Conversions I Eliot And Christianity

'It is proverbially easier to destroy than to construct', Eliot begins his 1928 essay 'The Humanism of Irving Babbitt', 'when a writer is skilful in destructive criticism, the public is satisfied with that. If he has no constructive philosophy, it is not demanded; if he has, it is overlooked. This is especially true when we are concerned with critics of society' (1980: 471). Here Eliot sums up the problem he faced as he turned to social criticism in the 1920s: the philosophy he had developed in reference to Babbitt, Hulme and Maurras had provided tools for the diagnosis of society's problems, but not for their cure. The classicist's pessimistic view of human nature gave little hope that individuals could solve the problems of post-war civilization by themselves.

This was the main point of Eliot's argument against Irving Babbitt's social criticism. Babbitt's humanism was inadequate to the task of social reform because it placed too much emphasis on the individual's ability to improve him or herself. Without an external framework, such as religion, 'there is nothing left for the individual to check himself by but his own private notions and his judgment, which is pretty precarious' and, furthermore, nothing to bring individuals together into a unified group (1980: 476). Extending the argument of 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', Eliot argued that social reform could not be achieved by individual responses to the contemporary situation, it must draw on the social traditions individuals already shared:

Our problem being to form the future, we can only form it on the materials of the past; we must uuse our heredity instead of denying it, The religious habits of the race are still very strong, in all places, at all times, and for all people, There is no humanistic habit,

For Eliot, like Hulme, classicism led logically to religion. Without chronological knowledge of Eliot's thought, one might have assumed that his Christianity was responsible for his conservative philosophical and aesthetic ideas; in fact, the reverse was true. Eliot's philosophy and aesthetics led to and shaped his Christianity.

Eliot was baptized into the Anglican Church on 29 June 1927, and the following year he publicly announced his new affiliation in the preface to a volume of essays, For Lancelot Andrewes (1928). The essays were intended to mark a change of direction in Eliot's criticism, to 'indicate certain lines of development' that would be elaborated in later work, and to disassociate himself 'from certain conclusions which have been drawn from [. . .] The Sacred Wood'. He described the 'point of view' of his criticism as 'classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion' and the first essay, on Lancelot Andrewes, the seventeenth-century Bishop of Winchester (1555-1626), indicates how this might be distinguished from the point of view of his earlier criticism (1928a: ix). In the essay's comparison of Andrewes and Donne, Eliot implies a distinction he made explicit elsewhere between philosophical poetry, in which 'a philosophical system is felt as a whole by the poet, when it affects the structure of his poem; when in fact it is believed' and metaphysical poetry, which 'can occur either with or without belief' but shows 'the intimate relation between our philosophical beliefs and private feelings and behaviour' (1993: 293). Donne is Eliot's prime example of the metaphysical poet; Dante, and now Andrewes, are examples of the philosophical poet. In his earlier criticism, Eliot had represented metaphysical poetry as a type of philosophical poetry without favouring one over the other, but the final pages of 'Lancelot Andrewes' suggest that Eliot now rates the philosophical poetry of belief more highly:

Andrewes's emotion is purely contemplative; it is not personal, it is wholly evoked by the object of contemplation, to which it is adequate; his emotions wholly contained in and explained by its object. But with Donne there is always the something else [.. .], Donne is a "personality" in a sense in which Andrewes is not: his sermons, one feels, are a 'means of self-expression'.

Eliot's earlier criticism had represented philosophical and religious systems as useful tools for the poet; in For Lancelot Andrewes they are no longer tools to be taken up or discarded at will: they inform every aspect of the poet's work.

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