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Of the significant influences on T. S. Eliot’s life and work, his Anglo-
Catholic religion is the most often misunderstood and misrepresented. The
reasons for this are, first, the failure to take the poet at his word in several
important statements that he made about his Christianity and, second, to be
informed about the particular variety of it that he embraced. We also need
to give careful attention to the ways in which his experiences of faith
made an impact on his poetry, thematically and technically.
Eliot announced, in 1928, that the position that he had adopted (with
regard to religion) was that of an “anglo-catholic”.1 It is necessary to be
clear about what that statement means and what it does not mean. Eliot, as
the trained philosopher, characteristically presents us with a precise
formula. And his declaration amounted to an unequivocal public
expression of allegiance to an increasingly conspicuous variety of faith
and practice in England in those inter-war years. Eliot was to remain
faithful to this for the rest of his life. He was not merely a “High Church”
Anglican; he had not, by embracing Anglo-Catholicism, joined the
“establishment” (quite the contrary, in fact), and he had not become, as
some confused commentators seem to believe, a “Catholic”, apparently
meaning to designate by that term a Roman Catholic. And, usually, people
speak of Eliot’s “conversion” to Christianity. Not only did Eliot not

“Preface”, For Lancelot Andrewes (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), ix.
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undergo a conversion experience, he firmly and repeatedly deprecated the

Being accurate about these matters is vital if we are to read aright the
poetry which derives from them.
The stubbornly persistent conversion theory, for instance, leads
commentators into crude misreading of Eliot’s poetry, propagating, for
example, the idea that Eliot “refashions himself from the poet of The
Waste Land into the Christian poet” with “an entirely new manner and
vision”.2 Rather, the continuities in Eliot’s oeuvre, thematically and
technically, are more remarkable than any striking change of manner and
vision as the result of a mid-career renunciation of his former life, ideas,
poetic preoccupations and manner. The incantatory voice, for example, of
which he is a master, persists throughout his work, being given, in the
later poetry, an added liturgical quality. So, too, does the motif of
journeying, questing, searching; from J. Alfred Prufrock in 1911, setting
out on his search for yearned-for romantic love and meaning; to the
querent of The Waste Land seeking redemption through the Holy Grail; to
the “old men” of the Four Quartets, who ought to be “explorers” (in “East
Coker”)3, and the voyagers and seamen of “The Dry Salvages” who must
not merely “fare well”, but “fare forward”.4
Indeed, the pre-conversion text, The Waste Land (1922), with its
dependence on the myth of the Grail and the Passion story, is at least as
much a “Christian” poem as Four Quartets, which is an extended
philosophical meditation on time and timelessness that is only
intermittently specifically Christian in reference (but then explicitly so, in
its emphasis in the Anglo-Catholic way, on the doctrine of the Incarnation,
the Word made flesh). In that later work, the sense of the wasteland
experience of modern men and women pointedly persists, even if it is now
punctuated with the possibility of an alternatively redemptive and
transcendental experience and domain.
My detailed biographical account of the sources and evolution of Eliot’s
Anglo-Catholicism has been recently published.5 We see there that the
poet’s interest in Christianity in general, and the Anglo-Catholic
expression of it in particular, was being formed well before his formal,
“Preface”, The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926-1927, eds Valerie Eliot and
John Haffenden (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), xiii.
“East Coker”, V, The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (London: Faber
and Faber, 1969), 182. All references to the poetry are to this edition, hereafter
cited as “CPP”.
“The Dry Salvages”, III, CPP, 188.
Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (Cambridge: Lutterworth,
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 3

sacramental reception in the Church of England (in his baptism and

confirmation in 1927) and the publication, in the same year, of what is
generally regarded as his first Christian poem, “Journey of the Magi”.
Apart from the negative influences of a youthful rejection of his
family’s Unitarianism; the realisation, after extensive study of Eastern
philosophical and religious systems at Harvard, that he was not going to
find an alternative spiritual home in those teachings; and many years of
agnostic despair, both of personal and universal dimensions, as expressed
in his first poems gathered in the collection, Prufrock and Other
Observations (1917); Eliot began to discern the appeal of Western
Catholic Christendom in early adulthood. This was a process by turns
intellectual, cultural, aesthetic and, in his private life, (with his intense
suffering in his first marriage and a deepening sense of individual
sinfulness), emotional and spiritual, too.
The initial appearance of the emerging poet’s interest in identifiably
Anglo-Catholic matters is to be found in a letter of 1911 (when the earliest
poems in the Prufrock collection were being written), as he lists (with the
enthusiasm of a young man after his first visit to London) the sights he has
seen for a friend at home, his cousin, Eleanor Hinkley. Written on Eliot’s
return from London to Paris, he delights in recording that he avoided the
conventional sightseer’s destinations:

I have just discussed my trip with the prim but nice English lady at the
pension. She said “And did you go through the Tower? No! Madame
Tussaud’s? No! Westminster Abbey? No! ...”

What is striking is his account (emphatically, copiously listed) of what he

did see:

I then said–do you know

St. Helens
St. Stephens
St. Bartholomew the Great
St. Sepulchre
St. Ethelreda [sic].6

All but the last (St Etheldreda, the Roman Catholic church in Ely Place,
Holborn) are Anglican City churches, scattered about that famous one
square mile. Eliot was being mischievous, both to the “English lady” and
his cousin, for he later points out that he did indeed visit such predictable
sights as the National Gallery and the British Museum, although, again,
26th April, 1911. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1 1898-1922, ed. Valerie Eliot
(London: Faber and Faber, 1988), 96.
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we notice that this later, less eccentric list includes the most important of
City churches, St Paul’s Cathedral.
While the young Eliot may have been as religiously unprepared for
what these churches had to offer him and were to offer him in the years to
come, like the worldly visitor he envisaged at the tiny church at Little
Gidding, more than thirty years later: “if you came by day not knowing
what you came for...’ (“Little Gidding”, I7), it is nonetheless remarkable
that he visited the churches, and so many of them.
The poet’s first encounter with several of these historic sacred places in
the midst of the commercial heart of the capital was destined to develop,
in the years of his work in the City at Lloyds Bank (from 1917 to 1925),
into a deep appreciation, expressed in both prose and poetry. Their
unobtrusive but potentially redemptive presence amongst men and women
who, like Phlebas the Phoenician in The Waste Land, were bound to “turn
the wheel” of commerce, stirred him to question whether (as he was to put
it later)

our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and
rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, [was] assembled round
anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies
and industries, and had… any beliefs more essential than a belief in
compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?8

A decade after Eliot’s initial encounter with the City churches, he

strongly criticised a proposal to demolish nineteen of them:

They give to the business quarter of London a beauty which its hideous
banks and commercial houses have not quite de-faced.... the least precious
redeems some vulgar street.... As the prosperity of London has increased,
the City Churches have fallen into desuetude.... The loss of these towers, to
meet the eye down a grimy lane, and of these empty naves, to receive the
solitary visitor at noon from the dust and tumult of Lombard Street, will be
irreparable and unforgotten.9

This was written six years before Eliot’s supposed conversion which
admitted him to the sacraments which those churches celebrated, and in
the period when he was drafting The Waste Land.
Eliot’s crucial words (and we should note the sequence) are “beauty”,
“redeems” and “receive”. He speaks of the churches’ aesthetic value

“Little Gidding”, I, CPP, 191.
The Idea of a Christian Society (1939; London: Faber and Faber, 1982), 82.
“London Letter”, The Dial, May, 1921, 690-1.
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 5

amidst the hideousness of the profane world; then of the way each
“redeems” the “vulgar street”. But, climactically and personally, he
records that they “receive” the “visitor”, which is itself another significant
word, for a visitor is not yet a member. Obviously, in this sense, he had
been such a visitor. But, in another meaning of the term, there is the idea
of churches being open to receive committed Christians who would visit
them (indeed, seek them out) for private prayer (apart from public
worship), reflecting the Catholic understanding of churches as consecrated
buildings, places of special holiness.
Particularly, if the Blessed Sacrament is “reserved” in a tabernacle in
the building, the devout experience not only the desire to make a visit, but
are encouraged to do so, in Catholic and Anglo-Catholic spirituality. This
is in order that the Real Presence of the Lord, thus reserved, might be
acknowledged and its special inspiration for concentrating the mind on
private prayer be drawn on, in addition to the formal occasions of public
worship in the liturgy itself. It is a meeting of the timeless with time.
As well, in Anglo-Catholic churches (unlike other Anglican churches
of less elevated churchmanship), there are usually shrines to saints,
notably the Virgin Mary, before which the visitor will light a votive candle
and make a brief prayer for her intercession in the course of a private visit
of this kind. Eliot’s concentration in his later poetry on the importance of
particular times and places where a spiritual experience has occurred
(“you are here to kneel / where prayer has been valid”10) indicates that he
placed a particular value on the availability of such places and
opportunities in churches and elsewhere. And the word “valid” in that
passage and context has a precise resonance, too, reflecting the importance
placed, in Catholic theology and Anglo-Catholic polemic (in which Eliot
occasionally engaged), on the valid offering of the sacraments through the
guarantee of a validly ordained priest and the use of the prescribed
liturgical prayers for that offering.
These Anglo-Catholic references and vocabulary in the poetry could
have resonances with his earliest life, too. The lyrical prayer in the third
quartet, “The Dry Salvages”, beginning, “Lady, whose shrine stands on
the promontory” recalls such commemorations of the Virgin as the church
and statue of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the fishing port of Gloucester,
Massachusetts, a sight familiar to Eliot during his boyhood holidays there.
Writing these lines in 1941, the committed Anglo-Catholic now fully
appreciates Mary’s role as Mediatrix and Regina Coeli, in lines of petition
that neatly conflate the mortal journeying of her Son (of whom she is also
the daughter) in his Passion and that of fishermen voyaging to the sea in

“Little Gidding”, I, CPP, p.192.
6 Chapter One

ships that may not return:

Repeat a prayer also on behalf of

Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.11

This lyric, in the form of a prayer to the Virgin, gives an insight into the
poet’s mature prayer-life as an Anglo-Catholic. And witnessing others at
prayer in churches, years before, may have been influential in drawing
Eliot to the Christian faith. Indeed, George Every, a brother of the Anglo-
Catholic Society of the Sacred Mission, gives an indication of this in the
course of remembering the one occasion when Eliot “gave something like
a testimony to the motives of his conversion”:

What sticks in my mind is his description of the impression made on

him by people praying, I think in a church, or it would not have been
so obvious, but certainly outside a time of service. He suddenly
realised that prayer still went on and could be made. It wasn’t simply
of historic and cultural interest. People did pray and he might.12

Eliot’s reference to “the solitary visitor at noon from the dust and
tumult of Lombard Street” identifies the City church that was most
familiar to him, St Mary Woolnoth, on the corner of Lombard and King
William Streets, mentioned in The Waste Land: “where Saint Mary
Woolnoth kept the hours”.13 The reference in the poetry to the “dead sound
on the final strike of nine” from the church’s clock recalls the ultimate
death, for the Christian, of Jesus’ crucifixion, at the ninth hour.
Later in the work, another City church appears, in the often-quoted
lines of celebration of St Magnus the Martyr, in Lower Thames Street at
London Bridge, as the poet notes that

the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.14

The white and gold columns of its nave, aesthetically sumptuous, also
summon the liturgical colours of Easter, the feast of the resurrection,
“The Dry Salvages”, IV, CPP, 189.
“Eliot as a Friend and a Man of Prayer”, unpublished paper, shown to me by the
The Waste Land, I, CPP, 62.
The Waste Land, III, CPP, 69.
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 7

following Jesus’ death, which St Mary Woolnoth had earlier

commemorated in a poem that, at large, continually yearns for resurrected
life beyond mortality and the burial of the dead, even as it repeatedly
registers disappointment in the attainment of it. The “splendour” of the
church’s interior, in other words, is not merely aesthetic, but betokens
redemption, which is why it is “inexplicable” to wastelanders.
Eliot’s attraction to church buildings, whether in England or on the
continent, is a recurring theme in his growing appreciation of Western
Catholic civilization at large. On a visit to Italy, arriving at the principal
church of the West in the summer of 1926, just months before his baptism
and confirmation, the poet fell to his knees at the entrance:

his sister-in-law remembered being with him and his first wife, Vivien,
when they all together entered St. Peter’s, Rome. Vivien, who wasn’t
easily impressed, said something like “It’s very fine”, and then they
suddenly saw that Tom was on his knees praying.... It was the first hint
that his brother and sister-in-law had that his conversion was imminent,
and they naturally misunderstood it. They thought he was going to Rome,
and perhaps he thought so himself.... at this point his Christianity was
becoming more than an interest, [rather] an experience which had to be

In the following year, he was baptized and confirmed in the Church of

England, on 29th and 30th June, and “Journey of the Magi” appeared, less
than two months later, on 25th August.
This poem is focused on the doctrine of the Incarnation, which
identifies it as a characteristically (if not, exclusively) Anglo-Catholic
work. Two Christian doctrines were of paramount importance to Eliot and
those of his churchmanship: that of the Incarnate Word made flesh and the
doctrine of Original Sin. Both are present in “Journey of the Magi”, as
indeed in Eliot’s other major Christian works, Ash-Wednesday, 1930
(where, unsurprisingly, given its title, the concern with sin dominates) and
Four Quartets, where, more positively, the apprehension of the
Incarnation is the “gift” that is yearned for: “the hint half guessed, the gift
half understood, is Incarnation”.16 But as “Journey of the Magi” is,
obviously, especially concerned with Christmas (its title recalling the visit
of the biblical Wise Men to the Christ child, a scene so often represented
in art) and, therefore, on the feast in the Church’s liturgical year that is

George Every, “Eliot as a Friend and a Man of Prayer”, unpublished paper.
“The Dry Salvages”, V, CPP, 190.
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particularly focused on the mystery of the Incarnation, that doctrine is

primarily before us here.
The Incarnation is central to Anglo-Catholic theology because it
initiates and encapsulates the miraculous meeting of the spiritual and the
physical which is central to the sacramental interpretation and practice of
Christian life and faith. This has its ultimate expression in the sacrificial
offering of the Mass which is at the heart of Anglo-Catholic (and,
therefore, Eliot’s) theology and devotion. But it is intrinsic to all of the
sacraments, which are traditionally spoken of as ‘extensions’ of the
Incarnation. Eliot’s conspicuous commitment to two of these (that of the
Mass, in Holy Communion, and the sacrament of penance (or private
confession of sin to a priest), relates directly to his appreciation of the
doctrines of the Incarnation and of Original Sin (the “terrible aboriginal
calamity”, as John Henry Newman called it17, in which all humanity is
implicated since the Fall). Further, these two crucial doctrines are
intrinsically connected. The Incarnation, initiating the saving work of
Christ on earth, culminates in his passion, death and resurrection, whereby
the victory over sin is secured.
“Journey of the Magi”18 (the title of which would lead us to think that
this was to be only a Christmas poem) brings to mind, and together in one
poem, the two events, Christmas and Calvary, along with their doctrinal
underpinning. But it does so briefly, obliquely, mysteriously and
incompletely. The event and scene at Bethlehem are referred to,
apparently off-handedly, even bathetically, as “the place”, without even
naming it; and the experience seems to be all but dismissed in the bland
adjective “satisfactory”, preceded by the further qualification in a
parenthetical aside: “you may say”; while the scene of the crucifixion is
rendered, as if in a traveller’s casual, incidental observation, as “three trees
on the low sky”. Again, the biblical name of the place is not given.
The Magi are introduced in bleak mid-winter in the midst of difficult
journeying. Indeed, Eliot begins the poem in a protracted complaint from
one of them, adapted from a seventeenth-century sermon on the Nativity
by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes:

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey…”.

“Position of my Mind since 1845”, Apologia pro vita sua (1865),
CPP, 103-4.
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 9

When we remember that this is Eliot’s very first Christian utterance in

poetry, it is striking to note the multiple and insistently negative
characteristics of the language related to one of the principal events of the
Christian story, and from the beginning of the poem, moreover, binding it
to (rather than separating it from) such recent works as “The Hollow Men”
of 1925, with its almost unrelieved negativity.
The negative tone here, however, may be of a different kind from the
infernal despair of that preceding poem. The first verse paragraph (as of
that of Ash-Wednesday, the early sections of which Eliot was also writing
at this time) can be placed, rather, in the tradition of the via negativa of the
Christian’s pilgrimage, most famously set out in the works of St John of
the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, whose ideas and imagery
in such as The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel
inform a number of Eliot’s poems from this time onwards. He praised the
mystic’s “purity and intensity of religious feeling and… literary
excellence”.19 Eliot’s appropriation of Counter-Reformation spirituality
reflects the absorption of the devotional traditions of Western Catholicism
by Anglo-Catholics in these years. That the Magi refer to their preference
“to travel all night” may suggest submission (whether conscious or not) to
the spiritual discipline of the soul’s journey through its “dark night”.
Paradoxically, the negative way (encouraging the Christian’s nurturing
of a sense of self-emptying, with regard to any hopeful aspirations) is a
quest for renewal in the faith. The multiplication of negative ideas
(including the lusciously-alliterated allure of the sensuous “silken girls on
slopes” is, in fact, part of a spiritual regimen, for all of the air of ramifying
reservations in the opening verse paragraph of the poem.
In the poetry’s language and rhythm, Eliot’s voice takes its lead from
Andrewes’ prose, incorporating it effortlessly and seamlessly into his
incantatory style, from the sixth line. The numerous repetitions of “And”
in the first verse paragraph give a rhythmic pulse to the verse; again,
paradoxically, as this invests the language with an energy and impetus that
the dispiriting narrative would seem to deny. And it recalls a familiar
verbal quality of the Authorized Version of the Bible, of 1611, of which
Andrewes was one of the translators, with its specific intention to be
aurally engaging, designed, as it was, “to be read in churches”. The simple
matter of the repetition of “And” links this modern voice in poetry to that
old language, as Anglican tradition and the individual talent engage; time
present and time past meet, and even the possibility of the poet’s word

Address to the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral, in Ronald Schuchard, Eliot’s
Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999),
10 Chapter One

transcending the limitations of spatio-temporality to engage and express

the Word (a preoccupation explored in detail in both Ash-Wednesday and
Four Quartets) begins to be imagined.
The Magi declare of their journey that “a hard time we had of it”. Their
search for an encounter with the source of faith involves intense and
protracted suffering, and in the face of contemporary, irreligious derision:
“with the voices ringing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly”. Eliot
never underestimated the difficulty of the Christian’s pilgrimage and
strongly rejected the idea that embracing a theological and spiritual
system, as he had done, was tantamount to a decisive arrival at a
destination, and an easy life thereafter:

it [is] rather trying to be supposed to have settled oneself in an easy chair,

when one has just begun a long journey afoot.20

Indeed, the poet’s orthodox Christian belief and practice were regarded as
a betrayal by many of his friends and literary associates, such as members
of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia Woolf, for example, was appalled by
it, needled Eliot about it (Stephen Spender recalled21) and assumed
(prematurely) that the poet would “drop Christianity with his wife, as one
might empty the fishbones after the herring”.22
If we are to identify a division in Eliot’s artistry marked by the
dawning of his formal Christian commitment as an Anglo-Catholic, then it
is undeniably found at the beginning of the second verse paragraph when
the Magi emerge from their dark night and

at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness.

This new day is especially striking in the context of Eliot’s poetic imagery
at large as, for the first time in his corpus, we encounter a natural
landscape that is not only positively presented, but is brimming with the
vita nuova. In the parched heat of The Waste Land’s desert landscape there

Letter to Paul Elmer More, 3 August, 1929, in Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden,
eds, The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929 (London: Faber and Faber,
2013), 567.
In Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the
Twentieth Century, 2nd edn (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008), 56.
Letter to Francis Birrell, 3rd September, 1933, in John Cooper, T.S. Eliot and the
Ideology of ‘Four Quartets’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 200
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 11

was not even “the sound of water”.23 Here, we have a “temperate valley”
and the rhythmical emphasis on the adjective “Wet”, capitalised and
prioritised at a line’s beginning; the growth of vegetation, “a running
stream” and, with double meaning, the “beating” of the preceding
darkness by the water-mill (beating time and defeating the darkness of
sin). The ancient symbolic association of water with purification is, in the
Christian context of the work (announced in the title), inevitably
sacramental too, as water is the required element of baptism (which Eliot
had experienced in the very year of writing the poem).
While “Journey of the Magi” introduces the striking new theme of the
beauty of the natural world as representative of the experience of religious
consolation and joy, here, as later (like the experience in the rose garden in
“Burnt Norton”), such episodes and the epiphanies they afford, are
characteristically fleeting: “human kind / Cannot bear very much
Accordingly, without even a break in the sentence, the poetry moves
from this unprecedentedly encouraging scene to glimpses of the dark story
of the Cross and the Passion, dimly noted by the backwards time-
travelling, not-so-wise men, as their perception of the embedded biblical
and eucharistic symbolism is uninformed (“there was no information”).
Reclaiming the experience of faith is fraught with difficulty and they
cannot even be sure of the character or implications of that experience
when they have had it. Their references to the vine-leaves and to “feet
kicking the empty wine-skins” for example, nonetheless summon ideas of
the Lord as the true vine (John 15:1) and his violent pressing, as it were, in
the winepress of the Passion. In consuming the wine of the Communion,
the Anglo-Catholic communicant receives the Precious Blood,
commemorating the Lord’s death until he comes again. Eliot had recently
made his first communion as an Anglican, following his confirmation by
the bishop of Oxford.
The climax of the journey is not as anti-climactic as readers
customarily find the word “satisfactory” (which is all that describes it) to
be. Like much that has preceded the adjective, the term has both a
superficial (secular) and profound (spiritual) meaning. The Magi, who can
say so little (and contingently) in favour of the event, declare (perhaps,
unwittingly) that the Incarnation at Bethlehem amounts to nothing less
than the initiation of Christ’s “satisfaction for sin”, a technical, theological
term for the Atonement. In theology, “satisfaction” does not mean
gratification in the worldly sense, but rather “to make restitution”. What

The Waste Land, V, CPP, 72.
“Burnt Norton”, I, CPP, 172.
12 Chapter One

the Magi seem to dismiss as merely satisfactory, by worldly standards (a

baby in a barn) is nothing less than the satisfactory price that has been
paid, as it were, for the sins of the world.
A solitary Magus closes the poem in its concluding verse paragraph.
Questing and questioning remain, articulated even in punctuation as the
worrying and jostling of the concepts of birth and Birth, death and Death
(with their secular and sacred implications) produces a sense of unsettled
incompleteness in the journey for one who has returned to the kingdom of
this world, “but no longer at ease here in the old dispensation”,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

The uncapitalised “gods” and their diminishing plurality imply the

obvious, although unstated and unprinted, comparison with the singular
and capitalised “God”. Even “clutching” makes a theological impact, its
desperate physicality being juxtaposed with the mystery of the Magus’s
willingness to submit himself to “the place” and the event at Bethlehem,
and to a further, but paradoxically joyful dying to Christ, declared at the
poem’s open-ended ending: “I should be glad of another death”. The “old
dispensation” (traditionally, a phrase used to describe the pre-Christian
world superseded by Christianity) is now applied to the spiritually-
depleted post-Christian world, to which the Magus has returned. After his
experience, however incomplete it may have been, that “dispensation” no
longer has meaning for him and he would die to it.
The Incarnation has made its impact on this wise man and, however
incomplete his understanding of it, he has sensed its centrality to the
Christian mystery. Such an understanding was similarly central to Anglo-

Ash-Wednesday, 1930, Eliot’s most liturgical poem, is, for that very
reason, his most obviously Anglo-Catholic work. “A Song for Simeon”,
preceding it in 1928, is framed liturgically, with reference to the “Nunc
dimittis…” (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”), the
second canticle from Evening Prayer and the traditional canticle of
Compline (the night offices of the Church) and the poem is punctuated
with phrases from the song, which has biblical origins (Luke 2: 29-32).
Ash-Wednesday, however, is a much more extensive and richer exercise of
liturgical appropriation. Both poems show that, in the early years of his
churchmanship, Eliot was particularly mindful of the liturgy and keen to
reflect its meaning, words and cadences to exploit their potential for poetic
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 13

adaptation in his work. The second generation of the Oxford (or

Tractarian) Movement of the mid-nineteenth century was devoted to
giving liturgical expression in parishes and cathedrals to the Catholicising
theological scholarship of the first generation, in the writings of such as
Newman, Pusey and Keble. Anglo-Catholicism, developing from the
Oxford Movement, was as much a liturgical as a theological influence in
the wider Church of England. In associating himself with Anglo-
Catholicism, Eliot was revealing a desire not only for a doctrinal and
spiritual home, but for the fullest kind of Catholic ritual. “I like a full
liturgy myself”, he once remarked.25 And this was certainly satisfied in the
inter-war period in the twentieth century, when the movement was at its
most confident and flamboyant.
The Anglo-Catholic character of Ash-Wednesday, 1930 (which Eliot
originally thought of calling Ash Wednesday Music26) begins with the very
title of the poem, if correctly quoted in full. Dating letters by holy days in
the Church’s yearly calendar was an Anglo-Catholic custom and, in
Eliot’s extensive correspondence with his fellow Anglo-Catholic, Mary
Trevelyan, he indulges it, often amusingly seeking out the most obscure
saints’ days as dates for his letters to her. (A humorous attitude to such
solemn ecclesiastical traditions is itself an Anglo-Catholic trait: Merrily on
High, by the Anglo-Catholic priest, Colin Stephenson, captures that spirit,
jocular, yet without irreverence, in its title and many anecdotes27). The
poem’s dating by the liturgical calendar and the very day itself are
important signals of the work’s character as an extended liturgical and
penitential exercise, intimately connected with (and punctuated with
explicit references to) Anglo-Catholic ritual.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the forty-day Lenten season of
prayer and fasting in the Church’s annual liturgical cycle, ending on Holy
Saturday before Easter Day, and takes its name from the ritual of “ashing”
(the imposition of ashes) on that day, where, before offering the Mass
appointed, the priest inscribes a cross in ashes on each penitent’s forehead,
as they come forward and kneel at the altar rails. The ceremony begins
with an antiphon, quoting from Psalm 69, including the petition, “turn thee
unto us, O Lord, according to the multitude of thy mercies”. Only in
Anglo-Catholic parishes would these words have been heard in English in
Eliot’s lifetime (they were in Latin, of course, in the Roman rite for Ash
Wednesday: “… tuarum respice nos, Domine”) and the official liturgical
The Value and Use of Cathedrals in England Today (Chichester: Friends of
Chichester Cathedral, 1952), 6.
Letter to Walter de la Mare, 18 October, 1929, in Valerie Eliot and John
Haffenden, eds, The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 4 1928-1929, op. cit., 648.
(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972).
14 Chapter One

book of the Anglican rite, The Book of Common Prayer, although

including the day in its calendar, does not provide the antiphon (yet the
hyphenation of Ash-Wednesday, which Eliot copies, is in the Prayer
Book, not in The English Missal). Later, in the Mass itself, in the Epistle
derived from the book of the prophet Joel, the idea of turning to God is

Thus saith the Lord, Turn ye unto me with all your heart, and with
fasting, and with
weeping, and with mourning.

So, it is precisely the Anglo-Catholic rite and the English form, with its
notable re-iteration of the verb, that Eliot quotes from (twice, as in the
liturgy) in his opening statement, focused on the necessity to turn. As in
“Journey of the Magi”, this is discovered, nonetheless, in the context of
the via negativa, with an apparent denial of the spiritual exercise that is
being proposed (even insisted on, in the Lord’s imperative):

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope
Because I no not hope to turn

The incantatory language turns about the concept of turning, even as

turning is being denied. From the beginning of the poem, in other words,
yet another process of journeying, in Eliot’s poetry, has been initiated, but
with his customary recognition of the difficulty of the undertaking.
Embedded in the opening verse paragraphs, also, are references to the
foundational liturgical text of Christianity, found in all its liturgies: the
Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father…”). But, again, the words (referring to the
kingdom, the power and the glory) are compromised here by negative, or
at least compromising adjectives: “the vanished power”, “the usual reign”,
“the infirm glory”. Yet the very act of drawing these references into the
poem, as with those to turning before, brings that world of redemptive
possibility into the poem’s domain. Similarly, the speaker’s wilful
declaration that

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice

alerts us to the possibility of a blessed face and even of the voice of God
(who is named for the first time in Eliot’s poetry in the next verse
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 15

paragraph) after the speaker’s further declaration that he rejoices in

“having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice”. That is a definite
statement of the purposefulness of the via negativa, for all of its
apparently disabling qualities.
Most importantly, for the Anglo-Catholic who takes the Lenten
discipline seriously, this commitment represents a spiritual determination,
at the beginning of Lent, to use the season profitably.
Also, for the first time in Eliot’s poetry, we encounter Christian prayer
and the intention, as the speaker prays, to “forget / These matters that with
myself I too much discuss / Too much explain”. This echoes the teachings
of St John of the Cross about utter self-evacuation:

It is supreme ignorance for the soul to think that it will be able to pass
to this high estate of
union with God if first it void not the desire of all things, natural and
supernatural…. For, as
long as the soul rejects not all things, it has no capacity to receive the
Spirit of God in pure

This prayer addressed “to God” modulates, as the first section closes, to a
devotion which, in Anglicanism, is confined to Anglo-Catholicism (having
its origins, as many Anglo-Catholic practices do, in Roman Catholic
spirituality): the Ave Maria prayer, central to Marian veneration. Eliot
quotes just its second part and repeats the petition, sustaining the
liturgical, incantatory quality of the poetry that is present from the
beginning of the first section and thus framing it at its close:

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

The negative element of the Ave Maria petition is emphasised by the

omission of its positive, scriptural first section (“Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the
fruit of thy womb, Jesus”) and by excluding the address to Mary, “Holy
Mary, Mother of God”, which begins the second section. Such selectivity
stresses that sin and death, rather than new life in Christ, are dominant in
this early stage, as one might expect, in the arduous Lenten process of
self-denial leading to purification and ascent. And this is true of the
Christian pilgrimage, at large.

St John of the Cross, The Complete Works, trans. and ed. E.A. Peers (1934;
Wheathamstead: Anthony Clarke, 1974), 29.
16 Chapter One

This is why it is utterly wrong-headed to argue that Eliot sought to

attain a “perfect life”.29 For Christians in general, and Catholic-minded
ones in particular, such a concept is all but meaningless or so prideful as to
be sinful. Only the saints (and perhaps not all of those) can experience
such perfection – that is their unique “business” and rare “occupation”, as
Eliot stresses in one of his clearest statements about the spiritual life of
those (the vast majority of Christians) who like himself, are not called to
such elevated holiness:

For most of us, there is only the unattended moment…

and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

Perfection is “the aim /Never here to be realised”. Nonetheless the

Christian remains “undefeated / because we have gone on trying”.30 And
support for that strenuous commitment is, for the Anglo-Catholic, to be
found in the sacraments, especially of Penance and the Eucharist,
channelling God’s grace. If perfection were attainable in this world,
sacraments would cease.
“Salutation” was the title of the second section of the poem when it was
published separately in December, 1927 (making it Eliot’s second
Christian poem, after “Journey of the Magi”). Although the title is not
retained on its inclusion in Ash-Wednesday (as the original titles of
sections one and three are also abandoned), it recalls the most famous of
greetings, the so-called “Angelic Salutation” by the Angel Gabriel to the
Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. These are the words which form the
opening of the Ave Maria prayer, familiar to Eliot in both the private
Rosary devotion and the public recitation of the “Angelus” (from the
opening word in Latin referring to the visit of Gabriel to Mary in the first
chapter of Luke’s Gospel), customarily recited, to commemorate the
Incarnation, after the Anglo-Catholic High Mass.
So, with the first part of Ash-Wednesday concluding with a segment
from the Ave Maria prayer, to put “Salutation” next, beginning with an
address to “Lady”, makes explicit (as the sequencing of the sections
evolved) that the emerging, dominant female presence in the poem is
either the Virgin herself or at least a type of her. This opening, “Lady…”,

“[Lyndall] Gordon framed her talk with two opening questions: how did Eliot’s
search for perfection begin, and what approach to attaining a perfect life did Eliot
settle upon”. Sumita Chakraborty, ‘Cumulative Plausibility: A Closer Look at
Some Lectures’ [Summary of talks at the 2013 Eliot International Summer
School], Time Present, Fall, 2013, 10.
“The Dry Salvages”, V, CPP, 190
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 17

is to be echoed at the opening of the fourth section of the third Quartet,

“The Dry Salvages”, the Quartet of water, in Eliot’s explicit prayer to
Mary there as, amongst other roles, the protector of seafarers.
It is commonly erroneously imagined that veneration of the Virgin
Mary was banished from Protestant Christianity at the Reformation. We
can see how mistaken is this view when we consult the calendar of The
Book of Common Prayer, with its preservation of several of her feast days
and the provision of the Magnificat (the Virgin’s song at the
Annunciation: Luke 1:46ff) prescribed for daily recitation at the Office of
Evening Prayer. However, the full panoply of developed Marian doctrine
(including the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, which is usually
confused with the Virgin Birth, and the Assumption), as taught and
liturgically realised at Rome, only exists in Anglicanism in Anglo-
Catholicism. It is Eliot’s commitment in his own religious life to that
devotion (expressed, for example, in his regular use of the Rosary, having
his own beads blessed by Pius XII, and saying the prayers on the Tube)
that, once again, speaks explicitly of his Anglo-Catholicism and finds its
way, precisely from that source, into his poetry.31
The lyrical middle section of this part, beginning (again) with “Lady”,
echoes the qualities of the liturgical litanies of Mary in the brief listing of
her attributes and focusing on her “mysteries”, as in the Virgin Birth:
“Torn and most whole”, and the traditional association of the Virgin (and
virginity) with an enclosed garden (the origin of the Rosary devotion,
indeed, is the rosarium or rose garden). In Eliot’s later poetry, he recalls
the tributes paid to the Virgin in the final cantos of Dante’s Divine
Comedy, including direct quotation from that source (as in “Figlia del tuo
figlio” in “The Dry Salvages”).
The arduous ascent which characterises the third section of Ash-
Wednesday, taking the metaphor of the journey of turning and re-turning
to God into the vertical plane of a stairway (it was originally entitled “Al
som de l’Escalina”, “to the top of the stair”, when published in 1929)
draws upon the figure of the ten stairs in the writings of St John of the
Cross. By this third section of the poem, the first step of the first five steps
of the mystic’s ladder of perfection has indeed been climbed, the
preliminary stages of this process having been accomplished in the second
section of Ash-Wednesday by the renunciation of the physical body (“all
things, natural”) with its devotion to the world, the flesh and the devil,
represented there by the three white leopards. Now, the speaker can
proceed to the second stair. But Eliot, in the extremity of his humility (he
For a full account of Marianism in English poetry, Catholic and Anglican, see
my See the Virgin Blest: Representations of the Virgin Mary in English Poetry
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
18 Chapter One

was to reflect, later, that ‘humility is endless’32) intensifies the arduousness

of the exercise by adding several turnings to each progression from stair to

At the first turning of the second stair

I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

St John of the Cross writes that

if, then, the soul conquer the devil upon the first step it will pass to the
second; and if upon
the second likewise, it will pass to the third [and so on].33

The turning of Eliot’s speaker is a turning towards God (as this third
section is linked to the first section, and to the lections of the Ash
Wednesday Mass), but it can include, as well, a backward turning look
downwards to the world that is being crushed underfoot. Nonetheless, the
advance continues, but it is pursued in darkness:

At the second turning of the second stair

I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggéd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an agéd shark.

The “old man” is both the unregenerate man of St Paul’s theology, the old
Adam, and joins the sequence of old men in Eliot’s poetry prior to Ash-
Wednesday, such as Gerontion, in their abandonment of hope and desire in
this world, but without (unlike the speaker, now) any ameliorating
prospect of salvation.
The record of painstaking ascent is offset by the powerful appeal of
worldly temptations. It is not an accident that most of the poetry in this
section, and its most beautiful, is devoted to describing the sensuous,
pagan world the aspirant would transcend, such is its abiding allure:

At the first turning of the third stair

Was a slotted window bellied like the fig’s fruit
And behind the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene

“East Coker”, II, CPP, 179.
In Peers, op. cit., 101.
“Anglo-Catholic in Religion” 19

The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green

Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind
over the third stair.

His vocation is “fading, fading”. He calls upon “strength beyond hope and
despair” as he continues “climbing the third stair”. The vision of lusty
paganism is not bereft of spiritual significance. The broadbacked figure,
for example, is dressed in blue, the colour of the Virgin and of heaven (as
well as green, the colour of fertility and nature) and he is seen in
“maytime”, the Virgin’s month, as well, of course, as the season of natural
fecundity. The so-called distraction is pregnant with spiritual possibilities
for those who have eyes to see.
What has been accomplished so far is, apparently, a momentous
achievement, but in the daunting process of the ten stairs to unity, it is, in
fact, very modest, just the beginning of the saints’ stairway. The section
concludes with yet another liturgical reference, this time from the Mass

Lord, I am not worthy

Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

In the liturgy, the priest, before making his own communion, utters this

Lord, I am not worthy, that thou shouldest enter under my roof: but
speak the word only,
and my soul shall be healed.

And he does so thrice, “beating his breast three times with his right hand”
(as directed in the rubrics of The English Missal – again, these details are
found only in such Anglo-Catholic texts, not in The Book of Common
Prayer). They are from Matthew’s Gospel (8:8) and are the words of the
centurion who has asked Jesus to come to his house and heal his servant,
“sick of the palsy”. But the liturgical adaptation replaces “servant” with
Then, as Eliot himself experienced it at every Mass, when the priest
turned to the congregation with the communion Host, and said “Behold
the Lamb of God, behold Him that taketh away the sins of the world”,
Eliot, too, with the other congregants, all kneeling, would repeat the
priest’s earlier words and triple breast-beating, saying “Lord, I am not
20 Chapter One

worthy…”, before rising to go to the altar rails to kneel and receive the
Body and Blood.
The poet’s repetition of the phrase “Lord, I am not worthy” directly
reflects the liturgical repetition. But an important point is made by this
reference in Ash-Wednesday to the Anglo-Catholic text and custom: what
is omitted is, as so often in poetry, at least as significant as what is
included (as was the case earlier in the selective use of the Ave Maria).
The emphasis is on the unworthiness of the speaker; the reference to the
Lord coming into “my house” is not there, and the petition to “speak the
word only” is not followed by the assurance, “and my soul shall be
healed”. As before in Eliot’s poetry (most extensively in The Waste Land),
we see here how creative his use of pastiche can be. It is yet another of the
elements in Eliot’s verse that binds it together, whether of pre- or post-
conversion origin.
The completion of the journey of forgiveness and absolution,
consummated in unity and communion remains in the future. His soul has
yet to be healed, to be made whole, so the word is not spoken. As the
foregoing poetry has shown, for all the penitent’s determination, he has
allowed himself to be distracted by sensuous worldliness. He has yet even
to begin the most terrible of all ascents which commences once complete
renunciation of physical nature has been achieved, from the sixth stair.
This is the so-called “passive dark night” in which all hope of God’s love
must be abandoned and “the soul must keep itself from all revelations in
order to journey, in purity and without error, in the night of faith, to
The three remaining sections of Ash-Wednesday were written not as
separate poems, like the preceding ones, but with the idea of the sequence
at large. As before (and, thereby, binding these sections to what has gone
before), the punctuation of the poetry with Anglo-Catholic references is
sustained. At the end of the fourth section, for example, Eliot once again
quotes a fragment from a prayer (“And after this our exile”) which is left,
suspended, without punctuation, to close the section. It is taken from the
“Salve Regina” prayer, “Hail, holy Queen…”, addressed to the Virgin,
which concludes:

And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Again, what is set down and what is left out are equally striking. The
emphasis is still on the negative phrase: here, on exile (in what is
described, earlier in the prayer, as “this vale of tears”). The saving

In Peers, op. cit., 194.