Welsh pub helps solve T S Eliot's religious riddle

By Boyd Tonkin,Literary Editor
Saturday 19 October 2013 03:20

T S Eliot may have joined the world of showbiz when he unwittingly wrote the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats, but a few works by the poet still keep their air of spiritual mystery.

Yesterday, a professor of English claimed to have solved one of those conundrums. Philip Edwards, of the University of Liverpool, says he has identified the actual location in Monmouthshire that lay behind one of Eliot's most elusive shorter lyrics. The 11 lines of "Usk", written after a Welsh holiday in the mid-1930s, advises seekers after religious truth not to "hope to find / The white hart over the white well". According to Professor Edwards, that well is a beehive-shaped ruined holy site behind a hedge in the village of Llangybi. The "white hart", he maintains, refers to a pub of that name that still stands in front of it.

While researching a book on pilgrimage in south Wales, he received a letter from a local man about the stone well, which was once a place of pilgrimage. "We rushed to see it and realised that it had once been whitewashed, and was behind a pub called the White Hart Inn," he said.

Professor Edwards said Eliot's short but enigmatic poem advises people not to put their faith in miracles or magic, but says "real pilgrims and God himself can be found in the open air". Debbie Lawrenson, landlady of the White Hart in Llangybi, had a more secular reaction to the apparent discovery of the pub's role in modern poetry. "Maybe if they rebuild the well it will bring me more business," she said.

Readers new to "Usk" will also find in it a topical warning against the "old enchantments" of pagan mysticism and Arthurian legend - as practised by writers such as J R R Tolkien and J K Rowling. Look around you and within you for the Holy Grail, Eliot suggests - and, presumably, not in the pub either.

The brief poem forms the mid-point of a sequence of five landscape pieces with a haunting religious dimension. The others take their titles from places in New Hampshire, Virginia, Rannoch in the Highlands and Cape Ann in New England. The 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan, whom Eliot admired deeply, came from the Usk valley in south Wales, a region whose scenery and mood helped to nourish Eliot's Anglican faith.


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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