This essay examines the medievalist theme of the solitary recluse in the later poetry and plays of T.S. Eliot and considers the resonances between this image as a locus of Eliot’s model of ecclesial communion and comparable elements in medieval reclusive texts themselves. It argues that when read together, these texts suggest a kind of encounter with the past which is not primarily affective or erotic in form, but rather kenotic, a theologically-derived term meaning ‘self-emptying.’ In other words, these texts set up a paradigm requiring abnegation of the self for communion to be possible. The essay investigates three instances: an allusion to an anchorite in the pageant-play The Rock, the theme of withdrawal to the desert in several plays, and the quotation of Julian of Norwich in Four Quartets. Alongside each it examines medieval conceptualisations of solitary life, which speak to similar concerns and commitments, and concludes that Eliot’s medievalism posits a mode of transhistorical encounter that offers a challenge to existing approaches.
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See discussion below; Cohen (2003) and Dinshaw (1999 and 2012) are important voices, drawing in different ways on Foucault (1986). Howie (2007) develops similar themes; Kay (2011), Walter (2013), and a special issue of postmedieval (Magnani and Watt 2018) exemplify recent developments in manuscript studies around the idea of touch.
The phrase ‘the death in the desert’ alludes to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue of that name, which depicts the death of the apostle John, while the mention of a column suggests a reference to Simeon Stylites, whose ascetic practice involved living atop a pillar.
For example, Chris Jones’s survey of medievalism in British poetry notes only the presence of the Grail legends in The Waste Land as evidence of a medieval interest in Eliot (2016, 23). However, see note 7 for some exceptions.
I use the terms ‘anchorite’ and ‘hermit’ largely in their modern scholarly senses, the former indicating stable, enclosed solitary life, the latter a more flexible solitary existence. I also use ‘recluse’ and ‘solitary’ as more usefully generic terms, reflecting the diversity of practice and reference in medieval and modern contexts.
‘The absolute past […] of biblical history, does not recede, and can be recapitulated in the liturgy; the absolute future—the end of the world—is not brought nearer by the flow of time, for the kingdom of God can break into the present at any moment.’ (Gurevich 1985, 145–46).
Shapiro (1940) is an early example of work on Eliot’s interests in medieval philosophy.
The latter portions of the play were later reprinted independently and so remain the best-known parts of this little-staged work.
My thanks to Antje E. Chan for pointing out this echo.
Barry Spurr notes that ‘ascetic discipline was central to [Eliot’s] rule of life’ and that he maintained a relationship with the Anglican monks of the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham, spending time there while he was writing The Rock, among other works (2010, 135, 152).
See, for example, the description of twelfth-century anchorite Wulfric of Haselbury: ‘spreading his wings again in what for him was dawn, he would fly away to his window like a dove and take his rest […] the night grew bright with the reflection of the true light’ (John of Forde 2011, 134).
There are discrepancies between published editions of this section. The first impression has a line between the last two in this quotation (‘Squeezed like tooth-paste in the tube-train next to you’); in the third, both that line and the following disappear, while the latter reappears in the 1936 Collected Poems.
See in particular ‘What the Thunder Said’: ‘Here is no water but only rock […] Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit’ (Eliot 2015, V. 331–39).
Isaiah exhorted his hearers, ‘in the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD’; Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones raised to life.
Underhill describes Julian ‘dwelling alone in her churchyard cell’ (1967, 112), while the note ‘To the Reader’ in the 1920 edition of the Revelation, which Jewel Spears Brooker (2009) identifies as the edition used by Eliot, names her profession as ‘of the strictest sort of solitary livers’ (Tyrrell 1920, xxi).
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My thanks to Annie Sutherland, the Premodern Conversations working group (in particular Godelinde Gertrude Perk), Audrey Southgate, Antje E. Chan, and the anonymous readers for postmedieval, as well as the editors, for their kind attention and constructive comments on successive versions of this essay; and to my D.Phil examiners, Eddie Jones and Vincent Gillespie, for encouraging me to publish what began as the coda to my thesis.
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Smith, A. ‘Each way means loneliness—and communion’: reading anchoritic literature with T.S. Eliot. Postmedieval 13, 29–53 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-022-00221-7