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 http://www.littlegiddingchurch.org.uk/lgchtmlfiles/lgexploreint.html
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 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…
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 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. .’ 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.
 My note: as in ‘the flesh and the devil’; not the countries that now make up the UN.
 Selected Essays, 1969, 387.
 Eliot has his defenders, but I find them unconvincing. For a measured account see Anthony Julius, T.S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Poetic Form.