The Chapel on the Hill: T. S. Eliot’s ‘Usk’

In a poem from his ‘Landscapes’ collection (see end of post for the text), T. S. Eliot presents a beautifully melancholy vision of the road and view towards a small Monmouthshire town called Usk, from which the poem takes its name (this, or possibly the River Usk which the town sits beside). It was written in 1935, when Eliot was 47, and is thought to have been inspired by a tour of Wales on behalf of Faber & Faber at the time his play Murder in the Cathedral was first being performed. Furthermore, the ‘white hart over the well’ that Eliot refers to in the poem is now believed to be a reference to an old well behind the White Hart pub in Llangybi – a village three miles south of Usk – that would have been whitewashed at the time of Eliot’s visit, and was possibly a place of pilgrimage in medieval times.

The scholar who has made this assertion also believes that Eliot was thereby making the point that we should not look for God in miracle or in forms of devotion popular with medieval people such as pilgrimage, but in nature, in places where ‘the grey light meets the green air’. However, not only does this not tie in with T. S. Eliot’s beliefs as otherwise attested to, but it seems to miss several other points that the identification of the well with Llangybi could be alluding to, as well as the structure of the poem overall. With respect to the former issue, the building which would become the White Hart, built in the 16th Century, became the personal property of Henry VIII as part of Jane Seymour’s wedding dowry, and is said that Oliver Cromwell used it as is headquarters during the English Civil War.

As T. S. Eliot was not only an Anglo-Catholic, believing in the persistence of the universal, apostolic Faith within the Church of England despite the schismatic actions of Henry VIII, but was also a Royalist, sympathising deeply with the cause of Charles I during the Civil War – it seems highly likely therefore that, during his tour of the area, and being someone interested in national and local history, he would have discovered this, and was suggesting in his poem that one should not look to find the ‘white hart’ over the white well, as the White Hart was the personal emblem of Richard II, a king who was deeply devoted to the Catholic Faith, appearing in the Wilton Diptych as representative of England’s donation to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thus it would seem that Eliot is drawing attention to the fact that we should not look to find anything of old, Catholic Britain near the white well at Llangybi, as it was a site heavily associated with the disruptive actions of Henry VIII and the fervent Protestantism of Oliver Cromwell. The ‘hermit’s chapel’ further up the road however could well be a reference to the town of Usk itself, particularly as there was a Benedictine priory at Usk (part of which is still extant in the parish church of Saint Mary’s) that was drastically reduced in size during Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, and the town itself was a known to be a centre for pilgrims – contrasting the Catholic history of the destination with the site we are to ‘glance aside’ from.

This interpretation of the poem would fit much better with Eliot’s known religious and political sympathies, as well as doing justice to a greater range of data regarding Usk and Llangybi. However, there is one line that sticks out and seems to better fit the other interpretation – that we should not look for God in ancient traditions – and that is that we should ‘not spell old enchantments’ but instead should ‘let them sleep’. One initially gets the impression that the old enchantments referred to must be medieval devotions; but the whole structure and narrative thrust of the poem seems to point the reader away from the well at Llangybi and towards Usk, and given what we know about the history of both these places, it is very difficult to see that the ‘old enchantments’ are medieval.

Instead, I believe it makes more sense to see Eliot as indulging in a bit of irony here, and that it is the Protestant novelties that swept away the Catholic traditions he held so dear he is referring to as ‘old enchantments’. His particular brand of Anglicanism was one that revered the traditions of the ancient Church, looked to papal encyclicals and the writings of the saints for moral and spiritual guidance more than anything that came out of Canterbury, and he ultimately only refrained from becoming a Catholic because he felt strongly that religion and culture should be one, and that true Catholic renewal could only come about in the national church. The introduction of Lutheran and Calvinist ideas into that church can, in the context of Anglo-Catholic revival, be seen very much as ‘old’ and as enchantments.

However, regardless of the true intentions and historical allusions that T. S. Eliot was getting at (which it is unlikely we will ever know for sure) Usk remains a compelling and strangely moving poem, employing imagery that calls to mind renewed strength at dusk after a long day’s walk when one’s destination is finally in view, and thus providing a profound sense of peace after turbulence, or reassurance at a time of worry and fatigue. Whilst I believe my interpretation to be true to the known facts of time and place, and faithful to Eliot’s wider vision, one who disagrees with it can still find in this poem a superb resource for comfort and refreshment of the soul – which is, ultimately, what I’m sure Eliot would have deemed to be the more important thing:

 

Do not suddenly break the branch, or

Hope to find

The white hart over the white well.

Glance aside, not for lance, do not spell

Old enchantments. Let them sleep.

‘Gently dip, but not too deep’,

Lift your eyes

Where the roads dip and where the roads rise

Seek only there

Where the grey light meets the green air

The Hermit’s chapel, the pilgrim’s prayer.

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