A Lecture on Tradition and Orthodoxy: a study


Q delivered his lecture ‘Tradition and Orthodoxy’ at Cambridge University on May 16, 1934, as a reply to the Page-Barbour Lecture by T.S. Eliot at the University of Virginia and its subsequent publication under the title After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934). Eliot was 46 years old in 1934, with his marriage having recently broken down. Q was 71, having been Professor of English Literature at Cambridge for 22 years. Both were Anglicans, Eliot having been received into the Church in 1927, Q having been born into it.

Eliot returned to America from England for the first time since his departure in 1915, having been invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton Lecture at Harvard, subsequently published under the title The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Eliot, 1934). The first of eight lectures was given on November 25, 1932, and the last on March 31, 1933. The fourth lecture on Wordsworth and Coleridge and the fifth on Shelley and Keats would have particularly interested Q as the Romantic poets were for him home ground.

He would quickly have discovered in Eliot, however, a perspective at variance from his own, particularly in respect to Shelley. Q gave his three lectures on Shelley in the New Arts School at Cambridge during the last period of the war, using the poet’s attack upon the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic British governments as a vehicle for his attack upon the Lloyd George coalition administration which had come to power in December 1916. In a lecture of October 25, 1916, printed as the introductory lecture of On the Art of Reading (1920), Q was noting the growing pressure in the newspapers for a ‘Business Government’. In relation to Eliot’s negative references to Liberalism in After Strange Gods, it is worth noting that the Lloyd George coalition of December 1916 and the ‘Khaki Election’ of 1918 effectively destroyed the Liberal Party, of which Q was an active member, and the whole cause of Liberalism. Maybe it was the cynical materialism which started to afflict the country in 1916 as it became increasingly war weary and the suppression of the truth by the press lords, that inspired Q to start his course of lectures On the Art of Reading. And maybe it was the writings of Eliot and those like him that roused Q to defend Liberalism’s fading star in the 1930s.

Eliot’s Harvard lecture took the line that Q had argued against in his Cambridge lecture of 1918, a denigration of Shelley’s character as a vehicle for denigrating the verse. Eliot called Shelley ‘self-centred’, ‘sometimes almost a blackguard’, ‘confused’ and a borrower of ‘shabby’ ideas, which his ‘poetic gifts’ placed at the service of ‘(un)tenable beliefs’. Q would have seen this as confusing the poet’s character with his poetic vision, two rather different things. Interestingly, Q’s criticism that Eliot tended to confuse words and ideas runs through Tradition and Orthodoxy. The need for clarity in thought, word and idea lies at the heart of Q’s critical writings, and in this respect he found Eliot wanting.

It is perhaps interesting to note the opinions of Q’s biographer A.L. Rowse, whose view of history was largely determined by Marx, Engels and Darwin, as he explains in On History (1927, pp. 42-54; p. 91) and The Use of History (1946, pp. 114-155). Rowse in The Use of History believed the ultimate disillusionment of the Romantic poets with the ideals of the French Revolution was because ‘they were poets’ (1946, p. 25) and failed to understand ‘economic necessity’ and ‘historical materialism’ (ibid., p. 132). He also talked of ‘disillusioned Liberals’ (ibid. p. 20); repeated in the Q biography with ‘Liberal illusions’ (1988, p. 94), Q’s devotion to the ‘old Liberalism’ of Asquith as against that of Lloyd George (ibid., p. 137), the tragedy of the ‘Khaki Election’ and the Tory dominated coalition of Lloyd George in 1918 (ibid., p. 146), and the collapse and irrelevance of Liberalism thereafter. In the matter of Tradition and Orthodoxy, Rowse supported Eliot, claiming the phrase ‘worm-eaten with Liberalism’ to have originated in a letter Rowse had himself written to Eliot in which he argued against the Liberal idea ‘that the masses were rational’; although Rowse refused to follow Eliot into supporting any form of ‘literary censorship’ based on ‘dogma’ (1988, p. 205). Exactly how poetry – Rowse was a poet – fits with ‘historicism’ is unclear.

While Q would have deplored Eliot’s view of Shelley, although not as much as he would have deplored Rowse’s ‘historicism’, he might have been more sympathetic to Eliot’s portrayal of Wordsworth. Eliot’s lecture on Wordsworth and Coleridge was delivered on December 9, 1932. Wordsworth’s ‘revolutionary faith was more vital to him that it was to Coleridge’, although both saw their gifts departing as revolutionary fervour became an ever more distant memory, as Q himself had stated. Eliot concluded that their ‘revolution in poetry’ can only be explained by a ‘deeper change in society and in the individual’ (Eliot, 1975).

This ‘deeper change’ would have affected Humphry Davy, a poet himself, through contact with Coleridge’s group at Nether Stowey in the 1790s. Davy would have given impetus to this change through his famous lectures, sometimes to audiences of over a thousand, at the Royal Institution in London from 1801 to 1812. Jonathan Couch would also have sensed it as his home village of Polperro had direct links with France and his training between 1808 and 1810 was at the united medical school of Guy’s and St. Thomas’, a radical centre in London. Whether Jonathan Couch attended any of Humphry Davy’s lectures or met Humphry, John or Edmund Davy in London is unknown, but not impossible.

Eliot’s penultimate lecture, ‘The Modern Mind’, delivered on March 17, 1933, relies heavily on the writings of Jacques Maritain, Matthew Arnold (Cornish on his mother’s side), I.A. Richards and others. In Q’s lectures on Shelley, he states a belief in poets as true prophets (Lecture 1, Section IV), while taking Matthew Arnold to task for failing to discern Shelley’s quality and lasting appeal – an appeal as necessary after the First World War as after the Napoleonic, and for similar reasons. Nor would Q have been impressed by the quotation from Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism used in Eliot’s lecture:

‘By showing us where moral truth and the genuine supernatural are situate, religion saves poetry from the absurdity of believing itself destined to transform ethics and life.’

Q was more inclined to see poetry as a means whereby religion outgrows its darker and more oppressive aspects. Q identifies one of these aspects, in Memories and Opinions (1944), as associated with Calvinism. In Goethe as the Sage (1955), Eliot defines himself as having ‘a Catholic caste of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.’ Stephen Spender (1975) claims all three to be in evidence in After Strange Gods .

Summary of Lecture

Q’s lecture on ‘Tradition and Orthodoxy’ is divided into ten sections of varying length. In it he refers to two lectures he gave, at the same time as the Page-Barbour Lecture of 1933, entitled ‘The Poet as Citizen’. Q acknowledged a degree of similarity, especially in relation to a concern regarding a current obsession with individual creativity as an end in itself, and another obsession with the sordid. In his preface to the Duchy Edition of The White Wolf he makes the same point.

Although acknowledging the similarity of theme, Q is careful to place a certain distance between Eliot and himself. Even if accepting the main conclusions, Q is uncertain that Eliot has stated all his premises, particularly one based on the speaker’s sole authority. In a piece of irony worthy of Newman, Q deliberately elevates Eliot’s supposed ‘authority’ as a literary critic while presenting himself with more modesty. Q is laying his ground for the next section.

Section II starts with a quotation from After Strange Gods which is almost equal in length to Q’s Section I. Q starts with a statement: ‘I am not arguing or reasoning or engaging in controversy with those whose views are radically opposed to such as mine.’ This is because a ‘common understanding’ and ‘common assumptions’ no longer pertain. The quotation concludes with a phrase Rowse claims as coming from a letter he had himself previously sent to Eliot: ‘In a society like ours, worm-eaten with Liberalism’ which Eliot then finished ‘with the only thing possible for a person of strong convictions is to state a point of view and leave it at that.’

Section III continues the discussion about dogmatic assertions and reasoned argument, but endeavours to identify exactly what Eliot meant by the word ‘Orthodoxy’. Q noted the difference in Catholic orthodoxy before and after the Council of Trent, and how Protestantism fractured into Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism and New England Puritanism – which started with a cry of freedom and ended burning witches. This is aimed very much at Eliot whose ancestor had settled in Massachusetts in 1670; yet it is a theme running through Q’s writings that dogmatic religion leads to persecution.

In the last paragraph of Chapter 2 of Memories and Opinions, published after his death, Q restates his belief in the goodness of man, a goodness that will outlast and correct dogmatic religion. It restates what Q wrote in Chapter 9 of Lady Good-For-Nothing (1910), in which he drew a line between religious faith, decent and civilising, and dogmatic religion, cruel and intolerant. The main character in Lady Good-For-Nothing, the first book of which is set in 1743, is Captain Oliver Vyell, Collector to the Port of Boston in Massachusetts. Q rails against such notions as the damnation of unbaptised infants and the scourging of women, in the shape of Ruth Josselin, for breaking the Sabbath. He argues for faith being purified of religion, because faith is undogmatic and releases the good in man. The novel represents in itself Q’s answer to After Strange Gods. However, Q’s concern for human goodness and man’s place in a harmonious universe, sets him against political and scientific dogmas as much as against religious. This includes, as he explained in the Shelley lecture, Darwinism interpreted as struggle-for-life competition; and conflict-driven theories of materialistic kind, as with the formula of Rowse based on Marx, Engels and Darwin, which produced phrases such as ‘worm-eaten with Liberalism’. For Eliot to see orthodoxy and tradition in terms of politics and religion, the accusation of Section II, was a red rag to Q’s bull.

Q continues his investigation of Eliot’s use of the term ‘orthodoxy’ in Section III by accusing him of narrowing a definition, even in literature, to theology. The difference between orthodoxy and tradition, therefore, is between conscious thought and unconscious behaviour, with the Church as some sort of arbiter. Eliot’s argument leads to a conclusion, however, from which Q does not totally dissent: ‘…when morals cease to be a matter of tradition and orthodoxy…and when each man is to elaborate his own, then personality becomes a thing of alarming importance.’

Section IV opens with the acknowledgment that the quotation from Eliot captures a central idea in Q’s lecture ‘The Poet as Citizen’, except for the notion of tradition requiring ecclesiastical sanction. Rarely is poetry elevated by association with a creed, invariably the opposite, because it has an independent and purer source.

In Section V, Q draws from his exposé of the disparate nature of Christian orthodoxy in Section III the conclusion that literature cannot be overseen by any particular Church; thus Q sees Eliot as condemning Liberalism on the basis of a false understanding of Orthodoxy. Q endeavours to rectify Eliot’s error by two quotations from Newman, an authority on dogma, firstly from the Apologia, and secondly from Definition of a Gentleman: ‘If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, though less educated, minds…’ who ‘…leave the question more involved than they found it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust’. The inference is obvious. The quotation from the Apologia contains Newman’s argument that from Cambridge’s ‘…real University Reform, we see the rudiments of the Liberal party.’

The subject of tradition, or lack of it, in contemporary society stands at the centre of Section VII. The antithesis of tradition for Eliot and Q is the cult of personality and the fashion for egotistical self-indulgence. Q humbly presents himself as beholden to Eliot for his superior understanding of the subject, a line worthy of Newman himself. A writer’s personality should not be elevated above the writing but subsumed into it, as with the historian Thucydides and the playwright Shakespeare. This view is supported by a quotation from After Strange Gods: ‘…the lack of any strong tradition is twofold: extreme individualism in views. And no accepted rules or opinions as to the limitations of the literary job.’ The ‘absence of tradition’ results in the cultivation of ‘individuality’ for its own sake, under the impression that the individual is thereby an ‘author of genius’. This results in the decline of quality.

The argument is further supported by a quotation from H.E. Bates which identifies a corrupt contemporary practice of the writer assuming an attitude of superiority, whereas ‘…the great writer keeps himself detached and unseen…’ never ‘…holding himself up Sir Oracle fashion…’!

In Section VIII, Q congratulates Eliot for exposing the folly of egotistical individualism, but denies this tendency as the product of Liberalism, as Eliot appears to have assumed, and assumed in confused fashion. Q condemns Eliot’s interpretation of Liberalism as nothing but agnosticism and secularism, with the doctrines of the Church of England, to which Eliot was a recent convert, as its central target.

Q endeavours to present his own understanding of Liberalism in Section IX. He claims the universe to be a mystery, although one which is rational, can be rationally explored and is reflected in human rationality, as he argues at length in his lecture on Henry Vaughan and in Lecture II from The Art of Reading entitled ‘Apprehension Versus Comprehension’. Rationality is the basis of Liberalism and rational argument its central feature. The great writers were rational and thought for themselves. In all areas of human endeavour – literary, religious and scientific – progress results from challenging dogma and received opinion, a challenge based on observation, experiment and direct experience. This is the Western Tradition and Liberalism lies at its heart.

At the centre of Section X, the final one, is the cry of Wordsworth: ‘We must be free or die’. Q asks his students to survey Europe for the subtle way in which dogma is intruding over independent thinking – Marxism, Fascism, Darwinism interpreted as struggle-for-life competition, Calvinism, Freudianism – as he identifies in various of his writings – and all supported by physical or intellectual power from elite authority, political, religious or academic. The phrase ‘worm-eaten by Liberalism’, therefore, requires to be separated into ‘worm-eaten’ on the reactionary side and ‘Liberalism’ on the other. In relation to Liberalism Q stands in direct opposition to Eliot and Rowse.

Religious Orthodoxy

T.S. Eliot reveals his dissatisfaction with the Page-Barbour Lecture by refusing to have After Strange Gods republished. Having revised and refined his ideas he published Religion and Literature in 1935, the opening of which states: ‘Literary criticism should be complemented by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint’. Frank Kermode reflects on this in his introduction to Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot: ‘A critic so early committed to external authority against the inner voice;’ was inevitably drawn to ‘an element of mysticism also, and a scholastic sense of the complexities of time and eternity, that impelled him to Catholic Christianity and a conservative-imperialist politics.’ (1975, p. 19). Although Kermode failed to see the ‘inner voice’ as the modus operandi of most poet-mystics (Gregory of Nazianzus, Symeon the New Theologian, Dante, John of the Cross and William Williams Pantycelin), as against the diffuseness and obscurity of the pseudo-mystics, his point is generally clear. It is the identification and function of the external authority, as argued by Eliot in After Strange Gods, which troubled Q, especially the relationship between authority and orthodoxy, and the possibility of authority being linked to Anglicanism.

The title of Q’s lecture ‘Tradition and Orthodoxy’, suggests a reference to the Reformation controversy between the stance of the Catholic Church on scripture and tradition and the stance of the Reformed Churches on ‘sola scriptura’ (scripture alone). Q’s attitude to Roman Catholicism in the countries which espoused it was similar to his attitude to Anglicanism in England. To the degree that it was tolerant and inclusive, he saw it as contributing to the order and harmony of society, a reflection of the harmony of the universe itself. Where a tolerant tradition hardened into an intolerant orthodoxy, he opposed it. This is what led him to challenge the Catholic hierarchy’s attitude to modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Eliot’s understanding of Anglicanism in After Strange Gods.

In Section III of ‘Tradition and Orthodoxy’, Q includes a quotation from Bernard Manning, who makes the claim that following the Reformation the Catholic Church became ‘less free intellectually, less bold in all its uses of the Christian Tradition, more fearful of exploring into the unsearchable riches of Christ’. The quotation has added force in that it develops a theme found in Q’s novella of over thirty years before, Tom Tiddler’s Ground (1901).

The novella is set on the Isles of Scilly and prepares the way for the novel of 1907, Major Vigoureux. One of the characters in Tom Tiddler’s Ground is Dr. Hervey, who has taken refuge on the isles after being expelled from a teaching post at a Catholic university and excommunicated for expressing ‘modernist’ views. The story was written at the time of the modernist controversy in the Catholic Church, particularly associated with Alfred Loisy. Loisy was excommunicated but not for expressing opinions, although that would have occasioned his loss of a teaching post. He was excommunicated for continuing to publish modernist books in opposition to Catholic teaching. Q has over-coloured the theme. Dr. Hervey however is the symbol for the conflict between the intolerance of orthodoxy and the tolerance of tradition, which stands at the centre of his argument with Eliot.

Religious Poetry

Q develops his argument with Eliot by claiming the creative deadness of orthodoxy and the creative richness of tradition. According to Q, dogma and doctrine, with the exception of Dante, have never produced quality poetry. The poor quality of Catholic poetry is an obvious example of this. Religious verse is invariably second rate. Such an argument is not totally convincing.

Q reflects upon the relationship between Cornwall and Iberia in the preface to Cornwall. A Survey of its Coast, Moors, and Valleys (Harding, Henderson and Quiller-Couch, 1930). Q’s favourite novel, one he used as the basis for Sir John Constantine, was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616). Cervantes lived at the time of the first great flowering of Spanish poetry, in which religious poetry played an important part. One of these poets was San Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591), who was to have profound influence on the Polish poet Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. In the preface to his St. John of the Cross (1973) Gerald Brenan writes: ‘No other poet in any country seemed to me to have reached such heights of lyrical expression…’ along with ‘…the luminous purity and simplicity of his language.’ (pp. XI & XII).

                        Cancion de la subide del Monte Carmelo

                        In the stillness fortune dispenses,
                        Driven by a dispassionate desire,
                        I escaped the dark dwelling of the senses,
                        To ascend a stairway of supernatural fire. (1-4)
                                                (trans. Montano & Symons)

During the same period there was Fray Luis de Leon (1527?-1591), whose poems were modelled on Horace, and at its close Sor Juana Ine’s de la Cruz (1651-1695), who spent her life in Mexico and retired to a convent following the death of her lover. No-one stands more in opposition to Ruth Josselin, lady-good-for-nothing, as the lady-in-waiting Juana.


                        Hypocrits! Deprived of reason by lust,
                        You blame women for their trust
                        In love, and fall as one into the same sin. (1-5)
                                                (trans. Montano & Symons)

What is even less excusable is Q’s evasion of the rich religious tradition in Welsh literature stretching from Taliesin in the sixth century to Cynddelw Brydydd Mawn (the Great Poet, fl.1155-1200) and Sion Cent (fl.1400-1430) in the Middle Ages and on to William Williams Pantycelin (1717-1791) and Ann Griffiths (1776-1805), who were still alive when Jonathan Couch was born. During Q’s lifetime there was Saunders Lewis, David Jones and R.S. Thomas. By dismissing poetry giving evidence of dogmatic and credal influence as ‘Vicarage Verse’, he seriously and unnecessarily undermines his own case. There is no necessary conflict between being a Liberal who believes in reasoned argument, as his reference to Newman, a poet himself shows, and using reason to come to a credal and dogmatic position, as Newman did.

When Q argues that no specific Church has the right to arbitrate in matters of poetry, as he does in Section V, he is on firmer ground. In effect, Eliot acknowledges this in his essay ‘Religion and Literature’ of 1935 (Eliot, 1951). He also accepts that ‘Since the time of Chaucer, Christian poetry (in the sense in which I mean it) has been limited in England almost exclusively to minor poetry’ (Kermode, 1975, p. 99). Eliot also widens his understanding of religious literature to a position equating to that of Q: ‘What I want is a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian;’ (ibid. p.100). He continues, in parallel with Q, in stating: ‘…contemporary literature as a whole tends to be degrading’ because of ‘unrestrained individualism’ and a belief that ‘the fittest survive’ in an ‘Individualistic democracy’; whereas, it is ‘more difficult today to be an individual than it ever was before’ (ibid., p. 100, pp. 103-4). Eliot and Q part company where Eliot blames this on ‘the liberal-minded’, which Q was and Eliot was not (ibid., p.103).



Bibliography: A Lecture on Tradition and Orthodoxy

Selected Essays.

Bury, J.B.
Selected Essays.
Cambridge University Press.

Q Anthology.

Brittain, F. (ed.)
Q Anthology.

On History.

Rowse, A.L.
On History.
Kegan Paul.


Spender, S.