T.S. Eliot, Poet for a Fallen Culture

Review: Christopher Ricks, Ed., 'The Poems of T.S. Eliot, Volumes I and II'

T.S. Eliot / AP

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Who remembers it? Who would even believe it now, when political thought, for left and right alike, lies shattered in a thousand pieces? Still, there really was a moment, from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, when all the different strands of conservative thought looked as though they might come together into a grand unified field theory—the coherent and whole answer of the West to the claims of communism. And somewhere near the center of it all stood the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

In the strange conservative mix of that time was everything from the compelling simplicity of Richard Weaver’s anti-nominalism to the God-haunted landscapes of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Add in the indefatigable historical research of Russell Kirk, the hard brilliance of Etienne Gilson’s neoscholastic Catholicism—even a little homegrown libertarianism and the Southern Fugitives’ agrarianism—and all the pieces seemed to be fitting together. Fitting together, that is, until suddenly they weren’t, and not even William F. Buckley could put them back together.

But perhaps the strangest ingredient—the most unbelievable bit for us, these days—was the role of Eliot’s work. Of course, part of the current unintelligibility comes with the decline of belief that poetry matters, that it ever really mattered: that within living memory there was a time when poetry was thought to be at the absolute center of culture.

But just as much, the peculiarity of Eliot’s place derives from the fact that he was a complete modernist in his verse, the leading practitioner of the literary revolution that turned against traditional poetry in the first half of the twentieth century. If conservatives wanted poets, Russell Kirk could point them to any number of snippets from the formal verse of Lord Tennyson and Victor Hugo.

That’s not to say that they didn’t recognize T.S. Eliot as the dominant poet and critic of his time, possibly as early as his publication of Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917 but certainly in the years after 1922, when he published The Waste Land and began his literary magazine, The Criterion. (Later editions of The Cambridge History of English Literature would name only two eras after a single writer: The Age of Dryden and The Age of Eliot.) But for the conservatives of the 1940s and 1950s, Eliot’s poetry was surely an unlikely choice for the signal banner under which they would gather.

Except, perhaps, for the fact that Eliot really was a modernist—and modernist literature was rarely a celebration of modern times. In a line often quoted by later neoconservatives, the critic Lionel Trilling opened The Liberal Imagination, his famous 1950 collection of essays, with a declaration that "there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation" in America, only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." At the same time, he saw clearly—and tried in vain to teach the readers of his time—that literary modernism contained a profoundly anti-modern and anti-liberal streak. However much the smug liberalism of the day wanted to roll together all that seemed progressive in literature with all that seemed progressive in politics, such figures as Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence were never going to fit well with American liberalism.

And neither was T.S. Eliot. This winter, Johns Hopkins University Press issued The Poems of T.S. Eliot, a two-volume collection of his verse annotated by the Boston University scholar Christopher Ricks. As is usual for Ricks, the annotations are both brilliant and overwhelming—as one might have guessed when the first volume’s 340 pages of poetry are matched with 966 pages of notes. And in those pages there’s an occasion to think again about T.S. Eliot and what he meant for a generation of conservatism now long gone.

For all that The Wasteland would come to seem the definitive description of the failed civilization of the West in the years after the First World War—These fragments I have shored against my ruins—the clearest setting of Eliot’s thought may come in the juxtaposition of "The Hollow Men" (1925), the last of his serious works before his embrace of Anglican Christianity, and "Ash Wednesday" (1930), the first of his major Christian poems.

The use of broken repetition in both poems is a hint that the poems speak to each other: the brutal desert of the earlier poem answered in the delicate hope of the later. Was there ever a poem as grim as "The Hollow Men"? It reduces even the apocalypse to a whimper. The Wasteland uses its kaleidoscopic scenes to show a Western civilization that lacks both meaning and manners, but it is still in many ways a rich poem: thick with reference, ripe with the vocabulary of prior English poems (as Ricks so fully documents), and exuberant in its images. It declares, in its way, that poetry still serves the hygienic function of culture. It declares, in its way, that civilization is not so far gone that a poem cannot still help make a change. "The Hollow Men" has no such undertone. Stripped down to the bones of thought and language, it’s the worldview of Christianity—without Christ: a biblical poem of the emptiness the world would be without God, matched with the absence of God.

But then, in "Ash Wednesday," Eliot takes the dark worldview of "The Hollow Men" and reintroduces a little bit of God. Christendom has still failed, and culture no longer makes sense. But the Church and conversion may nonetheless remain possible. The faith of a believer may remain true—or even shine more clearly—despite the decline that marks the history of the civilization that carried those truths.

The irreplaceable appeal of Eliot for conservatives of the 1940s and 1950s shows in the settings for that two-part vision. Only modernism could convey sufficiently the negative part: The breakdown of traditional civilization had to be echoed in the objective correlative of the breakdown of traditional verse. This wasn’t free verse as a declaration of new freedom. This was free verse as a howl that culture itself had failed.

And the prestige of Eliot’s modernism allowed a new expression of the Christianity he came to embrace: a universal recognition of the power of his expression in Four Quartets, the play Murder in the Cathedral, and the choruses from The Rock. The failed culture could not hear the power in the old forms it had lost, but the new form could convey Eliot’s quiet, delicate, and thoughtful faith.

Or could it? Reduced to its barest elements, modernity is the substitution of science for theology, history for philosophy, and the self for the soul. Eliot had little patience with the pretensions of science, but even he was not fully able to escape the other two modern turns. The negative critique of his modernism is essentially genealogical rather than metaphysical, and The Wasteland is a poem more about history than philosophy.

For that matter, the text of Four Quartets is more about the self than the soul. The poems use the theological language of finishing a journey to describe the theological event of beginning a journey. The vocabulary the mystics used to describe their visions of God is slid down the scale to become a vocabulary for the poet’s first coming to faith. Mysticism is transformed into conversion, and the turn of the self becomes the more poetically important journey of the soul.

By the mid-1960s, the goal of a unified conservative theory had failed, exposed as a mirage. Reagan’s big-tent Republicanism could unite the disparate elements for an election, but no coherent political theory would emerge to hold together the thought of paleoconservatives and neoconservatives, neothomists and libertarians, Straussians and Voegelinians. After the fall of Soviet communism, what remained for the various kinds of conservatives to share? Not even opposition to abortion seems to drive them toward unity anymore.

As it happens, for readers of T.S. Eliot, that might prove something of a gain. Christopher Ricks’s edition of The Poems of T.S. Eliot can remind us of just how good a writer Eliot was—particularly once he has been set free. If we force Eliot to occupy a symbolic place in modern thought, he proves a symbol of failure. If we read him instead only as a poet, he proves a master of the language. Perhaps the greatest the dismal twentieth century knew.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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