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Eliot and His Age, Russell Kirk

When virtues of in­sight and wis­dom are com­ple­mented by elo­quence and hu­mil­ity in a work of criticism, there is al­ways rea­son to cel­e­brate. And when the critic’s sub­ject is Thomas Stearns Eliot—“our last great poet,” as Dr. F. R. Leavis has af­fixed Eliot’s imaginative ge­nius—there is added cause for cel­e­bra­tion. Much non­sense has been writ­ten about Eliot, crit­i­cally and bi­o­graph­i­cally, and there is no need here to summarize or quote from its abun­dance. That kind of ref­er­ence would merely acknowledge the negative, a con­di­tion that, par­tic­u­larly with the ad­vent of the deconstructionists, holds too much sway. In fact, we need to be saved from pre­cisely such an aber­rant and soul­less at­ti­tude as much as Eliot needs to be saved from it.

Dr. Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Agefirst pub­lished in 1971 and now reis­sued as a quality pa­per­back, not only oc­ca­sions cel­e­bra­tion but also fo­ments the kind of crit­i­cal salvation in­di­cated in the pre­ced­ing sen­tence. As such, it is a won­der­ful gift to have this book, to be able to read and reread it, to re­flect on it, learn from it, and de­rive from it generous and civ­i­liz­ing lessons re­lat­ing to “T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imag­i­na­tion in the Twentieth Cen­tury.” At no other time than now has there been greater need to be ex­posed to the cri­te­ri­onal qual­i­ties that iden­tify the moral imag­i­na­tion, which has been pro­gres­sively de­con­structed in the mod­ern world, indiscriminately generating a “cul­ture of nar­cis­sism” and all the hor­rors that go with it. Ed­mund Burke speaks of such a world as “the antagonist world of mad­ness, dis­cord, vice, con­fu­sion, and un­avail­ing sor­row.” No other mod­ern poet, as Kirk so convincingly shows, com­pre­hended more fully the power and scourge of this an­tag­o­nist world than did T. S. Eliot.

Eliot and His Age is a big and thor­ough book that ex­am­ines the to­tal­ity of Eliot’s vi­sion. Kirk blends in his commentary all those el­e­ments that are the root-sub­stance of a poet’s vi­sion—the cre­ative and the crit­i­cal, the lit­er­ary and the social, the po­lit­i­cal and the eco­nomic, the re­li­gious and the philo­soph­i­cal. If all these el­e­ments are to be elucidated, the critic who ful­fills his true re­spon­si­bil­ity must pos­sess the his­tor­i­cal sense and also es­tab­lish connections proportionately. The pos­ses­sion of these crit­i­cal prop­er­ties helps to de­fine the ex­clu­sive­ness of the critic’s function and to make that func­tion per­ti­nent to the mean­ing of civ­i­liza­tion and the des­tiny of man. The critic, no less than the cre­ator, who views the world as an or­ganic whole, en­ables us to un­der­stand the world in all of its manifestations. He en­ables us, as Eliot once ob­served, “to see be­neath both beauty and ug­li­ness; to see the bore­dom, and the hor­ror and the glory.” Such a critic is more than a critic; he is a man of let­ters who, as Ralph Waldo Emer­son wrote, “has drawn the white lot in life.”

In a lit­tle-known essay that ap­peared to­wards the end of World War II, “The Man of Let­ters and the Fu­ture of Eu­rope,” Eliot emphasizes that a man of let­ters is con­cerned with the cul­tural map and ex­er­cises “con­stant sur­veil­lance.” A man of letters has his first and per­ma­nent loy­alty to his lit­er­ary art, as Eliot stresses, but he has other major in­ter­ests as well, and these in­volve the moral state of the world. Or to quote here Rus­sell Kirk him­self, echo­ing Burke, with reference to what con­sti­tutes the es­tate of the moral imag­i­na­tion as it in turn is supremely rec­og­nized by Eliot: “The moral imagination as­pires to the ap­pre­hend­ing of right order in the soul and right order in the com­mon­wealth.”

In that rare in­stance when the poet as man of let­ters meets the critic as man of let­ters we have an en­counter of uncommon ad­van­tage. That is what hap­pens in Eliot and His Age as the spirit of crit­i­cal in­quiry soars in a mem­o­rable pattern of as­cent. Il­lu­mi­na­tions, judg­ments, ex­plo­rations, dis­cov­er­ies cir­cum­scribe each page as men of let­ters meet in crit­i­cal dis­course shaped as it is by the moral sense. We are not hec­tored here by the pedantries and clap­trap that easily identify the sham crit­i­cism that is writ­ten large in the acad­emy and that eats away at the foun­da­tions of paideia. Rather, we are re­minded of the cen­tral func­tion of the man of let­ters in the mod­ern world and that what he must do first is what he has al­ways done: to “recre­ate for his age the image of man…[and] prop­a­gate stan­dards by which other men may test that image, and dis­tin­guish the false from the true,” to use Allen Tate’s salient in­junc­tion. This injunction, it is sad to say, has been con­tra­vened by alien bands of crit­ics—gang move­ments of the worst char­ac­ter and conduct—that have charged reck­lessly be­yond the fron­tiers of crit­i­cism and have as­pired to a deca­dence and nihilism of the most dan­ger­ous ex­treme. Such has been the ar­ro­gance and impi­ety of these anti-crit­ics that the crit­i­cal function has been se­verely ab­ro­gated. The re­sults are dis­mal to an in­cal­cu­la­ble de­gree as we sur­vey our lit­er­ary and cultural scene, to find there the in­creas­ing ab­sence of the man of let­ters. In­tel­lec­tual and spir­i­tual blight boldly proclaims the proliferation of the hol­low men in the realm of what Eliot terms “lead­er­ship and let­ters.”

At the very end of the lec­ture with the words just quoted as his title—de­liv­ered on No­vem­ber 3, 1948, as the “War Memo­rial Ad­dress” at Mil­ton Acad­emy—Eliot de­clares: “there will al­ways be sit­u­a­tions in which one man, or a few men, will ren­der a ser­vice to their so­ci­ety sim­ply by stand­ing alone in an un­pop­u­lar opin­ion and telling their countrymen that they are wrong, with no hope of ac­com­plish­ing any­thing ex­cept wit­ness­ing to the truth as they see it.” These words, clearly pro­pelled by Eliot’s great men­tor, the New Eng­land sage and saint, Irv­ing Bab­bitt, give the essence of the faith of the man of let­ters. And as Kirk shows with crit­i­cal acu­men, Eliot bravely ful­filled the role of man of let­ters. Those who sub­scribe to or prop­a­gate the idea that Eliot was ef­fete, pas­sive, de­featist—“like a beau­ti­fully carved skeleton—no blood, no guts, no mar­row, no flesh,” to quote Frieda Lawrence’s cruel jab—are vig­or­ously rebutted in Eliot and His AgeIn this re­spect, Kirk echoes Dr. F. R. Leavis’s es­ti­ma­tion: “I see Eliot’s cre­ative ca­reer as a sustained, heroic and in­de­fati­ga­bly re­source­ful quest of a pro­found sin­cer­ity of the most dif­fi­cult kind. The hero­ism is that of genius.” This hero­ism in­forms Eliot’s achieve­ment as a poet, drama­tist, critic—and, yes, a be­liever, a re­li­gious man.

Eliot certainly pos­sessed cre­ative courage, but he also pos­sessed, as Kirk demon­strates bet­ter than any other commentator, a con­sum­mate spir­i­tual courage. This con­flu­ence of cre­ative and spir­i­tual courage fi­nally per­mits Eliot to attain his great­est vi­sion­ary mo­ment in his com­po­si­tion of Four Quar­tets—a poem that dis­tin­guishes him as an upholder of the moral imag­i­na­tion, and as a mod­ern con­tin­u­a­tor of Vir­gil and Dante. (“His was the true Dan­tes­can voice,” Ezra Pound in­sisted, “not ho­n­oured enough….”) The thirty pages that Kirk de­votes to the Four Quar­tets pro­vide the most illuminating in­ter­pre­ta­tions of that work that can be found any­where. No stu­dent of Eliot can af­ford to omit this discus­sion and will, it is cer­tain, be helped to de­tect the same dis­cov­ery in all four poems that Kirk de­scribes: “The central dis­cov­ery, the mean­ing, is this: through the tran­scen­dent con­scious­ness, it is pos­si­ble to know God, and through Him to know im­mor­tal­ity.”

Equally il­lu­mi­nat­ing is Kirk’s dis­cus­sion of Eliot’s so­cial crit­i­cism as found in scat­tered es­says, in books like After Strange Gods and The Idea of a Chris­t­ian So­ci­ety, and in the Com­men­taries that Eliot, as ed­i­tor, con­tributed periodically to The Cri­te­rion, the quar­terly mag­a­zine he edited be­tween 1922 and 1939. Eliot’s Cri­te­rion, Kirk in­sists, contained “the eth­i­cal voice,” or as Eliot him­self as­serted: “For my­self, a right po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy came more and more to imply a right the­ol­ogy—and right eco­nom­ics to de­pend upon right ethics….” Far from being a re­ac­tionary as some of his ad­ver­saries charge ad nau­seam, Eliot sought dur­ing his ed­i­tor­ship to at­tain some sem­blance of a vi­sion of order in a world swiftly drift­ing into “the sec­ond dark­ness,” as E. M. Forster was to image the post-Mu­nich events.

The Cri­te­rion, which never had more than 900 sub­scribers and ceased op­er­a­tion in Jan­u­ary 1939, left os­ten­si­bly an uncertain legacy, un­like Leavis’s Scrutiny, a crit­i­cal quar­terly pub­lished be­tween 1932 and 1953 that ex­erted wide influence and ad­um­brated stan­dards of dis­crim­i­na­tion that in time be­came canonic in char­ac­ter and pro­gram, especially in Eng­lish lit­er­ary and ed­u­ca­tional cir­cles. Ju­lian Symons, the Eng­lish poet, nov­el­ist, and bi­og­ra­pher, expressed a representative judg­ment in 1938 when he com­plained that the “moral scale of val­ues by which [The Criterion] judges lit­er­a­ture and life is one that no longer has much mean­ing.” (Ear­lier, in 1935, Symon’s friend George Orwell, in an even more in­sensed man­ner, said of The Cri­te­rion “that for pure snootiness it beats any­thing I have ever seen.”) Kirk’s view of The Cri­te­rion, of its value and con­tri­bu­tion, is far more ju­di­cious and his­tor­i­cally per­cep­tive, inso­far as he places the mag­a­zine in the total picture of Eliot’s achievement. In the process he shows a deep and sensitive understand­ing of the per­ma­nent im­por­tance of “small and obscure re­views” like The Cri­te­rion that “must be de­pended upon to main­tain a con­ti­nu­ity of cul­ture, under painful cir­cum­stances.”

When Rus­sell Kirk founded his own quar­terly, Mod­ern Age, in 1957, Eliot’s Cri­te­rion served as an ex­em­plum and an in­spi­ra­tion in the strug­gle to pre­serve cul­tural and so­cial tradition, “our com­mon pat­ri­mony of culture,” as Eliot expresses it,—in the strug­gle to pre­serve, as he wrote prophetically in Notes to­wards the De­f­i­n­i­tion of Cul­ture, “the essentials of our cul­ture” against those bent on “destroying our an­cient ed­i­fices to make ready the ground upon which the bar­bar­ian no­mads of the fu­ture will en­camp in their mech­a­nised car­a­vans.” Eliot’s cri­tique of lib­er­al­ism was bold and di­rect and re­mains as yet unan­swered.

That Kirk chooses to pay se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to Eliot’s verse drama is also to be com­mended. Many crit­ics have been un­sympathetic to Eliot’s plays or un­even in their treatment of them, point­ing mainly to their struc­tural faults and flaccidity. In 1951, for in­stance, Philip Rahv confessed that in writ­ing for the the­ater, Eliot “has made me more skeptical than ever of the abil­ity of poets to mas­ter dramatic form while main­tain­ing a high level of po­etic ex­pres­sion incorporating the move­ments of mod­ern speech.” In­deed, Leavis singles out The Cock­tail Party for spe­cial cen­sure when he cas­ti­gates it for “an im­plicit snob­bery” and goes on to cite Eliot’s “su­pe­ri­or­ity of re­li­gious and the­o­log­i­cal knowl­edge” as evidence of the play’s “ig­no­rance of the possibilities of life; ig­no­rance of the ef­fect the play must have on a kind of reader or spec­ta­tor of whose ex­is­tence the author ap­pears to be unaware….”

Of course, Kirk is fa­mil­iar with the thrust of the censure of Eliot’s plays, but he does not allow this to cloud his perception of the plays in the Eli­otic oeu­vre and to mea­sure their larger eth­i­cal and re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance. “Eliot’s imagination,” he states, “work­ing through the drama, made pos­si­ble eman­ci­pa­tion from the prison of a mo­ment in time and from the ob­ses­sions of the ego.” Leavis’s ad­verse view of the plays, as Kirk makes un­mis­tak­ably clear, is immersed in the widen­ing gyre of a moral em­piri­cism and is there­fore in­ad­e­quately aware of the place of the­ol­ogy, and specifically Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy, in Eliot’s vi­sion. To sep­a­rate the­o­log­i­cal constituents from an ac­tive re­la­tion to an artist’s imag­i­na­tion di­min­ishes his mean­ing, Kirk rightly re­minds us, and nails his vi­sion to a one-di­men­sional human­ism. Crit­ics who dep­re­cate Eliot’s the­o­log­i­cal essences dis­miss pre­cisely those essences that shape the theological imag­i­na­tion of a Dante, a Cervantes, a Mil­ton, a Dostoevsky. Here it should per­haps be re­mem­bered that, no less than Dos­to­evsky in the nine­teenth century, Eliot lived through a period of dis­so­lu­tion in Chris­t­ian cul­ture and experienced it as a per­sonal tragedy. His writ­ings, in their unity, are his wit­ness to the cri­sis of moder­nity at all lev­els.

Wherever one turns in Eliot and His Age one finds par­a­digms of crit­i­cal thought and in­tegrity. It never fal­ters in its central pur­pose of as­sess­ing Eliot’s “pierc­ing vi­sions,” which Kirk re­gards as “the clear­est light” that has en­dured in the general dark­ness of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. “If we ap­pre­hend Eliot…we ap­pre­hend the in­tel­lec­tual and moral struggles of our time.” Thus writes Kirk early on in his book. It is no small achieve­ment that he em­pow­ers his reader to gain precisely this dou­ble ap­pre­hen­sion. Kirk’s book has a pro­found cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect on the reader as it in­sight­fully penetrates Eliot’s vi­sion in its moral and so­cial-po­lit­i­cal di­men­sions and as it eval­u­a­tively in­ter­re­lates his achievements as philo­soph­i­cal poet, drama­tist, literary critic, so­cial es­say­ist. To this daunt­ing task Kirk brings those civ­i­liz­ing qualities and dis­ci­plines that also iden­tify him as a man of let­ters. Un­fail­ingly, he demon­strates the crit­i­cal in­stinct that Henry James stip­u­lates: “I have to the last point the in­stinct and the sense for fu­sions and in­ter­re­la­tions, for fram­ing and en­cir­cling…every part of my stuff in every other….”

Through­out, Kirk’s tone is bal­anced, his at­ti­tude is humane, his judg­ment is sound. And through­out his writ­ing is rich and subtle, con­trolled and con­cen­trated, dig­ni­fied and hon­est, not unleavened as oc­ca­sion de­mands by sub­tlety and allusiveness, by wry humor and an en­gag­ing au­tho­r­ial presence. Clarity of expression and pre­ci­sion of thought in this book are those fe­lic­i­tous el­e­ments of style that amply corroborate Austin War­ren’s apho­rism: “Style is not dis­junct from sub­stance: it is con­sid­ered sub­stance ren­dered expression.” Ex­am­ples of Kirk’s styl­is­tic gifts strik­ingly mul­ti­ply as one peruses the pages of Eliot and His Age. 

If The Conservative Mind can be judged as Kirk’s most important book in which he speaks as a dis­cern­ing po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher and historian, Eliot and His Age is his greatest book in which the man of let­ters speaks with that Burkean voice that be­longs to the “epoch of concentration,” as Matthew Arnold termed it. No less than Eliot him­self, Kirk dis­closes in this his great­est book a con­stant “reverence for some cen­tre of one­ness,” to use Bab­bitt’s phrase. Ultimately it is the nu­mi­nous qual­ity of rev­er­ence that distinguishes the man of let­ters from the atom­istic critic and that de­fines and un­der­girds his faith, “the sub­stance of things hoped for, the ev­i­dence of things not seen.” Ul­ti­mately, too, this qual­ity guides the man of let­ters to re­spond to a poet who, as the an­cient Hel­lenists taught, should be ad­mired be­cause through his ge­nius he makes man bet­ter in his cities.

Critics in the mass tend to ig­nore and even dis­dain the moral di­men­sion of the ar­che­typal triad of thought, words, and creativity. We now see in our midst a swarm of crit­i­cal gnos­ti­cisms, impi­eties, cyn­i­cism—that self­same sit­u­a­tion in which, as Thomas Car­lyle ob­served in 1840, Chaos sits as um­pire and spir­i­tual paral­y­sis pre­vails. Un­like a Car­lyle who re­garded the man of let­ters as “our most im­por­tant mod­ern per­son,” there are today many in the in­tel­lec­tual community who cat­e­gor­i­cally re­ject Car­lyle’s high esteem of the man of let­ters. But these re­jec­tors are men of lit­tle faith! In T. S. Eliot and in Russell Kirk we find a liv­ing and coura­geous con­ti­nu­ity of the great tra­di­tion of the man of let­ters. And in Eliot and His Age we experience a restorative communion with the Hero as Man of Let­ters, he who “is the soul of all” and whose faith makes us whole.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay originally appeared in the University Bookman and is offered here with  their gracious permission.

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