Sunday, April 28, 2013

T.S. Eliot and The Art of Religion

This is the eighth and final in a series of short essays that I have written and posted on this blog about T.S. Eliot and religion, prompted by recent publications of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project.  These essays are 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.  

I have hesitated for several weeks to conclude this latest phase of my ongoing study of T.S. Eliot.  Re-reading my recent essays, I feel frustrated by the fact that they are simply notes toward an understanding of Eliot's Christianity.  Although I have learned much, my research has not led me to an illumination regarding Eliot or regardng religion, and I sense that I still have much more work to do.  I think, however, that I may have gone as far as I can go for now.

There is one idea that I keep coming back to recently, and it's what one might call "the art of religion."  When I wrote my book on T.S. Eliot a few years ago, I approached the subject first and foremost as an artist.  Up to 1927, Art seems to be Eliot's God.   After 1927, religion does not replace art in Eliot's mind.  Rather, the two things seem to become almost indistinguishable.  Eliot did not go on to write self-satisfied "Christian poetry," though certainly there is plenty of Christian symbolism in his poetry.  Furthermore, although he professed to be an Anglo-Catholic, he did not pretend to be able to even define that term.  His religious journey was ongoing.  So what does it really mean to say that T.S. Eliot acquired belief in 1927?  What did it mean for him?

I humbly offer some notes toward an answer:

#1.  Belief is rooted in experience, not simply in understanding.

"Our loves, our hates, our hopes, our despondencies, our pleasures, our pains are not revealed to us by inspection of them as presented objects but by living through the experience of loving, hating, hoping, despairing and the like.  It is only after we have learned by living through them what these experiences are that we can artificially, if we like, contrive to put ourselves in the position of the observer with a microscope and look on at the expressions of personal mental life in another, or even in ourselves, as if it were a presented object." - Alfred Edward Taylor in Essays Catholic and Critical (1926)

"The poet makes poetry, the metaphysician makes metaphysics, the bee makes honey, the spider secrets a filament; you can hardly say that any of these agents believes: he merely does." - T.S. Eliot, "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca" (1927)

#2.  Belief is an Art, not a Science.

"The language natural to Religion is more closely akin to Art than to Science [...] Poetry and Art, whenever truly great, are things age does not stale.  In that they are unlike Science.  In the sphere of scientifical 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." - B.H. Streeter, Reality: A New Correlation of Science and Religion (1926)

"Poetry is not a substitute for philosophy or theology or religion, as Mr. Lewis and Mr. Murray sometimes seem to think; it has its own function.  But as this function is not intellectual but emotional, it cannot be defined adequately in intellectual terms.  We can say it provides 'consolation': strange consolation, which is provided equally by writers so different as Dante and Shakespeare." - T.S Eliot, "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca"(1927)

#3. Belief is a matter of constant Work and (at least in the beginning) conscious Willpower.

"If my conscious mind believes in God but I am forever anxious for the morrow, it is because my subconscious mind does not believe.  The subconscious mind is always learning from the conscious, but it both learns and forgets more slowly.  And the lessons it takes to heart most deeply are not the purely intellectual notions of the conscious minds, but the values and emotions associated with them.  A man, for instance, may believe with his conscious mind that God is good and men are brothers, but only if he plans and acts towards the Universe and man as if these things were true, will his subconscious mind believe them also [...] Let us, then, select what our intellect at its keenest sees to be most true, what our insight at its acutest to be most beautiful or best, and meditate on this." - B.H. Streeter

I cannot think of a better note to end on than this, so I'll repeat it:

A man may believe with his conscious mind that God is good and men are brothers, but only if he plans and acts towards the Universe and man as if these things were true, will he truly believe with every fiber of his being. 


  1. This has been an interesting series to read, Joe. I learned some things along the way, although you (and Paul) are way over my head in understanding this level of scholarship.

    Seems like all your projects are wrapping up. Hope you have a new obsession in the works. Everybody needs a hobby. ;-)

  2. Thank you, Terri. I'm not sure I've achieved what I hoped to achieve with this series... or that it reflects "scholarship" so much as a stubborn desire for better understanding. Whatever the case, I have learned a lot and I'm grateful that you have been willing to take the time to follow my rambles.

    I'm already hard at work on two new books -- both film studies. No shortage of obsessions here.