He was arguably the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century and a figure who changed world literature. He was also a dedicated Christian who embraced Anglo-Catholicism and would almost certainly be a member of the Roman Catholic Church if he were alive today. Thomas Stearns Eliot, was born in the United States in St. Louis in 1888, but became a British citizen by 1927 after moving to England in 1914.
Author of, amongst others, the poems Ash Wednesday, The Hollow Men, The Waste Land, Four Quartets and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the plays Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, T.S. Eliot was a dominant figure on the literary scene until his death in 1965.
After university studies in the United States, Eliot was awarded a scholarship to Oxford and became increasingly attached to English society. He married Virginia Haigh-Wood in 1915 and initially established an extraordinarily ordinary life as a schoolteacher, banker and occasional book reviewer.
It was his book reviewing and friendships with various authors that eventually led to his being appointed to the board of the publisher Faber and Faber.
In 1927, he converted to the Church of England and would remain a devout and dedicated Anglican all of his life. His Christianity was intensely traditional, in that he saw the English church as being directly descended from that founded by St. Augustine so many centuries earlier. It was as if, he argued, the Reformation was merely an internal and relatively trivial issue and that the Catholic church had never left and only been “nationalized.”
It was a view that held many within Anglicanism until the ordination of women and then, in recent years, the inexorable liberalism of so-called homosexual rights, environmental obsessions, anti-life mania and the virtual expunging of Christian doctrine.
If his faith life was solidifying, his marriage was ripping apart. He separated from his wife in 1933 and the poor woman would eventually die in 1947 in a mental hospital. Although she and Eliot were still married, he never visited her from her institutional commitment in 1938. It is to his lasting shame.
He was married for a second time in 1957, to Esme Valerie Fletcher, and this time the marriage was profoundly happy. Eliot died in 1965 of emphysema, but in those years given him, he wrote with a delicious passion. His output was limited, but of immense quality.
“My reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year,” he wrote to a friend. “The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”
Faith was invariably at the core of his work. In Ash Wednesday, for example, he writes of the difficulties faced by a former unbeliever as he moves closer to God. It was in many ways his conversion poem and as such, was criticized by some critics who were, even half a century ago, uncomfortable with such indiscreet religiosity.
His Four Quartets is considered by many to be his finest work and it led directly to his being awarded the Nobel Prize. It is comprised of four long poems – Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding. Each poem mingles the actual setting of each location with one of the four natural elements, as well as aspects of Eliot’s philosophy and spirituality.
Theology drenches the poem, with shadows of Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross and Dante flickering around phrases such as “the deeper communion” that the poet seeks so touchingly in the first of the four.
Murder in the Cathedral is a drama about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Beckett by a group of Henry II’s thuggish knights. Beckett was Archbishop of Canterbury in early medieval England and symbolized the rights of the church against the proud claims of the secular state.
Eliot’s Beckett is tempted by the Devil, but triumphs with, “Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain: temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
T.S. Eliot was as astute as he was lyrical. “We do not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in; but its fitting in is a test of its value – a test, it is true, which can only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible judges of conformity.”
Witty too. “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers,” and, “Time you enjoyed wasting is not wasted time.” Of his crafted art, he wrote, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
A man of all ages, a man of all times, a man of genius, a man of faith. A Christian hero, scholar, poet and gentleman. T.S. Eliot, greater than most who will succeed him and who write far from the anchor of God.
Michael Coren is a Toronto journalist and broadcaster