Much already has been and will be said about T. S. Eliot this year, which marks a half-century since his death. Attempts to map his posthumous critical fortunes inevitably convey a downright Biblical patternthe uniform literary “Hosanna!” of the 1960’s morphing, by the 1990’s, into a collective “Crucify him!” The turnabout is well expressed by literary maven Cynthia Ozick, who displayed something of both attitudes in an exquisite essay entitled T. S. Eliot at 101. I recently came upon it in a 1989 issue of The New Yorker that I picked up for old time’s sake, flipping my way into a long lost digital dawn. Among the products there advertised was a phone so advanced that it functioned effectively without need for cords; a computer that could actually be kept in one’s own home; and a machine so technologically sophisticated (the Franklin Elementary Spelling Ace) that it even corrected spelling errors. Which is to say, it was some time ago.
“Eliot seemed pure zenith,” Ozick there reminisces, “a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary, fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon. . . .” But the kids of the late eighties, she informs us, know nothing of Eliot. “The bookish young have long had their wagons hitched to other stars.” Ozick then assures them of the wisdom of their ignorance. She denounces her fallen star, the “autocratic, inhibited, depressed, rather narrow-minded, and considerably bigoted fake Englishman.” Armed with the radiological insights of his most recent biographers, she exposes the bones of his private life (that Eliot’s poetry had already done much to reveal). Enervated by wounded admiration, she labels him “Eurocentric, obscurantist . . . parochial and sectarian.” Ozick’s article was followed by a series of denunciations by more literary authorities every few years or so, collectively extending the lease on Eliot’s disapproval into the present. I doubt the poet who wrote, “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” would be surprised.
That Eliot has been met with both palm branches and nails does not mean (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) we should campaign for his resurrection. “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” he wrote in Little Gidding, “And next year’s words await another voice.” His project, furthermore, is being pursued less by “the next Eliot” than by many religiously attuned stylists like him, such as (to name just a few) Scott Cairns, Christian Wiman, or Malcolm Guite. Nevertheless, the scorched earth of Eliot studies has given rise to surprising fecundity of late, and this is a good year to take notice. In a post-secular academic climate where there is much talk of the “religious turn,” Eliot’s career is being cast in a different, stained-glass light. Barry Spurr’s ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’ T. S. Eliot and Christianity is typical of the change, showing Eliot’s Christianity to be more paramount than parenthetical. For Spurr, the proposition that Eliot could be understood apart from his faith is “like taking away the gods from the classical authors.” Spurr unveils how the Anglican liturgy is the inspiration behind so many lines once chalked up to Eliot’s isolated poetic genius.
Reading Spurr’s monograph a few years back has given me the freedom to approach Eliot’s poetry in a new, and frankly more straightforward way: as a prayer manual in poetic form, similar to the Philokalia, Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection,or Ascent of Mount Carmel. This is not to limit Eliot to the genre of “religious poetry,” a narrow category Eliot sought to avoid. Instead, in the words of Russell Kirk, Eliot “had not demonstrated by his poems the truth of a creed; but he had shown, through imagery, how the believer comes to his belief.” And while Kirk’s insight applies to early work such as Ash Wednesday or Journey of the Magi, later works such as Four Quartets map a different terrain: the uphill climb of Christian discipleship. To choose a rather obvious example, the lines, “The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part,” might prompt one to address not only formal considerations, but also to ponder how Christ exposes and extricates our earthly attachments during the Season of Lent. Eliot’s work clearly invites such spiritual exercise, which the fragmented field of literary study no longer has the coherence, inclination, or authority to proscribe.
A term like “contemplative art” would be more appropriate to describe this type of venture than “fine art,” an Enlightenment category designed in part to evacuate aesthetic material of its religious content. Contemplative art involves examining the real with religious confidence, summoning the four elements to simultaneously value matter highly and pierce beyond it, extendingas Eliot put it“esthetic sensibility . . . into spiritual perception, and spiritual perception . . . into esthetic sensibility.” Or to borrow the words of John Henry Newman, this approach aims not only to wonder at the world, but to be weaned from it as well, “Till at length it floats before our eyes merely as some idle veil, which, notwithstanding its many tints, cannot hide the view of what is beyond it.” Contemplative art makes every place a thin place.
Perhaps Eliot’s inclination to contemplation explains why, as he approached his conversion, he repeatedly refused invitations to return to the prestigious Decades of Pontigny. These ten-day retreats for European literati were intended to form a “militant and secular order,” even while they met in a repurposed Cistercian monastery in central France. It was quite an invitation to refuse. Pontigny comprised a who’s who of European intellectual life, so legendary that attempts have been made to revive the “spirit of Pontigny” both in France and on this Continent. But as Eliot himself neared the same faith that inspired the monastery in the first place, discussing serious matters with furrowed brow in a cloister originally built for the antiphonal play of the Benedictine Psalter may have seemed less appealing than it once had been. Which is to say, Eliot no longer required the emptied shell of the contemplative tradition. He had found the thing itself.
Curiously enough, much of this was intimated in a different advertisement from that same 1989 issue of The New Yorker. Ozick may have therein denounced Eliot’s “backward longing for the medieval hegemony of cathedral spires.” But not far from those printed words, Spain’s tourism office took out a full-page display of Antoni Gaudí’s modern Gothic church, La Sagrada Familia, boasting of its “intricate stone carvings which eloquently convey the mystery and meaning of faith.” Anticipating the formula laid out in Eliot’s famous essay, Gaudí assimilated the Gothic tradition, and yet transformed it for a new day, creating an edifice that fused the child’s delight in a drip sand castle with the polychrome gravity of Saint Basil’s Church on Moscow Square. “And the Church must be forever building,” wrote Eliot in Choruses from The Rock, “and always decaying, and always being restored.”
Most of the technologies paraded in that 1989 issue have been outmoded, but not Gaudí’s church. The empty lunettes in the advertisement have since been filled, creating an ethereal, satisfyingly skeletal interior that makes the naked expanse of Amiens or Rouen seem dim by comparison. The completion date is set for 2026the centenary of Gaudí’s deathbut La Sagrada Familia has been formally dedicated. At the ceremony, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed that the architect helped to overcome “the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty.” This is what contemplative, as opposed to merely “fine” art, entails: rooted in the Church, but spilling, as Gaudí’s architecture does, into the parks, playgrounds and apartments of the world that surrounds it. Now that some of the controversy surrounding Eliot has settled, it seems clearer that contemplation is what he was afterand what the contemporary religious poets who have inherited his fractured mantle are after as well.
Matthew Milliner (@millinerd) is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.
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