Antidote to cynicism

by
31 August 2012

Letters shed light on a poet's conversion, says Richard Harries

© ESTATE OF POWYS EVANS

Convert: a pencil drawing of T. S. Eliot by Powys Evans, late 1927. From Valerie Eliot's collection, and reproduced in her book

Convert: a pencil drawing of T. S. Eliot by Powys Evans, late 1927. From Valerie Eliot's collection, and reproduced in her book

The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926-1927
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, editors
Faber & Faber £40
(978-0-571-14085-5)
Church Times Bookshop £36 (Use code CT420 )

THIS third volume of Eliot's letters covers two crucial years of his life. He was working hard editing The Criterion, trying to reshape the literary judgements and cultural outlook of a generation that had earlier found its voice in the despair and nihilism of The Waste Land. His wife was seriously mentally ill and making attempts on her life. For long stretches of time, he could not leave her. His life was, as he put it, "like a bad Russian novel".

Then, on 29 June 1927, he was baptised in a locked Finstock Church, and driven next day to be confirmed by the Bishop of Oxford at Cuddesdon. The restless, literary clergyman who baptised him, W. T. Stead, was sworn to secrecy. "I hate spectacular 'conversions'," Eliot wrote.

This volume, besides providing the detailed correspondence with a very wide range of people in connection with The Criterion, sheds some light on why and how Eliot's mind moved towards the Christian faith. The excellent footnotes and biographical details of correspondents are an important help in trying to pick up this particular thread. Although Eliot had always been seriously informed about both religion and philosophy, it was not primarily a religious quest that drove him to faith. Rather, it was the desire to find something more solid that the individualism, relativism, and emotionalism that he thought were rotting Western civilisation. He was looking for a secure political order that could be sustained by an objective moral realm.

He was later to write: "The Christian scheme seemed the only possible scheme which found a place for values which I must maintain or perish (and belief comes first and practice second), the belief, for instance, in holy living and holy dying, in sanctity, chastity, humility, austerity." It was for this reason that he much regretted "the intellectual breakup of Europe and the rise of Protestantism", and why he preferred the outlook of the 13th century to the 17th.

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All this helps us to understand why he was drawn to the French thinker Charles Maurras, now of dubious reputation, who, though an atheist, was also looking for an ordered alternative to the chaos of Western culture as it then stood.

Another factor in Eliot's move to Christian faith was the thinness of Bertrand Russell's arguments. He wrote to Russell, who was an old friend, about his pamphlet on Christianity, to say that it was a piece of childish folly, and that the arguments in it had been familiar to him at the age of six or eight. He took serious atheism very seriously, and said that "Atheism should always be encouraged for the sake of the Faith." But about Russell (and to Russell) he said: "What I dislike is the smell of the corpse of Protestantism passing down the river."

Eliot had a very pessimistic view of human nature, his own and other people's. All human relationships, he thought, turned out to be a delusion and a cheat. Nevertheless, "the love of God takes the place of the cynicism which otherwise is inevitable to every rational person." On the basis of this love of God, then every human love is enhanced and can be celebrated. The reference to cynicism is from a very important letter to Geoffrey Faber, who had accused him of being too austere. In it, Eliot beautifully sets out the right relationship between the love of God, and the most material of pleasures.

Another important and moving letter is the one that he wrote to his mother when he thought that they might not see each other again in this life. Eliot emphasises in these letters generally that his move into faith went with all kinds of tentativeness and continuing questions. In the letter to his mother, however, he affirms unequivocally that they will meet again. He feels that "it may not be in the least like anything we can imagine; but [. . .] if it is different we shall then realise that it is right and shall not then wish it to be like what we can now imagine."

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the author of Faith

in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian roots of our political values (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2010).

 

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