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Book Review: Eliot and His Age – T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century by Russell Kirk

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Russell Kirk’s study of T.S. Eliot’s life and work has become a true biographical classic. Published first in 1971, close on the heels of the social, moral, and artistic trends he attempts to transcend and examine, this new edition of Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century proves Kirk’s insight still as perceptive as ever. Kirk’s relationship with Eliot was perfectly suited to a biography, an acquaintance detached enough to allow objective evaluation yet close enough to engender sympathetic interpretation leading to an honest understanding that can only come from some measure of friendship with the subject. Such, it seems, is the best kind of biographer.

That said, it is difficult to decide whether the book is a biography or critique; strictly neither, it is a little of both. Eliot’s life events structure the observations on the profound work that flowed from them, though any personal details or anecdotes are sparingly and purposefully referenced. Academically there is something for everyone: introduction for the novice, elucidation for an ardent admirer, and exhaustive footnotes for the Eliot scholar.

Kirk’s observations are not confined to Eliot’s life and work; to fairly treat these he must sketch the context found in the sociopolitical state and psyche of post WWI and WWII Europe and America. The necessity of outlining context is required by Eliot himself who adopted as his central premise that no human stands isolated; he would certainly not exempt himself from that tenet. Since Eliot did not believe an artist’s goal should be self expression but rather an expression of common and universal truths, social, historical, and spiritual themes were the prominent characters in his art. Eliot’s work is fundamentally a response to his time so understanding that time is prerequisite to understanding his work.

Eliot’s goal was to beckon anyone who would listen back from the brink of solipsism which he believed to be the primary threat to what he called “the community of souls.” Raising questions rather than answering them, and imparting a vision rather than a theology, he sought to awaken from sleep a complacent thus unwittingly degenerating world by reinvigorating the moral imagination through theology and history symbolized in art. His answers, if we dare to summarize them, take the form of commitment to what he calls “Permanent Things” and are epitomized in what the Thunder says at the end of The Waste Land: give or surrender to the Absolute, sympathize and care for the community of souls, and control the will and appetites.

Eliot’s influence was extensive; he was poet, dramatist, social commentator and literary critic. As one literary critic writing of another, Kirk’s treatment of the subject is one which Eliot himself would commend. Eliot’s impatience with the “lemon squeezer school of criticism” moved his own style of observations toward identification of overarching meaning rather than dissection, and similarly Kirk’s examination adopts a thematic view of Eliot’s life and work. Rather than anatomize each obscure line of Four Quartets, Kirk gives the biographical background and general themes leaving his reader to ask the questions and draw the ultimate conclusions for himself.

Eliot’s emphasis on the importance of tradition and history informed his methodology as well. In this, too, Kirk follows Eliot’s precedent as he draws on the continuity of tradition to show that Eliot was not only relevant and original in his time, but also in ours. As Eliot said, “The real task is to convince each generation in turn that the great writers are great. Not merely to get them to accept it inertly … but to restate, in terms appropriate to the changed situation, the reasons for that greatness” (pg. 338). Kirk does just that. For an age and generation in strikingly analogous moral, social and spiritual crises, Kirk’s Eliot and his Age, then and now, bequeaths us Eliot’s vision in a penetratingly relevant summation.

About Sarah C. Culver