*** DEBUG END ***
Important information: We are currently experiencing technical issues with the webiste and it is currently running with reduced functionality, some category pages may not contain a full list of articles and the search is not currently working. We apologise for the inconvenience and should have everything back to normal as soon as possible.

Antidote to cynicism

31 August 2012

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


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
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 of Faith

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


Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

29 September 2020
Festival of Preaching
A one-day online version of our popular preaching festival. With Mark Oakley, Sam Wells and Anna Carter Florence.   Book tickets


19 October 2020
Creativity out of crisis: Hymns and worship webinar
In association with RSCM, this online event will explore creative uses music and liturgy in the context online and socially distanced worship.    Book tickets

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)