Hew their bones in sunder

Eamon Duffy

  • Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures edited by Peter McCullough
    Oxford, 491 pp, £90.00, November 2005, ISBN 0 19 818774 2

Much of the modern reputation of Lancelot Andrewes stems from an essay T.S. Eliot published in 1926, in which he ranked the sermons with ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time’. Eliot’s essay marked the tercentenary of the death of a contemporary of Shakespeare, who between 1588 and his death had been successively or simultaneously vicar of St Giles Cripplegate; master of Pembroke College, Cambridge; prebendary of St Paul’s; dean of Westminster; and bishop of Chichester, Ely and, finally, Winchester. What must have seemed a surprising tribute from the premier poet of Modernism to a relatively forgotten cleric was of course part of Eliot’s own journey towards a conservative (and at times cod-English) Christian identity. He underwent Anglican baptism the following year, and in 1928 reprinted the essay in a manifesto volume entitled For Lancelot Andrewes. In its preface he nailed his own colours to the mast as being (like his clerical hero) ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion’.

For Eliot, as for many Anglo-Catholics, Andrewes was an iconic ancestor figure. Along with Richard Hooker, George Herbert and William Laud, this ‘right reverend Father in God’ seemed to embody Catholic continuity and spiritual moderation. The English Church, these men believed, had maintained amid all the upheavals of the Protestant reformation a via media between the various fanaticisms of Geneva and of Rome, and Andrewes was the supreme embodiment of that middle way. His writings had been edited for a mid-Victorian High Church readership in 11 scholarly volumes in the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, but Eliot appears to have worked from a popular selection of 17 Christmas sermons, published for the use and emulation of Anglo-Catholic clergy in 1887. One of his illustrative quotations, from Andrewes’s sermon on the role of the Magi in the Nativity story, preached at the court of James I at Christmas 1622, was to be incorporated virtually word for word into the opening lines of the 1927 poem ‘The Journey of the Magi: ‘A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the yeare; just the worst time of the yeare . . . the waies deep, the weather sharp, the days short . . . the very dead of Winter.’ Eliot also worked phrases from other passages cited in his essay into other poems, notably Ash Wednesday.

There was more to all this than shared churchmanship. In a celebrated comparison between Andrewes and John Donne, Eliot maintained that Andrewes was a ‘medieval’ rather than a ‘modern’ writer. He valued Andrewes because his magnificently dense prose subordinated personality to the demands of text, community and tradition. Andrewes bypassed subjective feeling in favour of a brilliant and demandingly close linguistic analysis, designed not to publicise his own interior drama, but to extract every drop of meaning from the sacred page. He exemplified what Eliot himself aspired to be, a sophisticated and objective intelligence in touch with its own deepest cultural resources, able to ride the flux and moral turmoil of modernity: ‘The voice of Andrewes is the voice of a man who has a formed visible church behind him, who speaks with the old authority and the new culture.’ By contrast, the sermons of Donne were marred, Eliot thought, by their proto-modernity, an excess of self-indulgent personalism. Donne, ‘the religious spell-binder . . . the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy’, had about him the whiff of ‘impure motives’ and ‘facile success’. Interestingly, in developing this comparison, Eliot mobilised against Donne not only the language of suspect sexuality, but some of the traditional tropes of anti-Catholicism. Donne’s preaching, Eliot thought, betrayed the early Jesuit influences of his papist upbringing, ‘in his cunning knowledge of the . . . weaknesses of the human heart . . . and in a kind of smiling tolerance among his menaces of damnation’.

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