[This article first appeared in the June 1985 issue of Chronicles.]
"Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens Gloria Teucrorum."
(We once were Trojans, there once was Troy, and the vast glory of the Teucrian race.)
Peter Ackroyd: T. S. Eliot: A Life: Simon & Schuster; New York.
"Ackroyd's is the most comprehensive full-length critical biography we have of this almost talismanic figure of literary modernism."
In 1948, when I kept a bookshop, not a few young people still fancied that Eliot expressed their own romantic nihilism. Many books about him having been published since then, that illusion no longer prevails. Eliot's descent into the numinous depths of the soul is not the path to Avernus; and "Difficulties of a Statesman" no longer is taken for an ideological poem.
The latest biography of Eliot is a good piece of work in general, but the unavailability of Eliot's letters (in process of being edited by Valerie Eliot) imposes limitations. Besides, Mr. Peter Ackroyd (now 36 years old) did not know Eliot or Eliot's principal friends, and is acquainted only at second hand with the intellectual currents of Eliot's age. He appears to be unfamiliar with various important studies of Eliot published in the United States—I think particularly of the writing of Marion Montgomery—and with my own book Eliot and His Age, which contains letters from Eliot not published elsewhere.
Recent psychobiographers, less sympathetic than is Mr. Ackroyd, have endeavored to discover vast dark secrets in Eliot's life. But the truth about his sorrow is quite simple and not at all extraordinary: he married young, imprudently; he loved not wisely but too well; his first wife, Vivienne, was neurotic from the first, became unbearable, and presently went mad. She vanished into an asylum; not until after her death did Eliot marry a second time, and wisely. I never have found the details of other folks' marital troubles a fascinating topic, though it delights psychobiographers. But great poets, who perceive more clearly than does the average sensual man, also may feel more deeply. Out of that sorrow of Eliot's and his search for consolation through faith arose Eliot’s major poems.
In the days when I used to see Eliot in London or Edinburgh, I knew next to nothing about Eliot's disastrous marriage. This ignorance produced a faux pas. One day in 1954, I spent some hours with Wyndham Lewis and his wife in their Notting Hill studio flat. The next day I lunched at the Garrick with Eliot and Herbert Agar. As we were putting on our coats to depart, I remarked to my companions that Froanna Lewis was an admirable woman: I had fancied from reading Lewis's novel Self Condemned that Mrs. Lewis was another sort of person. Upon the utterance of this judgment, Eliot and Agar fell distressingly silent. What had I done? Wasn't it cricket to mention ladies at the Garrick Club? This blunder occurred four years before Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, who brought him peace. To refer to Lewis's wife was to rouse memories of Eliot's first marriage, a subject never to be discussed: no man guarded his privacy more jealously than did Eliot.
The things for which Eliot stood are not difficult to make out. First, he was moved by what Unamuno called "the tragic sense of life." Were it not for the hope that man is made for eternity, we should be wretched. Accepting dogmata, Eliot renewed in this century the apprehension of the theological virtues.
Second, Eliot abided by ancestral wisdom: the Hebraic and Christian and classical patrimony of culture. As Eliot expressed this in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1917), "Someone said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know."
Third, Eliot sought to recover the idea of a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn. The disorder of modern politics is produced by the decay of that community of spirit. As, replying to Karl Mannheim, Eliot wrote of modern political theory: "Being occupied only with humanity in the mass, it tends to separate itself from ethics; being occupied only with that recent period of history during which humanity can most easily be shown to have been ruled by impersonal forces, it reduces the proper study of mankind to the last two or three hundred years of man. It too often inculcates a belief in a future inflexibly determined and at the same time a future which we are wholly free to shape as we like."
What Eliot's revolution in literature gave to his age was a renewal of moral imagination—with social consequences, potentially. Eliot's orthodoxy, expressed in new forms, offered something more attractive to mind and heart than could either liberalist aridity or the ominous People's Hall of Culture. Literature and society both depend upon belief in a transcendent order, Eliot reminded the 20th century. "If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin," Eliot wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society. Eliot scandalized many because he went all the way to "the awful daring of a moment's surrender"—that is, surrender to the divine.
"It is a tendency of creative literature," Rebecca West concludes in The Court and the Castle, "when it rises above a certain level, to involve itself with statecraft and religion: to exist and to belong to Him." Eliot involved himself with both, boldly submitting his strong private rationality to the authority of dogmas. But to the popular statecraft of his own time, Eliot did not surrender: against totalism, he set the idea of a Christian society.
"There seems to be no hope in contemporary politics at all," he wrote in The Criterion, in 1933. Ashe wrote to me two decades later, "A decline in private morality is certain to be followed in the long run by a decline in public and political morality also." Before humankind stretches a dark age: "We are destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans," he put it in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.
Eliot's was a lonely voice in the '40s and '50s; today he is echoed by many thinking people—among them, Malcolm Muggeridge, once contemptuous of Eliot. There are no lost causes because there are no gained causes, Eliot argued in his essay on Francis Herbert Bradley: "We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors' victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation it will triumph." Often I have been heartened by that passage.
Eliot's adversary, H. G. Wells, so influential between the wars, died despairing for humanity. Eliot will endure because he was a man of imagination, while Wells was a man of fancy. Eliot knew that men may redeem the time only if they apprehend the timeless; that the dream may be redeemed only if one distinguishes between those false dreams which issue from between the gates of ivory, and those true dreams which issue from between the gates of horn.
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Gerontion soliloquizes. The shallow presumption of doctrinaire rationalism, Eliot argued, has stranded us in cactus-land. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.” Those lines from "The Rock" now speak to many of the rising generation–even if some of that generation turn to strange gods.
On the oval memorial tablet in the medieval church at East Coker, where Eliot lies buried, is graven the line borrowed from Mary Stuart: “In my end is my beginning.” The poet had passed from great sorrow to resignation and hope.
From the beginning, it had been Eliot’s purpose to defend “lost” causes. He was loyal to what he called the permanent things,” understanding that these permanent things are not the creations of men merely. As the inheritor of the purpose of Vergil and of Dante, Eliot endeavored to “redeem the time, redeem the dream.” It must be redeemed in every age.
“His work represents the brilliant efflorescence of a dying culture.” Mr. Ackroyd concludes his biography. “He pushed that culture together by an act of will, giving it a shape and context which sprang out of his own obsession, and the certainties which he established were rhetorical certainties.” Really? Rhetoric is “the art of persuasion, beautiful and just.” Persuasive Eliot certainly remains for many of us; and the certitudes that Eliot expressed will remain something more than mere arrangements of words.