book cover imageEliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century
by Russell Kirk.
New York: Random House, 1972.
[ISI 2008, 460 pages, paper, $18.]

Among all the studies that have been made of the works of T. S. Eliot, too many have been concerned with how Eliot wrote and not enough with how he thought. And yet the true significance of Eliot’s works for our time may well be what he was saying, far more than how he was saying it. Russell Kirk’s newest book very likely will prove to be among the half-dozen most significant commentaries yet written on Eliot, and surely the best study to date of the development of the thinking of this powerful literary and cultural figure who moved steadily in the direction of Christian orthodoxy as the only antidote to the moral decay and chaos toward which he discerned the Western world to be heading.

Eliot and His Age is a handsome 460-page volume with sixteen pages of notes, and an index including a useful index of “Topics and Ideas.” Dr. Kirk recognizes that there has been no major biography of Eliot, and even though he insists that this is not that biography, it is indeed an intellectual biography as well as an interpretation of Eliot; a biography enhanced by the fact that Dr. Kirk knew and corresponded extensively with Eliot in Eliot’s later years.

But it is primarily in the development of Eliot’s thought and the implications of that thought for our time that Kirk is most interested. His principal aim, he states, “is to explain what Eliot was saying, rather than to praise the manner in which he says it.”

In a sense the touchstone of the book is the concept of the “moral imagination,” a term which appears in the subtitle and which Dr. Kirk borrowed from Edmund Burke; but it is a term too that Kirk has made his own and by which, in general, he means the power of ethical perception which aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth, particularly as this perception may be expressed through literature and the arts. The moral imagination, he points out, was the gift and obsession of Plato and Virgil and Dante, and it somehow lingered on even in the twentieth century in the works of such diverse writers as Frost, Faulkner, Waugh, and Yeats, as well as in Eliot. It has, however, become an increasingly rare virtue in the twentieth century, as the ideological demigods of scientism and progressivism and other enemies of what Eliot called “the permanent things” have taken fast hold on the modern mind.

Thus Dr. Kirk sees Eliot as speaking to his age against the dangers of the age, much as Newman and Dr. Johnson had done before him. Kirk is inclined to contrast the concept of the moral imagination with, first, the “idyllic imagination” of Rousseau, who wagered all on the idea of the natural goodness of man—an idea which led him away from Christianity; and, second, against the “diabolical imagination” of such writers as D. H. Lawrence, who similarly wagered all on the natural beastliness of man—an idea which led him away from all religion.

Eliot, on the other hand, reaffirmed the view of man that had been dominant for more than two millennia before the time of Rousseau, namely that man is, to use Dostoevsky’s phrase, “a marvellous mingling of good and evil”; and this recognition of man’s moral weakness as well as his strength led him in time to Christian orthodoxy and from thence to a belief that order both in the soul and in the commonwealth might in time be regained.

As Dr. Kirk points out, Eliot’s Christian orthodoxy has been tolerated by some and sneered at by others—in England it was indeed regarded as something of a scandal—while his social ideas have frequently been ignored or disparaged; and yet Kirk rightly insists that like Samuel Johnson, Eliot “would have chosen to be judged upon his merits as a moralist and statist, not as stylist merely.” Hence this book “has to do with Eliot the champion of the moral imagination and with Eliot the critic of the civil social order.”

Dr. Kirk gives us a picture of Eliot as a champion assaulting not only nineteenth-century smugness about the human condition but twentieth-century unbelief and despair; as a humanist but as a Christian humanist; as a man who believed that individual rationality and private judgment must be subordinate to the higher reason which “grows out of a respect for the wisdom of one’s ancestors”; as an enemy of the pragmatic materialist’s concept of man as an “edified ape”; as a man whose thinking was alien both to Freud’s view of man and to Marx’s, and above all to D. H. Lawrence’s view of man as mere rutter; as a man who perceived H. G. Wells, G. B. Shaw, and Bertrand Russell, all, as intellectual enemies of permanent things; as a man who admired the humanistic thought of Matthew Arnold and of Irving Babbitt—but who saw too the sterility of their secular humanism; as a man who perceived that morals flow from faith and that political systems, including democracy, work only where man’s morality is tolerably strong; as a man who saw and foresaw the fatal weaknesses of Progressiveness and of Communism, as well as of Fascism. In short, he shows us a man of a conservative habit of mind, a mind which fits both the classical and the Christian mold and hence tended to reinforce the wisdom more nearly of the ages than the wisdom of the past two centuries.

In the eleven chronologically arranged chapters of his book Dr. Kirk takes the reader on a guided tour through most of Eliot’s major poems and plays, while drawing tellingly also from the major essays and articles, including those from The Criterion, which Eliot edited between the years 1922 and 1939, in order to document Eliot’s exercise of the moral imagination and his reaffirmation of the permanent things. He insists, for example, that Eliot’s poems are primarily not personal or sociological, as some would have them, but philosophical endeavors to relate the timeless to the temporal. The Wasteland, he observes, “is no glorification of the Past. What the reader should find in the poem, rather, is Eliot’s understanding that, by definition, human nature is a constant; the same vices and same virtues are at work in every age; and our present discontents, personal and public, can be apprehended only if we are able to contrast our present circumstances with the challenges and the responses of other times.” Kirk concludes that “ ‘Prufrock,’ ‘Gerontion,’ The Wasteland, and ‘The Hollow Men’ are delineations of Hell; Ash-Wednesday leads us up Mount Purgatory; and Four Quartets points out the way to the Rose Garden that endures beyond time, where seeming opposites are reconciled. Freed from Time, Sin, and Ego, modern man may know God and enjoy Him forever—if man does not presume to try to understand Him. With Four Quartets, Eliot at last achieves that ordering of the emotions or of the soul, which had been his aspiration for three decades.”

Eliot saw perhaps as well as anyone else of his time the consequences of the loss of religion in the Western world. In Thoughts after Lambeth, he wrote, “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the World from suicide.”

One might wish that Dr. Kirk could call his book The Age of Eliot rather than Eliot and His Age; but he could not, for this is not his age. As Eliot himself put it, “the real issue is between the secularists—whatever political or moral philosophy they support—and the anti-secularists; between those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth, and those who believe in values realized out of time.” Thus far, however, the secularists appear to have won the day, for more and more intellectuals, both great and small, are settling themselves in the uninhabitable secular Wasteland of Absolute Relativism, and it remains to be seen whether in future decades we will be able to shape change or whether we will merely change shape.

For obscurantism in poetry Eliot’s influence, it is true, has been incalculable; but for the moral imagination and the permanent things in life and of Christianity in particular, his influence has been far from overwhelming. And yet, observes Dr. Kirk, “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 purest light which endured in that general darkness.” It is indeed conceivable, and Dr. Kirk’s study of Eliot’s thinking and writing will have contributed something toward intensifying that light.  

Dr. Arther S. Trace (1922–2005) was at the time of writing Professor of English at John Carroll University and the author of What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t, Reading without Dick and Jane, The American Moral Crisis, The Future of Literature, and The Furnace of Doubt, a book about Dostoevsky.