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eliot and englandThere are moments in childhood when a window in the mind seems to open and the future is glimpsed.

So it was as I lay on my bed at the age of ten or twelve paging through the heavy green and white World Book Encyclopedia Year Book. It was 1965 and there was a long obituary of T.S. Eliot. I was immediately captivated. Why would a Baptist boy in Pennsylvania be drawn to a dead poet with a dour expression in a three piece suit? What was this strange fascination?

It was as if, I was being drawn through a magic mirror to some known, but yet un lived destiny. Why was I suddenly drawn to Eliot and England? Years earlier I had read a story in school about a girl who visited London and went to Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks. What was this strange magnetic pull to the world of red double decker busses, phone boxes, Big Ben and the changing of guards at Buckingham Palace?

Later in a fundamentalist college in South Carolina I would develop an incurable case of Anglophilia. My mind was swamped and swept by C.S. Lewis. My imagination became metaphysical by George Herbert, John Donne, Crashaw and Vaughan. My heart swelled romantically English with Hopkins and Wordsworth. When the chance came to study theology at Oxford I set off as a poor scholar with no money, no connections and no real plan except to be an Anglican priest and spend the rest of my days hunkered down in a country parsonage writing poetry.

Eventually the dream came true and I ended up as an Anglican vicar in a little village on the Isle of Wight. I even wrote some poems. Then as the circuitry of providence would have it I returned to my native United States to the same town in South Carolina where the Anglophilia first took hold. In doing so I have come to a deeper appreciation not only of Eliot’s adopted Englishness, but also of his American roots.

Eliot’s artistic dual citizenship is seen in the balance of places and themes within his finest work, The Four Quartets. This set of four poems is an exploration of mysticism and memory and a meditation on time and eternity, choice and chance, destiny and desire. For many readers the poems seem complex to the point of impenetrability. However, the overarching meaning of the Four Quartets can come into focus through the lens of Eliot’s Anglo-American history.

Each poem is titled with an evocative place name. The place names root the poet’s experience and history in a real location. The themes may be abstract and philosophical, but their incarnation is particular in time and place. The uniqueness and interdependency of the place names helps the poetry to become clear and concrete.

The first poem, “Burnt Norton” is set in the formal garden of an English manor house in the Cotswolds. The name is derived from the original Norton House which was burned down by its owner Sir William Keyt in 1741. Eliot visited the house in the mid 1930s with an old college friend, Emily Hale. Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon reveals the importance of the poet’s friendship with Emily Hale—an intelligent and refined woman from his Harvard days who would have been a perfect wife had he remained within the prim academic world of Cambridge, Massachusetts. That world was one that he seemed destined for, until he took the radical step of moving to England to become a poet.

His musings in the English garden with his American friend over “what might have been” lead to profound meditations on the nature of time and eternity, providence and choice. How would his life had been different if he had stayed in the United States, become a philosophy professor at Harvard and married Emily Hale? Burnt Norton itself becomes a symbol of a house that could have been and a family that never was.

Eliot’s second poem in the sequence moves further into his past. “East Coker” is a sleepy, timeless village in Somerset in Southwest England. Eliot had discovered that his ancestor Andrew Elliot had left the village in 1669 for America. So Eliot explores his English ancestry and meditates on the transitory nature of human life and the passage of time. Eliot’s ashes would eventually be buried in St. Michael’s church in the village with the simple lines from the quartets, “In my beginning is my end…in my end is my beginning.” The cycle is completed as the fugitive American discovers a more ancient home as his ashes finally return to the village his ancestor left centuries earlier for a life in America.

As if he is a ghost of his voyager ancestor Andrew Elliot, in the third poem the poet returns to the world of his American childhood. “Dry Salvages” is the name of a formation of three rocks off the coast of Massachusetts where, as a boy, Eliot would sail during his summer vacations. This is the same Massachusetts coast where  the Puritan Andrew Elliot would have landed. The poem opens, however, with a portrayal of the Mississippi and Eliot’s boyhood home in St. Louis. So the self made Englishman sees his roots not only in the Somerset Village of East Coker, but also in the turbulent Mississippi and the wild waters of New England where his ancestor stepped ashore. In the poem Eliot’s Anglo-American experience becomes the matrix for further contemplation on the mystery of providence and the shift of persons in the kaleidoscope of time.

Eliot’s quartet resolves in another obscure English location. “Little Gidding” is a hamlet in Cambridgeshire. Even today, not much more than a few farm buildings and a tiny church, it was the location of a simple religious community founded by Nicholas Ferrar in 1626. With the clash between Puritianism and historic Catholicism, the seventeenth century held particular fascination for Eliot. Ferrar’s Anglo-Catholic community was an answer to the ancestral Puritanism of Eliot’s family and Little Gidding provides a final refuge for Eliot’s own thought and religious yearnings. Little Gidding’s simple spirituality provides a reconciliation and resolution where the poet reprimands and reminds us that the time for analysis is over. We are not here to verify, instruct ourselves or satisfy curiosity, but to “kneel where prayer has been valid.”

The locations of the four quartets thus provide a basis for understanding the overarching themes of Eliot’s masterpiece. “Dry Salvages” connects us with Eliot’s American boyhood while “East Coker” transports us back to his English ancestry. The first and fourth poems evoke his personal visits to two obscure, but personally significant English locations. “Burnt Norton” looks back to what might have been with Emily Hale while “Little Gidding” looks to a final resolution. The burnt manor house is a symbol of a hope faded, a happiness missed and a family gone while the Little Gidding community in the English countryside points to a future reconciliation where “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well when the tongues of flame are in-folded in the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. A very lovely piece, Father. Eliot was a brilliant Conservative thinker, but perhaps sometimes we forget that he was also a poet! The reminiscence at the beginning would serve as the plot to a fascinating and timely novel.

  2. I often think of ‘”Heads leaning together, stuffed with straw,” and this is without being able to view his writings stuck in one of some 300+ boxes of my library. It was an answer to Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness, namely, that man was worse than the beginning of the 20th century initially thought. On that score the events of this bloody period had revealed how right he was.

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