|John Middleton Murry (1889-1957) and Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)|
1. Public Debate
In his book A Critical Difference, David Goldie examines the ideological debate between two prominent British men of letters, T.S. Eliot and John Middleton Murry. A public debate between the two writers began in August 1923, when Murry (writing in his periodical The Adelphi) responded to a reader who insisted that Romanticism was dead, and Classicism was the literary philosophy of the future. Murry denounced his reader by saying, “When a classicist comes along who knows as much about his own creed as I know about mine – then we may prepare for battle” (“On Editing” 85). A few weeks later, T.S. Eliot responded in defense of Classicism, saying, “The difference seems to me […] the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic” (“Function” 70). The ensuing debate solidified the professed beliefs of both men – on literature, politics and religion. In 1927, Eliot declared himself a Classicist in literature, a Royalist in politics and an anglo-catholic in religion. Murry opposed him on all fronts – as a Romantic, an Individualist and a Protestant.
The two writers partly based their declarations on different visions of Europe after the war. Eliot perceived a society in moral chaos – a waste land – and he slowly came to believe that the only cure was religious dogma. In 1924, he wrote to his friend Herbert Read, “It seems to me that at the present time we need more dogma, and that one ought to have as precise and clear a creed as possible, when one thinks at all” (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 514). Based on his premise, he became a champion of Classical literature, because (he said) it recognizes “Outside Authority” over the “Inner Voice” of the individual (“Function” 71). He named Dante his ideal poet.
Murry, on the other hand, believed that the real threat to the future of the free world wasn’t moral chaos, but organization. In his autobiography, he writes:
The risks of chaos seemed to me far preferable to the certainty of being ossified in the machine. That was the horror of the War: it had not brought the chaos which was prophesied beforehand. Chaos indeed! It is the last thing anyone thinks about. Everywhere they cry, like a lot of parrots, ‘Organize! Organize!’ And I suppose we are being organized, and shall be organized until we have reached the seventh heaven of organization. Life had nothing to do with organization. Organization was a means of man’s wrestling with the material world, and from this very fact a cessation of his wrestling with himself. (Between 361)
As early as 1922, Murry had concluded, “In an age of Reason, when the approach to ancient faiths is barred by an accumulation of dogma which the free mind cannot accept, the only way to faith is the way of self-exploration” (“English” 195). For that reason, he became a champion of Romantic literature and the Inner Voice.
In the first round of their debate, Eliot criticized the “Inner Voice” as the anarchist’s excuse to do whatever he likes. “The possessors of the inner voice,” Eliot says, “ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust” (“Function” 71). Murry responded to Eliot’s sarcasm with utmost sincerity:
… perhaps (though I do not believe it) to do what you like may seem rather easy to Mr. Eliot. To me, on the contrary, it seems the hardest thing in the world. For to know what you really like means to know what you really are; and that is a matter of painful experience and slow exploration. (“More” 148)
Murry distinguished between two different kinds of Romantic writers: primary and secondary, immature and mature, fragmentary and complete. He made a case for the latter in his writings about Shakespeare, who he presented as the father of Romanticism.
As it happens, Eliot had made his first significant mark in the world of literary criticism with a dismissal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play, Eliot wrote in 1919, is an “artistic failure” because Shakespeare failed to find “a set of objects, a situation, [or] a chain of events” to express a “particular emotion” (“Tradition” 106-107). (The fact that Eliot uses the word “emotion” here instead of the word “idea” shows that at this point in his life, Eliot was still a bit of a Romantic himself.) In 1922, Murry responded by considering Hamlet within the context of Shakespeare’s work as a whole. He calls Hamlet the first example of Shakespeare’s “rejection of life” – a phase that culminated with the otherworldly mysteries of The Tempest (“Nature” 35). Shakespeare, he says, perceived two worlds but he was unable to reconcile them in his tragedies. With The Tempest, he accepted his limitations, which are also (Murry says) the limitations of human consciousness in the modern age; The Tempest shows Shakespeare yearning for a “brave new world” in which human consciousness has evolved, allowing humans to perceive – at all times – our union with the world around us.
Eliot may not have agreed with this reading of Shakespeare’s work, but he and Murry did see eye to eye on one particular play from the tragic period. Both regarded Antony & Cleopatra as one of his most successful works, and possibly for the same reason: the play finds the right story formula to express the idea of Loyalty. Murry argues that Shakespeare effectively uses the loyalty between Antony and Cleopatra as “the earthly symbol of his highest experience” – the loyalty between lovers, in his mind, represents loyalty to the Inner Voice that acknowledges two worlds (“Nature” 38). Loyalty was an equally important concept for Eliot, but his loyalty was to the Outer Authority of the Anglican Church – which he saw as a bridge between the human world and the divine.
Aside from their public debate, both men also were struggling with the issue of loyalty in their private lives. Four short letters – exchanged between Eliot and Murry in the spring of 1925 – offer a new perspective on the familiar debate: the role that the critics’ wives played in the realization of their beliefs.
2. Private Lives
In early 1925, T.S. Eliot was struggling to break out of a kind of creative paralysis. He felt he hadn’t produced anything worthwhile since he completed The Waste Land in 1922, and he was desperate to initiate “something new” (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 11). In his writing, he wanted to find a new order that would supersede the chaos expressed in The Waste Land. In his personal life, he was equally desperate for change. For ten years, the poet had been married to Vivien Haigh-Wood, a woman who was chronically ill and emotionally volatile. By all accounts, their marriage was a disaster – with one exception: Eliot admitted that it had produced the state of mind out of which The Waste Land emerged (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. I xvii). Now he was trying to shed that state of mind. As he replaced an uninspiring bank job with a more creatively fulfilling job at a London publishing house, he contemplated replacing his broken faith in the institution of marriage with a commitment to another institution: namely, the Anglican Church. In April 1925 he wrote an uncharacteristically revealing letter to John Middleton Murry, seeking advice on his decision:
In the last ten years – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V[ivien]. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine – but yet I am frightened – because I do not know what it will do to me – and to V[ivien] – should I come alive again… Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying? (V. Eliot, Letters Vol II. 628)
Eliot probably made this confession to Murry for two reasons. First of all: gratitude. Murry had just recommended Eliot to give a prestigious series of lectures at Trinity College Cambridge the following year; Eliot responded that the job came “as a ray of hope just at the blackest moment in my life” (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 592). The second reason: Two years earlier, Murry had professed a newfound religious belief that coincided with the death of his wife. Murry, who was now remarried and expecting his first child to be born any day, responded to Eliot as follows:
Of one thing I am convinced. That it is your duty to absolutely come alive again. Absolutely, - this without regard to what may be the consequences for V[ivien]… You are involved in a vicious circle, which thinking only tightens: you must break it by destroying the machine into which you have made yourself. (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 631)
As Eliot must have anticipated, Murry could not react to the situation without considering the parallels to his own marriage.
John Middleton Murry met his first wife Katherine Mansfield in 1911, when he was working as the editor of a magazine that published her poetry. They bonded instantly over a mutual fear of being alone in a world without meaning; neither was conventionally religious. In his autobiography, Murry writes, “The essential insecurity which haunted me was at an end: here, in her, was my security, my rest, my peace” (Between 241). Love became their religion, but that sense of security did not last. The outbreak of war in Europe, which killed many of the couple’s friends, quickly undermined Murry’s faith in human love as a foundation for life – it was all too clear that human love could not last. To make matters worse, the horrors of war soon became intertwined with an even greater threat to the couple’s fragile harmony: In December 1916, Katherine Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
For the first time in their relationship, Murry and Mansfield physically separated – he remained in London while she received treatment in the south of France. The separation was agonizing for both of them. In one of her letters, Mansfield writes, “You are so grown into my heart that we are like the two wings of one bird.” The metaphor became a common reference point for them in the coming years – the bird was never able to take flight, and their ongoing separation produced a constant ebb and flow of sour emotions (Hankin 93). Murry, for his part, eventually tried to withdraw his emotions – an attempt to protect himself from his lover’s inevitable death. This decision only increased Mansfield’s despair; it was neither her nature nor her wish to withhold her own emotions. In the spring of 1918, she pleaded with Murry for a stronger commitment – saying “your letters are my salvation” – and he acquiesced as best he was able (Hankin 145). The couple was married in May, but Murry regarded his part in the union as a well-meaning fraud:
Henceforward, my life would be one long lie – of Love. To have no faith, and pretend one; to have no hope and pretend it; to watch day by day the circle round Katherine growing narrower and to feign not to see it… (Between 493)
The Great War ended in the fall of 1918. Murry, like so many of his peers, was desperate to feel a new sense of hope in the future – but he experienced none, and continued to isolate himself for fear of imposing his hopelessness on his dying wife. “For her sake, if not for my own,” he writes, “I had to find some fragment of a faith in life. And I could not. I did not know how to begin the search. I was utterly devoid of anything that could be called religion” (God 15). Murry’s physical and emotional absence continued to disturb Mansfield, and the cycle of emotions went on until early 1920 when he confessed his shortcomings to her:
I feel that I have allowed myself to become an appalling machine, and that you have felt it [in] my letters, as you could not fail to feel it; & so you have been left without the sympathy I should have given… Believe at least that my thoughts are not as cold & brutal as my words sometimes seem to be. That in fact I do give you my all, and if it’s a poor one, it’s because I have no more to give. You have the whole of me, darling, and when it fails, as it has failed so often I know, just remember that I would have given more if I had had it. (Hankin 276)
Mansfield responded with exceptional understanding and undying compassion, and recommended a new kind of belief for the couple’s future: “Just remember: That From Now I am not ill. Because that is the truth” (Hankin 283).
After this, the tone of Katherine Mansfield’s letters changes quite dramatically. Her frustrations are often replaced by notes of calm acceptance. In the fall of 1920, she went to a medical retreat in the mountains of northern Italy, where she experienced a premonition of death. To Murry, she wrote: “I believe the greatest failing of all is to be frightened. Perfect Love casteth out Fear.” (Hankin 313). In a subsequent letter, she elaborates:
I realize what salvation means and I long for it. Of course I am not speaking as a Christian or about a personal God. But the feeling is… I believe (and VERY MUCH) – help thou mine unbelief. But it’s to myself I cry – to the spirit, the essence of me – that which lives in Beauty. (Hankin 316)
After three years, Mansfield was experiencing a new kind of religion – one that seemed more powerful than death. As she withdrew into satisfied solitude, Murry despaired that now he was the one being left behind. “Remember my fear,” he pleaded, and “help me to fight it” (Hankin 361). In December 1922, she reassured him that “we are marching along parallel paths – parallel paths which converge, and that the day is not so terribly far distant when we shall be ready for one another” (Hankin 397).
In subsequent letters, the couple exchanged thoughts about their respective studies in mysticism. The dialogue prompted Mansfield to invite her husband to visit her at the institute. On January 9, 1923, he arrived and was amazed to find the woman he loved completely transformed:
Before I had time to kiss her the thought passed through my head. Something has happened. By that “something” I meant something decisive in the spiritual struggle in which she had been engaged. She had changed profoundly in the three months since I had seen her; she seemed unearthly, and I had never seen anyone more lovely than she appeared to me that day. (God 22)
The couple spent the day together; to Murry it seemed like a new beginning. That night, Katherine Mansfield suffered a massive pulmonary hemorrhage, and died.
Following his wife’s death, Murry withdrew from the social world. After a few short months of solitude, he was consumed by an overwhelming fear: “I felt that I was required to do or endure something now, from which I could no longer escape” (God 26-27). On June 23, 1923, he spent an entire night sitting alone by his fireplace. It was there – at the point of complete surrender – that he had a personal experience that changed his worldview:
I became aware of myself as a little island against whose tender shores a cold, dark boundless ocean lapped devouring… a moment came when the darkness of that ocean changed to light, the cold to warmth; when it swept in one great wave over the shores and frontiers of myself, when it bathed me and I was renewed; when the room was filled with a presence, and I knew I was not alone – that I never could be alone any more, that the universe beyond held no menace, for I was part of it, that in some way for which I had sought in vain so many years, I belonged, and because I belonged I was no longer I, but something different, which could never be afraid in the old ways or cowardly with the old cowardice. (“Month” 43)
Later, Murry explains that the “presence” he felt in the room was “connected” to Katherine Mansfield. He adds, “I was immediately and deeply convinced that ‘all was well with her’” (God 30). Murry did not use this last phrase – “all was well” – casually. Having studied mysticism, he knew that the Christian mystic Dame Julian of Norwich had used a similar phrase on her deathbed, to describe her personal experience of Union with God: “All is well and all manner of things shall be well.”
After his mystical experience, Murry did not become a Christian – at least, not in the traditional sense. He believed in the teachings of Jesus, but he did not accept the Christian dogma that Jesus was divine. He concluded that Christianity was an “accidental accompaniment” of the mystic’s experience of One-ness (God 34). In a July 1923 essay, he made a distinction between religion and faith
It seems to me that the essence of a truly religious attitude is to be serious about life… The man who seeks, with the whole force of his being, a way of life which shall be in harmony with his own deepest experience, is the religious man. It does not matter whether he finds a way of life that is in accord with any known religion. There are two things, and two things alone, which distinguish the truly religious man – the passionate search for a way of life, or the truth, as some prefer to call it; and the loyalty to his own experience by which the search is governed. (“Religion” 57)
Murry also felt compelled to re-formulate the question “Does God exist?” To him, the more appropriate question was: “Is there a harmony in this various, contradictory, and pain-ridden world of ours?” (“Significance” 132). His answer was yes; his personal experience had convinced him of that. He was equally convinced that religious dogma was a poor substitute for religious experience; his professions of personal belief turned into criticisms of the Anglican Church. When an offended reader complained, Murry wrote, “I believe that faith must be offended if we are to have any real religion in this generation” (“Religion” 65). One month later, he was engaged in an ideological war with T.S. Eliot, who was then hovering on the verge of conversion to the Anglican Church.
3. The Question of Loyalty
Though Eliot and Murry seem to be completely at odds with each other in their public debate, their private correspondence reveals a mutual acknowledgment of striking similarities in their lives and thought processes. Murry, who had been indirectly “saved” by the death of Katherine Mansfield, urged Eliot to save himself, even at the expense of Vivien. “Live,” he says, “and let come what may. One of you two must go forward. It can’t be V[ivien]. She can only go forward by bodily death, in the state she is in now” (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 632). But Eliot’s situation was much more complicated than Murry made it out to be. Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Vivien wasn’t terminally ill. Eliot would have to abandon her, and that was no easy solution for a man who so strongly valued loyalty. Murry’s solitude was imposed on him by forces over which he had no control; Eliot had to will a change in his circumstances.
Eliot – who had studied mysticism with much more philosophical rigour than Murry – might have been longing for the same kind of reassuring experience that Murry had had on that solitary night by the fire, but his circumstances and his temperament wouldn’t allow it. He could not escape thoughts of Vivien, still alive and still suffering. He brooded endlessly on the idea that he had already spiritually murdered his wife by emotionally abandoning her, and he came to believe that he would be forever haunted for his disloyalty. More to the point, he believed that he deserved to be haunted. “I give her nothing to live for,” he confessed to Murry, and the implication is that Eliot feels as if he himself deserves nothing to live for (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 632). Murry, still not quite apprehending or acknowledging the difference between letting go of one’s dead wife and giving up on one’s living wife, once again counseled him to move forward:
Put resolutely away from yourself all sense of guilt for the past: put that responsibility on to the universe. You may, and must. There is no past, once you begin to live: then there is only the present. (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 636)
But Eliot could not escape his guilt. His salvation, if it came, could only be the product of God’s infinite mercy upon unworthy sinners. While Murry celebrated the birth of his first child with his new wife, Eliot contemplated his own new beginning: He would devote himself entirely to the Church, taking a vow of celibacy. Eliot didn’t formally make this commitment for another two years, but the public debate with Murry suggests that his resolve was already firm.
In one of his most revealing public statements, Eliot writes that “those of us who find ourselves supporting what Mr. Murry calls Classicism believe that men cannot get on without giving allegiance to something outside themselves” (“Function” 70). In clarifying his distinction between Inner Voice and Outside Authority, he adds, “If you find that you have to imagine it outside, then it is outside” (“Function” 71). This reads like a confession that the individual’s decision between organized religion and self-exploration, and by extension between Classicism and Romanticism, is an uncontrollable result of personal need. Eliot needed discipline and structure. Once he decides (or at least commits to the hope) that the Anglican Church can meet his needs, he seems to lose interest in the ideological debate with Murry. In Eliot’s mind, the matter has been decided.
To an extent, the same thing can be said of Murry. A year before the public debate, he had already professed his need for experience:
I was made what I am by powers over which I have had no real control; I was destined to be one of those who cannot take things on trust, who have to know for themselves. And, I admit, I find it hard to understand those who are unlike me in this respect. I have to know that a thing is wrong before I can believe it is wrong; I have to know that a thing is true before I can believe it is true. (“Introduction” 10)
In Murry’s mind, personal belief could not be authentic unless it was the result of personal experience; dogma was no substitute. “It is inconceivable and unimaginable,” he wrote in 1924, “that any human being should believe in the dogmas of the Christian Church in the same way that I believe in the existence of God and of my own soul” (“Religion” 194). Whereas Eliot seemed happy to drop the subject after his conversion, Murry remained obviously baffled and troubled by his friend’s decision. He simply couldn’t understand how a man like Eliot – a reasonable man whose mind, it seemed, was so very much like his own – could be satisfied by the Church.
In later years, Murry suggested that Eliot’s faith was inauthentic – that he didn’t really believe what he claimed to believe. Murry also continued his attacks on Christian dogma, which he said had once been necessary for social order, but was now detrimental to the process human evolution. In his 1928 book Things to Come, he declared that Christianity “was killed nearly 400 years ago: Anglo-Catholicism is a sort of belated death-rattle” (“Truth” 153). Eliot chose not to respond, perhaps because Murry’s criticism was beginning to sound its own death-rattle. By the end of the decade, Murry was at best a marginal figure in the world of English letters; at worst he was a social pariah. One of Eliot and Murry’s last public exchanges was a short debate over their literary heroes. Eliot claimed that the most significance difference between Shakespeare and Dante is that Dante had a “coherent system of thought behind him” – namely, the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas – and Shakespeare didn’t (“Dante” 116). Murry, clearly annoyed, refuted the statement:
Shakespeare does not express any systematic philosophy at all; and no one before Mr. Eliot has ever suggested that he did. The view of life which he expresses is certainly not inferior to that which Dante expresses. […] in my opinion the philosophy of the Shakespeare line is superior because it is purified of all theological illusion. The decision lies simply between Christianity and Reason. (“Eliot” 13)
The decision is simpler, and more complex, than that. It lies not between two ideologies, but between two minds. In a private letter to Murry, written in late 1925, Eliot writes that “one must either ignore the Church, or reform it from within, or transcend it – but never attack it… If one discards dogma, it should be for a more celestial garment, not for nakedness” (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 734). After all of their debating, Murry thought that Eliot was a liar and Eliot thought that Murry was a fool. For the time being, they simply could not understand each other.
4. Between Two Minds
At first glance, this seems to be the end of the religious debate between T.S. Eliot and John Middleton Murry. Murry’s reputation crumbled fast, as he himself acknowledged in 1928: “Nowadays you can be orthodox and fashionable, or sceptical and fashionable. You cannot be what I am and be fashionable” (“Preface” 6). He remained an “unfashionable” believer for the rest of his life; Eliot meanwhile became the preeminent poet and literary critic of his time, and an outspoken advocate of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. In later years, however, Eliot began to sound more and more like Murry. Human love plays an inciting role in his poetic masterpiece, Four Quartets, which concludes with the words of Dame Julian of Norwich: “And all shall be well / And all manner of things shall be well.”
A few short years after the publication of Four Quartets, and the end of the Second World War, Vivien Eliot died in a sanitarium. She hadn’t seen her husband in twelve years, but one may imagine that she recognized a fragment of herself in the Four Quartets. During the time of Murry and Eliot’s public debate, Vivien had written a short letter to Murry, taking a sly jab at his hyper-masculinity – perhaps to remind him of the role that his wife played in his religious experience. “Can’t there be a God,” Vivien asks him, “yet not a God the Father? The latter idea may have been created by Christ but there may still all the same be a God whom He could not conceive” (V. Eliot, Letters Vol. II 723). Eliot appears to have accepted this idea -- on some level -- based on his appreciation of Dame Julian.
Julian redefines the Holy Trinity as God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Holy Spirit. Like Murry, she suggests that it is in Jesus’s humanity rather than his divinity that we can perceive our connection to God; Christ acts as a mother of mercy. She goes on to say that human love is our first experience of God, the first step toward mystical union. It is a process, her teachings suggest, like evolution. Murry intuited this in 1924, when he anticipated “moments of calm” in his life, ever increasing until “our knowledge is an abiding possession and an enduring peace is in our soul” (“Lost” 303). Eliot had the same intuition -- of a stillness that is also dancing –--in his own time. Both men, according to their needs, saw a moment when two seemingly irreconcilable worlds merge perfectly and completely, on earth as it is in “heaven.” The same vision appears in Katherine Mansfield’s final story – a vision of her own death and rebirth:
She was part of her room – part of the great bouquet of southern anemones, of the white net curtains that blew in stiff against the light breeze, of the mirrors, the white silky rugs; she was part of the high, shaking, quivering clamour, broken with little bells and crying voices that went streaming by outside, – part of the leaves and the light. (Mansfield 193)
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