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Poet who crossed frontiers

by
27 February 2015

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot, Martyn Halsall examines the writer's work in order to map his spiritual journey

GRAINGER Collection/TOPFOTO

T. S. ELIOT's Prufrock and Other Observations, his first substantial collection of poetry, was published in 1917, the same year as the poet Edward Thomas was killed at his gun emplacement during the Battle of Arras. The contrast between Eliot, the 23-year-old emerging urban Modernist, and the older writer, who was bringing new realism to pastoral poetry, signalled a change of direction in English literature.

For all the mechanised carnage of the global conflict, English soldier-poets still rooted sacrifice in rural understanding. Rupert Brooke forecast that if "I should die" it would be in a "corner of a foreign field" that would be "for ever England". Wilfred Owen, writing more deeply into the conflict, asked of the carnage in his poem "Futility": "Was it for this the clay grew tall?"

Eliot's lines lack reference to overt war, but concede the wounds of city life. His is not Wordsworth's celebration of early-morning London, but a darker, more perplexed context.

Fifty years after Eliot's death, the place of a difficult and often elusive writer, sometimes adopted warily within the Christian tradition, is subject to inevitable reassessment. This will be enhanced by Robert Crawford's new biography, Young Eliot, and the publication of his graduate student papers on German philosophy.

Issues raised could re-examine: the infusion of Christian belief in Eliot's writing; his place as a modernist in post-modern, or post-post-modern culture; whether his avowedly establishment voice still resonates; and what a reader, half a century after his death, makes of his literary and spiritual life. 

THOMAS STEARNS ELIOT, poet, critic and dramatist, was born in 1888, and brought up in St Louis, Missouri. He was destined for considerable geographical, literary, and spiritual journeys. When he arrived in London in 1915, he came not as a poet, but as a philosopher, having studied in France, Germany, and Oxford.

His parents hoped that he would return to Harvard as a distinguished academic, but Merton College, Oxford, was succeeded by Soho's more informal researches. Eliot's intellectual luggage contained already considerable knowledge of French "modern" poetry, particularly Jules Laforgue, seasoned with interest in English metaphysical and Jacobean poets, including Donne and Webster.

Naming "Prufrock" after an American company showed a poet who was still looking back across the Atlantic, yet ahead with the encouragement of his fellow-American in London's bohemia, Ezra Pound.

His influence became international, from editing the influential The Criterion to publishing emerging poets such as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and George Barker. He attracted Far Eastern scholars, and large audiences. In 1956, he addressed 14,000 people in a Minneapolis baseball stadium on "The Frontiers of Criticism".

Eliot remains a paradoxical prophet: the esoteric "Pope of Russell Square", who reviewed detective stories, and let off stink bombs in a London hotel to amuse a nephew; the establishment banker turned publisher, who reshaped English poetry; the radical author, whose complete autobiography read: "Classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion". (Although he added in 1961: "The mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.")

He could be obsessively private. It took him a year to announce that he had been baptised as an Anglican. Two "godparents" supported him in a locked Cotswold church on 29 June 1927. He was confirmed the next day, in the Bishop of Oxford's private chapel. His first wife, Vivien, was absent on each occasion.

Eliot's literary biographer, Craig Raine, a subsequent poetry editor at Faber and Faber, argued that "the Buried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived, is the central animating idea of Eliot's poetry." 

SOME critics have suggested that Eliot's poetry, criticism, and plays were his autobiography - that he intended the work to be his life, in the manner of Yeats or Wordsworth. Certainly, it is possible to read in Prufrock a proposal for spiritual exploration.

The poem begins with an assertive invitation: "Let us go then, you and I," but immediately poses a question. Who is this "you and I", Prufrock - whoever he may be - and the subject of his "love song"? Or is Eliot, in disguise, inviting the ghost of the French medical student Jean Verdenal, to whom the poem is dedicated, and who died at the Dardenelles in 1915?

And once they are walking down "certain half-deserted streets", under an evening sky "like a patient etherised upon a table" (an image that so upset C. S. Lewis that he wrote a poem in response), what is the "overwhelming question" to which the walk, and the poem, is leading?

The question can only be discerned through personal pilgrimage:

Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"

Let us go and make our visit.

The "overwhelming question" returns towards the end of the poem, where it is re-set in the context of resurrection, and an equivocal reaction: 

To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all" -

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: "That is not what I leant at all.

That is not it, at all."

Religious references that season the poem, such as the mention of John the Baptist's severed head, and the ironic "eternal Footman" who "snickers" as he holds the author's coat, are set within an atmosphere of insecurity. There are the mysterious rooms where "the women" talk about Michelangelo.

Several references mention thinning hair; there are insubstantial, frivolous menus; worries about fashion; and a bit-part in Hamlet; and there is the "fear" of spiritual involvement, the pilgrim's tentative exploration:

And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

FEAR, through failure and doubt, was no stranger to the Eliots. The concrete Calvinist certainties of Andrew Eliot, who left East Coker in Somerset for America

in the late 17th century, had apparently withered during his reported time as a juror in the Salem witch trials.

Eliot's father, Henry Ware Eliot, became a prosperous brick manufacturer in rapidly expanding St Louis. He lost his original dream of being an artist, but continued to draw cats. Eliot's mother, Charlotte, wrote poetry, on subjects including the agonies of saints, but realised that even the early writing of her young son was superior. Even when lionised, Eliot continued to worry about whether his poetry was "any good", and to write about cats, and sainthood.

Eliot's Anglicanism became the destination in a search for spiritual certainty. His grandfather, who spread a physical and psychological shadow over his family, was a prominent Unitarian minister and educationalist whose Smith Academy young Thomas attended.

While still a schoolboy, Eliot brought out eight issues of his own magazine, The Fireside, advertising "Fiction, Gossip, Theatre, Jokes, and all interesting."

When Eliot published Poems 1909-1915 to mixed reviews, the critic John Middleton Murray suggested that he should join the Roman Catholic Church to resolve - as Eliot's biographer Peter Ackroyd puts it - the contradictions of being "a nihilist who espoused classical principles".

MAPPING Eliot's spiritual journey suggests that he grew dissatisfied with the lack of structure and objectivity in Unitarianism. His conversion was, in any case, a balance of the doctrinal and the literary, or appreciating the doctrinal in the literary, particularly through the poetry of Dante. Discernment took a decade; Eliot used lines from Dante's Purgatorio as a preface to Prufrock.

Ackroyd interprets Eliot's very English faith in a European Christian context, following in the faithful literary footsteps of Andrewes and Hooker, towards particular reverence for "prayer and confession, balm and absolution for a soul deeply conscious of sin".

He is ambivalent about the part played by faith in Eliot's poetry, seeing no natural connection: "For in poetry, belief need play no part; and within Eliot's own work, the structure of orthodox faith and the language of devotion are broken apart in order to make room for something much stranger and more tenuous, like the sound of someone crying in an empty church."

Evidence against Ackroyd's bleak assessment appeared in August 1927 when Eliot published "Journey of the Magi". Starting with a slightly revised version of the opening tothe sermon Lancelot Andrewes preached before James I on Christmas Day 1622, this poem can be read as a journey awarding spiritual realisation; and perhaps as an antidote, or conclusion, to The Waste Land of 1922.

While the urban setting of The Waste Land begins with "The Burial of the Dead", "Magi" celebrates the discovery of birth. And, while "Magi" ends with a personal prelude to the crucifixion - "I should be glad of another death" - it is the realisation of divine death as purpose, as continuing, and as completing the journey of the Magi.

THIS was a time of more active involvement for Eliot in his adopted society. In November 1927, he became a British citizen. "I don't like being a squatter. I might as well take the full responsibility," he said. The next year his attendance at the eucharist became more regular, and he began to make his confession.

While never an overt evangelist, Eliot's Christian beliefs became arguments within his plays, notably the most popular, and most accessible, Murder in the Cathedral. The emotional pain within Becket's decision-making could have reflected Eliot's own. His first, hasty marriage ended in emotional disaster after 18 years. Eliot himself had a nervous breakdown in 1921, while still employed by Lloyds Bank.

His Christian writing and thinking were always within, never separate from, his other work. In 1939 alone, for example, The Family Reunion was first performed; he published The Idea of a Christian Society from lectures given at Cambridge; and he publishedOld Possum's Book of Practical Cats, gleefully adopting the mischievous title that Pound had awarded him.

FOUR QUARTETS is the workby Eliot most often quoted in churches. Written between 1935 and 1942, these poems track Eliot's overriding Christian questions and answers.

Each is a poem of place, set primarily out of doors. "Burnt Norton" maps a quest through a meditation on time that advances from a "still point of the turning world" to energy and movementin the children's concluding cries. The city - London - is reduced to gazetteer, but when we meet Christ, he is dynamic, resisting temptation in the wilderness, his "Waste Land".

"East Coker" (1940) echoes Ecclesiastes in its mingling of autobiographical and cosmic analysis - a half-life reviewed "in the middle way", with the pulse of God quickening.

"The Dry Salvages" (1941) reaches back further, to Eliot's childhood holidays in New England, set against an Atlantic panorama. Through his past, Eliot reviews ageing, his prayer-life, and hopes for a future made more profound through thought and emotion than in the "unattended moment".

And right action is freedom

From past and future also.

In accelerating creativity, "Little Gidding" (1942), taking reference from a religious community, celebrates the resurrection season, and purpose:

. . . You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.

Time and place are (re-) united:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Eliot's recurring main themes, culminating in redeemed time that is eternal, are here reconciled.

ELIOT remains contemporary. In the honest, if often complex, narration of his Christian search within a perceptively darkening society, he encourages contemporary spiritual honesty and its profound expression. Ackroyd discerned "a Calvinist or per-

haps even a gnostic in Anglican clothing", but Eliot's faith was illuminated from many directions - not least in his appreciation of other world faiths, particularly Buddhism.

In this, he was prophetic, just as his mingling of classical and demotic references arguably anticipated post-modernity. For an uncertain contemporary Church, cautious of intellectual engagement, Eliot's continuing influence is an encouragement to a faith of elastic potential.

In the end, Eliot followed Edward Thomas into the countryside. He died on 4 January 1965, and his ashes were interred at East Coker, from where his ancestor hadmoved to America. His faith and family journey came full circle. Amid the tributes were eight lines written by John Masefield, then Poet Laureate, and published in The Times.

The elegy "East Coker", for an American-born Nobel Laureate, ended with mentions of what was English, in a garden - a restored Eden, perhaps, all the way from expanding St Louis to rural Somerset:

May many an English flower andlittle bird

(Primrose and robin redbreast unafraid)

Gladden this garden where his rest is made

And Christmas song respond, and Easter song.

Martyn Halsall's new collection of poetry, Sanctuary, is published by Canterbury Press.

Eliot's letters: review

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Church Times January 8,  1965

THE obituary tribute to T. S. Eliot from a fellow-poet, Mr. Norman Nicholson, in our columns to-day is eloquent of the debt owed by the practitioners of the art of poetry to this original and most stimulating genius. It may be predicted with confidence that in times to come the historians of English literature will be compelled to recognise in Eliot the same kind of transforming influence on the development of poetry which Wordsworth, in his own very different way, exercised on his contemporaries a century and more before.

But that is by no means the full extent of Eliot's true greatness. He was a Christian interpreter and prophet as well as a poet. He once quoted with approval Maritain's dictum that "it is a deadly error to expect poetry to provide the super- substantial food of man," and he himself knew well, and proved by his practice of faithful Churchmanship that he knew, where that food is alone to be found. But he used his art to give man the appetite for heavenly things and to commend his faith without ever descending to the slightest hint of lecture-room condescension. As was observed in the Church Times fifteen years ago of The Cocktail Party, Eliot could carry the reader from the inane depths of social triviality to a vision of the heights of the mystery of the Atonement and enlighten modern man's dark discontents with the peace which passes understanding. It is an astonishing achievement for one who was justly the hero of the intellectuals in an age when the intellect has so conspicuously rebelled against the truth of God.

The Church of England, with all Christendom, mourns the passing of a great and loyal son of the Church. May he rest in the peace of the Lord. 

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