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.

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