Eliot the Enigma: An Observation of the Development of T. S. Eliot's Thought and Poetry

By Gray, Patrick Terrell | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Eliot the Enigma: An Observation of the Development of T. S. Eliot's Thought and Poetry


Gray, Patrick Terrell, Anglican Theological Review


The significance of T. S. Eliot's conversion to Christianity in its Anglican form in 1927 is still a point of contention among critics. Eliot sounded his conversion in the preface to his collection of essays For Lancelot Andrewca, stating he was "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion."1 Of these, Timothy Materer writes, "All three st[r]ands affirmed his belief in traditional order, but the key one of course referred to his 1927 conversion to the Christian faith, which indeed gave him a principle of order 'outside the self.'"2 Eliot's conversion, however, did not imply that his own critical faculties were now unneeded. In fact, according to Gordon Wakefield, "[Eliot] could not have been other than a high Anglican, for this form of Christianity made it possible for him to aim for what he said in 1947 was 'the highest goal of civilized man,' 'to unite the profoundest skepticism with the deepest faith.' "3

Yet a number of critics think that Eliot's conversion has been overemphasized, particularly in terms of its influence on his philosophy of criticism. As Richard Shusterman writes,

Though [Eliot] recognized that literary criticism must ultimately lead into and he supplemented by moral, social, and religious criticism, [he] did not use his Christian faith as a device or foundation to provide incorrigible certainty or absolute objectivity for his or any possible critical system. Unlike Berkeley and Descartes, Eliot did not invoke God to secure the possibility of permanently stable and absolutely objective knowledge of matters of this world.4

Shusterman does not elaborate, though, on what Eliot's Christian faith actually did do for his criticism and poetry. That something happened is agreed upon by all, but much ink continues to be spilled over what it actually did for Eliot the thinker and poet.

The fact that there is so much disagreement over Eliot's criticism and poetiy is perhaps due to how much Eliot himself expounded in such a thoroughly unsystematic way. If he owes any debt at all to German philosophers and theologians, he most assuredly did not glean anything from their style. As the contemporary poet Louise Gluck writes, Eliot's style "inclines to the suggested over the amplified."5 And when anything is merely suggested or implied, there is always room for confusion. A major purpose of this paper is to propose that one of the "suggestions" or "allusions" that runs throughout Eliot's work is a yearning for (the) Incarnation. We do not mean here a doctrinal formula such as the Chalcedonian definition, but we do mean what the Chalcedonian definition implies, namely a "yoking together" of two apparently disparate things (such as the humanity and divinity of Christ from a Chalcedonian perspective). This is not a new idea in Eliotic scholarship, nor is it to Eliot himself. Cleo McNeIIy Kearns points out that Eliot, in the Clark Lectures, "made clear how deeply he had always sought for 'incarnation' in the linguistic and extra-linguistic senses alike, and how closely he identified this quest with Dante's poetic and religious achievement."6 Indeed, Incarnation becomes a veritable via media for Eliot. In his "Notes towards the Definition of Culture," Eliot writes, "I spoke at one point of the culture of a people as an incarnation of its religion; and while I am aware of the temerity of employing such an exalted term, I cannot think of any other which would convey so well the intention to avoid relation on the one hand and identification on the other."7 Incarnation, then, becomes the pattern by which one is able to grasp the whole, and actually makes it possible to truly see the parts as they are meant to be, which is in relation to each other. As the Eliot scholar A. David Moody writes, this structure "is of course a dynamic process, genetic rather than skeletal."8

To say that Eliot's conversion solved the personal and philosophical struggles of his early years would be too simplistic, but if Incarnation is a pattern for which he strove throughout his career, it would seem logical that Eliot would then commit to a faith in which Incarnation is of its very essence. …

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