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God and driving lessons

21 June 2013

Richard Harries enjoys glimpses of T. S. Eliot consolidating his faith


The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, editors
Faber and Faber £40
Church Times Bookshop £36 (Use code CT426 )

IN THE years 1928-29, covered by these diaries, T. S. Eliot had become a director of the publishing house that we know as Faber and Faber, and was still editing The Criterion. His first wife, mentally unstable and often physically ill, was a constant worry. He continued to look after her "with anxious fortitude", as the editors put it. As a director of a new company, he had accepted a drop in salary to £400 per annum; so he had to earn extra money with articles and reviews.

Despite all these pressures, this correspondence, superbly edited as before, with helpful footnotes, reveals him as unfailingly conscientious and courteous. He goes out of his way to write letters of commendation for young people, and, in the light of later allegations of anti-Semitism, it is interesting that a young Jewish writer who was told that "Eliot does not like Jews" said that he found him wonderfully gentle and helpful.

Eliot was in close touch with similar cutting-edge literary periodicals in Spain, France, Germany, and Italy, and was keen to take translations of good contemporary work from them. The letters reveal a rich homogeneous European culture, which was soon to be destroyed by the Nazis.

This is the period in which Eliot consolidated his Christian faith, making his first confession, about which he wrote: "I feel as if I had crossed a very wide and deep river." He wrote "Song to Simeon" and part of "Ash-Wednesday", as well as For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on style and order, in which he an-nounced his outlook to be "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion".

This received a hostile review in The Times Literary Supplement on the grounds that Eliot, instead of relying on his deepest personal experience, had accepted "the exterior authority of revealed religion", and had abandoned "modernism for medievalism". It was to be typical of those who now turned against him not because of his literary judgements, but because of his faith. Yet, as William Temple argued, it is open to question whether or not a revelation has been given, but, if it has, "How can it be the mark of inferior genius to accept it?"

Eliot was remarkably unfazed by such attacks, and continued to have good relations even with people who had sharply, and for the wrong reasons, attacked his work. He remained friends with people who had very different views of life from his own (nearly all the people he knew), continuing to offer objective literary judgements about the literary worth of their writing. There was no insecure defensiveness about him. This was because he had first faced in himself all the worst things that others might say.

Conrad Aiken, for example, had criticised For Lancelot Andrewes as showing "A thin and vinegarish hostility to the modern world . . . a complete abdication of intelligence", etc., to which Eliot replied: "You may be right. . . Most of these criticisms I had anticipated, or made myself. Thrice armed is he who knows what a humbug he is. My progress, if I ever make any, will be purging myself of a large number of impure motives."

More widely, he welcomed the new hostile situation in which Christians now found themselves; for it released the Christian faith from what had burdened it since the 18th century, namely, being a badge of respectability for the English middle classes.

These letters cover the period when The Criterion was concerned, among other subjects, to debate the nature of humanism; and they include important correspondence with the American scholar Paul More. Eliot was to write of More: "I might almost say that I never met any Christians until after I had made up my mind to become one." So it was important to him to meet More, who had come to faith by much the same route.

These letters are essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand this crucial period in Eliot's life. They also offer some fascinating insights into the social history of the period, such as the fact that even in a tiny house the Eliots had two servants; his first experience of broadcasting in the early days of the BBC; and the decision of the Eliots to buy a car and take driving lessons. "It is one of the things one ought to know how to do, nowadays, and it is a way of getting fresh air and resting the mind."


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is an Hon. Professor of Theology at King's College, London.

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