How He Believed

Barry Spurr’s “Anglo-Catholic in Religion”: T. S. Eliot and Christianity takes its title from Eliot’s famous 1928 declaration that he was “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” Eliot’s proud assertion of his Anglo-Catholicism came as a shock to his contemporaries, many of whom (mistakenly) viewed The Waste Land (1922) as a pure expression of modernist agnosticism. Responding to Eliot’s 1927 conversion, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that Eliot was “dead to us all from this day forward,” as “there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” Even those more charitable than Woolf worried about Eliot’s religious beliefs. Had Eliot sacrificed his art on the altar of his faith? Could a modernist poet write devotional poetry and still be modernist?

Much has been written about Eliot’s conversion to Christianity, much less about his choice of Anglo-Catholicism in particular. Barry Spurr’s important book carefully examines why Eliot believed he could find a religious home not in Roman Catholicism, nor in the Protestantism of his forebears, but in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Spurr’s account, written at the suggestion of Eliot’s widow, is rich in contextual detail—in fact, it is almost as much about Anglo-Catholicism as it is about Eliot. Spurr describes Anglo-Catholicism’s sacramental theology, its veneration of the Virgin Mary, and its strange relationship to Rome through the years. Anglo-Catholics see themselves, Spurr writes, as “the exponent of the Catholic character of the Church of England”—not quite Anglican, not quite Catholic, residing forever in “a condition of ambiguity.” Anglo-Catholicism emphasized the Incarnation and the centrality of the Mass far more than what Spurr calls “easygoing Anglicanism”; yet its steadfast commitment to English culture and tradition kept it from going all the way back to Rome. 

Spurr traces Anglo-Catholicism back to Cardinal Newman and the Oxford Movement and examines its demographics (he disputes the notion that it was an enclave of the cultured elite). The movement grew rapidly during Eliot’s years of slow conversion: the number of attendants at the Anglo-Catholic congress went from 13,000 in 1920 to 70,000 in 1933. Spurr leavens his historical account with arresting details and anecdotes, as when he introduces us to the eccentric Fr. Eric Cheetham, of whom Eliot wrote: “He was a wonderfully jolly priest, the kind I always supposed G. K. Chesterton would have loved.... He had a miniature motor-bike to make his rounds, and used to say wistfully that he only wished he might have ridden it up the aisle, only the church would frown on him dispensing blessings from a Corgi.” 

Spurr believes that Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism was the culmination of “a logical progression. It was not a leap of faith.” The book is organized chronologically, following Eliot’s slow journey toward belief. Spurr begins by describing Eliot’s reaction against his family’s weak Unitarianism, which the poet saw as ignoring, in his words, “the evil which is present in human nature at all times and in all circumstances.” Spurr goes on to examine Eliot’s increasing devotion to the stately Anglican church of St. Mary Woolnoth (mentioned in The Waste Land), and how the nervous breakdown and daily sufferings brought on by his marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood served as Eliot’s own Calvary. Spurr relies heavily on previously unpublished letters between Eliot and Mary Trevelyan, a fellow believer and close friend for twenty years (she proposed marriage—and was turned down—on three occasions). Spurr argues that Eliot’s faith was real, powerful, and abiding. Eliot regularly fasted; stayed at the monastic house in Kelham, Nottinghamshire; prayed the rosary; and went to confession. In “Ash-Wednesday,” Eliot pleads, “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.” Spurr argues that Eliot’s life was just such an imperfect but constant journey toward charity, renunciation, and contemplation.

Over the past twenty years, a cottage industry has developed around the exposure of Eliot’s religious beliefs as a pretext for reactionary politics and anti-Semitism. At this point, the only remaining question about Eliot’s anti-Semitism is one of degree. In a 1933 lecture, the poet asserted that, in any society, “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” In “Gerontion,” a Jew is used to illustrate the squalor of modernity: “My house is a decayed house, / And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner, / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp, / Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.” The poem is a dramatic monologue, so we cannot assign these thoughts directly to Eliot. Still, the vision of the reptilian, materialistic Jew is hard to shake, especially when we encounter similar images in Eliot’s earlier satirical verse. We are confronted here with the same question that confronts any admirer of Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: How do we reconcile such careful expression with careless bigotry?

Scholars now seem less interested in this question than in showing how Eliot’s religious beliefs served as justification for his anti-Semitism, his support of Charles Maurras’s right-wing Action Française movement, or his defense of hereditary class divisions. The best of this revisionary scholarship has been a worthwhile corrective, but much of the criticism is merely reflexive: if Eliot mentions religious belief, then it must be in order to smuggle in his pernicious political or racial beliefs. Analytical subtlety is thus sacrificed for the frisson of exposure.

Spurr, on the other hand, approaches Eliot and his religious experience not with suspicion but with charity. He acknowledges, as any responsible critic must, that Eliot’s religious beliefs cannot be separated from his ideological leanings, but he also asserts that Eliot’s religion cannot be reduced to his ideological leanings. To borrow a formulation of Aquinas, a theologian dear to Eliot, the critic must distinguish without separation in order to unite without confusion. Spurr does this admirably, showing that Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism both reflected and helped constitute his aesthetics, his politics, and his social commentary. He discusses Eliot’s anti-Semitism, but only in an appendix. Revising the revisers, Spurr focuses on what Eliot’s religion meant and felt like to him.

A few parts of Spurr’s argument might have been better developed. Eliot read the work of contemporary neo-Thomist theologians like Martin D’Arcy and Jacques Maritain, recruiting both to write for the Criterion, which he edited from 1922 to 1939; but Spurr says nothing about this important theological context. I also wish his book engaged with Eliot’s poetry earlier and more often. In the last chapter, “Anglo-Catholic in Literature,” Spurr finds allusions to auricular confession and references to the English Missal in “Ash-Wednesday.” It’s exhilarating to see him bring his impressive knowledge of Anglo-Catholic liturgy to bear on some of Eliot’s most famous poems, and I couldn’t help wishing he had done more of this. But perhaps more close reading would have meant less history, and it’s finally the historical detail of Spurr’s study that makes it essential reading for anyone interested in the sources of Eliot’s religious belief and practice.

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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