‘The finest English prose of their time, of any time’


It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.






Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.


The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

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