Sunday, February 10, 2013

T.S. Eliot: The Idea of a Christian Conversion

This is the first of a series of short essays that I plan to write and post on this blog about T.S. Eliot and religion, prompted by recent publications of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project.  These essays will also be something of a supplement to my 2009 book The Making of T.S. Eliot, which tracks the poet's intellectual and spiritual development through 1930.  As with any serious study, this is a work in progress -- so your feedback is very welcome!

T.S. Eliot portrait by William Rothenstein (1929)

When T.S. Eliot publicly announced his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in the preface to his 1928 collection For Lancelot Andrewes, his contemporaries were shocked.  To many of them, the author of The Waste Land was one of the leading voices of postwar (and generally post-Christian) Modernism, and they regarded his seemingly sudden embrace of Christianity as an ideological regression -- how could an avant-garde intellectual vow allegiance to such an archaic tradition?  Eliot’s longtime friend Conrad Aiken typifies the response: “Mr. Eliot seems to be definitely and defeatedly in retreat from the present and all that it implies” (Brooker 164).  More recent critics of Eliot have suggested that these initial kneejerk reactions were based on a misunderstanding of the poet's faith within its most significant context -- the context of Eliot's own life.
Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s most authoritative biographer, bases her understanding of Eliot on the idea that all of his writings are part of a self-conscious spiritual autobiography.  In The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot, the poet's religious conversion is preceded -- and followed -- by a “long journey.”  Gordon theorizes that Eliot’s lifelong religious journey actually began in 1910, with an experience that he wrote about in a short poem called “Silence” (published for the first time in Inventions of the March Hare, 1997).  She writes that the poet did not recognize the religious implications of this initial experience, and suggests that the real “turning-point” came in 1914, when he wrote “a group of intense religious poems,” including the earliest fragments of The Waste Land (Gordon 85, see The Waste Land Facsimile).  At that time, according to Gordon, Eliot rejected the possibility of religious conversion because he had “no real sense of sin” (Gordon 90).   By 1927, however, the poet had “accepted the morality of damnation." It was then that he converted to Christianity -- out of intellectual desperation, the author supposes.  According to Gordon:

Eliot’s entry into the Church was not brought about by a ferment that mounted naturally to a point of action.  He said that the thought of the intelligent believer “proceeds by rejection and elimination” until he finds a satisfactory explanation both for the disordered world without and the moral world within.  Eliot stressed rational progress rather than emotional states.  He accepted the morality of damnation, and could not save himself without help.  It seems that at this time he felt no fervour, and was driven to the Church almost as a last resort.  (Gordon 207)

            Barry Spurr, author of the only book-length study devoted entirely to Eliot’sAnglo-Catholic beliefs, agrees with the idea that Eliot's embrace of Christianity was the result of “a logical progression,” and emphatically rejects the term “conversion,” arguing that it wrongly implies “a leap of faith” (Spurr 114).   Spurr explains:

Where “conversion” is misleading, with regard to Eliot’s faith, is in its suggestion of an instantaneous event, as a result of which the convert is utterly changed and a breach is made with his or her previous, unconverted, unregenerate life (Spurr 112).

Eliot himself seems to make the same distinction, even while casually using the term “conversion,” in a January 1927 letter to William Force Stead.  Responding to Stead’s call for him to repudiate his previous writing, Eliot writes:

I do not see why one should “repudiate” anything that one has written provided that one continues to believe that the thing written was a sincere expression at the time of writing.  One might as well repudiate infancy and childhood (Eliot 360).

Eliot had not yet “surrendered” his skepticism at the time of this letter but, as Gordon points out, his post-1927 poetry reveals that he never did discard his old religious ideas so much as incorporate them into a new ideological framework.  Eliot eventually became an outspoken member of the Anglican Church, and particularly the Anglo-Catholic movement, but Spurr likewise points out that the poet never ceased to struggle with “the difficulties of faith and the elusiveness of transcendental experience” and never became evangelical (Spurr 113).  Eliot was neither blind nor insecure in his new faith. 
            Eliot did, of course, immediately present Anglo-Catholic beliefs as the centerpiece of his spiritual autobiography, so obviously he felt some fervor.  No doubt he took some inspiration from William Force Stead, the fellow poet and Anglican priest who arranged Eliot’s baptism in June 1927, and B.H. Streeter, the Biblical scholar who bore witness to his baptism.  Stead had recently published his own spiritual autobiography, The Shadow of Mount Carmel (1926), and Streeter had summarized his beliefs in Reality: A New Correlation of Science and Religion (1926).  In these books, both writers presented Art as the “true language of religion” (Stead 204).  Streeter proclaims:

Poetry and Art, whenever truly great, are things age does not stale.  In that they are unlike Science.  In the sphere of specific scientific knowledge each generation starts where the last left off; ancient and obsolete are all but synonymous.  It is otherwise with Art or Letters.  Homer and Shakespeare are not out of date; the sculpture of Greece, the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, still exact our wonder.  And, if Religion expresses its creative intuition in ways nearer akin to those of art than to those of Science, the creations of its classic age should never lose their power  (Streeter: Reality 69).
             
Many years earlier, in one of his earliest essays on the art of religion, Streeter made a careful distinction between religious “vision” and the artist’s “flash of insight.”  The difference, he wrote, is “very largely due to differences in temperament, education and environment” (Streeter: Foundations 96).  To put it more succinctly, it’s a matter of personal psychology.  Streeter goes on to say that the religious vision leads to “sudden conversion,” wheras the artist’s flash of insight leads to the more common “gradual awakening of interest and conscious inductive study of facts and conditions” (Streeter: Foundations 97).  Citing The Varieties of Religious by William James, a book that Eliot was very familiar with, Streeter concludes that the term “conversion” designates the attainment of “inward peace and conviction” after a period of crisis.  A “calling,” by contrast, “presupposes a period of intense but baffled interest in some spiritual or moral problem leading up to the moment of illumination which provides the prophet with his message” (Streeter: Foundations 97). This leads me to a number of questions at the heart of my interest in T.S. Eliot’s lifelong journey:

Is the poem “Silence” a record of a religious vision or, rather, a flash of insight?

Were the following years a period of “calling”?

Did Eliot’s baptism in June 1927 signify the end of a period of "calling"?  Does the moment therefore deserve the name "conversion"?  
Did Eliot experience a “moment of illumination” that finally prompted him to embrace the Church?

Certainly his baptism signified a lifelong conviction, but did that conviction bring him “inward peace”?

These are not easy questions, and there are no simple answers.  As Gordon and Spurr rightly suggest, we cannot uncover the truth about any moment without examining the whole and exploring the specifics Eliot’s temperament, education and environment... That's what I aim to do in the coming weeks, offering some notes toward a better understanding of Eliot's unique faith, which finds its fullest expression in the poet's masterpiece FourQuartets.

Sources:

Brooker, Jewel Spears, ed.  T.S. Eliot: The Contemporary Prose.  Cambridge UP, 2004.

Eliot, Valerie, & John Haffenden, ed. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926 - 1927.  London: Faber, 2012.

Gordon, Lyndall.  The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot.  London: Virago, 2012.

Spurr, Barry.  ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T.S. Eliot and Christianity.   Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2010.

Stead, William Force.  The Shadow of Mount Carmel: A Pilgrimage.  London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1926.

Streeter, Burnett Hillman, ed.  Foundations: A Statement of Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought.  London: Macmillan, 1922.

--.  Reality: A New Correlation of Science and Religion.  New York: Macmillan, 1926.

2 comments:

  1. If religious experience has any hope of finding its way into the deepest parts of the self, then "the long journey" of calling is the means by which this happens. I have known many who have claimed "conversion" as a sudden moment of life's transformation. Such "conversion' is almost always rooted in an emotional explosion...that many times is transitory. The feeling either disappears entirely, or becomes a source of depression because it flattens out within the convert. I have known people who then feel abandoned by the divine. Thus, it should come as no surprise that both for myself and others I lean toward the gradual development inherent in "calling." Imagine...every moment of a person's life moving us in the direction of some new, mysterious understanding. As I re-read "Silence," I could see that as the perfect starting point for an exploration of Eliot's religious/spiritual discernment.
    Thanks, Joe...
    Paul

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  2. Thank you, Paul, for your thoughtful response! I agree with you, and I think Eliot would too. He was always suspicious of extreme emotions, which is something I want to write about in the coming weeks, as it relates to the Unitarian tradition that the poet grew up in. Like you, I find the idea of a long journey to be very comforting... and I love the way you've expressed it: "every moment of a person's life moving us in the direction of some new, mysterious understanding." Well put, and thanks again!

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