘Inferno’ strongly influenced TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Waste Land 1: ‘The Burial of the Dead’

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.

‘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.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, I am dipping in and out of the five sections of The Waste Land in this prayer diary each day this week. ‘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.

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

‘The Waste Land’ is a masterpiece of modern literature and one of the greatest poems in the English language. The opening lines are often quoted, even by people who have never read all five sections and 434 lines of the poem:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour

The opening stanzas of ‘The Waste Land’ refer to the blooming of flowers and the coming of spring, but in gloomy tones. Winter is recalled nostalgically, with snow keeping us warm. As I wait for my fourth Covid-19 vaccination this morning, I am also re-reading ‘The Waste Land’ in the light of the pandemic a century ago that 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,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
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!”

The Church of Saint Mary Woolnoth, which is referred to in these lines, is in the centre of the City of London and is one of the two churches named in ‘The Waste Land.’ It stands on the corner of Lombard Street and King William Street near Bank junction, and Eliot worked nearby at Lloyd’s Bank from 1917 to 1925.

Professor Barry Spurr of the University of Sydney, in his study of Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism, ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’ TS Eliot and Christianity (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2010), says the dedication of the church to the Blessed Virgin Mary chimes with Eliot’s subsequent Anglo-Catholicism.

In his notes to the poem, Eliot remarks that the ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ was ‘A phenomenon which I have often noticed.’ However, Barry Spurr reads in this mention of the ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ a reference to the traditional time of execution in prisons – and so to the execution of Christ at the ninth hour.

Saint Mary Woolnoth is one of the two London churches named in ‘The Waste Land’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dante’s ‘Inferno’ strongly influenced TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ and Eliot returns to this poem throughout ‘The Waste Land.’ In ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ a latter-day Dante walks the streets of London seeing death all around him:

I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Eliot said that ‘the poetry of Dante is the one universal school of style for the writing of poetry in any language,’ and that ‘there is no poet in any tongue – not even Latin or Greek – who stands so firmly as a model for all poets.’

‘The Waste Land’ is dedicated ‘For Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro’, a dedication drawn from Dante’s epic, ‘The Divine Comedy.’ Dante divides his poem into three parts — ‘Inferno’, ‘Purgatorio’, and ‘Paradiso’ — describing Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Paradise. Eliot’s dedication translates as ‘the better craftsman,’ a reference to Canto 26 of the ‘Purgatorio’ and the poet Arnault Daniel. But Eliot passes the compliment on to Pound, who helped edit ‘The Waste Land.’

In Part 1 of ‘The Waste Land,’ ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ Eliot invokes the Prophet Ezekiel as he describes modern existence:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of Man
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats
And the dead trees give no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

He sees us living in a time of hopelessness, of ‘broken images,’ where there is no shelter, no life-giving water. Yet, glimpses of hope are to be found all around us:

… … Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something that is different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

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 his study, A Lee Fjordbotten, (‘Liturgical influences of Anglo-Catholicism on ‘The Waste Land’ and other works by TS Eliot,’ Fordham University, 1999), 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 her study, ‘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.’

The fact that Eliot is writing this poem about the barrenness of modernity and imaging it as a Waste Land shows that he sees through modernity to the reality of its sterility. The image of the Waste Land represents the aridity of modernity, its lack of culture and tradition, and indeed its inability to allow culture and tradition to grow and flourish. Hence, the Waste Land is repeatedly described as a desert with ‘dry stone and no sound of water.’

The Waste Land, where ‘there is not water but only rock,’ lacks the life-giving and life-sustaining water that will enable tradition and culture to thrive. The poet is seeking the rain which will reanimate the Waste Land of modernity; the rain which will touch and enliven the dead roots of tradition and culture. This water, ultimately, is Christianity.

‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?... / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats/ And the dead trees give no shelter ...’ TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Monday 7 November 2022):

The Collect:

God, the Saviour of all,
you sent your bishop Willibrord from this land
to proclaim the good news to many peoples
and confirm them in their faith:
help us also to witness to your steadfast love
by word and deed
so that your Church may increase
and grow strong in holiness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father, who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal
the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share with Willibrord and all your saints
in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

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

We pray for guidance for the leaders of the nations and those who work internationally and make us all subject to Christ’s just and gentle rule.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many’ … London Bridge, the Thames and the South Bank seen from the City (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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

Ezra Pound’s grave in Venice … TS Eliot dedicated ‘The Waste Land’ to Ezra Pound ‘il miglior fabbro’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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