What can you do to use your lockdown time profitably? One of the ways is to learn something new, and what better way to study than in a group. So, welcome to the Lockdown T.S.Eliot Book Club. This book club is for those who would like to learn more about the great Catholic poet T.S.Eliot. I’m going to call him “Catholic” even though he never joined the Roman Catholic Church. He was an Anglo-Catholic and in his day (even though they were still divided from the Catholic Church) it could be argued that it was much more possible to “Catholic but just not Roman Catholic.” The Anglo-Catholics of Eliot’s day really were close to the Catholic faith. In fact, it is arguable that an Anglo Catholic of the 1940s and 50s in England was closer to the historic Catholic church than many modernist Roman Catholics of our day. If people want to be persnickety about it they may, but let’s call Eliot a “Catholic poet” and in so doing admit (as we shall find out) that he was certainly Catholic in his sensibilities, his world view, his mindset and the orientation of his heart.
So what is the Lockdown T.S.Eliot book club and how does it work? The mission of this book club is to get together the readers of this blog to sit around a digital living room and discuss Eliot and learn about his life and work. The way this will work in its fullness is for people to comment and ask questions and make observations through the comments box. The comments box is reserved for Donor Subscribers so full members of the T.S.Eliot book club will have to be Donor Subscribers. However, I don’t want this club to be totally exclusive so I will write some general posts which will be open for all readers. In those posts I will give some reading suggestions–all of which will be accessible online. General readers can therefore glean from the open posts and enjoy some directed reading.
The “Inklings and Friends” channel in the Archived Articles section of the blog will be the location to find the extra blog posts that I will write about the various reading assignments. I’ll also post some questions to get discussion started. Donor Subscribers will have access to those further articles and further suggested reading. They will also be able to participate in the online discussions via the combox. We’ll see how this goes, and if it is worthwhile and people are enjoying themselves and learning, we’ll keep going. If it flops. It flops.
Why T.S.Eliot? Why now? First because I think Eliot has been much neglected for some time. He was hugely important in the post war years before his death in 1965. Why do I think he is important? Because he lived through such tumultuous times. Born in 1888 in St Louis Missouri, he moved to Europe in 1914 and lived there through two world wars. He was the darling of the nihilistic, atheistic modernist set and shocked everyone when he converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1927. From then on he was an uncompromising Christian poet. Like C.S.Lewis–God got hold of him and through him changed the world. Eliot’s personal life was one of turmoil, drama, disappointment, tragedy and final happiness, and we’ll see in the book club how the events of his life influenced his character and thus his writing.
We’re going to follow a structure in the book club of considering Eliot’s life and poetry together in a chronological fashion. His life can be broken down into three phases which can be seen to parallel Dante’s three great books: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Roughly speaking this coincides with his three great poems: The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets. We’ll plan to read these poems in the book club and to shed light on the three great poems we’ll read some of his other work and discuss it as well. Now, I don’t want to pretend that I am the world’s greatest Eliot expert. I’ve read most of the biographies on him and a good number of critical works as well as most of his poetry. Joseph Pearce recently observed that I do have a unique insight into Eliot inasmuch as I also was an American who ended up living in England for a good chunk of my life. I joined the Anglican Church and understand both the American roots and the English offshoots of his life.
Before we get started I ought to say something about how to read poetry. By the way, here is an article I wrote for Medium on the subject of reading and writing poetry. It might help to go back and read that article. But first, when reading poetry we must get out of our head that we are reading for the usual purpose of reading. Americans are a very practical, utilitarian race and we usually read for information or entertainment. We like facts, history, instruction and education. We are also very literally minded and our practical, vocations oriented education tends to stress information learning and a literal understanding of language. This doesn’t really work when reading poetry. If you read a poem and say, “But my love is not like a red, red, rose at all. She doesn’t have thorns and she only smells nice when she wears perfume!” then you’re not yet at the starting line. Reading poetry demand an approach that is almost the exact opposite of the literal expression of language. Sure, there are some poems that are historical epics like Chesterton’s Lepanto and there is some poetry that tells a story, but beneath all kinds of poetry is the attempt to open the doors of the heart. I’d say a good sermon begins by opening the mind in order to open the heart. A good poem opens the heart in order to open the mind. A preacher says, “I want to get them to think so deeply that they learn to love.” A poet says, “I want them to love so deeply that they learn to think.” This type of reading of poetry is especially important with T.S.Eliot and I’ll explain why as part of the T.S.Eliot Book Club.
So let’s get started. I suggest you begin by reading (in this order) Aunt Helen, The Boston Evening Transcript, Morning at the Window and Preludes. I will then write a few words about these poems and Eliot’s early life. The best collection of Eliot’s complete works is T.S. Eliot The Complete Poems and Plays. Most of the poems, though can be read online.
- Aunt Helen is here.
- The Boston Evening Transcript is here.
- Morning at the Window is here.
- Preludes is here.
If you would like to join the full membership of our Lockdown T.S.Eliot Book Club you can learn more about becoming a Donor Subscriber here. All levels of membership will be able to access the Book Club, so if you want to sign up at the lowest level you can. Higher levels get more benefits and help support the blog more, but you’re welcome at any level and you can cancel your subscription at any time.