T. S. Eliot would still get my vote as the best English-language poet of the 20th century; I think that In centuries to come, the reputation of his closest competitor, W. B. Yeats, will be hampered by the greater idiosyncrasy of his personal mythology; and a High Modernist figure such as Wallace Stevens (whom Hugh Kenner called “the most insouciant of Nonsense Poets”) will be seen as a (highly talented) dead end. (For conservatives, of course, Eliot as social thinker is so canonical a figure as to have been included in the subtitle of the later editions of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.)
To appreciate Eliot’s gifts as a poet, it is not necessary that one share Eliot’s own religious and philosophical world view; but an understanding of that world view is extremely helpful, and has an additional benefit in the quest to understand a tradition much vaster than Eliot himself. Earlier this year, Lutterworth Press in England published an essential work on the subject: ’Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T. S. Eliot and Christianity, by Barry Spurr. The book is highly deserving of the attention of anyone interested in Eliot’s religious views, which shaped, most importantly, Four Quartets; and it offers a fascinating window into the heyday of Eliot’s particular branch of Anglicanism.
That branch is not as numerous as it was just before Eliot joined it in the 1920s, but it still exists, and is bravely adapting to changed social circumstances. This morning at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side, the 11 a.m. Mass featured not just traditional Latin Mass settings of the Ordinary (the haunting 1959 Missa Brevis of Benjamin Britten) but the choral Propers of the Tridentine Missal (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, and Offertory), all sung very movingly by a three-person female choir. (The gentlemen of the choir, I understand, will return next week.) And yet, there were indications that time has not left the Anglo-Catholics entirely untouched: The three Bible readings were from the post-Vatican II Lectionary, and the service bulletin announced that, three Sundays hence, on its patronal feast, the parish would be honored with the visitation of the suffragan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Catherine Roskam. I initially chuckled when I saw that the music for that service will include the antiphon Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, by Tomás Luis de Victoria. I thought, shouldn’t it be, in this case, Ecce Sacerdos MagnA? But on a moment’s reflection, I realized that the masculine Magnus was absolutely right — because the principal subject of the antiphon is Christ, the eternal high priest, not an individual bishop in whose presence it happens to be sung. I feel rather safe in guessing that T. S. Eliot would not have approved of women bishops (if anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know); but I think retaining the masculine gender in this antiphon would please him, because it shows — to borrow from the title of one of his most celebrated essays — the priority of Tradition (in this case, Christ) to the Individual Talent (those who foster Christian teaching at our historic moment).