By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published April 25, 2013
As a Georgia native with deep roots in this state, I was especially proud of David P. Talley’s appointment to auxiliary bishop.
As I read the articles that put Bishop Talley’s remarkable life into context, I was particularly struck by his reminiscence that he discovered Catholicism through reading Thomas Merton’s classic “The Seven Storey Mountain,” for that is the same text that also led me—and countless others—into the Church.
But I was most pleased with what Bishop Talley said he subsequently learned from Merton and other Catholic writers: “The intellectual life and the aesthetic life were blessings from God. They were not to be shied away from, but to be manifest and magnified. I had not heard that before in relation to spirituality, in relation to Christianity. That was inspiring to me.”
It is inspiring to me, as well, and continues to be. Indeed, as this belief informs almost everything I do in my professional vocation as an academic and educator, I could not help thinking as I read Bishop Talley’s words of one of my favorite spiritual writers, the great Anglo-Catholic poet T.S. Eliot.
It’s only natural, I suppose, to think of Eliot in April, what he famously termed “the cruelest month,” but as April is also National Poetry Month, it is even more fitting to associate him with spirituality and conversion.
That we associate Eliot with Christianity, let alone profound spiritual conversion, is almost remarkable.
Eliot was born on the 26th of September in 1888 in St. Louis. After a young life in which he displayed his remarkable intellectual gifts, he graduated from Harvard in 1909. Following a short stay in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy; during his studies, he developed a particular interest in Buddhism, perhaps as a reaction against his rather staid Unitarian upbringing. By 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, Eliot had returned to Europe and settled in London. Except for occasional travel, he never left England; it became his geographical and spiritual home, and he later became a British citizen.
Eliot’s early years in Britain were both terrible and successful. He married Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915, and the marriage was doomed almost from the beginning. Vivien suffered severe mental illness, and the burdens of caring for her brought Eliot himself to a nervous breakdown. By 1922, Eliot had begun to separate himself from Vivien, and for the next 11 years the marriage was one of severe estrangement; by 1933 the separation seemed irreconcilable, but Eliot refused to divorce. Vivien eventually was committed to a mental institution; though she and Eliot never officially divorced, their entire marriage was essentially a long and agonizing separation. Vivien died, in a private mental institution, in 1947, the year before Eliot won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Yet even as Eliot’s personal life was tragic, his artistic life was full of successes that make him stand as one of the most influential major writers of the twentieth century. In 1917, Eliot published his first major poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in Harriet Monroe’s provocative magazine “Poetry.” The poem appeared largely because of the influence of Eliot’s early mentor Ezra Pound, who asserted to Monroe that Eliot, unlike many other American expatriates of the era, had essentially “modernized himself” in private.
The figure of Prufrock often strikes readers as a portrait of Eliot himself at the time—withdrawn, anxious, and tormented. Eliot was in fact happy to work as a bank clerk at Lloyds of London, quietly editing little magazines and working on the masterpiece that would become perhaps the most important poem of the modern era, “The Wasteland.” At the same time, he was suffering a nervous collapse that was also leading him to a spiritual conversion, though he did not fully realize it at the time.
“The Wasteland” appeared in 1922, and immediately became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. The poem describes a modern world on the brink of destruction, fragmented culturally, historically, and socially. Language itself is sick. The Prufrock who lamented that “it is impossible to say just what I mean,” assumes a voice here that at times borders upon the schizophrenic. Languages, texts and time itself are interwoven in a collage of memories and myths that reveal the collective modern consciousness as dying, if not already dead. And yet, even in the midst of the wasteland, Eliot seems to harbor some small hope. The last lines of the poem—“Shantih, shantih, shantih”—should be translated, according to Eliot, as “The Peace which passeth understanding.”
Eliot’s next major poem in 1925 was “The Hollow Men,” which echoed the despair of “The Wasteland” in its final assertion that “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” Yet the speaker of “The Hollow Men,” though he is a “stuffed man … headpiece filled with straw,” knows he is in despair, and cannot quite distance himself from the benediction to the Lord’s Prayer, “For Thine is the Kingdom.” As Kierkegaard described it, the true quality of despair is an unawareness of despair. In “The Hollow Men,” Eliot is fully aware of the problem; he just doesn’t quite know how to solve it.
In 1926, while on a visit to Rome, Eliot’s growing attraction to Christianity became more fully apparent when he fell to his knees in prayer before Michelangelo’s Pieta. The following year, seeking to renounce what he called “the void,” and trying to reconcile his “profound skepticism” with “deep faith,” Eliot formally converted to the Anglican Church. For the rest of his life, he described himself as an Anglo-Catholic, as well as a “classicist and royalist.” In that same year, 1927, he also became a British citizen.
“Ash Wednesday” was published in 1930 and represents the convert’s dilemma in the context of an age that lacks any spiritual consensus. In the midst of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the speaker is confronted with the admonishment to turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel, but he can only affirm his doubt that he will ever be able to change. Throughout the poem, Eliot references the Virgin Mary through allusions to the Hail Mary, the Salve Regina, and images of a mysterious lady; he alludes to the words of the Mass, “Lord I am not worthy but speak the word only”; he incorporates prayers of exorcism, “Suffer me not to be separated and let my cry come unto thee.” The fragmented language of “The Wasteland” still persists, but here it is a spiritual language, and the speaker tries to restore meaning and relevance to a vocabulary that modernity has decreed to be of no relevance.
Even in the sadness of the 1930s, with Vivien’s worsening illness, Eliot had a number of successes. In 1935, he produced his highly successful play “Murder in the Cathedral.” Other theatrical triumphs followed, including his play “The Cocktail Party.” His book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” became the basis for the smash musical “Cats.” But the greatest of his achievements was yet to come.
In 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, Eliot published the cycle of four long poems he called “Four Quartets.” It is the fullest expression of his deepest religious feelings and ideas. For me, it belongs firmly in the canon of 20th-century spiritual literature and can be read contemplatively for spiritual direction and affirmation. The poem confronts the paradox of permanence and change; time cannot exist without timelessness; there can be no order without chaos; no movement without stillness. And the stillness is the key. At the intersection of linear, chronological time—the time in which we all have to live—and eternal time, the time in which we all hope to endure, lies the still point. As Eliot describes it, “The light is still/At the still point of the turning world.”
The “Four Quartets” represents Eliot’s highest achievement because in the poem, he has finally succeeded in what he has tried to do throughout his continuing conversion: he has redeemed language. There are passages in the poem that are among the most beautiful in any literature in English. And yet, at the end of the poem, in perhaps its greatest passage, Eliot references, as he so often does, the language of someone else. In this case, it’s the English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich’s masterwork “The Revelations of Divine Love.” Eliot precedes Dame Julian with a final reference to the mystery of eternity and a beautiful meditation upon the Communion of Saints—“We die with the dying:/See, they depart, and we go with them./We are born with the dead: /See, they return, and bring us with them.”
Then the words of Dame Julian, as relevant to Eliot in World War II, as they were in the 14th century: “And all shall be well and/All manner of thing 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.”
Following Vivien’s death in 1947 and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1948, Eliot at last found peace in his life. He married Valerie Fletcher in 1957. The marriage was a happy one, and Eliot spent the last years of his life contentedly enjoying the personal fulfillment that had so long eluded him with Vivien. He lived quietly as an internationally renowned poet, critic and esteemed man of letters.
Eliot died on the fourth of January in 1965, and was buried in the cemetery at East Coker, the small English village from which his ancestors came, and which he claimed as his spiritual home in the poem by the same name in “The Four Quartets.” The epitaph on his tombstone, also from “The Four Quartets,” affirms forever the mystery of Eliot’s conversion and our own: “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”