IN THIS period, T. S. Eliot was not only the éminence grise of English letters, but a much sought-after spokesman for the Church. Although he disliked public speaking, he saw it as his duty to speak at Christian conferences and to try to shape Christian thinking in relation to the political and economic crisis of the time, especially at the great Oxford conference of 1937, when church leaders from round the world gathered. He was generally critical of what he read and heard, lamenting the lack of real, disciplined theology, in which it could be clearly seen that a particular view about the world had a Christian foundation and logic.
He also wanted a renewed Anglo-Catholicism for a new generation, and he thought what was needed was a better theology, not “a flourish of birettas”. The most significant of these gatherings was “the moot”, at which some genuinely distinguished Christian thinkers wrestled with this question, and where the seed of Eliot’s later The Idea of a Christian Society was sowed. The crisis of the time was such that Eliot thought that the future of Christianity, the nation, and civilisation was in doubt, and the Munich agreement “had been a betrayal which seemed to demand an act of almost personal contrition”.
This was also the painful period when Eliot’s wife, Vivienne, was sectioned and placed — as it turned out, permanently — in a mental hospital. All the while, Eliot was working all hours as a director of Faber, criticising submissions, encouraging other writers, and raising money for the impoverished ones. Much of each Sunday was taken up in serving as a churchwarden. His own creative writing was mainly focused on his verse plays. Murder in the Cathedral was being performed round the world to some success, and he was trying out The Family Reunion (eventually performed in 1939) on friends.
rMS am 3041 (355), Houghton Library, Harvard University Library, Cambridge MAT. S. Eliot’s wife, Vivienne, who was now in a mental hospital. This studio portrait by Vandyk, which she sent to Theresa and Henry Eliot in December 1935, had been taken on 12 July 1933
The notes to these letters continue to be superb, though, rather strangely, Cheslyn Jones, one-time Principal of Pusey House and then of Chichester Theological College, is described simply as a Catholic priest, whereas others in his tradition are referred to as Anglo-Catholics. One of their most fascinating features is the glimpses that they give of how Eliot appeared to others. The short answer is that, despite his imposing exterior and capacity for astringent criticism of their work, he was hugely loved both by the great and not so great, by those who shared his views and those, like Virginia Woolf and Middleton Murray, who did not. He was adored by children, and many of these letters contain his poems on cats, which came out as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in 1939.
When he was at Kelham, the students commented “with a kind of awe on the ardour of devotion which Eliot was seen to display at Mass”. Hardly less fascinating is what he reveals about himself. He admitted that he had an extreme, potentially ascetic temperament, and that his ideal was Charles de Foucauld. This leads him to distinguish tepidity, “the absence of something necessary”, the characteristic fault of the Church of England, from moderation, “the control of something excessive . . . the presence of some ardour to be restrained”.
At the same time, paradoxically, he had an intense, detailed interest in things of this world. Having seen a dartboard, he spent most of a day studying how to throw a dart most accurately, and a personal recipe that he sent to a friend on how to make a simple lettuce salad runs to more than 1000 words.
He thought that a Christian had to be both an optimist and a pessimist at the same time, and he is acutely aware of what he termed the abyss. “The ordinary mistake is to think that ‘religion’ saves one from it, for the people who are saved from the abyss by religion would be saved by anything, say a Sunday excursion to Scarborough.” In fact, however, true religion “can make one feel that one is walking on the edge all the time and it shows the abyss to be deeper”.
John Haffenden, who once again is to be congratulated, rightly comments that these letters reveal Eliot’s “kindliness, his playfulness, his mischievousness”, and his amazing ear for mimicry, parody, and light verse. They also reveal his great clarity as a prose writer, a quality that he urges others to strive for.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.
The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 8, 1936-1938
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, editors
Faber & Faber £50
Church Times Bookshop £45