This is an essay I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing at MMU in 2015. I thought I’d share it here.
Comparing the Use of Faith in the Work of TS Eliot, WH Auden and David Jones:
A Late Interview with the Three Poets
By Chris Edgoose
TS Eliot died in 1965, WH Auden in 1973 and David Jones in 1974.
One bright early-autumn morning in 2015 the three men sat down together with Disturbed Turf Quarterly Review to discuss the differences and similarities in their poetic approaches to their Christian faith. Three comfortable chairs had been prepared for the three great poets, and they appeared happy and relaxed in the spacious, uncluttered room with its wide, west-facing window. It was interesting to note that throughout the morning the more confident Eliot and Auden treated the quieter and more unassuming Jones with something that can only be described as mildly patronising reverence, and they both insisted that Jones take the central chair. Jones received their attentions with great courtesy and a little embarrassment.
I’d like to talk not so much about the content of your individual senses of faith as how you each choose to represent faith in your poetry, and how in turn your faith affects your work. Shall we start there?
Well, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s important first of all that we make a distinction between the verse each of us wrote before and after our respective conversions. I myself was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England in 1927 and you will notice many differences in my work that came about thereafter[i]. We might take my use of metaphor as an example. Do you remember those ‘ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas’ in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ from 1917? No prizes for noticing that they were metaphorical claws and seas of course. They were a way of indicating how little this poor, pathetic man thought of himself. But now think about ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third of my ‘Four Quartets’, written in 1941, where the sea has ‘Its hints of earlier and other creation: / The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone’. It’s a similar image but employed in a very different way. These animals are not just metaphors but also examples of ancient life on earth[ii]; they are – as is the sea itself – a metaphor for that thing which is larger and older than ourselves but they are also real because I am talking about the real world. That combination is key to my technique in ‘Four Quartets’.
So your conversion changed your use of metaphor?
No, I wouldn’t go that far, but I was required to expand my use of metaphor to include the literal as a way of attempting to express something that is essentially inexpressible.
I’d also like to pick up on what Tom’s saying here if I may. Look at one of my poems from shortly before my return to the Anglican Communion in 1940[iii], ‘Miss Gee’ (1937), next to one that I wrote in the very year of my return, my long poem ‘New Year Letter’. The former is one of three or four similar poems that I wrote in the form of popular ballads around the same time[iv]. Miss Gee develops cancer and dies. The reason for this is her repression of sexual desire (at the time, not an unreasonable idea) but aside from this there is no moral to the story, nor is reference given to any attempt to find one; and the tone is nihilistic if anything, almost cruel:
They laid her on the table,
The students began to laugh:
And Mr. Rose the surgeon
He cut Miss Gee in half.
I see a parallel here, by the way, with the lack of moral substance of Tom’s eponymous ‘Hollow Men’ in 1925, you know, ‘our voices…are quiet and meaningless’. But then in ‘New Year Letter’ you find that events throughout history are explained in terms of a balance between good and evil, and reference is constantly made to the devil and God (particularly in Part Three) and my language is suffused with biblical, particularly New Testament, images and words (in the final stanza alone you find ‘bless’, ‘judge’, ‘forgiving’, ‘neighbour’ and ‘lion’s den’).
So could we say that your renewed faith added a moral aspect to your language?
Well, I certainly think my search for a set of values in the face of Nazism – which I didn’t believe liberal humanism had proved itself able to provide – sent me towards the language of the Bible[v].
And David, do you see any similar changes in your work after you converted to Catholicism in 1921[vi]?
It’s a rather different in my case because I converted to Catholicism before any of my major poetical works were written. I didn’t actually write In Parenthesis until the early ‘thirties[vii] and The Anathemata until the ‘forties and early ‘fifties[viii], you see. So although In Parenthesis is essentially a secular work I wrote it as a practising Catholic. I would be more inclined, therefore, to point towards similarities between the two works rather than differences. For example, much has been made of the archetypal voices that I employ in In Parenthesis such as that of Dai Greatcoat[ix] but many of them are intended to be the ‘real’ voices of ‘real soldiers. For example: ‘The relief elbows him on the fire-step: All quiet china? – bugger all to report? – kipping mate? – christ, mate – you’ll ‘ave ‘em all over’ (p.55). This is the slang, the vulgarity, the blasphemy and the H-dropping of a real Cockney voice; and the intended effect is that my allusions to the myths of Le Morte d’Arthur, The Mabinogion and other classic and ancient texts become rooted in the real and the current (for 1914). Hence also my use of slang terms for the equipment of war such as ‘gas-rattles’, ‘toffee-apples’, ‘picket maul’ etc., which are explained in the notes (p.212).
I’m reminded here of what Tom said earlier about the blending of the literal and the metaphorical. You seem to use both metaphorical and literal characterisation in a sense, and perhaps each increases the impact of the other?
That’s it, yes. I think that for both Tom and myself, although we were of different denominations, our shared sense of mythos, or the Universal Narratives, was intimately linked to our faith and had to be tied in prosody to a genuine sense of reality. Listen to his Cockney voice in ‘A Game of Chess’ from ‘The Waste Land’ (139-172); it may sound patronising to some these days (‘When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said – / I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself…’ (139-40)), but only, I think, because the rhythms and colloquialisms of the voice has since become over-used by parodists. No, this is an acutely observed real voice that binds the larger truths of the poem to the real here-and-now of London in the early ‘twenties. But my point about the way I used genuine-sounding voices in In Parenthesis is that I did more or less the same thing in The Anathemata fifteen or twenty years later: Elen Monica, the lavender seller of ‘The lady of the Pool’ is a multi-layered character who ultimately embodies not only the city of London – and by extension ‘largely the mind of Europe’ – and ‘the British sea thing’, but also the entirety of Catholicism itself[x]. And she does all of this through the voice of a late-medieval ‘waterside tart’[xi], albeit one whose vocabulary is rather richer than reality would allow! I’ll read you a bit where she erotically and charitably considers a boatswain’s slave boy whose fate worries her[xii]:
Plucked with his jack bucket from the Punic foreshore b’ a bollocky great Bocco procurer, or I weren’t christed Elen Monica in Papey Juxta Muram. ‘V’ a mind to sign him Austin Gregorians in Thames-water, an’ ransom him with m’ own woman’s body. (p.167)
The tone here, and throughout this section of the poem, is distinct from the content, earthier, more common (emphasised in this example by the use of prose). Again, the higher concepts (here charity, self-sacrifice, baptism and perhaps absolution) are, I think, grounded in the humanity of vulgarity, solecism and erotic desire. This goes to the very heart of my faith.
The tone and content working off each other to extend the meaning, rather than being blended seamlessly as would usually be the case. Fascinating, David, thank you. Can we talk a little more about how your faith affects the actual form your poetry took? Wystan, could I put that to you first?
Yes, I think the best I can do is to draw your attention to my ‘Horae Canonicae’ here. You see the whole shape of the sequence is based around, indeed predicated upon, the hours of the liturgical day, ‘Prime’, ‘Terce’, ‘Sext’ and so forth. So I tie the work up with a notion that is very important to me[xiii]: that of religious rites. And I know that this is something I share with David.
That’s absolutely right, Wystan. The shape of The Anathemata, as I wrote in the introduction, is based around ‘matters of all sorts which, by a kind of quasi-free association, are apt to stir in my mind at any time and as often as not “in the time of the Mass”’ (p.31). And I go on to say ‘What I have written has no plan…If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning.’ (p.33): the beginning that it returns to, of course, being the Catholic priest carrying out Mass. Only seven seconds divide the first and last lines and yet the entire poem is contained in that[xiv]. After all, for me, ‘The Mass makes sense of everything’[xv].
Tom, do you share this feeling that the rites of your faith are an important feature in the form of your poetry?
Well, it’s not quite the same I know, but you can hear towards the end of ‘The Hollow Men’, for example, how I used the Lord’s Prayer (repeating, splitting up and cropping that line ‘For Thine is the Kingdom’) to emphasise the doubt and fragmentation going on within the morally vacuous people who are the subject of that poem. And I quite often took on the diction of a preacher to lend my verse the weight of authority and wisdom that comes from the Bible. Listen to this from ‘East Coker’ and I think you can sense church, pulpit and congregation:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. (23-26)
Notice the repetition of both lexis and clause structure, the pace-modulating commas before and after ‘be still’ to emphasise the talked-to-soul and the request for stasis, and that final definite article lending weight to the gerund ‘waiting’. All of these are rhetorical aspects that build into the passage the feeling of a sermon delivered. I do this to an even greater extent in ‘Choruses from “The Rock”’. So, I think I would perhaps say that the language of prayer and sermon rather than the structure of rite is important in my work.
You mentioned the concept of ‘stasis’ there and I think that you may be getting to the centre of things for all three of you with that notion.
Indeed, indeed. ‘At the still point of the turning world…there the dance is’ (Burnt Norton, II, 16-17). This Polaris-like image is key to faith in my work – particularly ‘Four Quartets’ – because it is here that we men of movement, we poets (and readers of poetry, for remember ‘Words move, music moves’ (Burnt Norton, V, 1)) can step outside the movement, the turning, of time past, present and future. And I see this in both David and Wystan.
I agree. And I think that the space provided by our long and longish poems (‘Four Quartets’, ‘Horae Canonicae’ and The Anathemata, for example) helps us to slow the pace down and create this sense of stasis. They take a long time to read and during reading, to some extent, the world outside the reader and the poem ceases to exist, or it exists ‘on pause’ so to speak. I would also add that I use a similar image of stillness and movement to Tom’s in ‘Compline’, Part 6 of ‘Horae Canonicae’, where the hours of the crucifixion become an absence for the watching crowd, a group non-memory if you like, and I (or at least the poem’s ‘I’) hopes to:
…join the dance
As it moves in perichoresis,
Turns about the abiding tree. (62-4)
So at the centre, at the ‘still point’, for me is the ‘abiding tree’ of the crucifixion, and ‘the dance’ which is associated with man’s relationship to the Trinity (i.e. perichoresis), goes on all around it; whereas with Tom, the dance is at the very centre. It is interesting I think that we are both looking for a sensation of “spinning” to some extent, disorientation – although in my case this is part of the dance of faith and for Tom it is part of the world outside the stillness of religion – Tom achieves it by emphasising the other half of the juxtaposition: his extended description of this rather paradoxical ‘point’ which is both ‘still’ and where ‘dance is’ (the second movement of Part 2 of Burnt Norton), while I do it largely through the use of that long and unusual word ‘perichoresis’, which is itself disorienting to read with its Greek unfamiliarity (for most readers), its five syllables and dancing vowels (‘e’ and ‘i’ repeated on either side of a central ‘o’ – the differing stress and length of the ‘e’ adding particularly to the effect; the giddying second ‘e’ pronounced /ei/ as in ‘sway’).
I’ll rein you in on that intriguing analysis if I may, Wystan! You highlight a number of interesting differences within a very similar image, which could indicate a fundamental difference in the content of your individual faiths. David?
Wystan is right to dig deeply into the word-choice there. I call such words ‘deposits’[xvi] because in them the ancient rites, symbols and indeed thoughts of the early church fathers live on. I use such terms in my work as more than mere allusion, and though they may be one reason some people consider The Anathemata ‘difficult’ they are fundamental to what I’m trying to achieve.
Which is, like Tom and perhaps to some extent like Wystan, the slowing down or merging of time: past and present coming together to create something ‘other’ – i.e. Art. There is a perfect example of this at the beginning of The Anathemata, where the image of a priest carrying out the Mass, turning bread into the flesh of Christ (‘making this thing other’), becomes a ‘double exposure’[xvii] image of a pagan Roman priest (a ‘cult-man’ or ‘pontifex’) who is, like the Catholic priest, among ‘venerated trinkets’ but through my use of archaic, precise words and images like ‘institutes’, ‘ancilia’, ‘fertile ashes’ and ‘pontifex’ I take the reader directly back into a past which is also present in the rite of Mass itself.
It occurs to me that what David does in The Anathemata to some degree is, ironically, ‘making it new’ in Ezra Pound’s famous phrase, inasmuch as by viewing the history of Western culture through the lens of the Catholic religion he sheds new light on both Catholicism and the culture that it has contributed to creating over the centuries. Looking in a new way is something I was also intent on doing, particularly in my portrayal of the human species, as I did in ‘A New Year Greeting’ towards the end of my life, when I drew a parallel between us humans and the microbes on our bodies – thus turning humanity into the God-like, providing/annihilating Earth itself:
If you were religious folk,
how would your dramas justify
By what myths would your priests account
for the hurricanes that come
twice every twenty-four hours,
each time I dress or undress,
This feels like a humorous if rather flippant picture of religion until you reach the last stanza and the human (the ‘I’) dies ‘…stripped of excuse and nimbus, / a Past, subject to Judgement.’ Perspectives are re-aligned and I hope the reader is jolted by those final two lines. The fantasies are over, I am saying, with death we are a Past alone, and only Judgement awaits us.
Gentlemen, on that note we’ve run out of time and space. Given the size of your respective bodies of work, I feel that we have just scratched the surface; but thank you for so concisely showing some of the ways that your individual senses of faith have informed and shaped your poetry. I think we have seen that from the macro- (the overall form and shape of your works) to the micro-level (the implications for metaphor and the shape of words) your religious poems work to express what Tom described earlier as the ‘ultimately inexpressible’.
[i] A. David Moody (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to TS Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) p.xvi
[iii] Edward Mendelson, ‘Auden and God’, New York Review of Books <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/12/06/auden-and-god/> [accessed 27th Nov 2015]
[iv] John Fuller, WH Auden: A Commentary, p. 277
[v] Edward Mendelson, ‘Auden and God’
[vi] Keith Alldritt, David Jones Writer and Artist, p. 52
[vii] Ibid p. 82
[viii] Ibid p. 144
[ix] Poetry Foundation <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/david-jones> [accessed 12 Dec 2015]
[x] Thomas Dilworth, Reading David Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008) p. 145-147
[xi] Ibid p. 146
[xii] Ibid p. 156
[xiii] Edward Mendelson, ‘Auden and God’
[xiv] Thomas Dilworth p.176
[xv] Ibid p. 178
[xvi] David Jones, Intro. to The Anathemata, (London: Faber and Faber, 1952) p.20-21
[xvii] Thomas Dilworth p. 121