02 November 2019

‘I said to my soul, be still,
and let the dark come upon you’

Dante’s meeting with Virgil (Truro Cathedral) … an image for All Souls’ Day and inspiration for TS Eliot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today in the Calendar of the Church is All Souls’ Day [2 November], following immediately after All Saints’ Day.

Although this is one of those days that does not feature in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland, All Souls’ Day is commemorated in Common Worship in the Church of England, and in the Episcopal Church and other member Church of the Anglican Communion.

In his letter in this month’s edition of Newslink, the Limerick and Killaloe diocesan magazine, writes, ‘Some mark 2nd November as All Souls’ Day when we remember all who have died and are now in closer communion with God, especially those whom we have known and have influenced us in our life.’

I often associate All Souls’ Day and the month of November with TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men,’ in which the speaker anticipates with dread ‘that final meeting.’ The men up images drawn from the straw man of Guy Fawkes night. But are they souls or saints, who grope together ‘In this last of meeting places.’

The final section, in its generalised abstraction of all that has gone before, tells us that ‘This is the way the world ends.’

Eliot’s Dante-like image of the lost souls, ‘Gathered on this beach of the tumid river,’ is one that recurs throughout his poetry. Prufrock escapes from the world of skirts and teacups to the world of visionary imagination through a ‘walk upon the beach.’ The protagonist of ‘The Waste Land’ sits down and weeps ‘By the waters of Leman,’ then upon the shore ‘with the arid plain behind me.’ The sea of ‘The Dry Salvages’ is ‘the land’s edge also.’

The Hollow Men arrive at the outer limit of one world only to find that its ‘deliberate disguises’ conceal a finite lack of possibility.

All Souls College, Oxford … a reminder of the ‘Faithful Departed’ on 2 November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

TS Eliot joined Faber & Gwyer in 1925 after working for Lloyds Bank for eight years. The publisher’s chairman, Geoffrey Faber, was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and had been looking for a literary adviser.

At the high table at All Souls one evening, Faber discussed his plans to set up a literary magazine with the journalist Charles Whibley.

Faber had worked for Oxford University Press before World War I, and was estates bursar of All Souls until the 1950s. Whibley had written for The Criterion, founded a few years earlier by Eliot, and suggested at that dinner in All Souls College that Faber’s company should acquire the magazine.

When Faber met the poet, he was so impressed that he immediately offered Eliot a place on the board. And so it was that Eliot joined Faber & Gwyer in 1925 as a director, with the understanding that the firm would publish his magazine and his books.

A letter in the Times Literary Supplement some years ago pointed out that Eliot failed to achieve an All Souls Fellowship a year later in 1926. Eliot had applied for a Research Scholarship with a research proposal on the Elizabethan dramatists. He was rejected because the committee felt that ‘the subject of research as interpreted by Mr Eliot himself is far too wide for any one man to undertake, and must lead to generalisations, the value of which must be doubtful, since the foundation of knowledge on which they are based must frequently be inadequate.’

On his blog, Armand D’Angour, a classical scholar and musician who is Associate Professor of Classics at Oxford University and a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, recalls that the late Sir Michael Hart (1948-2007), a Fellow of All Souls College and Chancery judge, used to say Eliot was turned down because the Fellows were scandalised by lines in his poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’:

Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

Whether the story has any foundation, I find instead on this morning of All Souls’ Day that I am thinking of lines in Eliot’s ‘East Coker’ (1940), the second his Four Quartets:

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God …

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

All Souls College, Oxford … refused to offer a fellowship to TS Eliot in 1926 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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