T.S. Eliot and His Age

T.S. Eliot is a colossus who will cross the abyss of the ages.

T.S. Eliot in 1934.
T.S. Eliot in 1934. (photo: Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell)

As much as it might hate to admit it, the secular culture is greatly indebted to the Catholic Cultural Revival. From the roots of the revival in the Romantic reaction against the secular rationalism of the Enlightenment to the fruits of its mellifluous manifestations in the 20th century, the Catholic Cultural Revival has bestowed its benisons on the hostile world in which it finds itself. Since T.S. Eliot is one of the fruits of this revival it is appropriate that we should look at his place within the larger literary landscape; it is fitting to see where he fits.

It could be argued that the Catholic Cultural Revival was ‘conceived’ in 1798 with the publication of Lyrical Ballads, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and, after a 47-year gestation period, was finally ‘born’ at the moment of Newman’s momentous conversion in 1845.

Wordsworth and Coleridge, wounded and confounded by their earlier attraction to the faithless iconoclasm of the French Revolution, recoiled from secular humanism into the faithful arms of Christianity. Although they would settle for Anglicanism, they would prove to be the unwitting harbingers of the Catholic Revival.

Romanticism darkened in the minds and hearts of its later practitioners – Byron, Shelley and Keats – and descended into depravity in the tortured consciences of the French Decadents – Baudelaire, Verlaine and Huysmans – but the light borne by Wordsworth and Coleridge (particularly the latter) would kindle the neo-mediaeval flames that would illumine the Victorian age. The Gothic revival in art and architecture, the Pre-Raphaelites in poetry and painting, and the Oxford Movement in liturgy and ecclesiology were all manifestations of Romantic neo-mediaevalism.

In many cases Romanticism led to Rome. Augustus Pugin, the leading light of the Gothic revival, became a Catholic around 1833, and John Henry Newman, doyen of the Oxford Movement, was received into the Church 12 years later. Newman would in turn receive Gerard Manley Hopkins, the greatest poet of the Victorian age, into the Church in 1866. The Roman fever was infectious, crossing the Channel to baptize the contrite consciences of the French Decadents – Baudelaire, Verlaine and Huysmans all became Catholics – and re-crossing it again to purge the passions of the English Decadents – Lionel Johnson, Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson and John Gray (allegedly the model for Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray) were all Catholic converts. Wilde himself was received into the Church on his deathbed in 1900, the consummation of his lifelong love affair with Catholicism.

The stream of literary converts continued into the 20th century: Baring, Benson, Knox, Chesterton, Greene, Eliot, Waugh, Sitwell, Sassoon etc, etc. Although Eliot belongs in this list he is nonetheless something of an odd man out. Unlike the others he never submitted to Rome, preferring to declare himself a ‘Catholic’ within the Church of England, a so-called Anglo-Catholic. His reason appears to have been rooted in an Anglophilia bordering on Anglomania. As a native American trying too hard to become an honorary Englishman, he imbibed the English prejudice against Rome and clung to the beleaguered belief that Anglicanism was somehow apostolic. As the neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain quipped, ‘Eliot exhausted his capacity for conversion when he became an Englishman.’

In spite of such folly, Eliot is a Catholic writer, much more so than that other great convert to Anglicanism, C.S. Lewis, and much more than writers who are technically more ‘Catholic’, such as Graham Greene. Whereas Greene toyed with heterodoxy, playing with fire for the sheer hell of it, one would search in vain for any infelicitous faux pas against orthodoxy in the works of Eliot. Greene, gangrened with doubt and self-loathing, lapsed into the folly of mortal sin, the fatal felo-de-se; Eliot, healed by faith and humility, rose to the fullness of grace, the fruitful auto-da-fé. Greene protested that he was not a Catholic writer but a writer who happened to be Catholic; Eliot ironically was very much a Catholic writer who happened not to be Catholic.

As for the age in which Eliot wrote, the 1920s and ’30s, the age he condemned as a wasteland, it paralleled in many respects the wasteland that had provoked and inspired the Romantic reaction of Wordsworth and Coleridge more than a century earlier. Like his Romantic predecessors, Eliot was reacting against an atheistic anti-clericalism that had spawned a revolution. If Wordsworth and Coleridge were reacting against the debacle of the French Revolution, Eliot was recoiling from the debauchery of the Bolshevik Revolution. In ‘England, 1802’ Wordsworth had described modern England as ‘a fen of stagnant waters’, in which the wasteland of modernity takes the form of a swamp. Similarly the allegorical dimension in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner resonates uncannily with the fragmentary hints of conversion and resurrection which emerge in Eliot’s The Waste Land. In both these works the deepest truths are revealed tantalizingly through their being re-veiled tarantellically in a web of wyrd-woven intensity.

Since ‘in my beginning is my end,’ as Eliot asserted at the beginning of ‘East Coker,’ paradoxically echoing and inverting the motto of Mary Stuart, I shall end as I began by reminding the secular culture that it is greatly in debt to the Catholic Cultural Revival. One of the finest poems of the 18th century, me iudice, is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem which is awash with allusions to Catholic conceptions of grace; one of the finest poems of the 19th century is The Wreck of ‘The Deutschland’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit and mystic who showered the world with the innovative dynamism of orthodoxy in poesis. As for the finest poem of the 20th century, it is hard to choose between The Waste Land and Four Quartets, both by T.S. Eliot. Whether one prefers the former, a jeremiad of unsurpassed subtlety, or the latter, an ecstasy worthy of the mystic flights of St. John of the Cross, the conclusion remains the same and remains as unmistakable. T.S. Eliot is not merely a giant in his age but is a colossus who will cross the abyss of the ages. A great poet, and Eliot is surely one of the greatest, is not merely of ‘his age’ but of all ages. Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave!