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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

T.S. Eliot, St. Matthew, and JPII

On Eliot's Friends

The Ex-patriot poet Eliot worked at Lloyd’s Bank in London from 1917-1925[1].   Upon leaving, he published his more famous Waste Land, but I have come to thoroughly enjoy his Choruses from the Rock.  Especially on this feast of St. Matthew, who was himself called from “el banco” to follow the Word Incarnate, I find Eliot’s story fascinating.   He says in the Rock:

We will build with new timbers/ Where the Word is unspoken[…]/ When the Stranger says: “what is the meaning of this city?/ Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”/ What will you answer? “We all dwell together/ To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?/ Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger./  Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

St. Matthew rose and followed “the Stranger/ the Word”.  Eliot did the same, though in sickness, heartache and feeble attempts at marriage and family life.  He may have known well the words of Jesus: “Those who are well need not the Physician, but the sick do” as his health deteriorated after the death of his father:

Yet the years of Eliot's literary maturation were accompanied by increasing family worries. Eliot's father died in January 1919, producing a paroxysm of guilt in the son who had hoped he would have time to heal the bad feelings caused by his marriage and emigration. At the same time Vivien's emotional and physical health deteriorated, and the financial and emotional strain of her condition took its toll. After an extended visit in the summer of 1921 from his mother and sister Marion, Eliot suffered a nervous collapse and, on his physician's advice, took a three month's rest cure, first on the coast at Margate and then at a sanitarium Russell's friend Lady Ottoline Morell recommended at Lausanne, Switzerland[…] Whether because of the breakdown or the long needed rest it imposed, Eliot broke through a severe writer's block and completed a long poem he had been working on since 1919. Assembled out of dramatic vignettes based on Eliot's London life, The Waste Land's extraordinary intensity stems from a sudden fusing of diverse materials into a rhythmic whole of great skill and daring.[2]

Only after he passed through the Waste Land (1922) did he stumble upon the Rock (1934).  His wife loved his tenure at Lloyd’s, as it was conducive to family life and stability.  He himself spoke highly of it at times, despite pressure from his communist peers to abandon it (esp. Ezra Pound) [2b].  Unlike other radical poets of those days, Eliot had the combination of business and art at his disposal.  However, the time came in what appeared to be a prolonged conversion for Eliot (not to communism!), immediately following his sickness:

A lucky chance allowed him to escape from the demands of his job at the bank. Geoffrey Faber, of the new publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), saw the advantages of Eliot's dual expertise in business and letters and recruited him as literary editor. At about the same time, Eliot reached out for religious support. Having long found his family's Unitarianism unsatisfying, he turned to the Anglican church. The seeds of his future faith can be found in The Hollow Men, though the poem was read as a sequel to The Waste Land's philosophical despair when it appeared in Poems 1909-1925 (1925). In June 1927 few followers were prepared for Eliot's baptism into the Church of England. And so, within five years of his avant-garde success, Eliot provoked a second storm. The furor grew in November 1927 when Eliot took British citizenship, and again in 1928 when he collected a group of politically conservative essays under the title of For Lancelot Andrewes, prefacing them with a declaration that he considered himself a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion."[3]

He followed the Word from despair to hope.

Not long after the Rock, Eliot also published a Catholic play based on the life of St. Thomas Becket.  Murder in the Cathedral marked the proof of a profound change of his worldview.  It’s no wonder that these later works of his are not recognized in the secular canon.  But in the life of the Church, they are small memorable and instrumental steps in re-uniting the Anglican to the Catholic Church.  St. John Paul II said of St Thomas Becket:

In making my pilgrimage to the shrine of the martyr, Saint Thomas Becket, I sought to play a part in healing the terrible wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ in the sixteenth century. We prayed together there, Your Grace and I, for that wholeness, that fullness of life in Christ which is God’s gift of unity[…] My pilgrimage to Canterbury was motivated by obedience to the will of Christ our Lord who, on the night before he died prayed “that they all may be one”. Today the divisions among Christians require that the primacy of the Bishop of Rome should also be a primacy in action and initiative in favour of that unity for which Christ so earnestly prayed. I see our celebration of Evening Prayer together as a further moment in that ecumenical pilgrimage that Catholics and Anglicans, together with other Christians, are called to make. Our goal is to discover once more that common inheritance of faith which was shared before the tragic sequence of events which divided Christian Europe four centuries ago.[4]

And again, Eliot and JPII intersect in the person of Emmanuel Mounier whom Eliot featured in his 1937 edition of his periodical The Criterion.  Eliot's French Catholic friend, Montgomery Belgion, introduced Eliot to Mounier:

By the January 1937 number of The Criterion (XVI, 63), a very incisive analysis of the fast-shrinking economic middle way is given once again by Montgomery Belgion in the “French Chronicle.” After observing that “To-day the French Right is as revolutionary as the Left,” Belgion points to a corrective third path, to be found in the work of Emmanuel Mounier. [2c]

And the footnote given for the above quote goes on to say:

In “The Need for Economic Personalism” can be found the major influence that Mounier’s work had on Karol Wojtyla’s development of the tenets that would become personalism: ‘Wojtyla and his Polish colleagues read Mounier with intense interest. In Mounier, they found the first philosophical account of the human intellect and intersubjectivity’ [2d]

I also recommend Wyoming Catholic College’s study of Eliot’s life in the light of Christian hope:

In my own life, I remember being at the bank in Westerville, OH when once a week I began to go to Mass at Mt. Carmel-St. Anne's Hospital.  There, I heard the call of the Divine Physician to fatherhood, and within the next nine months my first son was born at that same Hospital.  I was so familiar with the place, that the doctors thought I was on staff there! 

[1] http://www.lloydsbankinggroup.com/Our-Group/our-heritage/2015-our-milestone-year/250-years-of-lloyds-bank/did-you-know/
[3] http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/life.htm
[4] http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1989/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19890930_xxvi-domenica-per-annum.html

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