TO THE POINT: THURSDAY, JANUARY 14, 1965
The gentleman and scholar who shyly dominated the republic of letters in Britain and America—Mr. T. S. Eliot—died a few days ago. Though we met only occasionally, sometimes in London and once in Edinburgh, there subsisted between Eliot and this commentator a deep kinship of sentiment and thought. From time to time, I work at what is to be a big book, The Age of Eliot.
Eliot never sought the popularity which, nevertheless, he achieved. He scorned and opposed mass-movements and the arts of mass persuasion and publicity. He set his face against all sorts of popular fallacies and ideological schemes—against the “planned society,” against socialism, against “the new morality,” against educational leveling, against “pop culture.”
In his first principles, Eliot was a professed Christian, accomplishing more than did anyone else to restore the repute of religious understanding among men of letters. In politics, Eliot called himself a “royalist”—by which he implied that he was an old-fangled conservative, a believer in order and class, having no truck with liberalism old-style or liberalism new-style.
To him, modern society was the “Wasteland” of his most famous poem. Purposeless and lost in its unsatisfying pursuit of pleasure, our civilization can be redeemed, he believed, only through the recovery of religious faith and the restoration of true community. Though these convictions may be discerned in his verse, they are more clearly in two slim books of his: The Idea of a Christian Society, and Notes toward the Definition of Culture.
Gently and kindly and self-effacing, Eliot was a cheerful, sometimes humorous, conscientious man, with none of the unpleasant symptoms of egoism so common among literary people. Much given to Anglican observances, he sent out more Christmas cards than does anyone else I know. He would go out of his way to assist even slight acquaintances, and never forsook a friend—such as Mr. Ezra Pound—upon whom adversity had fallen.
In part, Eliot’s reputation was founded upon the original and peculiar style of his verse, with its wealth of literary and historical illusions, and its susceptibility to many interpretations. Critics were welcome to find what meaning they might in his poems and plays, Eliot murmured with a smile; for an author often expresses truths of which the author is not perfectly aware.
But also Eliot captured the minds of two generations of educated people—many of them young—because he really possessed the intuitive power of the great poet. More than logician or scientist, Eliot perceived the character of modern man; and he brought to bear upon our present discontents the wisdom of our ancestors. With Virgil and Dante, he shared the poet’s vision, which sometimes transcends the ordinary senses.
With Robert Frost, Eliot is one of the two recent poets likely to be read with admiration by readers of English letters in 2065. Uniting in his mind the best of English and American culture, Eliot was a very rare bird indeed. The dignity of seven centuries of English poetry and prose was sustained by this mild, wise man; and no one can say where a worthy inheritor of this trust may be found.