Victorian Values: Swinburne and Tennyson on the Isle of Wight

I spent my sixty first birthday wandering around places on the Isle of Wight with Victorian literary connections, and thinking about the great ideological debates that divided nineteenth century Britain.

We began by taking a left along Bonchurch Shore, walking away from Ventnor…

…and then found a pathway that led up the hill to the Eastdene estate where Algernon Charles Swinburne grew up. Admiral Swinburne clearly wasn’t short of cash:

Very close by is Winterbourne where Dickens stayed in the summer of 1849 and wrote some of David Copperfield:

The Old Church dates from 1070 …

….but Swinburne’s buried in the grounds of the Victorian update….

The burial here was controversial, for good reason.

He was strongly anti-Christian, and espoused some form of Paganism. He certainly didn’t die in sure hope of resurrection:

Though one were strong as seven,

         He too with death shall dwell,

Nor wake with wings in heaven,

         Nor weep for pains in hell…


From too much love of living,

         From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

         Whatever gods may be

That no life lives for ever;

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

         Winds somewhere safe to sea.

 (Garden of Proserpine, 1866)

After paying our respects, we drove along the military road, stopping off at St. Catherine’s Oratory, a medieval lighthouse that looks like an Erich Von Daniken style protype rocket ship …

We were on the way to the beautiful bay at Freshwater:

A quick look at the outside of Dimbola Lodge, where the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron once lived…

File:Alfred Lord Tennyson 1869.jpg

Julia Cameron’s carbon print of Tennyson  in 1869

…and at strangely adjacent  statue celebrating Jimmy Hendrix’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival…

…and then the climb up to Tennyson Down, with wind so strong that I was glad it was blowing me inland, but walked well away from the cliff anyway, in case it suddenly changed direction. The approach to the memorial cross seemed to take much longer than it should have:

…but I got there eventually:

The wind died down and the descent was much quicker, with plenty of time to admire the cross-island views:

Then a short drive to Farringford, where Tennyson lived between 1853 and his death in 1892:

When I was at college, I was influenced by F. R. Leavis’s view that the Victorian poets tended to escape from a reality that was becoming increasingly ugly (literally and metaphorically) by constructing a beautiful but unreal dream world. There’s some truth in this, but what I was most aware of as I wandered around the haunts of two of these poets was the vigorous part they took in the ideological debates of the nineteenth century. Swinburne and Tennyson were, to put it mildly, very different men: the first was, as Wikipedia so learnedly puts it, ‘an algolagniac’, while the latter seems to have remained celibate during his rather long (almost 14 year) engagement, and after he married in 1850 became the archetype of the upstanding Victorian paterfamilias.  And in the great religious debate that dominated so much of nineteenth century intellectual life they seemed to take opposite sides. I’ve already quoted Swinburne’s views on life after death, and here he is on Christianity and sexual repression:

 Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;
Breasts more soft than a dove’s, that tremble with tenderer breath;
And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death;
All the feet of the hours that sound as a single lyre,
Dropped and deep in the flowers, with strings that flicker like fire.
More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things ?
Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.
A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?…

 Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death…

 And from the same poem a hint as to what Swinburne thought of the kind of iconography he saw in Bonchurch Old Church:
O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods !
O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted Gods !
Though all men abase them before you in spirit, and all knees bend,
I kneel not neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.

(Hymn to Proserpine, 1866)

This once sounded (and was meant to sound) deeply controversial. Tennyson, as we would expect, does not seek to shock the bourgeoisie, whose enthusiasm for his poetry enabled him to buy Farringford, but he too found orthodox Christianity hard to stomach.

Unlike Swinburne he hated the idea that humans were ‘only cunning casts in clay’ claiming that he ‘would not stay’ (In Memoriam, 1850, 120) if science ever proved such a strictly materialist view, but he wasn’t so sure which ‘spiritual’  belief system would provide him with refuge from this nightmare possibility. Obviously, his first thought was Christianity – he’d been brought up in a Lincolnshire Rectory – but like most decent people he found the idea of eternal torture repugnant.

In an 1842 poem The Vision of Sin, he works up to a tremendous image that expresses the hope that all humans will be saved from hell by a terrifying but ultimately merciful God:

At last I heard a voice upon the slope
Cry to the summit, “Is there any hope?”
To which an answer peal’d from that high land.
But in a tongue no man could understand;
And on the glimmering limit far withdrawn
God made Himself an awful rose of dawn.

A poem from In Memoriam (1850) calls this idea of universal salvation ‘the larger hope’:

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,

           And gather dust and chaff, and call

           To what I feel is Lord of all,

          And faintly trust the larger hope.

(IM, 55)

Tennyson’s friend F. D. Maurice lost a university post at London because of such universalism (see e.g., one of the countless victims that we’d do well to remember when we hear Christians today whingeing about an almost always imaginary ‘discrimination’.

Christian behaviour in the nineteenth century further disillusioned Tennyson. In Locksley Hall Sixty Years After he wrote:

Christian love among the churches look’d the twin of heathen hate.

Although he remained opposed to any form of materialism, it’s hard to say what his positive alternatives were: his later beliefs have been called pantheist, agnostic and unorthodoxly Christian.

In any case, these debates are all long settled, which isn’t to say there’s not still a lot of fuss made about such things by those with nothing better to do with their lives. Christianity, universalist or otherwise, is ignored by every important English poet, and we are all materialist neo-pagans who commune with nature and think highly of sex now:

Thou hast conquered, erm, O shock-haired Bonchurchian

Anyway, you could say that debates about religion are as dead as the arguments we used to have about the best ‘road’ to socialism (I know, I know, it’s far too obvious where I’m going.)

To Ventnor, of course which we skirted on our way back, driving close to the place where Karl Marx convalesced in the winters of 1882 and 1883. Marx wrote to his friend Frederick Engels:

The beauty of this part of the coast makes it all the harder for me to bear the ugliness of the lives of the proletariat. The gentleness of these winters in the far south of England makes it even more painful than usual to contemplate the brutality with which the bourgeoisie extort surplus value from their toiling wage-slaves. We must redouble our efforts to replace capitalist commodity production with a communist system based on production for need not profit.

Well, to be honest I made that up. In reality Marx wrote:

One can stroll here for hours enjoying both sea and mountain air at the same time.

That didn’t seem like much of an observation from one of the greatest ever European thinkers. I mean, if Socrates had holidayed on the Island and shot off a postcard to Plato saying, ‘Mrs. Hodgkin at no. 44 is a stickler for the rules but she does do a delicious full English breakfast with all the trimmings’ you’d expect me to provide you with something a bit more interesting, wouldn’t you?

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Chongqing in She, A Chinese

By a coincidence that some would call synchronicity I watched  Guo Xiaolu’s fine film She, A Chinese  (winner of the Locarno Golden Leopard in 2009)  just after reading this passage from the second volume (Birdless Summer, 1968) of Han Suyin’s autobiography:

Chungking {Now:  Chongqing} was phantasmagoria, a monster, brusque chimera, an unreal and thorough freak; a fortress where trees could not grow on the inch-thin soil covering the rock.  A city of squalor and filth, and with one of the most impossible climates on earth; a furnace in summer, in winter swallowed by unrelenting fog; and yet, for all its squalor, its rats, its misery, its desolation, its impossible cruelties, it was also magnificetly, raucously alive, palpitating with the solid triumph of its million people, whose sufferings seemed endless, whose courage, determination and forbearance towards gross injustice was the cindery mask over the flame that would one day devour all this structure of evil. (72-3)

In She, A Chinese Chonqing  plays a very different role. The film’s the story of the quest of a Mei, an unsentimentalized rural Chinese everywoman, for the consumer goods she reads about but can never hope to acquire in a village in Sichuan Province, where the film’s first section is set.

In the second ‘movement’  Mei goes to Chongqing, a gigantic city that was once part of Sichuan but is now an independent administrative entity – as the municipality has a population of just under 29, million, the Mayor is more important than some heads of state. Here the film pulls a sleight of hand: Mei falls in love with Spikey, a gangster, who like her dreams of migrating to the West, specifically to London, and his sudden violent death leaves her grieving but with the money to fulfil that dream.  When Mei first arrives in Chongqing the camera travels across a huge expanse of skyscrapers – the message is that this city is very different from the village where Mei grew up, that it is a key player in the rapid Chinese economic development that we read about so much in the newspapers!

View of Chaotianmen Docks on the Yangzi River

Night view from Jialing River cable Car

Indeed it is, and that’s where the film needs to trick us: no Chinese girl lucky enough to have inherited the huge trawl of ill-gotten gains acquired by her deceased gangster boyfriend needs to leave Chongqing to be able to buy any consumer item she chooses.

The people behind me aren’t just out taking the night air – they’re here to SHOP!

We were there late in the year – the Chinese Christmas is like the English  one, but without our beautiful old tradition of a Times article in late November in which an earnest cleric wonders if perhaps we haven’t sacrificed the true meaning of Christmas to a frenetic pursuit of consumption.

And interestingly Guo Xiaolu’s representation of Chongqing leaves out something that strikes most visitors, certainly foreign ones and I have reason to believe Chinese ones too: it’s a hilly city, and this has led to the growth of a profession I’ve never seen in any other Chinese urban centre:

My guess is that the film leaves them out because theirs is too much like the rural work of its first location.

And naturally it leaves out the tourist stuff:  

Huguang Guild Building

 Anyway, the ( thin) justification for Mei’s boyfriend’s refusal to buy any of the goods available in his city is that he’s saving avidly for that ticket to London – for a gangster he shows a truly middle-class talent for self-denial, not possessing even the mobile phone that almost all young Chinese buy as soon as they have any spare cash at all and which he in particular needs in his nefarious line of business as an enforcer.

The other thing about  the representation of Chongqing only becomes clear when Mei signs up for a tour group visiting the city of her dreams and jumps ship at Greenwich: it’s shown as monocultural, entirely Han Chinese. There certainly aren’t many obvious Westerners there, but given it’s location in the south west there must be some at least of what in China are called ‘minorities’.

 It’s when we get to the film’s third location we see that Guo Xiaolu wants to point a contrast, and I like the way it handles what is portrayed as London’s all-pervading multiculturalism.

 But before I discuss that a word about the passage from Han Suyin I quoted earlier: by 1968 she’d turned against the Nationalists – partly because of the bigoted Nationalist army officer she’d married – and seems to be best described as a critical (sometimes very critical) supporter of the Communists. Chongqing was the wartime capital of the Nationalist Government, so she’s keen to bring out all that’s worst in it, while paying a tribute to the Chinese people’s resistance to the Japanese and looking forward (in both senses) to the Revolution. Of course, things did change dramatically between the late 1930s and the late 1990s, but that’s not the whole story. It never is; no representation ever gives us ‘things as they are’.

After a brief marriage to a decent (but aging) English ‘white’, Mei moves in with  a slightly oppressive (but decent) Indian Muslim, and is told by an African-Caribbean doctor she’s pregnant just as that relationship is breaking up.

 The final scene carries much of the film’s meaning: Mei returns to the (presumably) Essex seaside, where her husband took her to introduce her to his past – and to a place that stands as a symbol of traditional Englishness. She’s been contemplating a return to China, and the sea is one way of getting there, but she opts not to take it. Instead, with a Chinese-Indian ‘seed’ inside her, she decides to try to make it in London. She hasn’t found it to be the place of riches she’d expected, but she has found it’s a city where an Asian woman might make a go of it and while doing so bring into the world a baby whose ethnicity, she can reasonably believe, won’t be a bar to acceptance and achievement. And the seaside setting reminds us that both mother and child have the traditions of England at their disposal, as well as those of China and India.

 The film’s message is much more upbeat than some have suggested, and I hope it’s correct.

( For a gloomier reading see

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Christianity and Literature: The Case Of Dylan Thomas

I blogged about Dylan Thomas earlier this year[1], and I really should have mentioned him in my post on the collapse of the Christian literary tradition in the twentieth century.[2] The trouble (for me) is that the Thomas who I remember, think about and re-read isn’t a Christian.

I think he’s a great poet for two reasons: firstly, he can suddenly produce truly breathtaking lines in otherwise poor poems, and secondly (and more importantly) he wrote a handful of poems that are great by almost any standards; these make up my personal Dylan Thomas ‘anthology’ and they’re not Christian works: The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait is about adolescent sex, The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower is about the horrors of time and decay seen from a  purely naturalistic perspective, and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, a poem to his dying father, tells his father to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ – death is seen as simply the end of life. Now, the usual comment on the lack of any reference to the after-life in this last poem is that Thomas was simply respecting the beliefs of his atheist father; this is no doubt true, but if I thought that someone I loved was about to face a judgement that would consign them to eternal pain or bliss and felt that I could make no comment on this issue I wouldn’t bother to write a poem on the trivial matter of how resigned they were to the natural process of dying. This is a poem on death without a trace of Christian sentiment (and reading it at Thomas’s grave was among my most moving experiences as a literary pilgrim).

 One of the works that feature in my personal Thomas anthology makes a neat transition to the almost definitely Christian poems, Refusal To Mourn The Death, by Fire, Of A Child In London (it can be heard read magisterially by Thomas at this site:

 This poem ends with the resonant line:

 After the first death, there is no other.

The sentiment here might be Christian (the child will live forever in heaven), anti-Christian (there is no second death of hell and therefore probably no heaven either), or not related to religion at all (in human history and/or in war only the first death counts as a painfully new experience – after that we have a different kind of entity although we still call it ‘death’) – and there are many other interpretations. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Thomas had the line pop into his head, thought it was tremendous (it is) and didn’t give a second thought as to what it might or might not be thought to mean by later commentators.

 The most important of Thomas’s Christian poems are those in the sequence Altarwise by Owl-Light. One critic has suggested these poems are ‘unreadable’ – in the sense that they are too complex and obscure to be open to interpretation. That sounds right to me:

 Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream

 Actually I don’t care what this means; only a fine poet could have thought up lines like these, only one with very confused ideas about poetry could have published them in that form. The sequence probably is Christian,[3] but, in my view, when Thomas divides himself between his atheist father and his pious mother, it’s dad who gets the best of the deal. I’m aware that this might be my own bias, and that my choice of  ‘best poems’ might be too strongly influenced by my own atheism, so I’ve no real argument with those who take a different view, but I shall never read Altarwise by Owl-Light again, unless I have to.

 Anyway, leaving the poems themselves aside, what did the man himself say about his religious beliefs?


 (These are) poems in praise of God’s world by a man who doesn’t believe in God.

 And this:

These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.

 That was helpful. I think, bearing all this in mind, that although I should have mentioned him in my original post, the case of Dylan Thomas does bear out the general thesis: Christianity up until about 1900 was capable of producing great literary talents; in the first half of the twentieth century it could only do so if the writer was a convert, partly created by another type of culture – or, I might now add, represents an ongoing duality in his own person, being part Christian, part Freudian/Surrealist/Sceptic. And today, the game is over. There will never be great Christian literature produced in these islands again.

[3] But even this can be doubted:

At one end of the scale, critics do not dispute that Thomas used religious imagery in his poetry; at the other end, critics generally agree that, at least during certain periods of his creative life, Thomas’s vision was not that of any orthodox religious system. The range of interpretations was summarized by R. B. Kershner, Jr., in Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics: “He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic; his God has been identified with Nature, Sex, Love, Process, the Life Force, and with Thomas himself.”



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Get Back: With The Beatles in Liverpool and Somerset

Strangely enough I found myself thinking about the Beatles while in East Coker. Not so strange perhaps: the poem’s starting point is the fact that the Eliot  family’s presence in the United States is due to the emigration in the late 1660s of two Andrew Eliots (father and son)  from East Coker. Eliot proclaims that ‘in my end is my beginning’, making of his return an event of huge symbolic importance, and the Beatles’ song I was thinking about was the 1969 classic Get Back. I’d thought about this song earlier this year when, on a trip to Manchester and Liverpool, we visited the birthplaces of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, now both owned by the National Trust.

Lennon’s Menlove Avenue residence has been much discussed in terms of  ‘was he or wasn’t he a Working Class Hero?’, a ‘debate’ that doesn’t interest me. But I was struck when the custodian told us that she’d shown Paul McCartney and his latest partner round one of the few council houses in the possession of a major ‘heritage’ organisation:

What, I wondered, did Paul mean by ‘get back’?  What or where did he suggest we got back to? Hardly the literal return to his childhood home that was being described!

I’ve taught the song a few times on courses about the sixties, and related it to the common feeling towards the end of the decade that everything was going wrong:  America had seen the Manson murders, the degeneration of  hippy strongholds like Haight-Ashbury into addiction and disease haunted nightmares, the continuing failure to stop the war in Vietnam, and so on; while in Europe the defeat of the French students in May 68 and the rapid movement of French opinion to the right that followed had intensified a general  sense of defeatism. We were moreover, about to experience the break-up of the Beatles themseves, soundtrack and symbol of ‘the sixties’!

I still think that kind of account is valid but for some reason I felt at East Coker, contemplating Eliot’s own attempt to ‘get back’ to the village of his ancestors, the starting place of the great journey of his distinguished family in a new continent, that I understood something else about the song for the first time.

File:Beatles Get Back.jpg

Image: Wikimedia

The first section deals with a common enough trajectory in the sixties: the move from the periphery to the centre, from a sense of ‘no-one but me thinks and feels like I do’, to an experience of generational community based partly on drug use:

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner
But he knew it couldn’t last
Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona
For some California grass.

The second section is less clear and there are varying interpetations – some people think Sweet Loretta’s a transvestite, others that the second line means that she, like many other women at the time, adopted sexual behaviours traditionally associated with men, and so on. That’s not important to my suggestion: no-one doubts that having kicked off with two of the great 60′s themes, getting out and getting high, we’re now on to a third, getting laid:

Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman
But she was another man
All the girls around her say she’s got it coming
But she gets it while she can….

So was Paul (and also John, as the song is sometimes credited as a joint composition) really saying that after everything that they and their generation had been through it was time to get back to the values of one or other of the Liverpool suburbs?

Well, there are all sorts of interpretations of the song – John Lennon, for example, seemed to think that Paul wrote it as an admonition to him to leave Yoko Ono, while the origin of the ‘get back’ theme in McCartney’s opposition to Enoch Powell’s racist attack on immigrants further complicates matters. (see e.g.

But what I did at East Coker was forget all such questions and the many others that have been raised (are Jojo and Loretta the same person? are they lovers? etc. etc.) and follow Frederick Jameson’s advice: always historicize. Suddenly something became clear and I felt a lump in my throat. To anyone in 1969 who’d been following the Beatles since the early 60s and had been involved in ‘the movement’ (as every young person had, even those like me who never went far from home) this was a song about an impossibility and a challenge.

Getting back was one thing we could never do; things had gone way too far for that. A gulf of experiences and new ideas separated us not just from our parents – we’d been trying consciously to bring that about – but from the selves we’d once been.  Only the least fortunate of us had never known a place where we felt we belonged, but by 1969 we’d left that behind for good. The past was, indeed, another country, and in 1969 the past began about 6 years ago.

But this strange period from the last stage of the (chronological) sixties through the early seventies was one not just of disillusion but of continuing optimism too, so I’ve come to think that the song is about something more than nostalgia for an abandoned belonging. It was putting on the generational agenda the challenge of finding in the future a sense of home that had been lost in all the hatreds and upheavals of the decade. The only way back was forward. Could we find a new ‘place’ that was free of all that was wrong with the sixties and in that place rediscover all that was right with what had gone before?

Nobody ever did, and that failure – which was of course also a success because any solution would have been premature- sets the scene for our current tasks.

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Is Materialism Tenable?

Someone surfed into my blog recently after googling ‘is materialism tenable?’ I’m sure they were disappointed, so I’d like to offer a short reply to that question.

My answer is that materialism is both more and less than ‘tenable’.

 Here’s an extract from the Discussion page of the Wikipedia article on The Angel of Mons (a miraculous apparition who is supposed to have fought on the British side during the WW1 Battle of Mons):

The likelihood of any story for or against a spiritual occurrence being proved with material evidence, is slim. References to supporters are completely missing. As the article points out, WW I soldiers had poor survivability in the long run, so their stories were never recorded.

But the Wikipedia article on Mons does record a German’s expectation that they should have won the battle, and wonders why they didn’t (think Dunkirk and the missing carriers at Pearl Harbor here). My thought would be divine “intervention,” a materialist would say, “they were just lucky.” Isn’t that usually the case?

Granted there was hype, but it wasn’t all hype. Student7             

The story of this piece of ‘divine intervention’ was invented by the journalist and fiction writer Arthur Machen. True, some soldiers did independently claim to have seen angelic support operations going on in the skies above northern France, but such claims were investigated and proved groundless. In fact, today I doubt anybody would bother to investigate them in the first place, as almost no educated people believe such interventions have ever happened or ever will happen.

‘Student’s’ claim that it’s all really just a matter of your perspective – are you a hard-line sceptical materialist or are you a reasonable kind of person who’s not dogmatically ruled out the possibility of the supernatural? –  is obviously absurd made in this context, yet one comes across again it again in discussions of the supernatural. Some believers like to present themselves as more open-minded than materialists, willing to consider the possibility of there being more things in heaven and earth, Horatio etc. etc.

One often sees, for example, such a claim made with regard to the most important of the New Testament ‘miracles’, the resurrection of Jesus. It’s obviously impossible to investigate this in the same way that the Angel of Mons or the Cock Lane Ghost were investigated, so the question for supporters of this hypothesis is the normal one for proponents of any historical position: what weight of evidence can you bring in its favour?

Hume’s idea that the evidence for any miracle has to be so huge that it would be a ‘greater miracle’ if this evidence were misleading than if the claimed miracle had taken place seems plausible but has been rightly criticized: those scientists arguing for a radically new principle have sometimes convinced their fellows long before the evidence reached the ‘greater miracle’ stage. Nevertheless, everyone in every field works with the looser idea, cliché though it might be, that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Our legal system, for example, would break down if it didn’t assume that crimes were never committed by aliens suddenly manifesting to carry out the murder and then disappearing after having left the smoking gun in the hands of an innocent bystander, and the court would rightly require more evidence for such a claim than for one based on a purely human stitch-up.

The Resurrection would be, in itself, the greatest event in human history and, if it’s also seen as proof that the Resurrected is one Person in a Triune God, then it’s more extraordinary still, and the weight of evidence we should demand will be correspondingly massive.

Four belated documents of disputed authorship, not existing in the original manuscripts, full of dubious claims, with little probability of eye-witness composition and almost no support in other contemporary documents – this is not only not enough, it fails by several thousand orders of magnitude to be enough.

And so it has been with every claim for the supernatural.

Religious people sometimes point out that European science was created largely by Christians, as if that were somehow proof that its modern commitment to materialist explanations was an unnecessary aberration. In fact, science abandoned supernatural explanations because they never worked out: ghosts, angels, spirits, demons, reincarnated souls– none was ever found to be there when proper investigations were carried out. No event ever turned out to best explained by divine intervention, and those Christians who are currently trying to overthrow the idea of evolution in the hope that people would then return to the earlier theory of divine special creation of each species might ponder this question: if the doctor says ‘we’ve had a good look at your records and we can’t find any medical reason for your condition, so we’re going to assume your symptoms are a divine punishment’ (a common pre-scientific idea), would you reply, ‘Sounds good to me’ or ‘Keep looking’? We are all materialists in hospital, at least while there’s still hope.

Supernatural explanations disappeared when humanity discovered reliable means to assess evidence. We will never again resort to the old dualist ideas – gods, demons, ghosts, spirits etc. In that’ sense, materialism is more than just ‘tenable’. All attacks on it depend on some form of special pleading, and my own opinion is that it is currently inevitable.

Yet it’s equally obvious that, as its more sophisticated critics say, scientific materialism is not the final word, the ultimate truth. It’s merely one way of looking at things, the product of intellectual, social and cultural developments. One day it will be superseded.[1]

Eventually a new scientifically grounded world view will arise that will make current forms of materialism look almost as old-fashioned and untenable as the simple dualism of Ratzinger and his ilk – but, to paraphrase the words of W. H. Auden, ‘clearly in that ‘almost’ all our hope’! The new Weltanschauung will arise on the basis of current science (in which I include all properly academic procedures for assessing evidence) not on religious thinking.

Whether this new world-view (before it too disappears) will be a dualism (some people place their hopes in ‘dark matter’ although not, as far as I can make out, many scientists) or a monism – but not our monism – we can have no idea.

No materialist should mind being wrong! The belief in the permanence and certainty of our ideas is a legacy of the religious approach to intellectual investigation.

[1] This does not mean that, as some Christians like to say, it’s all a matter of faith. I’ve just booked my plane ticket to Hong Kong – if you tell me you’re going to fly there by the power of your own arm-flapping, well, there are all kinds of ways in which you could say my plans are an act of faith, but it would be a total misuse of words to regard our disparate approaches to the problem of getting across to Asia as equally dependent on trust and unprovable assumptions.

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East Coker: A Footnote

I’ve written twice about Eliot’s poem East Coker in recent months: Little Gidding, the Vicar of Dibley…. (Previous post) and Culture and Revolution in Ningxia Province (May 11)

East Coker’s not too far from here, so I’ve paid my respects to Eliot’s ashes a number of times, but never before with a camera at hand.  Here are some photos from last week’s visit:

St Michael’s Church

The Eliot corner contains the poet’s ashes:

The poem takes us outside the church, down the lane…

And the deep lane insists on the direction/Into the village

….and into the fields, where Eliot describes  a historical vision of the villagers:

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire…

I discussed this rather surprising ‘vision’ in my last post. It starts off as an apparent affirmation of continuity, the importance of ritual and the sacrament of marriage, but suddenly morphs into a picture of the rural life as symbolic of a doomed life without Christian grace (‘dung and death’).

I couldn’t disagree more with Eliot ideologically, but every time I engage with him I’m left echoing the words of William Empson: I don’t know how much of my mind he invented.



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Little Gidding, the Vicar of Dibley and the End of Christian Literature In England

Christian  English  literature is one of the glories of humanity. The tradition goes back to Caedmon’s celebratory poem reported and translated into Latin by Bede, snakes through distinguished Anglo-Saxon work like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, reaches brilliant maturity in the late fourteenth century (Langland, Chaucer and the unknown poet of  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), migrates to Scotland in the fifteenth century, returns in its greatest flowering to the England of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, exists for the first time alongside a growing body of non- or anti-Christian writing from the late eighteenth century onwards – and now is  more or less dead.

There was a continuing stream of minor but distinguished writers throughout the century – G. K. Chesterton,Walter de la Mare,  Barbara Pym,  Beryl Bainbridge,John Betjeman…. But the greatness in English writing was elsewhere, and even this lesser stream seems to have largely dried up. Hilary Mantel is said to be a Catholic (although the one book of hers I’ve read all the way through, Fludd, is, to say the least, ambivalent about the Church), and there’s A. N. Wilson – but his is a minute literary talent and he’s impossible  to take seriously as a  thinker of any kind. As for poetry, the current Oxford Professor of poetry Geoffrey Hill is an Anglican but he’s just as minor as Wilson and far less readable.

Just before the end there came – well, to use Eliot’s own words, a midwinter spring, a final defiant flourish before the lights went out. I’m referring to the work of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden.  In 1925 there was – unless I’m missing someone – no major Christian writer except the ageing Kipling. Things were very different amongst the agnostics, proto-New Agers, and unclassifiably non-Christian: although  smaller in number than the orthodox in the population as a whole they account for all the great living writers, with the exception just  noted: Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, Forster, Yeats, Hardy, and Eliot himself. The percipient observer might well have thought that Christian literature was essentially over.

But in the next two decades this situation was transformed by the emergence of some major religiously committed talents. It’s no accident, I think, that all were converts: Graham Greene became a Roman Catholic  in 1926, as a result of an interest created by the woman he was to marry, Eliot was baptised in 1927, and Evelyn Waugh converted in 1930 after the break-up of his marriage. Auden’s return to the religion he’d been taught as a child was a more drawn out process, but 1940 is probably the key date. It seems that Christian culture in the twentieth century could  no longer on its own  nurture a major artist.

Although after his conversion Auden never produced anything nearly as good as the work of the late twenties and the thirties, I suspect that one of his pieces – perhaps ”In Praise of Limestone’  or ‘The Shield of Achilles’ - will one day have the honour of being considered the last important poem by a Christian English writer, which makes it completely appropriate that it will have been written in the United States.

But, thinking in terms of works more substantial than individual poems, the two masterpieces of this group of belated converts are Brideshead Revisited and The Four Quartets. I’m going to describe two trips, one to Cambridge in 2007 to read the poem Little Gidding at the community church and, in a future post, a 2010 return to the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same…

Eliot was driven from Cambridge to Little Gidding in May 1936. The village was the site of a seventeenth century Anglican community founded by Nicolas Ferrar. It had been praised by Ferrar’s friend, the poet George Herbert, and visited by King Charles shortly before his arrest. Ferrar was influenced by both Protestant and Catholic traditions, something that would have appealed to the Anglo-Catholic Eliot.

The church at Little Gidding: A ‘virtual tour’ is available at

The Victorian House

Little Gidding is set against the background of WWII and in particular the London Blitz, during which Eliot served as  a fire warden.

I suspect that part of the appeal of Four Quartets is what it shares with the Vicar of Dibley: an opportunity for sweet Anglican sentimentality in a charming English village setting. Take, for example this passage from the second poem, East Coker. Eliot has returned to the eponymous Somerset village from which his ancestors set out for the USA, and he imagines what looks like a rural idyll, centuries of villagers dancing in the fields, not yet facing the modern situation of urban estrangement from the rhythms of nature

 Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn.  

Ah – nourishing the corn indeed, isn’t that a lovely way to think about death and putrefaction? These people are just uneducated farm labourers (‘heavy feet in clumsy shoes/Earth feet loam feet’) but they know how to be both light-hearted and serious. What a nice tribute! Just as the Vicar of Dibley teaches us to respect the good-hearted buffoons who make up the village congregation Eliot is showing us that these simple country folk knew a thing or two we well-read poetry lovers have forgotten.

The passage continues, apparently in the same vein:

Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest…

But suddenly….

The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

 Oh shit! Literally and metaphorically. It turns out that these rural revellers are stuck in the realm of nature, and unless they accept the Divine Grace that offers us a chance to rise above the animals then their sex acts, whether or not sanctioned by the marriage celebrated earlier in the poem, are mere copulation, brief amusement stops on their journey to the eternal ‘death’ of hell.

 That’s one reason, I think, why Christian literature has almost disappeared. Modern sensibilities, quite rightly, won’t bear any talk of eternal punishment. The process of refinement began, like so much else that’s good in our culture, in the seventeenth century, and within a hundred years or so the Catholic poet Alexander Pope was mocking preachers who wouldn’t mention ‘hell to ears polite’– in other words, who refused to upset their gentry patrons with talk of everlasting flames.  (See Pope’s Moral Essays, Epistle IV.) Now things have gone a lot further than that.

The Vicar of Dibley is broadly Christian in intention – it tries to suggest that if only the church got thoroughly with-it and had lots of unstuffy women vicars and the occasional service for animals then those empty pews would quickly start to fill up again. But imagine my favourite post-Cleesian sitcom devoting an episode to Jim, Alice, Hugo and the gang facing up to the possibility of eternal torture. Or Geraldine Granger, whose congregation hardly consists of the ‘polite’ in the Popeian sense, devoting a sermon to hell. In fact, her just-dropped into-the-church-from the-pub-and-thought-I’d-say-a-few-words-while-I’m-here style is hardly conducive to any message that might upset the tiny band of churchgoers who, for some strange reason profess a faith that has such little influence on the way they live.

Eliot was obsessed with hell, claiming to feel its existence ‘in his bones’ and quite correctly drew important conclusions from this belief (and also, of course, from his hopes for heaven, although human nature being what it is, I doubt if that’s ever as compelling as the fear of eternal pain). The Four Quartets are, like almost all genuinely Christian writing, about how to avoid hell and win heaven.

  There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England

 Little Gidding brings the Four Quartets to an end by placing before the reader  a number of symbols, one of which is the village itself, home to the Christian community, and emblematic of nature transformed by grace. Of course, nothing guarantees salvation – at least it doesn’t in the Christian traditions Eliot identifies with – so the poem has much to say about repentance and the acceptance of suffering – in a daring trope the German planes attacking London during the Blitz are transformed into doves, symbols of the Holy Spirit, because they offer the chance to burn away sin through the fiery agony of awareness, repentance and restitution. (Who then devised the torment? Love -  Section IV). And as the pig sties remind us, unregenerate human nature is never far away and never ceases to be a threat:

If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty…

The pig sties were and are real, but they also serve as a symbol of unredeemed human nature, and a reminder that communities and individuals who receive and accept Divine grace are still under threat 

 So why did Christian literature, after this brief flourishing, finally collapse? The answers, of course, lie in the development of European history and ideology since the eighteenth century, and are complex and manifold, but I’d like to risk a few suggestions.

 Since the eighteenth century Christian support has been crumbling, so the ‘pool’ of possibly first rate Christian writers gets smaller, if not year on year, then at least decade on decade, with perhaps a few exceptions (there seems to have been a ‘turn’ back to religion amongst some intellectuals during the Napoleonic Wars, for example). Further, there seems suggestive (although not yet conclusive) evidence that in the West at least Christians tend to be less intelligent than secularists, and if this really is so, it makes the emergence of Christian writers with something interesting to say even less likely.  But I think there’s a more subtle reason too.

At the end of his essay Thoughts after Lambeth, Eliot wrote:

 The World[1] is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian morality. The experiment will fail….[2]

 The trouble, for Eliot, was that it succeeded, and this ‘Worldly’ morality is, to an increasingly large majority, infinitely more ‘civilized’ than its Christian rival: the World regards homophobia as wrong, not private consensual adult sex acts, and, more broadly, rejects the obsession with sexual behaviour that characterises the Christian tradition. And, however tragic the outcomes of sexual freedom sometimes may be, you’d have to go a long way to convince me that contemporary sexual mores produce as much harm as the rigid injunctions of the Christian era – which amounted to ‘have sex with one person only of the opposite gender after marrying them’.

 ‘Worldly’ morality today has no truck with anti-Semitism or any other form of racism – to put it no more strongly than this, the World today takes much more seriously than the converted Eliot seemed to do the apparent incitements to anti-Semitism that litter his poetry in the twenties.[3]  .’ Furthermore,…well, I could continue but the point’s clear enough – ‘Worldly’ morality is obviously more civilised than Christian morality, and that’s one reason for the collapse of Christian literature: those Christians who do write have to express moral ideas so much worse than those held by the secular majority that it’s impossible for them to find either a large, general audience or a small but elite one – and either or both are necessary to inspire high achievement.

Of course, most Christians I know are decent people, and in no way worse than secularists. This is because – in theory or practice or both – they’ve ditched specifically Christian moral precepts. Surveys seem to show that even English Catholics tend to disregard the Pope’s ‘teachings’ on contraception and to find his crude homophobia bizarre.  So Christian writers today do have the option of going over to the ‘World’ and refraining from developing a religious morality.

 Hence The Vicar of Dibley : the Reverend Geraldine Granger’s moral ideas are not obviously different from my ‘Worldly’ ones: fuzzy liberalism, ‘tolerance’ of most forms of sexual behaviour, support of charities and other worthy causes, a preference for kindly actions over nasty ones, and so boringly on. No homophobia and no obsessional meddling with other people’s sex lives (nor, as I mentioned earlier, consignment of those who disregard  her ethical precepts to the agonies of hell) –  none of the stuff, in other words, of traditional Christianity.  Eliot’s emphasis on the purely natural life as one consigned to ‘dung and death’ is unlikely to attract satisfactory audience ratings. But the values of The Vicar of Dibley are equally unlikely to ever be embodied in first-rate religious literature.

So I went to Little Gidding to celebrate the greatness of a past, to honour and enjoy a fine flowering of  a literary tradition that, I am almost certain, has come to an end.

The ‘dull facade’ – a reminder that true religion is internal not external

[1] My note: as in ‘the flesh and the devil’; not the countries that now make up the UN.

[2] Selected Essays, 1969, 387.

[3] Eliot has his defenders, but I find them unconvincing. For a measured account see Anthony Julius, T.S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Poetic Form.










Filed under Christianity, T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Travel- England, Writers