"Anglo-Catholic in Religion": T. S. Eliot and Christianity

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"Anglo-Catholic in Religion": T. S. Eliot and Christianity. By Barry Spurr. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2010. 325 pp. $52.50 (paper).

Many have wondered how serious T. S. Eliot was when he made his controversial claim in 1928, a year after he received baptism and confirmation in die Church of England, that he was "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." The eminent biographer Richard Ellmann suggested that Eliot, who had a wry sense of humor and enjoyed playing roles, had uttered this self-characterization "partly in jest." Virginia Woolf, a close friend of Eliot, surmised that his love affair with AngloCatholicism was simply a desperate therapeutic strategy to cope with his troubled marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Woolf quipped that he would "drop Christianity with his wife, as one might empty the fishbones after [eating] the herring" (p. viii). Even Helen Gardner, one of the most astute Eliot scholars, believed that he had misrepresented his religious faith when he labeled himself an Anglo-Catholic.

The Australian scholar Barry Spurr was keenly aware of Gardner's dismissive view of Eliot's alleged Anglo-Catholicism. In the preface of his new book, he tells the story of Gardner objecting to the title, "Anglo-Catholic in Religion," when he proposed using it for the Oxford thesis she supervised. Gardner maintained that the title conveyed an impression of Eliot's Christianity "that was too narrow" (p. ix). She insisted that Spurr change the title to the blander Christian Faith and Practice in the Later Life and Work of T. S. Eliot. In the end, Spurr convinced Gardner that Eliot's description of himself as "anglo-catholic in religion" was more accurate than she and most other scholars supposed. Readers of his book should be equally convinced.

The bafflement of Ellmann, Woolf, Gardner, and many others who have tried to understand Eliot's ideological positions is understandable. To a certain extent Eliot was, as Hugh Kenner called him, an "invisible poet." He tried to remain "within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence" like the "artist-god" in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Eliot wanted his poetry to be an escape from rather than an expression of his personality. Shy about exposing himself to the public, he believed one should "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," as he wrote in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." He also complained that language was a poor conduit for the complexities of his ideas and feelings. 'Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish," he lamented in "Burnt Norton." Even when he was at his most accessible and jovial - such as in the poems he wrote to his godchildren and collected in Old Possums Book of Practical Cats - he emphasized the "ineffable effable / Effanineffable / Deep and inscrutable" mystery of things. No wonder scholars found his beliefs elusive and confusing. …