For much of the twentieth century, the most revered, influential figure in English literary criticism was unquestionably T. S. Eliot. He was poet, critic, dramatist, essayist, editor, reviewer, publisher, and public intellectual; and although he had rivals in some of these fields and superiors in others, none of them could match his authority as a whole. Eliot’s consecration as high priest of English letters was all the more remarkable given the outrage that had greeted his early work as a poet. In the words of one of his first champions, F. R. Leavis, he had been regarded as “literary Bolshevik,” audaciously avant-garde and bafflingly opaque; yet by the early 1930s he was being hailed as the preeminent literary mind of his generation.

Like many of the leading writers and intellectuals of twentieth-century England, Thomas Stearns Eliot was not in fact English. He was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of a family so patrician that they refused to use the term “OK,” and could trace their residence in America back over two hundred years. The Eliots were prominent among the intellectual aristocracy of the city, though Eliot’s own father was a businessman. His grandfather had founded the local university, and championed an ideal of public service by which his grandson was to be deeply influenced. The current of Christianity associated with the St. Louis elite was Unitarianism, a moderate, high-brow form of religious faith at odds with the crude evangelical passions of the Puritan middle classes.

Yet the civilized, socially responsible class to which the Eliots belonged was being gradually displaced in the city by industrial and commercial forces, as a philistine middle class rose to power. The cultural leadership of the Eliots and their colleagues was in steep decline, as St. Louis became flagrantly boss-ridden and corrupt. The Eliot who would later speak sourly of the “dictatorship of finance” found himself an internal émigré in the place where he grew up, and would shortly become an exile in reality.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot abandoned his homeland for Paris and Oxford, and was persuaded to stay on in England by his friend, mentor, and compatriot Ezra Pound. Like a number of other expatriate writers (Wilde, Conrad, Henry James, V. S. Naipaul, Tom Stoppard), he compensated for his status as an outsider by seeking to outdo the English Establishment at its own game. He worked in a London bank and later for the distinguished publishing house of Faber & Faber, and had connections with the Bloomsbury Group. In 1927, he sealed his loyalty to his adopted country by converting to the Church of England and professed himself a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion. The divine right of kings was in his eyes a “noble faith.” Truly to flourish, he maintained, meant being rooted in a single spot. “To be human,” he remarked, “is to belong to a particular region of the earth.” That the local and regional take priority over the national and international is a familiar article of conservative faith. “On the whole,” this refugee from St. Louis to London shamelessly announced, “it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born” (Notes Toward a Definition of Culture).

There was, however, some benefit to be reaped from living on the margins of Europe on a small island that was formally European but, like the United States, ethnically Anglo-Saxon. His compatriot Henry James, Eliot wrote, no doubt with himself in mind as well, was a European in the way that only a non-European could be. He meant, presumably, that the outsider is more likely to be conscious of the spirit and culture of a place as a whole than those brought up within it, who tend to take it for granted and to lack an overall view of it. So there were advantages to not being a native European, as well as not having grown up in provincial Britain. Eliot may have been a pinstriped London publisher—he was jocularly known as “The Pope of Russell Square,” which was where his publishing house, Faber & Faber, was located—but like many leading modernist artists he was nothing if not cosmopolitan, roaming freely in The Waste Land across a whole span of civilizations, appropriating chunks of them in order to cobble together a synthesis that suited his own spiritual needs. He was an unstable compound of bourgeois stuffiness and literary saboteur, moving between genteel Mayfair and bohemian Soho.


For most moderately enlightened readers today, Eliot’s social views range from the objectionable to the obnoxious. In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), he portrays his ideal social order, which seems more rural than urban. There will be a culture of values and beliefs shared in common; but though society will thus constitute an organic unity, it will also be strictly stratified. There will be a governing elite, consisting of the traditional English rural class along with an intellectual coterie of men not entirely unlike Eliot himself.

The task of this elite is to protect and disseminate the (largely Christian) values of the society as a whole. It is a vital undertaking, since if Christianity were to founder the whole of Western civilization would collapse along with it. Yet since the mass of men and women are in Eliot’s view incapable of what might properly be called thinking, their participation in the culture will be less conscious than that of their superiors. Instead, it will take the form of custom and tradition, myth and sentiment, ritual observances and spontaneous habits of feeling. All individuals will share in the same form of life, but they will share in it in different ways and at different levels of consciousness. The organic and the hierarchical can thus be reconciled.

Eliot’s poetry is full of journeys either not undertaken, abandoned, or ending in disenchantment.

The ideal, then, is a common but stratified culture; yet the social reality is very different. Like many of his fellow modernists, Eliot had little but contempt for most aspects of actual civilization, with its godless materialism, worship of the machine, cult of utility, spiritual vacancy, and bogus humanitarianism. The love of man and woman, he remarks witheringly, is either made reasonable by a higher (i.e., divine) love, or else it is simply the coupling of animals. “If you remove from the word ‘human’ all that the belief in the supernatural has given to man,” he warns, “you can view him finally as no more than an extremely clever, adaptable, and mischievous little animal” (“Second Thoughts on Humanism”). He praises Machiavelli, of all rebarbative thinkers, for his low estimate of humanity as well as his promotion of order over liberty. It is Eliot’s conviction that the number of individuals in any generation capable of intellectual effort is very small. Indeed, he seems to derive a well-nigh erotic frisson from the phrase “only a very few.”

Most men and women, like the “hollow men” of Eliot’s poem of that title, are too spiritually shallow even to be damned, which means that “the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform.” In a faithless age, the idea of hell is to his mind a considerable source of comfort. Writing in the age of Auschwitz, he declares in the spirit of Charles Baudelaire that it is better to do evil than to do nothing. Evil people, as opposed to the merely immoral, are at least acquainted with higher spiritual realities, in however negative a fashion. Humanism overlooks what for Eliot is perhaps the most fundamental of all Christian dogmas: original sin. Humans are wretched creatures, and humility is consequently the greatest of Christian virtues. (For the Christian orthodoxy that Eliot is supposed to uphold, the greatest virtue is in fact charity, of which the other virtues are so many versions.) The Romantic faith in the potential infinitude of humanity is a dangerous illusion. So is the ideal of progress so zealously promulgated by the middle classes. Eliot’s poetry is full of journeys either not undertaken, abandoned, or ending in disenchantment. It would seem that history neither improves nor deteriorates. In “Thoughts after Lambeth” he writes, “I do not mean that our times are particularly corrupt; all times are corrupt.” Yet it is clear elsewhere in his work that the modern era represents a drastic falling-off from the age of belief that preceded it. Like many a conservative thinker, Eliot equivocates between the view that things are getting steadily worse and the claim that they have been pretty appalling from the outset.

By this point, the enlightened reader may well be wondering whether anything of value can be salvaged from this full-blooded reactionary. The answer is surely affirmative. For one thing, Eliot’s elitism, demeaning estimate of humanity, and indiscriminate distaste for modern civilization are the stock in trade of the so-called Kulturkritik tradition that he inherited. Many an eminent twentieth-century intellectual held views of this kind, and so did a sizeable proportion of the Western population of the time. This doesn’t excuse their attitudes, but it helps explain them. For another thing, such attitudes put Eliot at loggerheads with the liberal-capitalist ideology of his age. He is, in short, a radical of the right, like a large number of his fellow modernists. He believes in the importance of communal bonds, as much liberal ideology does not; he also rejects capitalism’s greed, selfish individualism, and pursuit of material self-interest. “The organization of society on the principle of private profit,” he writes in The Idea of a Christian Society, “as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and so to the exhaustion of natural resources...a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly.” There is nothing here with which an ecologically minded socialist would disagree. His first published review, of a handful of books on India, is strongly anti-imperialist. He is hostile to a social order that exalts the solitary ego and jettisons the past as dead and done with. For his part, Eliot understands that the past is what we are mostly made of, and that to nullify it in the name of progress is to annihilate much that is precious. It is thus that he can write that by abandoning tradition, we loosen our grip on the present.

In the modern age, Eliot protests, there is a provincialism not of space but of time, for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices that have served their turn and have now been scrapped—a viewpoint for which “the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares,” as he writes in “What Is a Classic.” The Marxist Walter Benjamin would have heartily agreed, along with critics of the conversion of history into a readily consumable commodity known as “heritage.” Eliot goes on to speak of “our continued veneration for our ancestors”; but in practice, his approach to the past was a good deal more innovative and iconoclastic than such piety would suggest.

Nor does Eliot accept the arid rationalism that underpins the modern order, with its indifference to kinship, affection, the body, and the unconscious. Confronted with the creed that men and women are wholly self-determining, he insists instead on their finitude and fragility, an awareness of which belongs to the virtue of humility. Human beings are dependent on each other, as well as on some larger whole. For Eliot, as for D. H. Lawrence, we do not belong to ourselves. The idea that we can “possess” our selves like a piece of property is a bourgeois fantasy. The attachment to a specific place that Eliot admires may have sinister overtones of blood and soil, but it also serves in our own time as a rebuke to global capitalism—to the jet-setting CEOs who feel at home only in an airport VIP lounge. A belief in social order need not be authoritarian; it may rather be an alternative to the anarchy of the marketplace. It may also be preferable to a liberal civilization in which everyone may believe more or less what they want—but only because convictions don’t matter much in any case, and because the idea of human solidarity has withered at the root.


Poets, in Eliot’s view, must be both the most primitive and sophisticated of creatures. If they are more alive to the present than others, it is largely by virtue of being the bearers of a living past. There is a parallel here with Eliot’s concept of tradition, in which the past still lurks as a shaping force within the present. It is this primitive bedrock of our being to which Freud and his disciples give the name of the unconscious—a region that is both antique and unchanging, like the mythological archetypes that secretly inform The Waste Land. For Freud, the unconscious is a stranger to temporality, rather as for Eliot the most fundamental emotions remain constant from Homer to Housman. In this way, one of the most scandalous, ground-breaking projects of Eliot’s time—psychoanalysis—can be yoked to a conservative view of humanity as essentially unchangeable.

The modern poet must see not only the beauty and the glory but also the boredom and the horror of human existence.

The unconscious, with its attendant myths and symbols, can also be used to underpin Eliot’s aversion to individualism. True selfhood lies far deeper than individual personality. It has its roots in a submerged domain of collective images and impersonal emotions. The individual, not least the individual author, is of relatively trifling significance. He or she is merely the tip of an iceberg whose depths are unsearchable. We are dealing here with an early version of what would later be known as the “death of the author” theory, or at least with the author’s drastic diminishment. The poet, Eliot remarks in a passage of unusual emotional intensity, is haunted by a demon, an obscure impulse that has no face or name, and poetry is an exorcism of this “acute discomfort” (“The Three Voices of Poetry”). It is a darker version of the Romantic idea of inspiration. When authors have finally arranged their words in an appropriate form, they can purge themselves of this demonic urge and in doing so rid themselves of the poem altogether, handing it over to their readers so that they can relax after their labors. It sounds more like a peculiarly painful childbirth than a piece of imaginative creation. Poetry is something to get out of your system. And whatever its mysterious source, it is certainly not the individual mind.

Poets cannot predict when these obscure upsurges will occur: they must simply devote themselves to the task of perfecting their craft in anticipation of such spiritual seizures. There is, then, a good deal of conscious labor involved in the poetic process, but it is not what is most essential to it. It is rather that the poem forces itself into the poet’s consciousness like a blind, implacable force of Nature; and when it has taken root inside them, something has occurred that cannot be explained by anything that went before. The most powerful poetry in Eliot’s view sets up an enormous echo chamber of resonances and allusions, all of which will infiltrate the reader’s unconscious in a way quite beyond the poet’s control. Perhaps the most magnificent example of this process in Eliot’s own work is “Gerontion.” If modern reality is spiritually bankrupt, one can compensate for this to some extent with a richness of experience, and much of this is a subliminal affair. It is no wonder, then, that Eliot is so casual about conscious understanding—about, for example, the scholarly business of tracking down allusions and explicating difficult passages. The Notes to The Waste Land purport to do just this, but it is now generally accepted that they are there mostly to fill in a few blank pages. Conscious meaning is not the issue—indeed, readers may well be understanding a poem at some unconscious level whether they know it or not. It is welcome news to the student who timorously opens Pound’s Cantos or the poems of Paul Celan.

The idea of poetic impersonality is closely related to Eliot’s self-declared classicism. The classic in Eliot’s view is not in the first place the work of an individual genius. It is rather a piece of literary art that is resonant of a specific civilization—one whose language gives voice to a particular culture and history at the peak of its maturity. The unique genius that produces it is not that of an individual author but the spirit of a particular age and a particular people. Virgil’s greatness springs from his place in the history of the Roman Empire, as well as in the evolution of the Latin language. The classical work brings a national language to a point of perfection, and its ability to do so, ironically, is what makes its appeal so universal.

There is, however, a problem here. A classical civilization represents Eliot’s social and cultural ideal, and the classical author who molds his mind most deeply is Dante. Yet though he produces a stunning pastiche of Dante’s verse in a passage in Four Quartets, the influence is strictly limited when it comes to the composition of his own work. There are two reasons why this is so. If the classical work thrives on shared values and standards, the liberal pluralism that Eliot finds so displeasing in modern society means there can be precious little of this. Poets can no longer assume that they and their readers share the same sensibility. There is no longer a community of meaning and belief. At the same time, if a classic is to capture the spirit of an entire civilization, it must be in touch with its common life and language. But to stay faithful to the common life and language of early twentieth-century Europe involves registering a sterility and spiritual devastation that is nearer to Baudelaire than to Dante. It is thus that Eliot announces that the modern poet must see not only the beauty and the glory but also the boredom and the horror of human existence.

For Eliot to be loyal to one criterion of a classic, then, is to flout certain others: order, balance, harmony, nobility, and the like. It means producing a poetry marked by spiritual disorder, sordid imagery, broken rhythms, banal snatches of speech and barren inner landscapes. It was from Baudelaire, Eliot tells us, that he learned that the poet’s business was to make poetry out of the unpoetical. Order and harmony can be hinted at only obliquely, either by dim allusion, ironic juxtaposition or (as in The Waste Land ) through a mythological subtext that intimates the possibility of regeneration. Baudelaire, Eliot remarks, draws some of his most striking imagery from the common life, but at the same time makes that life gesture to something more than itself. It is a familiar strategy in his own early poetry. By presenting a situation in all its squalor, you can suggest the need to transcend it without having to spell out an alternative, which might demand a verse with too obvious designs on the reader. It is not until Four Quartets that this negative form of transcendence becomes explicitly thematized. If poetry must cling to the unregenerate nature of the present, it is partly because its language must be wedded to everyday experience, and partly because literary works that propose an abstract ideal will fail to engage skeptical modern readers. Instead, their language must infiltrate their reader’s nervous system, sensory organs, and unconscious terrors and desires, all of which a remote ideal is unlikely to accomplish.

For this reason, the classical is more to be admired than imitated. More relevant to the modern age is a period which in Eliot’s view is distinctly unclassical, that of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. “The age of Shakespeare,” Eliot comments in “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” “moved in a steady current, with back eddies certainly, towards anarchy and chaos.” It was an era of muddled skepticism and clashing faiths, along with a confusion over what counts as a literary convention.

Yet it is just these aspects of the early-modern period that Eliot can bring to bear on his own tumultuous times. The “anarchism” of the Renaissance is also the unleashing of a wealth of complex feeling and exhilarating new modes of language, so that, to adopt a phrase of Karl Marx, history progresses by its bad side. In an essay on Seneca, Eliot writes, “If new influences had not entered old orders decayed, would the language not have left some of its greatest resources unexplored?” It is this fertile legacy that authors like Eliot himself will inherit some centuries later. The loss of social and cosmic order may be a spiritual disaster, but it also represents an inestimable gain for language and sensibility, which break through traditional constraints to become more subtle, diverse, volatile, and exploratory. The textures of poetry grow finer and their images more richly compacted. It is a language close to the bone yet fast-moving, packed with perception but intellectually agile. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries bear witness to “a progressive refinement in the perception of the variations of feeling, and a progressive elaboration of the means of expressing these variations” (The Sacred Wood). That this stretch of time is also the matrix of much of what Eliot detests—materialism, democracy, individualism, secularization—is an instance of the cunning of history, which takes with one hand what it gives with the other.

Published in the June 2022 issue: View Contents

Terry Eagleton is distinguished visiting professor of English literature, University of Lancaster, and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion. He lives in Northern Ireland.

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