T.S. Eliot’s secret baptism in 1927 marked one of the most remarkable literary conversions of the modern age. The enfant terrible of the decadent and atheistic Bloomsbury set stunned everyone by turning to the Catholic expression of the Anglican faith. Virginia Woolf predicted nastily that he would get over it and “drop his Christianity with his wife, as one might empty the fishbones after the herring.”
Stephen Spender gossiped that Woolf ridiculed Eliot about his religion: “Did he go to church? Did he hand round the plate? Oh really! Then what did he experience when he prayed?” That Eliot had embraced Anglo-Catholicism—the most conservative form of the established church was especially galling to the avant-garde who prided themselves on subverting exactly that form of Christian stuffiness. The literati’s disappointment in Eliot’s conversion was to be itself disappointed. Eliot remained firm in his Catholic faith until his death in 1965.
The turning point of his conversion was marked by a turning point in his poetry. Ash Wednesday was the first poem published after his baptism, and it was the clearest public statement possible that he had turned to a new life. Indeed, the concept of repentance is summed up in the Greek word metanoia, meaning to change one’s mind or to turn and change direction. And so the poem begins with the sonorous phrases, “Because I do not hope to turn again, Because I do not hope, Because I do not hope to turn…” Thus Eliot repudiates his ironic style along with his despairing and nihilistic view of the world. He was turning from the hell of the wasteland to receive his ashes and begin his long Lent.
In 1915, after an acquaintance of three months, Eliot had married the unstable but vivacious dancer, Vivienne Haigh Wood. The marriage was an immediate disaster that eventually brought Eliot to the point of a nervous breakdown and ruined the already fragile Vivienne.
Although Eliot was not to drop his Christianity, Woolf was right that he was about to drop his wife. In 1932, two years after the publication of Ash Wednesday, he returned to the United States to take up the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard for a year. On returning to England, after seventeen years of a miserable marriage, he formally separated from Vivienne. Hence he avoided her completely, while she stalked him with hysterical cunning. They met once at one of his public lectures; then in 1938 her brother had her committed to an insane asylum after finding her wandering the streets of London at five in the morning, asking if Eliot had been beheaded. She died nine years later in 1947.
Ash Wednesday was composed at the climax of Eliot’s disastrous relationship with Vivienne, and it clearly indicates that with his religious conversion he had also decided to embark on a new life which would be free of Vivienne. Ash Wednesday echoes with much of the same imagery that would recur in The Four Quartets written a few years later. As he drew us into the emotions of despair and horror in The Waste Land, so the poet uses mysterious imagery, complex allusions, and abstract symbolism to share in the emotions of exhausted regret and sorrowful penitence. There runs through the poem a sense of sadness mingled with the whisper of a wish for a breath of new life. The lines echo with a new-found innocence combined with the wisdom of experience. There is an air of resignation and fragile hope that “these dry bones” might “atone to forgetfulness” and once more learn to sing. Out of the twisted wreckage of his marriage, Eliot speaks poignantly of “the mother, the sister and the woman in the white gown” and cries out time and again for the need to “redeem the time.”
Turning from worldly ambition and the cynical use of his gifts for fame, Eliot is ready to turn his poetic genius to the service of beauty and truth. He will become the solitary penitent, praying that, before it is too late, God might teach him “to “care and not to care, teach him to sit still.”
Eliot lived with Vivienne for seventeen years, and for the next fifteen the threat and memory of her was constantly present. First she stalked him as a grim reminder of his tragic mistake, and then he must have borne visions of her incarcerated and trying to escape from the insane asylum. His friends reported that he was wracked with guilt at his necessary abandonment of her, and was tortured further by her ultimate lonely death.
Eliot’s work during those years focused first on the composition of The Four Quartets, then on his plays, while his personal life was one of moving from temporary lodgings until he finally settled into a flat with his friend and literary secretary, John Davy Hayward. During the twenty-five years between his separation from Vivienne until his happy second marriage, we wonder why he turned away from marriage with his long-time friend Mary Trevelyan, and why he pulled back from marriage to the eminently suitable belle from his Harvard days, Emily Hale.
Until Vivienne’s death in 1947 Eliot could not entertain the idea of a marriage that his Anglo-Catholic faith would not have allowed, and for the ten years after Vivienne’s death we can only conclude that, torn by regret, he maintained his long Lent, drawing back from the love and happiness he longed for out of a mixture of guilt for the harm he had inflicted on Vivienne. Were his final ten years of solitary life from 1947 to 1957 his self-imposed penance for the nearly ten years Vivienne had been abandoned and incarcerated in the lunatic asylum?
In January of 1957 Eliot married his thirty-year-old secretary, Valerie Fletcher. He had finally redeemed the time and atoned for the colossal mistake of his marriage and abandonment of Vivienne. Photographs of Eliot with his young wife show the usually dour poet beaming with happiness—the joy of a long Lent ended and the start of a new life at last.
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