Friday, June 24, 2016

That "men might perceive the glory"

I once met Russell Kirk. He spoke at a public meeting in Janesville, Wisconsin, very close to the town where I was attending college. I had by that time read The Conservative Mind and as much else of his that I could find. So, when a friend suggested that we attend his lecture I was very interested. I no longer remember the subject but I have a strong impression of his courtesy and the patience with which he answered questions. After the program ended we approached him and then spent some time talking at a table near some vending machines while he waited for his transportation. He was friendly. I asked him about the progress of a book I knew he was planning to write: The Roots of American Order, but he was more interested in discussing another project, what became Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. I confess that I read that book before I read much of T.S. Eliot himself and, in consequence, understood Eliot much better than would have been the case otherwise. Kirk knew Eliot:
.... We first met in 1953, in an obscure little private hotel, unattractive wicker furniture in its parlor, where Eliot was staying in Edinburgh before the first performance of The Confidential Clerk. I called upon him because he had persuaded Faber & Faber, of which firm he had been a director for many years, to publish the London edition of a fat book of mine, and because I had been asked to criticize The Confidential Clerk in the pages of The Month.

Kindliness, simplicity, and directness were among Eliot's characteristics, I discovered; and this impression was confirmed by our later meetings, in London, over the years—at the Garrick Club or in his little office upstairs at Faber & Faber, in Bloomsbury. Disciplined like his literary style, Eliot's mind was humane with a consistency rare today. It was easy to talk with him, because he was both keenly intelligent (though never abstract in discourse) and gracefully unassuming. ....

...Eliot knew a concern that (at least by 1953, when we met) he had ceased to feel for himself. For five decades, from Prufrock and Other Observations to the essays that were published after his death, Eliot labored to renew the wardrobe of a moral imagination, that generation might link with generation—and that, beyond the boredom and the horror, men might perceive the glory.

Through poem and play and essay, Eliot hoped to work upon his age—through what he wrote, not through what he experienced privately; and in that spirit this book has been undertaken. With what might have been arrogance in a man less amiable by nature, Thomas Stearns Eliot aspired to represent in his day the power of moral imagination possessed by his Mantuan and Florentine exemplars. He was an ethical poet, bent upon redeeming the time. What Unamuno called "the tragic sense of life" was Eliot's to the full—although, as old Robert Burton had written in The Anatomy of Melancholy, melancholy men are the wittiest. In his austere and subtly humorous way, Eliot perceived his own age more poignantly than did anyone else in the republic of letters. ....

It is the power of moral imagination that will give long life to Eliot's work. And some fifty-five years after "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was published, tardy discursive judgment needs to be rendered. So I propose to examine Eliot's chief endeavors, and to touch now and again upon the work of his allies or of his adversaries. If we apprehend Eliot—who is not easy to plumb—we apprehend the intellectual and moral struggles of our time.

My own object in this present book is to discuss the significance of Eliot's convictions for this age, and to set in his social perspective the most eminent writer of the past half-century. ...I agree with Irving Babbitt that all important literature is ethical in character, and that the man of letters moves his society for good or ill. This book, then, has to do with Eliot the champion of the moral imagination and with Eliot the critic of the civil social order. ....
Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century