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  • A Century of Neglect:John Henry Newman and T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
  • Lee Oser (bio)

For those interested in so recondite a topic as John Henry Newman's impact on T. S. Eliot, I offer this essay as a companion piece to "T. S. Eliot and John Henry Newman," published not long ago in a collection entitled T. S. Eliot and Christian Tradition. I take the liberty of quoting the opening paragraph of that earlier essay, because it conveys information essential to the work at hand:

The unexpected obstacle to our juxtaposition of these two authors is that Newman does not answer that illustrious roll call, the index of Donald Gallup's T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography. Eliot never devoted a single essay to him. What could be the cause of so protracted a silence? Certainly, it was not lack of familiarity. For three straight years, fall and winter, beginning in the fall of 1916, Eliot's University of London Extension class on "Modern English Literature" devoted a week to Newman. The printed syllabus gives only a tantalizing glimpse of the proceedings: "His temperament, with regard to his change in religious attachment. Reasons for joining the Church of Rome. His thought. Style. Read: Apologia, Idea of a University."


The supplementary reading for the week on Newman was Wilfrid Meynell's Cardinal Newman, S. P. Cadman's Three Religious Leaders of Oxford and Their Movement, and W. P. Ward's Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman (131).1

In my previous essay, I pursued Newman's influence on Eliot into the 1920s and 1930s. To supplement the work of textual analysis, I made reference to Eliot's family history, outlining, in particular, the abundance of clergymen on both sides of his family tree. This juxtaposition, of ancestry and text, enabled me to underscore Newman's peculiar relevance to a man of Eliot's background. The poet, after all, was the grandson of the great preacher William Greenleaf Eliot, who built the first Unitarian church west of the Mississippi and presided over the establishment of Washington [End Page 47] University. T. S. Eliot's granduncle, Thomas Lamb Eliot, extended the family's Unitarian ministry to Portland, Oregon, where he helped found Reed College. On the basis of Eliot's family background, as well as the poet's sensitiveness to his clerical patrimony—drummed into him by his mother, Charlotte Champe Eliot, from an early age—I further suggested the relevance, for Eliot, of Geoffrey Faber's book of 1933, Oxford Apostles: A Character Study of the Oxford Movement, which flaunted the author's antipathy toward Newman. Eliot's friend, publisher, and boss, Faber was himself the superbly educated product of a clerical family, including a grandfather and a granduncle who figured prominently in the Oxford Movement. A portrait of the granduncle, F. W. Faber, appears in Meynell's book, assigned by Eliot as supplementary reading for his lectures.

In the present essay, I will concentrate on ideas and keywords that connect Newman's writings, in particular, The Idea of a University, to Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," while touching on a few other of Eliot's essays from same period. I hope to demonstrate that Newman was the single most important influence on Eliot's greatest essay.

First, though, I would like to expand on my earlier discussion regarding Eliot's failure to acknowledge his debt to Newman. Where, in my earlier essay, I had written about Faber's role in curbing Eliot's Roman tendencies, in this essay I will look back to Eliot's family for a similar strain of influence. Eliot's 1927 conversion to the Church of England has often been described as a rebellion against the less dogmatic, more latitudinarian ethos of Unitarian Saint Louis. Yet it is fair to say that certain continuities asserted themselves, and that these can be felt in Eliot's denying Newman his due.

Eliot's letters reveal the origins of the poet's complicated dealings with Newman. Patterns of omission are difficult to establish, but it is surely significant that Eliot never once names Newman in his letters home. Several times he refers...


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