Richard Ellmann
Golden Codgers

What strikes us at once about Edwardian literature is that it is thoroughly secular, yet so earnest that secularism does not describe it. It is generally assumed that in this period religion was something to ignore and not to practise. Edwardian writers were not in fact religious, but they were not ostentatiously irreligious. In the Victorian period people had fumed and left the churches; in the Edwardian period, becalmed, they published memoirs or novels describing how strongly they had once felt about the subject. This is the point of Gosse's Father and Son (1907) as well as of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh (written earlier, but published in 1903). It was also part of the subject of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, much of it written in 1907-8, as it is of Yeats's first autobiographical book Reveries over Childhood and Youth, written just before the war. In all these books the intensity of rebellion is past, an incident of an unhappy childhood (and the vogue of having had an unhappy childhood may well have begun with the Edwardians) succeeded by confident maturity.

Because they outlived their passionate revolt, writers as different as Yeats and Joyce are sometimes suspected now of having been reverted Christians or at least demi-Christians. Certainly they no longer make a fuss about being infidels. And they are suspected of belief for another reason, too. Almost to a man, Edwardian writers rejected Christianity, and having done so, they felt free to use it, for while they did not need religion they did need religious metaphors. It is no accident that the Catholic modernists, with their emphasis upon the metaphorical rather than the literal truth of Catholic doctrines, became powerful enough in the first years of the century to be worth excommunicating in 1907. There were other signs of a changed attitude towards religion: the comparative mythologists tolerantly accepted Easter as one of many spring vegetation rites; William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, made all varieties equally valid.

In creative writers, this new temper appears not in discussion of religion, which does not interest them, but in vocabulary. Religious terms are suddenly in vogue among unbelievers. Yeats calls up God to be a symbol of the most complete thought. Joyce in A Portrait allows the infidel Stephen to cry out 'Heavenly God!' when, seeing a girl wading, he experiences 'an outburst of profane joy'. Elsewhere, as in Ulysses, he asks what difference it makes whether God's name be Christus or Bloom, and Jesus is allowed into Finnegans Wake as one of Finnegan's many avatars. Ezra Pound, newly arrived in London in 1908, immediately writes a canzone to celebrate 'The Yearly Slain', a pagan god, and then a ballad to celebrate the 'Goodly Fere', who turns out to be Christ made into a Scottish chap. All deaths of all gods roused Pound to the same fervor. There was no need to attack with Swinburne the 'pale Galilean', or to say with Nietzsche that 'God is dead'; as a metaphor God was not dead but distinctly alive, so much so that a character in Granville-Barker's play Waste (1906-7) asks sardonically, 'What is the prose for God?' T. S. Eliot, if for a moment he may be regarded as an Edwardian rather than as a Rooseveltian, in 'Prufrock' (written in 1910) used John the Baptist and Lazarus as if they were characters like Hamlet, and even in his later life, after becoming consciously, even self-consciously Christian, he used the words 'God' and 'Christ' with the greatest circumspection, while unbelievers used the words much more casually, their individual talents more at ease in his tradition than he himself. D. H. Lawrence, the same age as Pound, writes his 'Hymn to Priapus' in 1912, yet remains attracted by images of Christ and is willing enough, in spite of his preference for older and darker gods, to revise Christianity and use its metaphors. In The Rainbow (begun the same year), Tom Brangwen and his wife, when their physical relationship improves, experience what Lawrence variously calls 'baptism to another life', 'transfiguration', and 'glorification'. In later life Lawrence would give Christ a new resurrection so he could learn to behave like the god Pan, and in poems such as 'Last Words to Miriam' the cross becomes emblematic of the failure to cohabit properly, an interpretation which I should like to think of as Edwardian or at least post-Edwardian. Even H.G. Wells played for a time with the notion of a 'finite God', 'the king of man's adventures in space and time,' though by 1934, in Experiment in Autobiography, he granted, too unimaginatively, that he had been guilty of 'terminological disingenuousness'.

To accept Christianity as one of a group of what Gottfried Benn calls 'regional moods', or to rewrite it for a new, pagan purpose, seemed to the Edwardians equally cogent directions. For the first time writers can take for granted that a large part of their audience will be irreligious, and paradoxically this fact gives them confidence to use religious imagery. They neither wish to shock nor fear to shock. There is precision, not impiety, in Joyce's use of religious words for secular processes. About 1900, when he was eighteen, he began to describe his prose sketches not as poems in prose, the fashionable term, but as 'epiphanies', showings-forth of essences comparable to the showing-forth of Christ. Dubliners he first conceived of in 1904 as a series often epicleseis, that is, invocations to the Holy Spirit to transmute bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, a sacramental way of saying that he wished to fix in their eternal significance the commonplace incidents he found about him. To moments of fullness he applied the term 'eucharistic'. When Stephen Dedalus leaves the Catholic priesthood behind him, it is to become 'a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everlasting life.' One did not have to be a defected Irish Catholic to use terms this way. Granville-Barker's hero in Waste wants to buy the Christian tradition and transmute it. Proust, searching for an adjective to express his sense of basic experiences, calls them 'celestial'. Yeats, a defected Protestant, wrote in 1903 that his early work was directed towards the transfiguration on the mountain, and his new work towards incarnation. The artist, he held, must make a Sacred Book, which would not be Christian or anti-Christian, but would revive old pieties and rituals in the universal colours of art instead of in the hue of a single creed.

The re-establishment of Christianity, this time as outer panoply for an inner creed, was not limited to a few writers. In the Edwardian novels of Henry James the words he is fondest of are 'save' and 'sacrifice', and these are secular equivalents for religious concepts to which in their own terms he is indifferent. In the novels of E. M. Forster, mostly written before Edward died, there is exhibited this same propensity. Forster usually reserves his religious imagery for the end of his novels. In the last pages of Where Angels Fear to Tread, his first novel (1905), Forster writes of Philip, 'Quietly, without hysterical prayers or banging of drums, he underwent conversion. He was saved.' The Longest Journey (1907) concludes with Stephen Wanham undergoing 'salvation'. In A Room with a View (1908), there is a 'Sacred Lake', immersion in which, we are told, is 'a call to the blood and to the relaxed will, a passing benediction whose influence did not pass, a holiness, a spell, a momentary chalice for youth'. At the end the heroine derives from Mr. Emerson, who has 'the face of a saint who understood', 'a sense of deities reconciled, a feeling that, in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world'.

Even allowing that writers always incline to inflated language for their perorations, Forster obviously intends his words momentously, almost portentously. He is not for Christ or Pan, but with profoundly Edwardian zeal, for the deities reconciled. Some of the same images appear with much the same meaning in his contemporaries. A character in Granville-Barker calls for 'A secular Church'. Shaw's Major Barbara (1905) makes similar use of the theme of salvation with its earnest fun about the Salvation Army. Let us be saved, Shaw says, but with less Christian noise and more Roman efficiency. Forster's 'chalice' is like the chalice in Joyce's 'Araby' (written in 1905), which is a symbol of the boy's love for his sweetheart. The 'Sacred Lake' with its subverting of Christian implication is like The Lake in George Moore's novel (1905), in which the priest-hero immerses himself in the lake not in order to become Christian, but to become pagan. Forster's deflection of familiar Christian phrasing in having his heroine feel that, in gaining the man she loves she gains something for the whole world, is cognate with Joyce's heroine in 'The Dead' (written in 1907), who says of her pagan lover, 'I think he died for me,' a statement which helps to justify the ending of that story in a mood of secular sacrifice for which the imagery of barren thorns and spears is Christian yet paganized. I do not think it would be useful to discriminate closely the slightly varying attitudes towards Christianity in these examples: the mood is the same, a secular one.

Yet to express secularism in such images is to give it a special inflection. The Edwardians were looking for ways to express their conviction that we can be religious about life itself, and they naturally adopted metaphors offered by the religion they knew best. The capitalized word for the Edwardians is not 'God' but 'Life': 'What I'm really trying to render is nothing more nor less than Life,' says George Ponderevo, when Wells is forty-three; 'Live,' says Strether to Little Bilham, when Henry James is sixty; 'O life,' cries Stephen Dedalus to no one in particular when Joyce is about thirty-four; 'I am going to begin a book about Life,' announces D. H. Lawrence, when he is thirty. It does not much matter whether life is exciting or dull, though Conrad is a little exceptional in choosing extraordinary incidents. Arnold Bennett is more usual in his assurance that two old women are worth writing The Old Wives' Tale (1908) about. The Edwardians vied with each other in finding more and more commonplace life to write about, and in giving the impression of writing about it in more and more common speech.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.