2022 marks the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”–arguably the most influential poem of the twentieth century. With this in mind, I’m devoting whatever spare reading time I have at the minute to reading Eliot and reading about him, and considering him specifically as a Christian poet (and we hopefully have one or two things related to the centenary lined up for Ad Fontes later this year–watch this space).
Despite recognition as almost single-handedly revolutionising modern poetry, Eliot is usually seen as a prim, emotionless figure–buttoned up, diffident, and conservative in every sense of the word. And this is understandable. Many can’t help but see him as forever a bank clerk. He stands at a marked distance from both the effusive Victorian Romantic poets who preceded him, and the intensely personal mid-twentieth century confessional poets who came after. The man himself often seems lost beneath his obscure, quotation-heavy poems, as if his own inner life is the last thing on his mind. And he held a raft of conservative, and often openly elitist, social opinions. In short, Eliot is seen as the consummate cold fish.
And yet this does the man no justice. Eliot was a man of passion. We know this was certainly true in a romantic sense, after letters between Eliot and the scholar Emily Hale were finally published in 2019. But the love lives of authors are supremely uninteresting, so we’ll not dwell there.
Far more interesting is a portrait painted by Lyndall Gordon in her superb 2012 biography, The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot. Gordon draws a surprising comparison between Eliot and Jonathan Edwards, the epochal figure of enthusiastic, revivalistic Puritanism. It is hard to imagine, at first glance, a less-apt religious comparison. Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927, heavily high-church in his inclinations. I can’t imagine Edwards having much truck with Eliot’s poetic soft-spot for the Virgin Mary.
But Gordon does a superb job of situating Eliot’s family background in the context of New England Puritanism. The Eliots (or Eliotts, as it was then) emigrated from Somerset to Salem around 1670. Relatives on both sides of Eliot’s family condemned innocents to death in the Salem witch trials. Eventually, however, as it arose in response to the fervour of Puritanism, the Eliots slid into the bland, respectable heresy of Unitarianism. Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot (1811-1837), left Boston to plant a Unitarian church in St. Louis, Missouri, which is where Eliot was born and raised.
So, although Eliot was raised in the Unitarian tradition, this meant that the likes of Edwards hung spectrally over his religious imagination as he grew up. Young Tom was given a very clear idea of the kind of believer he was not meant to be. Yet, ironically, the Unitarianism which arose in response to Puritanism simply replicated the inert religiosity which had so badly needed revival in the first place. This, in Gordon’s telling, left Eliot well-kindled to become another, doubtless very different, Jonathan Edwards:
“The religion taught by William Greenleaf Eliot was strict rather than spiritual. He was not concerned with perfection, or doctrine, or theology, but with a code that would better the human lot. With Unitarian scorn for evangelical enthusiasm, he said that educated, practical people reject ‘sudden miraculous conversion, wrought by divine power, independently of the human will… by which the sinner of yesterday is the saint of today.’ True salvation comes from human effort. ‘It is at once arrogant and dangerous to claim direct and extraordinary guidance. It is virtually to claim inspiration, and that which begins in humility ends in pride.’ He passed on to his children and grandchildren a religion which retained Puritan uprightness, social conscience, and self-restraint, but which had been transformed by the Enlightenment. T.S. Eliot was taught to be dutiful, benevolent and cheerful. He was always acutely sensitive to the power of evil, but was taught a practical common-sense code of conduct. He once mentioned that his parents did not talk of good and evil bUt of what was ‘done’ and ‘not done’. In abandoning Unitarianism, Eliot rebelled against those tepid, unemotional distinctions. ‘So far as we are human,’ he wrote, ‘what we do must be either evil or good.’ Like Jonathan Edwards, who had rebelled in the first half of the eighteenth century against religion tamed as respectable code and re-evoked the fervent religion of the previous century, so Eliot in the first half of the twentieth century sought an older, stricter discipline, unsoftened by nineteenth-century liberalism. Edwards and Eliot each seemed, to his own time, an isolated reactionary.”
It’s curious at first to imagine Eliot occupying the same space as Edwards, but the more I think on Gordon’s comparison, the more it rings true. Rightly or wrongly, few preachers leap more quickly to mind at the phrase “fire and brimstone” than Edwards. Eliot may seem a long way away from that kind of spirituality. But God came down to fire for Eliot too, in the glorious conclusion of “Little Gidding”–a fire which, as with Edwards, could not but burn out into the world.
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Lyndall Gordon, The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot, (London: Virago, 2012), 18. ↑