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Poets of the Four Last Things: Eliot and Hell

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Poets of the Four Last Things: Eliot and Hell

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Location: Heythrop College

With Professor Robert Fraser


It has been traditional during the four weeks of Advent to concentrate on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. This habit may appear paradoxical at best, since we are supposed to be preparing for a birth: the beginning of life rather than the end of mortal existence. None of the four poets we will be looking at in this series, however, would have found the tradition in the least inappropriate or odd. The official explanation is that we are anticipating both the first and the second coming. Since, in the northern hemisphere at least, we celebrate the nativity shortly after the winter solstice, the darkest moment of the year, there is also a recurrent, metaphorical logic to all of this. By looking at the work of four religiously inspired poets – two from the seventeenth and one each from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – we will attend to the ways in which this custom, and the insights stemming from it, have fertilized literature and art.

T. S. Eliot and Hell

Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholic theology took place in 1927, by which year he had already written some of the bleakest and most searing evocations of the heartlessness of the modern, industrialized world. For the younger Eliot, we are all hollow men inhabiting a waste land. The older Eliot came to be nourished by Christian tradition and truth. To his dying day, however, he was haunted by the fear of a relapse, a collapse back into an abysm of meaninglessness. If, for Hopkins, heaven lay about us, for Eliot hell could always loom from within. As we approach Christmas we will look at Eliot’s transformation, his hopes and his fears, his recognition of the four ultimate truths of our series, and the importance of cherishing them. Even Hell may instruct us. In the closing words of ‘The Journey of the Magi’, a paraphrase of one of the sermons of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, each of us can gain by facing the reality of ‘such another death’.

Contact Name: Dr Francesca Knox
Contact Email: f.knox@heythrop.ac.uk