A few weeks ago, before Christmas, I came across an essay by Roger Scruton called “T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor”. It was published in 2008 in one of the journals of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Being an admirer of Eliot, Scruton, and ISI (in descending order) I thought it worth reading. Apparently I was not the only one: it was reprinted this week at Crisis Magazine (albeit with the ‘conservative’ bit, essential though it be, dropped from the title).
If it seems odd to describe a poet as revolutionary as Eliot as a conservative, we have only to remember that he famously described himself as “classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”. We know that he was deeply influenced by Dante, and understood his own poetry as being firmly rooted in our literary tradition, not — despite first impressions, perhaps — discontinuous with it. Interestingly, Scruton sees his artistic modernism as an aspect of his cultural conservatism:
Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture.
Like Chesterton (for whom, I believe, he harboured a fairly withering scorn), Eliot understood that a tradition gives the thinker and the artist the chance, at least, of greatness, not least by laying down an incontrovertible challenge: here is a history of real achievement, real struggle, real glory, and real failure. It is by submitting to, learning from, and wrestling with such precedents that one becomes strong. An age that is forgetful or scornful of tradition looks, at best, to the future, but the future does not exist, and in practice wrestling with it devolves to wrestling only with one’s own imagination, which is a narrower and more paltry thing than history. Yet it is, paradoxically, precisely in such an age (such as ours) that the value of tradition becomes most evident:
Eliot recognized that it is precisely in modern conditions—conditions of fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief—that the conservative project acquires its sense. Conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this fact lies the secret of its success… Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.
It is a long essay, and there is a great deal more to it than I can readily outline here. Scruton closes his reflections by citing a passage from “Little Gidding”:
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
and he summarizes, in a passage worth quoting in full, the connections between tradition and culture in Eliot’s work:
These lines take us back to the core belief of modern conservatism, which Burke expressed in the following terms: Society, he wrote, is indeed a contract; but not a contract among the living only; rather, it is a partnership between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. And, he argued, only those who listen to the dead are fit custodians of future generations. Eliot’s complex theory of tradition gives sense and form to this idea. For he makes clear that the most important thing that future generations can inherit from us is our culture. Culture is the repository of an experience which is at once local and placeless, present and timeless, the experience of a community as sanctified by time. This we can pass on only if we too inherit it. Therefore, we must listen to the voices of the dead, and capture their meaning in those brief, elusive moments when “History is now and England.” In a religious community, such moments are a part of everyday life. For us, in the modern world, religion and culture are both to be gained through a work of sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice upon which everything depends. Hence, by an extraordinary route, the modernist poet becomes the traditionalist priest: and the stylistic achievement of the first is one with the spiritual achievement of the second.