The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 3:
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden,
Faber & Faber £40
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.
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
in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian roots of our political
values (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2010).