02 May 2015

TS Eliot (1888-1965): the Nobel
poet and his Irish connections

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

Patrick Comerford

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 come to mind constantly for me in April – although in Achill weather they could continue to come to mind in May too. Indeed, after our adventurous crossing over to and back from Inishbiggle on this weekend two years ago, but for a few days on the calendar I might have recalled Eliot’s words:

April is the cruellest month … I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

This year [2015] marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great poet TS Eliot on 4 January 1965, and the one-hundredth anniversary of his marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood on 26 June 1915 – a turbulent marriage portrayed in the film Tom & Viv. Her family’s wealth rested on property inherited in Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown).

Like Heinrich Böll, TS Eliot was a Nobel laureate and was deeply influenced in his writings by the events of war. ‘The Waste Land’ grows out of his reflections on World War I, while the ‘Four Quartets’ reflects many of his war-time experiences while he was an air warden during World War II.

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 Eliot has often been accused of being anti-Irish.

Yet Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism is attributed to his childhood Irish nanny in America, Annie Dunne from Co Cork. His marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood brought another forgotten Irish connection, for her family’s wealth was built on her Irish-born grandmother’s inherited properties in Dun Laoghaire.

Eliot had a strong friendship with James Joyce, a more difficult relationship with WB Yeats – and we are marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Yeats next month. So this afternoon I think it is worth tackling these questions by looking at Eliot’s portrayals of Irish characters from his references to the Irish princess Isolde in ‘The Waste Land’ to his deployment of Irish figures such as Sweeney and Reilly in his poetry and plays.

I hope too to reassess Eliot’s Irish influences and examine his friendships with five key Irish contemporary literary figures: WB Yeats, James Joyce, CS Lewis, the Jesuit philosopher Martin D’Arcy, and the poet Louis MacNeice who is closely identified with Achill.

TS Eliot: painting the canvas

The poet TS Eliot in a portrait by Gerald Kelly

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. Personally, I also find him one of the greatest examples of how Anglican spirituality is expressed in poetry and drama.

Many of us 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.

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

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

Meanwhile, in 1915 he had been introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood (1888-1947). Their tragic marriage was a catalyst for ‘The Waste Land,’ and inspired the movie Tom and Viv (1994).

Tom and Viv met in rooms in Magdalen College, Oxford, and were married 100 years ago next month on 26 June 1915, at Hampstead Register Office, London. She was the daughter of Charles Haigh-Wood, whose mother, Mary Haigh, came from Dublin. She inherited seven semi-detached houses in Dún Laoghaire (Kingstown) that gave the family financial stability. A century later, the family name still survives in Haigh Terrace in Dún Laoghaire.

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

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)

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

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.”

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)

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 Father Thomas Carroll (1933-2005) has linked Eliot with Richard Hooker and the Caroline Divines, including James Bramhall and in particular that saintly Bishop of Down and Connor, Jeremy Taylor. Indeed, Carroll titled his study of Jeremy Taylor Wisdom and Wasteland, Jeremy Taylor in his prose and preaching today (2001).

‘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).

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 in German:

Frisch weht der Wind
Der heimat zu
Mein Irisch kind,
Wo weilest du?

These lines 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 and one former foe

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

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

The house at 10 Ashfield Terrace (now 418 Harold’s Cross Road), Dublin, where WB Yeats lived during some of his schooldays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No 5 Woburn Walk ... the Bloomsbury home of WB Yeats in London from 1895 to 1919 … Eliot called him ‘the greatest poet of his time’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

No 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, Dublin ... James Joyce was born here on 2 February 1882 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot and Joyce

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.”

Later, Edna O’Brien would recall that the first book she ever bought was Introducing James Joyce by TS Eliot. She once said that Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man made her realise that she wanted to spend her own life writing. So, we cannot yet estimate the impact on modern Irish literature of the friendship between Eliot and Joyce.

An Achill Island connection

Looking from Bullsmouth across to Inishbiggle ... Frederick MacNeice left his family at Bullsmouth watching the sunset while he took the Sunday afternoon service in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The poet Louis MacNeice was a son of Bishop John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), who first visited Achill in 1911 and who first brought his son Louis with him in 1927, the year of Eliot’s conversion and baptism.

In 1929, the MacNeice family stayed at the Old Rectory in Dugort, visiting Keel and climbing Slievemore. The father crossed from Bullsmouth to Inishbiggle late in the afternoon, while his family remained at Bullsmouth watching “a beautiful sunset behind Slievemore.”

From 1932, Louis MacNeice, the bishop’s son, 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 Poems (1935), the collection that helped establish MacNeice as one of the bright new poets of the 1930s. TS Eliot had accepted the volume for Faber & Faber, and they would remain MacNeice’s English publishers for his poetry.

In July 1937, Bishop MacNeice visited University College, Oxford, for an ecumenical conference on Church, Community and State, and wrote to his son to let him know that Eliot was one of the speakers. Eliot’s paper addressed ‘The Oecumenical Nature of the Church and Its Responsibility towards the World’ (16 July 1937).

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, MacNeice wrote to Eliot explaining: "Being an Irish citizen I am exempt from conscription," and so expected to complete his planned autobiography within a year. Eliot helped to plan MacNeice’s tour of the US from 1939 on, providing introductions and arranging engagements in Princeton, Harvard and Wellesley. After this wartime sojourn in America , MacNeice returned to Achill in 1945, and in a poem he wrote afterwards – ‘The Strand’ (1945), published in Holes in the Sky in 1948 – he talks of “White Tintoretto clouds beneath my naked feet …”

By then, of course, Eliot and MacNeice had developed a firm friendship. 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; he was a friend of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, and was instrumental in the conversion of Edith Sitwell and Evelyn Waugh to Catholicism. His parents were born in Ireland: Martin Valentine D’Arcy, a Galway-born barrister, and Madoline Mary Keegan, the daughter of a Belfast wine merchant.

In 1927, the year of his baptism, Eliot described D’Arcy as “one of the most brilliant young men in England.” Five of his books were reviewed in The Criterion, some of them by Eliot, and he contributed 22 reviews or articles to The Criterion, making him part of what Eliot described as the journal’s “definite ... [and] comprehensive constellation of contributors.” Later, D’Arcy was described as “perhaps England’s foremost Catholic public intellectual from the 1930s until his death.”

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.

D’Arcy also endeared himself to Louis MacNeice, and D’Arcy’s major work, The Mind and Heart of Love, was published by Eliot at Faber and Faber in 1945.

The Mitre Hotel, Oxford … where Charles Williams introduced CS Lewis to TS Eliot in 1945 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tom and Clive: TS Eliot and CS Lewis

On the other hand, Eliot had a more difficult relationship with CS Lewis (1898-1963), the Belfast-born author of the Narnia Chronicles, although they had both been converted to an intense form of Anglicanism during their days in Oxford.

Initially, CS Lewis was markedly more evangelical in his Anglicanism. In a letter to a Church of Ireland priest, Canon Claude Lionel Chavasse, he described the Anglo-Catholics as the “Neo-Angular … set of people who seem to me to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more high-brow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad.” Indeed, he singled out TS Eliot as “the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against.”

But Lewis became friends with Charles Williams (1886-1945) who is less well-known today than either Lewis or Tolkien as one of the “Inklings.” Williams was an Anglo-Catholic, and came to know Lewis through his work at the Oxford University Press, which published Lewis’s first important book, The Allegory of Love. In 1939, Williams moved to Oxford, where he became part of the “Inklings,” and Lewis arranged for him to lecture there. Williams once said that Oxford, however nice, was still a parody of London.

The “Inklings” continued to meet in Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s for lunch on Tuesdays at the “Eagle and Child,” a pub on Saint Giles known to students as the “Bird and Baby,” and on Thursdays they met in CS Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College.

In the closing months of World War II, Williams introduced Lewis to TS Eliot in the Mitre Hotel in Oxford. In 1930-1931, Eliot had angered Lewis by taking six months to reject his originating essay of the Personal Heresy, which had been submitted for publication in The Criterion; but then Eliot had also rejected manuscripts from Gertrude Stein in 1927 and many other great authors too. Now Eliot and Lewis were on the brink of becoming friends, although Lewis never came to appreciate Eliot’s poetry.

Lewis left Oxford in 1954 to become the first Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge and a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. However, he never had the same impact on Cambridge as he had on Oxford.

In 1958, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, appointed both Lewis and Eliot to a commission charged with revising the Psalter,. In the following years, the two met each other regularly during the meetings at Lambeth Palace that resulted in The Revised Psalter (1963). After a conference in Cambridge of the Psalter commission, Lewis and Eliot even had lunch together, with their wives, Helen Joy Davidman and Valerie Fletcher.

Joy was 17 years younger than CS Lewis and died of cancer at the age of 45 in 1960. After her death, Lewis submitted a pamphlet about his grief to Faber for publication but using the pseudonym NW Clerk in 1961. At Faber, Eliot immediately recognised the work of Lewis and published it as A Grief Observed. This booklet stands out as Lewis’s most personal piece of writing.

In their shared Biblical work, and in grief shared, the two greatest Anglican literary figures and apologists of the 20th century were reconciled and had become firm friends. They would die less than 14 months apart.

‘Now the light falls ...’ closing days

‘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 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 to North America. 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 a lecturer and an adjunct assistant professor at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Trinity College Dublin. This lecture was delivered at the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend in the Cyril Gray Memorial Hall, Dugort, Achill Island, Co Mayo on 2 May 2015.

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