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Sunday, 11 January 2015

T.S. Eliot: Christianity, fragmentation and reconciliation

Robert Crawford, writing in The Guardian, explains how T.S. Eliot, once a subversive outsider, became the most celebrated poet of the 20th century – a world poet, who changed the way we think:

'Fifty years ago this month (after being nursed through bouts of ill health by his shrewd second wife, Valerie, who had been his secretary and who lived until 2012), TS Eliot died in London. He was by then no longer a young bullshitter but the incarnation of his art form. He was not just the most famous poet alive, but regarded (as many still regard him) as the finest poet of the 20th century. Internationally lauded, he had been awarded the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit. Adults knew him as the poet not just of “Prufrock”, but also of The Waste Land and Four Quartets; theatre audiences had flocked to his plays such as Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party at the Edinburgh festival, in London and on Broadway; at home and at school, children relished “Macavity”, one of the poems from his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, just as eagerly as later audiences have delighted in Cats, the musical based on those poems. On 4 February 1965 Eliot’s memorial service filled Westminster Abbey.'

Crawford writes that 'Eliot remains one of the greatest religious poets in the language, and that, too, has added to his global reach as well as enriching his adopted and adapted European sensibility.'

Barbara Reynolds has described the way in which Eliot, in his essay ‘The Idea of a Christian Society’, visualised “the setting up of a Community of Christians, of clergy and laity, who shall speak with authority contesting heretical opinion and immoral legislation, individually and collectively setting themselves to form the conscience of the nation”. She has also described how Dorothy L. Sayers seized on this idea and used it as the basis of her book, Begin Here. The idea is not just representative of Sayers’ activity though, but also of Eric GillC.S. Lewis and Eliot himself in the books, broadcasts and lectures that they produced throughout the war years.

Eliot was linked with other writers inspired by Christianity including Christopher FryDavid Jones, Sayers and Charles Williams: Eliot published and wrote introductions to the work of Jones and Williams; Eliot, Sayers and Williams shared a common love of, and wrote on, the work of Dante; Eliot, Fry, Sayers and Williams all wrote drama for the Canterbury Festival, which was initiated by George Bell; Bell also held several conferences on art and the church and again Eliot, Sayers and Williams were involved; Eliot, Fry and Williams were part of the Verse Drama movement; while, Jones and Williams shared a love of the Arthurian legends – Jones critiquing Williams’ work in The Arthurian Torso.

Crawford comments that 'Poetry in a complex era had to reflect, or at least refract, a sense of complexity.' The complexity found in Eliot refers both to his understanding of his complex era and also to his sense of the place of tradition in the present. Eliot uses fragments of literature drawn from across tradition to map out the place of "stony rubbish" and of:

"A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water"

which is the waste land.

The Waste Land, as a poem, does not accept the waste land that it describes. The narrative movement of the poem is towards escape, the finding of the water that will renew life. Eliot's intention was to "shore up" fragments against the ruins; in other words, to the extent to which he was able, to reconstruct. His seemingly disparate fragments include the Bible, the Grail legend, the 'Golden Bough', Tarot cards, Shakespeare, Dante, Buddha's Fire Sermon and many more. All are linked, all are reconciled, in the structure and content of a poem whose narrative thread articulates a rejection of and movement away from the sterility of twentieth century life.

The same impulse can be found in the poetry and paintings of David Jones. Jones said that he regarded his poem, The Anathemata: "as a series of fragments, fragmented bits, chance scraps really, of records of things, vestiges of sorts and kinds of disciplinae, that have come my way by this channel or that influence. Pieces of stuffs that happen to mean something to me and which I see as perhaps making a kind of coat of many colours, such as belonged to 'that dreamer' in the Hebrew myth."

Jones believed that objects, images and words accrue meanings over the years that are more than the object as object or image as image. Therefore all things are signs re-presenting something else in another form. Recessive signs which re-present multiple signification are what Jones aims to create in works such as The Anathemata and 'Aphrodite in Aulis'. Jacques Maritain suggested that such multiple signification is what creates joy or delight in a work of art as “the more the work of art is laden with significance … the vaster and the richer and the higher will be the possibility of joy and beauty”.

'Aphrodite in Aulis' is full of Jones’ preoccupations: “the Grail, the Lamb, the soldiers (Greek and Roman, Tommy and Jerry), Doric, Ionic and Corinthian architecture, the moon, the stars and the dove.” These disparate ideas and images are held together firstly by Jones’ composition with the whole painting revolving around the central figure of Aphrodite and secondly by his line which meanders over the whole composition literally linking every image. By holding these images and what they signify together in this way, Jones is able to create an image that both laments the way in which love is sacrificed by the violence and aggression of macho civilisations and also, through his crucifixion imagery, to hold out the hope that love may overcome that same violence and aggression.

Writers like Eliot and Jones chose to explore aspects of coinherence and relationality at a time when progress was achieved through specialisation and when World Wars were undermining belief in human brotherhood. Relationality, however, was fundamental to their vision enabling them to explore the links between past, present and future within works that aimed at being holistic and reconciliatory.


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