Skip to main content

‘Each way means loneliness—and communion’: reading anchoritic literature with T.S. Eliot


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Significant scholarly works on medieval reclusion include Warren (1985), Mulder-Bakker (2005), Licence (2011), and McAvoy (2011).

  5. 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.

  6. ‘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).

  7. A recent exception to the latter is Krystyna Michael’s essay on Murder in the Cathedral as a neomedievalist text (2014); exceptions to the former, somewhat less recent, include Shapiro (1940) and Evans (1998).

  8. Shapiro (1940) is an early example of work on Eliot’s interests in medieval philosophy.

  9. Gardner (1949) identifies many of Eliot’s medieval literary debts; Neff (1980), Hay (1982), and Cook (2001) among others explore the role of St John of the Cross. Hay also discusses the Cloud and other negative theology, but does not mention Julian. For criticism on Julian in Eliot, see note 21.

  10. Jones notes for example that Beowulf ‘“medievalises” the culture of a continental heroic age out of which it imagined itself as having evolved’ (2016, 15); Matthews reflects on ‘the impossible question of when the Middle Ages can be said to have ended’ (2015, 2).

  11. See Cohen (2003) and Dinshaw (1999, 2012).

  12. The latter portions of the play were later reprinted independently and so remain the best-known parts of this little-staged work.

  13. My thanks to Antje E. Chan for pointing out this echo.

  14. 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).

  15. Examples of the two tendencies include, respectively, Wordsworth’s praise of the River Duddon as more of a solitary than ‘the nicest Anchorite’ (2011, 355) and Tennyson’s ‘haggard anchorite’ St Telemachus (1892, 18).

  16. 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).

  17. 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.

  18. 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).

  19. Isaiah exhorted his hearers, ‘in the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD’; Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones raised to life.

  20. See, for example, in the tenth-century ‘Rule of Grimlaïcus’ (Thornton 2011), Chapters 14 and 35 in particular, and the prologue of the fifteenth-century ‘Cambridge Rule’ (Oliger 1928).

  21. For critical reflection on the significance of the quotations, see inter alia McCaslin (1986), Severin (1989), Brooker (2009), and Newman (2011).

  22. 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).

  23. See Hellwig (2005) for an overview, and Spurr (2010, Chapter 4), for the sacramental focus of Eliot’s religious practice.

  24. See Watson (1999, 2004, and 2010) for an example of an evolving approach to this difficulty.


  • Aelred of Rievaulx. 1971. A Rule of Life for a Recluse. Translated by Mary Paul Macpherson. In Treatises and the Pastoral Prayer, edited by David Knowles, 41–102. Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications.

  • Anonymous. 2009. Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses. Translated by Bella Millett. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

  • Badenhausen, Richard. 2004. ‘T.S. Eliot Speaks the Body: The Privileging of Female Discourse in Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party.’ In Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot, edited by Cassandra Laity and Nancy K. Gish, 195–214. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Benjamin, Walter. 1999. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History.’ In Illuminations, translated by Hannah Arendt, 245–55. London: Pimlico.

  • Brooker, Jewel Spears. 2009. ‘The Fire and the Rose: Theodicy in Eliot and Julian of Norwich.’ In Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception, eds. Sarah Salih and Denise N. Baker, 69–86. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. 2003. Medieval Identity Machines. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook, Cornelia. 2001. ‘Fire and Spirit: Scripture’s Shaping Presence in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.’ Literature & Theology: an International Journal of Theory, Criticism and Culture 15 (1): 85–101.

  • D’Arcens, Louise and Andrew Lynch, eds. 2014. International Medievalism and Popular Culture. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Daumer, Elisabeth. 2004. ‘Vipers, Viragos, and Spiritual Rebels: Women in T.S. Eliot’s Christian Society Plays.’ In Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot, edited by Cassandra Laity and Nancy K. Gish, 234–53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Dinshaw, Carolyn. 2012. How Soon Is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Eliot, T.S. 1928. For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Form and Order. London: Faber and Gwyer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eliot, T.S. 1934a. The Rock. London: Faber and Faber.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eliot, T.S. 1934b. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent.’ In Selected Essays, 13–22. London: Faber and Faber.

  • Eliot, T.S. 1935. Murder in the Cathedral. London: Faber and Faber.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eliot, T.S. 1962. Collected Plays. London: Faber and Faber.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eliot, T.S. 2015. The Poems of T.S. Eliot. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. 2 vols. London: Faber and Faber.

  • Eliot, T.S. 2016. The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 6, 1932–1933. Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. London: Faber and Faber.

  • Eliot, T.S. 2017. The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 7, 1934–1935. Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. London: Faber and Faber.

  • Evans, W.D. 1998. ‘T.S. Eliot’s Harvard College Senior Year: The Medieval Curriculum.’ Ph.D. diss., Emory University.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1986. ‘Of Other Spaces.’ Translated by Jay Mishowiec. Diacritics 16 (1): 22–27.

  • Fradenburg, Aranye. 1997. ‘So That We May Speak of Them: Enjoying the Middle Ages.’ New Literary History 28 (2): 205–230.

  • Gardner, Helen. 1949. The Art of T.S. Eliot. London: The Cresset Press.

  • Gillespie, Vincent. 2011. ‘Dead Still/Still Dead.’ The Medieval Journal 1 (1): 53–78.

  • Gillespie, Vincent and Maggie Ross. 1992. ‘The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich.’ In The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, Exeter Symposium 5, edited by Marion Glasscoe, 53–77. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer.

  • Goscelin of Saint-Bertin. 2004. The Book of Encouragement and Consolation. Translated by Monika Otter. Cambridge: D.S Brewer.

  • Griffiths, Dominic. 2012. ‘“Now and in England.”’ Yeats Eliot Review 29 (1/2): 5–18.

  • Gurevich, Aron. 1985. ‘What is Time?’ In Categories of Medieval Culture, translated by G.L. Campbell, 93–151. London: Routledge.

  • Hay, Eloise Knapp. 1982. T.S. Eliot’s Negative Way. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Hellwig, Monika K. 2005. ‘Sacrament: Christian Sacraments.’ In Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 7958–63. Vol. 12. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA.

  • Heng, Geraldine. 2011. ‘The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages: I.’ Literature Compass 8: 315–331.

  • Heng, Geraldine. 2018. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Howie, Cary. 2007. Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature. New York: Palgrave.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Howie, Cary. 2020. Transfiguring Medievalism: Poetry, Attention, and the Mysteries of the Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • John of Forde. 2011. The Life of Wulfric of Haselbury, Anchorite. Translated by Pauline Matarasso. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

  • Jones, Chris. 2016. ‘Medievalism in British Poetry.’ In The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, ed. Louise D’Arcens, 14–28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Jones, E.A. 2008. ‘Ceremonies of Enclosure: Rite, Rhetoric and Reality.’ In Rhetoric of the Anchorhold: Space, Place and Body within the Discourses of Enclosure, edited by Liz Herbert McAvoy, 34–40. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

  • Julian of Norwich. 2006. The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love. Edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

  • Kay, Sarah. 2011. ‘Legible Skins: Animals and the Ethics of Medieval Reading.’ postmedieval 2 (1): 13–32.

  • Lacoste, Jean-Yves. 2004. Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man. Translated by Mark Raftery-Skehan. New York: Fordham University Press.

  • Licence, Tom. 2011. Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950–1200. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Magnani, Roberta and Diane Watt, eds. 2018. ‘Queer Manuscripts.’ Special Issue, postmedieval 9 (3).

  • Matthews, David. 2015. Medievalism: A Critical History. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAvoy, Liz Herbert. 2011. Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer.

  • McCaslin, Susan. 1986. ‘Vision and Revision in Four Quartets: T.S. Eliot and Julian of Norwich.’ Mystics Quarterly 12 (4): 171–178.

  • Michael, Krystyna. 2014. ‘Neomedievalism and the Modern Subject in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.’ postmedieval 5 (1): 34–43.

  • Millett, Bella, Richard Dance, and E.J. Dobson, eds. 2005. Ancrene Wisse: A Corrected Edition of the Text in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402, with Variants from Other Manuscripts. Early English Text Society (Series). Original Series; No. 325, 326. Oxford: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press.

  • Mulder-Bakker, Anneke. 2005. Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Neff, Rebecca Kinnamon. 1980. ‘New Mysticism in the Writings of May Sinclair and T.S. Eliot.’ Twentieth-Century Literature 26(1): 86–108.

  • Newman, Barbara. 2011. ‘Eliot’s Affirmative Way: Julian of Norwich, Charles Williams, and Little Gidding.’ Modern Philology 108 (3): 427–461.

  • Oliger, Livarius, ed. 1928. ‘Regula tres reclusorum et eremitarum Angliae saec. XIII–XIV.’ Antonianum 3: 151–90, 299–320.

  • Pugh, Tison and Weisl, Angela. 2013. Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Salih, Sarah and Baker, Denise N. 2009. ‘Introduction.’ In Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception, eds. Sarah Salih and Denise N. Baker, 1–11. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Severin, Laura. 1989. ‘“In My End Is My Beginning”: Mother as Saviour in Four Quartets.’ Yeats Eliot Review 10 (1): 25–27.

  • Shapiro, Leo. 1940. ‘The Medievalism of T.S. Eliot.’ Poetry 56 (4): 202–213.

  • Soud, W. David. 2016. Divine Cartographies: God, History, and Poeisis in W.B. Yeats, David Jones, and T.S. Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Spurr, Barry. 2010. Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press.

  • Spurr, Barry. 2016. ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity.’ In The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot, edited by Jason Harding, 187–202. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Strohm, Paul. 2000. Theory and the Premodern Text. Minnesota, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tennyson, Alfred. 1892. The Death of Œnone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems. New York; London: Macmillan and Co.

  • Thornton, Andrew, trans. 2011. Grimlaïcus: Rule for Solitaries. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

  • Trigg, Stephanie. 2016. ‘Medievalism and Theories of Temporality.’ In The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, ed. Louise D’Arcens, 196–209. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Tyrrell, George. 1920. ‘To the Reader.’ In Revelations of Divine Love Shewed to Mother Juliana of Norwich, edited by George Tyrrell, xxi–xxiv. St Louis, MO: Herder Book Co.

  • Underhill, Evelyn. 1967. Mysticism. 12th ed. London: Methuen.

    Google Scholar 

  • Walter, Katie L., ed. 2013. Reading Skin in Medieval Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Warren, Ann K. 1985. Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Watson, Nicholas. 1999. ‘Desire for the Past.’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 21: 59–97.

  • Watson, Nicholas. 2004. ‘Afterword.’ In Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars, edited by Louise D’Arcens and Juanita Feros Ruys, 185–88. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

  • Watson, Nicholas. 2010. ‘The Phantasmal Past: Time, History, and the Recombinative Imagination.’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32: 1–37.

  • Whitehead, Christiania. 2009. ‘“A Great Woman in our Future”: Julian of Norwich’s Functions in Late Twentieth-Century Spirituality.’ In Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception, eds. Sarah Salih and Denise N. Baker, 131–151. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Wordsworth, William. 2011. The Poems of William Wordsworth: Collected Reading Texts from the Cornell Wordsworth Series, III. Edited by Jared Curtis. 3 vols. Tirril; Penrith, CA: Humanities-Press.

Download references


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.

Conflict of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Smith, A. ‘Each way means loneliness—and communion’: reading anchoritic literature with T.S. Eliot. Postmedieval 13, 29–53 (2022).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: