These words first appear in Brideshead Revisited in a conversation between Cordelia and Charles. She uses them to describe her feelings after the chapel in Brideshead has been left empty. The phrase “Quomodo sedet sola civitas” -how lonely the city stands- is taken from the beginning of book of Lamentations, when the prophet Jeremiah cries over the destroyed Jerusalem; they are also used by the Liturgy of the Church in the office of Tenebrae to lament over the death of Christ.
Surely Cordelia could have expressed her feelings using her own words. Yet, by quoting the words of others she manages to put her feelings in relation with those who also used the same words before her: her sorrow, her desolation at the loss of the Eucharist, is similar to the feelings that made Jeremiah shed tears over her loved one -Jerusalem-, and her tears are also similar to those the Church sheds every year remembering the death of Christ.
The second time the quotation appears Ryder is recalling the when he attended the ceremony of Tenebrae in Guatemala. The third, in the epilogue of the book, he explains the desolation he feels at the dawn of what he calls the “age of Hooper”, which for him represents the total loss of culture—a very important the mein the novel.
The formerly joyful and lively Brideshead he once knew, has now been conquered by the philistine Hooper hordes: the place looks like a wasteland. No wonder images from Eliot’s poem are used by Waugh to describe the situation: the fountain of the house -a clear symbol of life- stands empty and wired, while “all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there” (Compare with the empty bottles, sandwich papers and cigarette ends of Eliot in The Waste Land, 177-178).
It seems to me that the repeated use of that phrase is better understood if we consider the love Evelyn Waugh had for the liturgy of the Church. He considered the liturgical offices and specially the Mass to be firm land. Man, specially modern man, could be sailing adrift in a tempest, but the liturgy would always be there to provide a safe harbour, shelter from the storm. The fact that Ryder attends Tenebrae in a country like Guatemala can be considered as a typical trace of Waugh’s humor, but I don’t think it is just that: Tenebrae could be attended in Guatemala, London, Rome or Buenos Aires. The liturgy, specially thanks to the use of Latin, was universal. No matter where you are the liturgy remains the same. Two more examples show this more clearly:
– In a little known story by Waugh called “Out of Depth” the protagonist, a man called Rip van Winkle (yes, like Irwing’s), finds himself lost in London 500 years in the future. The city is ruled by savages and the poor man is completely lost and confused, till he goes into a Church and discovers, to his relief, that the Mass in Latin has not changed a bit even though it is celebrated by a black priest.
– In the trilogy Sword of Honor we find Guy Crouchback somewhere in the Balkans talking to a priest in a rather funny Latin asking him to offer the Mass for his deceased wife Virginia.
In the first case we see the Mass is not subject to change over time; while in the second one, as in the case of Guatemala, the message seems to be that it is same everywhere. Guatemala, London, or Brideshead might be ruled by savages à la Hooper but the Liturgy remains unchanged. No wonder Waugh suffered greatly with the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council. The Mass he loved was changed, not in 500 years time, but during his own life time. The Latin was replaced with the vernacular and the universality of the Liturgy was most certainly damaged. In our days Guy Crouchback could not talk in latin with the priest because neither Guy nor the priest would know the official language of the Church. Latin has suffered a severe blow.
However, it is surprising that in the middle of the atmosphere of cultural decay that surrounds war-time Brideshead, we find Ryder feeling “particularly cheerful”. What are the reason for that cheerfulness when the fountain is full of sandwich paper and cigarette ends?
The reason for Ryder’s change of mood is the discovery that the lamp of the Tabernacle in the Chapel is lit again. True, the artistic glory of the whole place might be lost: Hopper’s side has won the battle, but that lamp, that horrible art nouveau lamp, is lit again; and contrary to what we might expect, people actually visit the place often. Cities can be destroyed, savages might rule, but that feeble light refuses to die. I think Cordelia would also have been particularly cheerful seeing the timid dance of that little flame.