Temptation and Duty

05 Feb 2020 8:24 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

With his visit to Hale behind him, and the ordeal of convincing Vivien to grant him a legal separation ahead, Eliot seems dissatisfied with himself and others. “One of my most constant temptations is to a feeling of exasperation with human beings,” he writes to Paul Elmer More on 18 May, capturing the tone of many of his letters to Hale in spring 1933. In addition to criticizing others, he feels beset by temptations. He is tempted to use his wit to attack powerful people or to defend the underdog. Intellectual battle serves as a drug and flatters his pride. He is tempted to be a man of action, a Samson, rather than of thought (in Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas refers to one of his temptations as “Samson in Gaza”). Work is a drug. He must also struggle against daydreaming, however, and he tells her that he often revises his letters to her to make them less ardent. He wonders why he should have to struggle against so many cravings; he has long since put sensual temptation behind him. 

The grain of sand in Eliot’s shell seems to be the question of divorce. Hale must ask him about it, because he explains in a long letter dated “Holy Saturday” that he has become a symbol of the Anglican church to many people.  If he sought a divorce, which the church does not allow, it would be a catastrophe of the same magnitude as Newman’s conversion to Catholicism. In consolation to them both, he quotes Matthew 20:22: “But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of?” Apparently this doesn’t satisfy her, as his explanation continues on June 1: he wishes a divorce were possible, but under English law, Vivien would have to divorce him for adultery. She would never do this if she knew he wanted to marry someone else. So even if he could get an annulment from the church, he would still not be free. And, furthermore, divorce is wrong absolutely because it undermines the authority of the church, which, in turn, is all that keeps men from turning into beasts. 


  • 06 Feb 2020 1:21 PM | CR Mittal
    “Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom“
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  • 06 Feb 2020 3:15 PM | Timothy Materer
    Eliot’s citation of Jesus’ words in Matthew is surprising to me. I can’t think of another place in Eliot's letters or prose where he cites Jesus rather than the dogmas of the church as a guide to religious and social behavior. His grandiose reference to Newman reminds me of his letter to his mother about his becoming as important as Henry James, although in that case he was right. It’s hard to imagine backsliding on Eliot’s part would have much impact on the Anglican Church apart from his personal circle of Anglo-Catholics.
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    • 07 Feb 2020 6:04 PM | Sara Fitzgerald
      Eliot apparently did not see it the way you did (in terms of his wider influence). In November 1933, in another rehashing to Hale of his arguments of why he couldn't seek a divorce, he said that he was the most celebrated layman in the Anglican church, and, because he was a convert, if he pursued a divorce it would have even more repercussions. He said he would be viewed as a hypocrite, and that the enemies of Christianity would seize upon it, and he would lose whatever moral authority he had. (He did acknowledge that because he had gotten married in a registry office rather than the church itself, he was not technically a Christian when he took his vows.) I wonder how those arguments resonated with Hale.
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      • 07 Feb 2020 6:37 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
        It continues even more painfully in the spring of 1936, with Hale asking him whether there isn't some church tribunal he can appeal to.
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