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Five English modernist Catholics poets

May 16, 2016

Charles Williams (1886-1945). Anglican. Eliot admired his novels, and wrote an introduction to one of them. Tolkien knew him through C.S. Lewis, but disliked him, and thought his writing too modern. Jones wrote approvingly of his Arthuriana, but thought his writing not modern enough. Auden adored his theological writings, every year reading again his The Descent of the Dove.

Thomas Sterns Eliot (1888-1965). Anglican (and really American, not English, but he pretended it were otherwise). Tolkien despised what was called modernist poetry, including, presumably, that of Eliot. He edited Jones and Auden at Faber & Faber. Jones liked him and made “the waste land” a key term in his own thinking, though he thought Eliot ultimately too subjective. Auden liked but distrusted him, and said his books should be kept on a high shelf away from young poets.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). Roman Catholic. Taught Auden at Oxford about Anglo-Saxon poetry; Auden later defended The Lord of the Rings against “highbrow” critics. Jones read and recommended Tolkien’s philological essays.

David Jones (1895-1974). Roman Catholic. Auden called Jones’ The Anathemata a masterpiece; Jones said that Auden better say so, he borrowed enough from it.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973). Anglican.


Most of these poets met each other at least once. I’m not sure about Tolkien-Eliot, Jones-Williams, or Jones-Tolkien; there may be anecdotes of which I’m unaware. The younger writers on this list usually had opinions about their elders’ work; less often, the elders had opinions about them. Again, I haven’t read all their papers so there may be opinions expressed which I haven’t taken into account.

None of these writers, however, were close friends, and to my knowledge no three of them were ever in the same room at the same time. They do not form a coterie, only a nexus of people who I think can fairly be called at the same time English, modernist, Catholic, and poet. This is the nexus in which I happen to be particularly interested. Of course there’s little point in drawing these sorts of boundaries too precisely, and it was a more or less arbitrary decision to exclude from this list people like Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), and Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2016 4:40 am

    If you do include Lewis, then there’s at least one time all three were in a room together — I just blogged about it during the A to Z Challenge (…


  1. The free spirit hurled onward | Ironical Coincidings

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