I’ve been on a T. S. Eliot kick of late. Last week I reread The Idea of a Christian Society, and for the first time read through Eliot’s elusive After Strange Gods, a volume he never allowed to be reprinted (but which is of course available on Google books). I have always relished Eliot’s pungent attacks on Liberalism. And I thrill to his voice as a prose writer, a voice that makes authoritative statements on behalf of authority. This time was no different. Eliot is one of the twentieth century’s most articulate spokesmen on behalf of what is sometimes called “orthodoxy,” the cultural condition of settled judgments about truth and falsity, good and evil, beauty and ugliness. It’s orthodoxy that enriches our souls and give our native creativity genuine depth and profundity.
I was in this rapturous state of mind when I had a conversation with a rather more skeptical friend. He admires Eliot as a poet, but disregards his pronouncements about culture and politics. Moreover—and this took me up short—my friend insisted that Eliot’s role in the twentieth century was in any event more radical than conservative. He was after all one of the great literary modernists of the early twentieth century, and modernism was a kind of radicalism, because it a refused to remain within the frame of established orthodoxies. Eliot the poet was a very different man from Eliot the critic, and Eliot the theorist of culture, or so my friend claimed.
It’s an old judgment, one first made with full force by Paul Elmer Moore, a friend of Eliot’s family and literary eminence of an older generation. In his review of Eliot’s Selected Essays in a 1932 number of The Saturday Review, Moore observed that Eliot the poet was much admired for his arresting portrayal of modern life’s lack of established orthodoxies. In Eliot’s poems, “the confusion of life will be reflected in the disorganized flux of images; its lack of clear meaning in the obscurity of language; its defiance of creeds in a license of metrical form; its dislocated connection with the past in the floating debris of allusion; while its flattened emotions will be reproduced realistically, without comment.” Meanwhile, in his criticism Eliot judges literature (and indeed the world) “from the creed of the classicist, the royalist, and the Anglo-Catholic.” The modernist poet by day turns into the traditional moralist by night.
Eliot responded directly to Moore’s criticism in After Strange Gods: “I should say that in one’s prose reflexions one may be legitimately occupied with ideals, whereas in the writing of verse one can only deal with actuality.” The fact of the matter is that modernity has dissolved a great deal of the power of tradition, even as it sometimes deviates and innovates. As a result, anyone who sees the value of tradition is forced into a conscious role of being “conservative,” or to use Eliot’s term, “orthodox.” Thus his poems, which are ordered toward rendering the truth of things as they are, are quite different from his prose, which is governed by his consciously formulated ideas about how things ought to be.
I find Eliot’s explanation convincing. He adopted the formal innovations of modernist poetry in order to do justice to the actualities of modern life. But unlike so many modernists who thought the confused, fragmentary, dislocated qualities of modern experience are liberating (otherness! difference! spontaneity! the free expression of desire!), Eliot thought a great deal of modern life grey and debilitating. Thus in his prose he prescribed correctives, and did so in piquant, sharply worded and unequivocal judgments, all of which were ordered toward restoring the power of commanding authority that modernity has undermined. In that sense his prose style was as closely matched to his critical goals as his poetic style to his poetic mission.
This combination has a great deal to teach us. Few of us are poets, but most of us are citizens with a say in the future of our society. In having our say we need to be honest about the world as it is, and face it without self-deception. Secularization, the view that human beings are collections of atoms, sexual freedom, the scramble for wealth, careerism—these are facts that infiltrate everywhere, including our souls, making the beauty of an integrated life of faith elusive, difficult, and rare. Yet this honesty need not undermine our convictions, nor need it diminish our ardor on their behalf. We can be in the world, but not of it.