The complaint of the Christian actress on Twitter reflects the tiredness of many with media which intentionally ignore matters of faith.
After searching and struggling throughout his life, Eliot finally surrendered to the “peace that surpasses all understanding”. In 1926 he converted to Christianity.
A century after his first book and half a century after his death, T.S. Eliot has come to be known as one of the major poets of the twentieth century.
He wrote: “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” This begins his poem “The Waste Land” (1922). This fragmented poem reflects the emptiness felt by this Nobel Literature Prize laureate, just before his conversion to Christianity.
The name of Thomas Stearns has gone down in history in those initials, T.S., always accompanying his surname. Eliot might seem to be quintessentially British, were it not for the fact that he was born in Saint Louis, the home of Blues, under the Missouri skies. He was the youngest of seven children of a Boston family established by a Calvinist who had emigrated to New England. His father ran a brick production business, and his grandfather had been a Unitarian preacher. He had been sent as a missionary to catholic St. Louis, but he became rector at Harvard and the founder of the University of Washington.
Eliot’s poetic inspiration seems to have come from his mother, who also wrote poetry. Eliot published one of her books dedicated to Savonarola. She was a religious woman, who applied a strict discipline based on self-denial to her children. As a result of this, Eliot always felt guilty for any pleasure, however harmless it might be. Suffering from a congenital hernia, the young Eliot discovered that, debarred from social activities, sports and games, the only pleasure he could find was in books. They did not make him feel any better about himself though. On the contrary, he was always keenly conscious of his sinful state and of his guilt. This made him prone to deep anxiety, dominated by scepticisms and disillusionment, and bereft of any peace.
TIME FOR INDECISION
Eliot lived through the beginning of a century which full of conflicts and changes, breading great uncertainty.
There will be time to murder and create
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions;
And time for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
(The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1917).
He studied at Harvard, where he obtained a degree in English literature in 1910. He then travelled to Europe, where he wrote “Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady”. At the Sorbonne, in Paris, he attended Bergson’s classes, together with a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado. He then returned to Harvard to do a doctorate in philosophy, taking an interest in Sanskrit and oriental religions. He was particularly attracted to Buddhism, but it brought him no peace. Neither could he find any criteria in his own thinking which could give him the objectivity needed to discover the Absolute that he sought in philosophy. He was at the German university of Marburg at the outbreak of the First World War and was obliged to leave the country, travelling to England where he continued his academic career in Oxford. To the war he lost his best friend, Jean Verdenal, as he watched European culture sink into the mire and blood of a long drawn-out trench war, which left a whole generation broken.
Unreal City, Under the Brown fog of a Winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many.(…)
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse that you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
(The Waste Land)
Although his doctoral thesis was accepted in Harvard, Eliot decided not to present it in, having had to cancel his travel plans at the last minute owing to the danger of crossing a sea full of German submarines. He saw this as some kind of sign, missing out on the title that he had worked towards, even though he was subsequently awarded many academic honours.
A DIFFICULT MARRIAGE
In 1915, shortly after they met, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Their marriage was particularly difficult. The story was taken to the cinema in the 1994 film, Tom and Viv, by the British director Brian Gilbert and starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson.
For a time, they shared their home with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who began a relationship with Viv. She was always nervous and suffered from bad health. Her emotional instability often made her hysterical. Russell described her as “a person who lives on a knife-edge”, which made him think that she would “end as a criminal or saint”. At that time, Eliot made his living out of teaching but was in serious financial difficulties. The situation became so serious in 1917 that he began to work in a bank in London, as well as teaching and editing a periodical entitled “The Egoist”. He was faithful to his wife, even though he often felt desperate…
“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think”
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones. (The Waste Land)
Virginia Woolf and her husband became friends with the Eliots and published his first book of poems in 1919. Eliot had tried to enlist in the American army, but he was rejected because of his hernia. His father, who had never approved of his literary career, died that year. He had never understood why his son chose to stay in England and he could not accept his choice of wife. He had as good as disinherited him.
At the end of the War, Eliot published two other poetry books and began working on “The Waste Land”, while collaborating with another literary journal. He continued to work at the bank, but Vivienne condition got increasingly worse, bringing her to the brink of crisis.
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock (…)
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you?
(The Waste Land)
The doctors ordered Eliot to spend some time resting by the sea, in Margate. Although he should have gone alone, he did not want to leave Vivienne. In the end, he had to take her to a sanatorium in Paris, before going to Lausanne, where with the help of the poet Ezra Pound, he managed to finish “The Waste Land”. This poem, published in 1922, became the voice of a whole generation, which felt “lost”.
On Margate Sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect Nothing
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest burning”
THE COST OF FAITH
In 1925, Eliot started working as an editor at the publishing house, Faber, which published “The Hollow Men”, a book of verses inspired by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. The novel is a staggering sketch of the human depravation which has inspired many authors, and the cinema director Francis Ford Coppola, who sets the story in Vietnam in Apocalypse Now (1979). Through this, Eliot showed that despite his keen awareness of sin, he had not yet made the step of faith, which would cost him “no less than everything”.
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
After searching and struggling throughout his life, Eliot finally surrendered to the “peace that surpasses all understanding”. In 1926 he converted to Christianity and was baptised in a small church near Oxford. Vivienne was not with him. She, along with many of their friends, were against it. Ezra Pound blamed the chaplain of Worcester College, William Stead, for having “corrupted” him.
Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister saying: “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality. And goes to church”. From this point, Eliot’s faith is essential in order to understand poems like the “The Journey of the Magi”
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
WONDER AT FORGIVENESS
Ash Wednesday is probably the best know public declaration of his faith. Edited in 1930, it precedes his first volume of essays, which he wrote before returning to the United States, where he continued teaching. At that point he took the difficult decision of leaving Vivienne, to whom he dedicated this book. She died at a sanatorium for the mentally infirm in 1947. Ten years later he married Valerie, his secretary.
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us (…)
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death (…)
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will(…)
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
His conversion did not give him an unwavering faith that filled him with joy; rather he continued to be somewhat introverted, sickly, doubtful and depressive. However, Eliot found the wonder of forgiveness. He trusted that through the blood of Christ he was free from sin and guilt. After a life dedicated to poetry, literary criticism and theatre, he finished off his career with his “Notes towards a definition of culture”, which show the Christian perspective through which he viewed the world.
He died in 1965 and was buried in the famous Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. He left these wastelands, having found the life-giving water springing from the Rock and amazed by the miracle of forgiveness.
We thank Thee who has moved us to building, to finding, to forming at the ends of our fingers and beams of our eyes.
And when we have built an altar to the Invisible Light, we may set thereon the little lights for which our bodily vision is made.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.
O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory!