Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century
by Russell Kirk.
Sherwood Sugden and Company, Publishers (La Salle, Ill.), 1984. xii + 476 pp. $12.95 paper.
Second edition with an introduction by Benjamin G. Lockerd Jr., ISI Books, 2008.

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 suchan aberrant and soulless attitude as much as Eliot needs to be saved from it.

Dr. Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age, first 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 Age. In 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.  

George A. Panichas (1930–2010), author of several books including The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art (1985) and The Reverent Discipline: Essays in Literary Criticism and Culture(1974), was at the time of this essay, professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park and the editor of the quarterly Modern Age.