The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 22, 2014

Eliot and the Follies of the Time
Russell Kirk - 08/01/08

The following is an excerpt from Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century by Russell Kirk (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008). Kirk's biography of Eliot was originally published in 1971, six years after the poet's death.

Nowadays, a few years after the death of T. S. Eliot, we vacillate in a literary interregnum. From 1960 to 1970, say, most survivors from what I call the Age of Eliot entered one after another into eternity; and though here and there some stalwart Gerontion still writes, or some hopeful new talent starts up, for the most part we encounter literary ephemera, or else the prickly pears and Dead Sea fruit of literary decadence.

Yet no civilization rests forever content with literary boredom and literary violence. Once again, a conscience may speak to a conscience in the pages of books, and the parched rising generation—like bushmen at the back of beyond—may grope their way toward the springs of moral imagination. There endure, however much defaced and neglected, what Eliot called “the permanent things.”

A fresh examination of the work of T. S. Eliot may assist in that reinvigoration. This book is an endeavor at once to criticize an important body of literature, and to relate that literature to the events and circumstances and prospects of civilization in this century.

As yet, we have no biography of Eliot, nor any large collection of his letters. “How I should hate you!” Samuel Butler (disliked by Eliot) wrote of his presumptive future biographer. The kindly Tom Eliot felt no such acrimony toward those who, in the fullness of time, would write about him as a man. Always reticent about his private tribulations, nevertheless, and careful to distinguish between his private emotions and the sentiments expressed in his poems, Eliot desired no Boswell.

Although this book is not that biography, a prefatory note on Eliot the man may be found appropriate here. He had many acquaintances, some friends, few intimates. Others knew him better than I did, but I do not believe that I failed to apprehend his character. People who are acquainted with Eliot only through his writings may fancy that he was a man chilly and almost impersonal. The truth was otherwise.

We first met in 1953, in an obscure little private hotel, unattractive wicker furniture in its parlor, where Eliot was staying in Edinburgh before the first performance of The Confidential Clerk. I called upon him because he had persuaded Faber & Faber, of which firm he had been a director for many years, to publish the London edition of a fat book of mine, and because I had been asked to criticize The Confidential Clerk in the pages of The Month.

Kindliness, simplicity, and directness were among Eliot’s characteristics, I discovered; and this impression was confirmed by our later meetings, in London, over the years—at the Garrick Club or in his little office upstairs at Faber & Faber, in Bloomsbury. Disciplined like his literary style, Eliot’s mind was humane with a consistency rare today. It was easy to talk with him, because he was both keenly intelligent (though never abstract in discourse) and gracefully unassuming.

A thoroughly different sort of person—Somerset Maugham—argued two decades ago that it has become impossible for us moderns to venerate anybody. True, there remain few men of our time whom anyone is tempted to venerate. Yet though Eliot never expected reverence for himself, and would have smiled affably at the notion, he deserved to be revered, in those later years of his, if anybody so deserved. Nowadays I hesitate to attribute “compassion”—what with the mawkish corruption of that word—to a sensible man. Yet compassion, in its root sense, could be read in Eliot’s face: not the condescending sentimentality of the humanitarian, but a consciousness of the community of souls. Now and again there came into my head, as I sat with Eliot, those lines from his “Preludes” which he had written in his Harvard days:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Those lines had struck Wyndham Lewis, too, in 1915. Lewis then, and I later, did not take Eliot himself to be pathetic: he had passed through suffering, by the time I knew him, to resignation and hope; but the vanity of human wishes clung about him always, not unpleasantly. His appetites were reduced, his manners perfect—and his patience boundless. He might have sat for Sir Thomas Browne, or for his own friend Father Martin D’Arcy, as an exemplar of Christian morals.

All about him, in those late years when I knew Eliot, he perceived inner and outer disorder, but was not dismayed. One winter I told him that he ought to come with me to Cyprus. (He could not have walked with me, then, as he had walked beside the Loire and in Brittany with Wyndham Lewis, just after the First World War; but if I had sat by him in the roofless Queen’s Lodging of the castle of St. Hilarion, say, where the cliff-face drops away more than two thousand feet, I might have known one of Eliot’s moments when time and the timeless intersect.) What with his arthritis, he may have been tempted; but he had duties to perform. True, he said, his doctor had advised him that he ought to spend the cold months in some “dry, quiet place—Egypt, perhaps.” At that hour, Egypt was made hideous by revolution and massacre; Eliot suggested that the doctor was rather an old-fangled practitioner, not given to chewing the newspapers.

His physician’s unworldiness notwithstanding, I replied, really he and I ought to embrace that prescription: at Cairo or Alexandria, or in the City of the Dead at Luxor, we might end gloriously as two Roman candles ignited by Saracens, not with a whimper but a bang. Eliot smiled, perhaps regretfully, aware that nothing melodramatic ever had occurred to him, nor would—except in the realm of mind and spirit.

Standing still while men were arming, Eliot lived secure, full of years and honors, amidst the crash of empires. He might have said, with Don Quixote, “I know who I am,” a rare discovery—teaching resignation to any man who makes it—that Eliot had achieved painfully. Not attracted by power or wealth, Eliot was content to be poet and critic. He had no passionate desire for the fame that settled upon him, and was not easily wounded by hostility among reviewers and ideologues.

Yet for the present condition of culture, and for the future of man, Eliot knew a concern that (at least by 1953, when we met) he had ceased to feel for himself. For five decades, from Prufrock and Other Observations to the essays that were published after his death, Eliot labored to renew the wardrobe of a moral imagination, that generation might link with generation—and that, beyond the boredom and the horror, men might perceive the glory.

Through poem and play and essay, Eliot hoped to work upon his age—through what he wrote, not through what he experienced privately; and in that spirit this book has been undertaken. With what might have been arrogance in a man less amiable by nature, Thomas Stearns Eliot aspired to represent in his day the power of moral imagination possessed by his Mantuan and Florentine exemplars. He was an ethical poet, bent upon redeeming the time. What Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life” was Eliot’s to the full—although, as old Robert Burton had written in The Anatomy of Melancholy, melancholy men are the wittiest. In his austere and subtly humorous way, Eliot perceived his own age more poignantly than did anyone else in the republic of letters.

T. S. Eliot was the principal champion of the moral imagination in the twentieth century. Now what is the moral imagination? The phrase is Edmund Burke’s. By it, Burke meant that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment—“especially,” as the dictionary has it, “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. It was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Virgil and Dante.

In Burke’s rhetoric, the civilized being is distinguished from the savage by his possession of the moral imagination—by our “superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our estimation.” Drawn from centuries of human experience, these ideas of the moral imagination are expressed afresh from age to age. So it is that the men of humane letters in our century whose work seems most likely to endure have not been neoterists, but rather bearers of an old standard, tossed by our modern winds of doctrine: the names of Eliot, Frost, Faulkner, Waugh, and Yeats may suffice to suggest the variety of this moral imagination in the modern age.

Burke’s moral imagination is contrasted by Eliot’s teacher, Irving Babbitt (who probably introduced to Eliot this aspect of Burke), with Rousseau’s idyllic imagination. In the twentieth century, the idyllic imagination may be giving way to the diabolic imagination. Eliot would contend against both the disciples of Rousseau and the disciples of Lawrence—against the worshipers of strange gods.

Eliot and some of his contemporaries agreed, tacitly or explicitly (again in Burke’s phrases), “that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality. . . .” Their achievement was to reinvigorate in the twentieth century those perennial moral insights which are the sources of human normality, and which make possible order and justice and freedom.

Good books and essays already have been written about Eliot’s style, his sources, his power as literary innovator, his critical talents. Yet many critics have touched somewhat uneasily or glancingly upon Eliot’s moral and political principles. His Christian orthodoxy has been tolerated by some, sneered at by others; his social ideas frequently have been ignored or disparaged. To strip the ragged follies of the time, nevertheless, was Eliot’s undertaking all his long literary career. Deliberately he wrote within a great tradition and in conformity to orthodox teaching. Like Samuel Johnson, Eliot would have chosen to be judged upon his merits as moralist and statist, not as stylist merely. As philosophical poet, as dramatist, as literary critic, and as social essayist, Eliot labored for the recovery of order: the order of the soul, and the order of the commonwealth.

It is the power of moral imagination that will give long life to Eliot’s work. And some fifty-five years after “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published, tardy discursive judgment needs to be rendered. So I propose to examine Eliot’s chief endeavors, and to touch now and again upon the work of his allies or of his adversaries. If we apprehend Eliot—who is not easy to plumb—we apprehend the intellectual and moral struggles of our time.

My own object in this present book is to discuss the significance of Eliot’s convictions for this age, and to set in his social perspective the most eminent writer of the past half-century. I do not serve under the flag of those gentlemen whom F. O. Matthiessen (after Eliot) calls “the sociological critics”: participating in a high continuity, Eliot was not simply a product or a representative of social influences within his lifetime. Yet I agree with Irving Babbitt that all important literature is ethical in character, and that the man of letters moves his society for good or ill. This book, then, has to do with Eliot the champion of the moral imagination and with Eliot the critic of the civil social order.

In humane letters, ours has been the Age of Eliot, as once there was an Age of Dryden, and an Age of Johnson. As an historical and a literary epoch, our time commences with the First World War: the preceding years of this century were the tag-ends of nineteenth-century opinions, and until 1914 the social institutions of the nineteenth century stood little impaired. After the deluge of what optimists called the “Great War,” a new current flowed in literature, as in the social order. The past half-century has been Eliot’s age, in that Thomas Stearns Eliot, a shy colossus, bestrode the period as Virgil or Dante or Dryden or Johnson had dominated very different times. Relish him or not, we encounter Eliot everywhere in twentieth-century intellectuality and social speculation and literary controversy.

Since Eliot’s death, we have slipped farther still into the antagonist world of armed doctrine and consuming appetite. This book may help to explain the strong relevance of Eliot’s thought and imagery to our present passionate discontents.

I have put into the ten following chapters of prose what James McAuley expresses in three stanzas:

A distant shepherd on the plain
Changed his tune, and the city fell;
But, syllable by syllable,
Amphion raised the walls again.
The ratios of the vibrant string,
The trembling column of breathed air,
Ordain a measure to despair
And bind ambition in a ring.
Justly framed, the metre gives
This meaning, meaning’s counterpart:
“Set love in order in the heart—
For in these modes the polis lives.”

It is conceivable that in some distant future time, when the history of the twentieth century seems barbarous and bewildering as the chronicles of Scotland’s medieval age, the piercing visions of Eliot may be regarded as the clearest light which endured in that general darkness.

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