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‘Something above morals’

27 February 2015

Richard Harries delves into T. S. Eliot's letters

The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 5, 1930-1931
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, editors
Faber & Faber £50
Church Times Bookshop £45 (Use code CT757 )

THE years that these letters cover are the ones in which T. S. Eliot finds himself spiritually firmly in the Christian world. He knew that his conversion would expose him to "ridicule", but this did not daunt him. As he said, "anyone who has been moving in intellectual circles and comes to the Church, may experience an odd rather exhilarating feeling of isolation."

The letters record his reaction to the publication of "Ash Wednesday", the poem signalling his conversion. While acknowledging the explicit influence of Dante's Vita Nuova, especially as a way of disciplining the emotions, and remarking that the three leopards are the world, the flesh, and the devil, he also admits that some of the imagery is from dreams, and some he simply does not understand himself. Nevertheless, though in many ways baffling, the poem won approval in both Christian and non-Christian circles.

There is also the first correspondence with churchmen such as William Temple, George Bell, and Lord Halifax, and, much against his better judgement, the writing and publication of Thoughts after Lambeth. This led to discussion on the issue of birth control and comments on the views in the Church Times. There are also letters to the learned American philosopher Paul Elmer More, whom Eliot much liked and respected, but some of whose views were much too liberal for him.

As he wrote on the subject of hell, in which he believed: "To me, religion has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying; it has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery; the very dark night and the desert. To me 'to be damned for the glory of God' is sense not paradox."

Throughout the letters there are the same strong, lucid opinions on a whole range of subjects, literary, political, and religious; stern and uncompromising in tone, yet also self-mocking and caring of the recipient. They indicate the kind of difference becoming a Christian and, in particular, a Catholic Anglican made to his life. "I know just enough-and no more-of 'the peace of God' to know that it is an extraordinarily painful blessing." Again, "faith is not a substitute for anything: it does not give the things life has refused, but something else; and in the ordinary sense it does not make one happier."

Meanwhile, he continued his job as a publisher at Faber. In this capacity, he made some very sensible, practical suggestions about advertising, besides immediately recognising the talent of W. H. Auden and getting him, as well as Stephen Spender, published. He was editing The Criterion, and all the while the mental instability of his wife was making his private life hellish. No wonder he complained of being mentally exhausted.

In contrast, there are delightful letters to Tom Faber, his chairman's four-year-old son, full of fun and descriptions of cats, with his own skittish drawings. This playful side of Eliot did not emerge properly until his late second marriage to Valerie, who died in 2012. In this volume, as meticulously edited as the previous ones, there is a substantial, justified essay on the indispensable part that she played in the editing. As John Haffenden writes, the collection and publication of the letters "owes everything" to her.

Volume 5, like the previous ones in the series, is a work of serious scholarship, and the publishers are to be congratulated on maintaining the highest standards.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

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