Sermon Worcester College 17th February 2013, Rev’d Dr. Jonathan Arnold
Luke 18: 9-14 and East Coker V from The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot was arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century and, in contrast to the atheism of Larkin and the ambiguous faith of Rilke as we have recently heard, he was a devout believer. An American who moved to the England in 1914 at the age 25 he became naturalised as a British citizen in 1927, the same year as his baptism by the Chaplain of Worcester College, William Force Stead. I am indebted to our Fellow in English, Dr. David Bradshaw for this information from his fascinating article on Yeats, Eliot and Stead, published in the College Record last year. When Stead arrived in Oxford in 1927 to become College Chaplain, he was already a friend of Yeats and Eliot. It was at the beginning of February 1927 that Eliot asked Stead for his `advice, information & [his] practical assistance in getting Confirmation with the Anglican Church.’ But Eliot was also keen for it to be kept secret for, as he wrote to Stead: ‘I hate spectacular “conversions”’.[i] Eliot was finally baptised (by Stead) and confirmed (by the Bishop of Oxford) at the end of June 1927.[ii] The Chaplain reminisced of the process in this way:
I can claim no credit for his conversion. But I did set up one milestone along his way — I baptised him…We had been having tea in London, and when I was leaving he said, after a moment’s hesitation,
`By the way, there is something you might do for me.’
He paused, with a suggestion of shyness.
After a few days he wrote to me, saying he would like to know how he could be `confirmed into the Church of England,’ a quaint phrase, not exactly ecclesiastical. He had been brought up a Unitarian, so the first step was baptism. I was living then at Finstock, a small village far away in the country, with Wychwood Forest stretching off to the north, and the lonely Cotswold hills all round. Eliot came down from London for a day or two, and I summoned from Oxford Canon B. H. Streeter, Fellow and later Provost of Queen’s College, and Vere Somerset, History Tutor and Fellow of Worcester College. These were his Godfathers. It seemed odd to have such a large though infant Christian at the baptismal font, so, to avoid embarrassment, we locked the front door of the little parish church and posted the verger on guard in the vestry.[iii]
Soon after, perhaps as a mark of gratitude, Eliot spoke at Worcester College to undergraduates of the `The Philistines’ Society, perhaps a precursor of the Woodroffe Society that we have now, although it was more of a literary society. Stead recalled this occasion too:
[Eliot] announced on arriving that he must have lost his notes on the train from London, perhaps a polite way of saying he had not prepared any; however, he would read us The Waste Land. The poem was not widely appreciated at that time and called forth some very foolish remarks. A few remain in my memory; one youth rose at the end and said,
`Mr. Eliot, did you write all that?’
`Well, I thought some of those words about the barge she sat in came from something else.’
Eliot responded with a pleasant smile that he was glad the point had been raised, and that as the speaker had recognized the passage, so he was sure others would understand these and some other well known lines as quotations used for the purpose of association. The reply was framed with such tact that the young man’s vanity would not be wounded if he was merely an honest dunce, yet if he was trying to be facetious, he would be quietly silenced. A discussion dragged along for some time until a round-faced youth bounced up and said,
`Mr. Eliot, may I ask a question?’
`Er–did you mean that poem seriously?’
Eliot looked non-plussed for a moment, and then said quietly,
`Well, if you think I did not mean it seriously, I have failed utterly.’
David Bradshaw writes that ‘In future years, many of Eliot’s non-religious friends and admirers would hold Stead accountable for what they regarded as Eliot’s post-conversion decline, and when he `visited Ezra Pound many years later, the poet told Stead that he had been responsible for “corrupting” Eliot’.[iv] The truth, however, is that culturally and ideologically Eliot and Stead had a great deal in common and their respective attraction to and profession of High Anglicanism simply drew them together even more closely.’[v]
If The Waste Land, written in 1922 is one of Eliot’s most famous poems, then the Four Quartets (of 1945) led to his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The four long poems were published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942). Each has five sections and each includes reflections on the nature of time in some important respect, be it theological, historical or physical, with constant references to Christian thought and traditions. He employs theology, art, symbolism and language of writers like Dante, St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.
Tonight we heard the fifth section of the second poem, East Coker, which takes its name from the village in Somerset, England, that was the home of Eliot’s ancestors and where he is buried. The poem concerns humanity, the natural order and the idea of renewal. It is the most explicitly Christian of the quartets and it also refers to the horror of war, so that the fourth section describes a hospital staffed by a “wounded surgeon” and a “dying nurse” where patients are not healed but are led through painful illness to death and a tenuous salvation. The section ends with a reference to Good Friday, a reminder that anything worthy must come through suffering, forbearance, and deferral to a higher authority. The final section of the poem again focuses on Eliot’s failure as a poet. He has wasted his youth and has only learned how to articulate ideas that are no longer useful. His life is a struggle to “recover what has been lost.” Finally, he settles for an unsatisfying earthly existence followed by the promise of darkness and death, in which he will finally find that “[i]n my end is my beginning.”
I chose this section because it speaks to me of the themes of Lent: a sense of our own inadequacies. Eliot does not emphasize Easter Sunday but Good Friday, for which humans bear responsibility. The hospital imagery and the emphasis on human malignity are obvious references to the European war raging while Eliot was writing. They also, though, represent his realization that human folly and the inability to see the larger designs behind history doom any human endeavors to failure. This applies particularly to his attempts at poetry, as set out in the last section:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
I like this sentiment, which emphasises the impossible task of articulating anything meaningful in art:
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
Eliot acknowledges that
As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
However, as the world becomes more baffling the more we experience of it, the more need there is for what Eliot calls, ‘a deeper communion’
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
Eliot lived through a time of two wars when the capacity of human beings to produce unimaginable suffering was revealed. Some commentators have thought that Eliot comes close to despair in his poem East Coker, but rather I believe, he acknowledges his own weakness, imperfection and fallibility as a human being, even in his own area of articulating words. It is in that state of realisation that he reminds me of the tax collector in our Gospel reading tonight: ‘the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Lent is a time for self examination, of our thoughts, our behaviour, our relationships, our habits, and our faith. Acknowledgement of our weakness, or in religious language, our sin, is an opportunity to stand before God, just as we are, baffled, perplexed and failing, but in the knowledge that, in God’s economy, it is those who are most aware of their need of God’s help, forgiveness and salvation, who will find him. Amen.
[i] Letters of T.S. Eliot, 3, p.404. See this same page for Stead’s reply and his likely allusion to Cobden-Sanderson’s recent baptism and confirmation.
[ii] See Letters of T.S. Eliot, 3, pp.412-13, 428-29, 543-44.
[iii] Alumnae Journal of Trinity College [Washington, D.C.], Winter, 1965, pp.59-66. Quote from pp.64-65.
[iv] Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p.172; Harper, p.29.
[v] D. Bradshaw, ‘Oxford Poets: Yeats, T.S. Eliot and William Force Stead’ Worcester College Record, 2012.