‘April is the cruellest month’ … words that have come to mind constantly this week during the search for two fishermen off the shore of Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
MTh Year II
EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:
Thursdays: The Hartin Room.
Thursday, 7 April 2011, 9 a.m.:
10.1: Is there an Anglican culture? The poetry of TS Eliot;
10.2: Is there an Anglican culture? Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond
10.1: Is there an Anglican culture? 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 words 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 over the last few days as I thought again and again of the people in Skerries 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 for 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 wall mural 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, 2009)
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 of us may know him since our school days 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.”
The Hollow Men (1925), Eliot’s major poem of the late 1920s, 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.
10.2: Is there an Anglican culture? Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is an extended version of notes prepared for a lecture on the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, on Thursday 7 April 2011
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