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These Modernistic Churches

Churches recognised as “modern” were built in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, a period of postwar reconstruction. Before the Second World War, Eliot’s The Rock (1934) was part of a fund-raising campaign to build new churches in suburban areas of expanding London. In the context of the 1930s Great Depression, architectural simplicity seemed to pass as modernity, and vice versa.

Conflicting views on the subject are comically dramatised in a scene in The Rock where three contemporary characters discuss church architecture and decoration: the Major and Mrs. Poultridge are mildly satirised as staunch, snobbish Anglican Tories (“Disgraceful, I call it”, “That’s what comes of democracy”); Millicent is an opinionated younger woman whose remarks “sound like a quotation”; Mrs. Poultridge and Millicent had an Oxbridge education, whereas the Major defends that “you learn a lot more in the Army”.

Mrs. Poultridge fears that the church that Ethelbert, Alfred and Edwin are building will be “one of these modernistic churches” lacking in “devoutness”. She worships at a Gothic church – Gothic revival, rather, as her reply to Millicent betrays: “The purest Gothic. Our architect chose the style of fourteen eighty-four.” Neo-Gothic churches became symbols of Victorian Englishness: St Stephen’s, on Gloucester Road, where Eliot worshipped and served as churchwarden, is a good example. Mrs. Poultridge’s church is traditionally and reassuringly Gothic (ivy, stained-glass windows); unfortunately, “in some ways the vicar is almost unpleasantly modern”.

The Major suspects that, because of the recession, the new church will have no stained glass. Millicent disapproves of it anyway, as of any form of decoration: “I believe that – especially in these times, when we are all so poor – simplicity should be the keynote in churchbuilding.” She invokes Thomas Cranmer before arguing that Anglican churches should be stripped of artistic or decorative elements: “I don’t believe that our English religion needs to depend upon Art.” Mrs. Poultridge calls Millicent an iconoclast because she would “knock the heads off” of “painted plaster saints”. Mrs. Poultridge and the Major compare Millicent to Oliver Cromwell and Henry VIII respectively.

Mrs. Poultridge and Millicent hold a traditional “dialogue” – not between the body and the soul, but between ostentation and simplicity. Eliot rejects the extremes they represent: the newly built church is furnished and decorated in simplicty, and communally. Medieval guilds were in charge of staging mystery plays; at the end of The Rock, “stone-carvers,” “wood-carvers,” “weavers and lacemaker,” “metal workers” and an “illuminator” are “shown in rhythmical movement”.

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An Empty Diary

The “objective correlative” is probably Eliot’s most influential critical term. He theorised it in discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where he found emotion to be in excess of its dramatic expression (conversely, he put forward Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking as the perfect physical reflection of a troubled conscience). The objective correlative, “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,” is “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion”.

Eliot formulated the concept in an early essay, “Hamlet” (1919). In his last play, The Elder Statesman (1958), we find an effective objective correlative: Lord Claverton’s empty engagement book. He has just retired from a successful career “in politics” and “as chairman of public companies”. He keeps all previous diaries (the record of his active years), but the pages of the present one are blank. As his daughter’s fiancé, Charles, suggests, Lord Claverton has neglected his private life. No longer the object of public attention, he sits in his office “contemplating nothingness” and experiencing “fear of the emptiness before me”.

Lord Claverton refers to his state of mind through simultaneous, mutually exclusive images – the coincidence of opposites, reminiscent of mystical writing, and also of certain passages of Four Quartets: “With no desire to act, yet a loathing of inaction / A fear of the vacuum, and no desire to fill it.” He first appears on the stage with the empty engagement book in his hand. The symbolic implications of this objective correlative (a visible, tangible stage prop) are conceptually reinforced by a powerful extended metaphor with which Lord Claverton presents his bleak prospects:

It’s just like sitting in an empty waiting room
In a railway station on a branch line,
After the last train, after all the other passengers
Have left, and the booking office is closed
And the porters have gone. What am I waiting for
In a cold and empty room before an empty grate?

Lord Claverton imagines himself waiting for a train that will not arrive. His will be an introspective journey of atonement for the sins of his youth. Two long-lost characters whose lives were thwarted by those sins (Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill) return to confront Lord Claverton with “the shame / of things ill done and done to others’ harm” (these are lines from “Little Gidding,” the last of the Quartets). In the jargon of modern psychology, Lord Claverton undertakes a “life review,” from which he will emerge humbled and contrite.

Lord Claverton will finally be saved by contrition and by the revelation of the pure love that he feels for his children: Monica, Michael and Charles – significantly, he calls this an “illumination”. At the end of the play, when the protagonist’s death is felt to be imminent, Charles suspects that the elder statesman “has passed through some door unseen by us”.