In his preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) Eliot styled himself a classicist, royalist, and Anglo-Catholic. His conservative penchant for literary tradition, monarchist politics, and ritualistic religion gives tone and direction to Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. It may seem odd that Eliot, whose impetus toward modernism in poetry was great, should identify himself as a classicist; he did not, however, oppose classicism to Romanticism or modernism but upheld the literature of the past as the tradition from which no poet can exclude his work. His royalism entailed the favoring of a class system determined by birth and wealth and limited to upper and lower, unbothered by middle. His religious preference culminated in his exaltation of Christianity as the true cultural determinant of Western civilization.
Consistent in his beliefs and preferences, although not always strictly logical in his presentation of them, he emerges in his attitude as part of a civilizational rearguard. This attitude underscores the pessimism of his poetry, which, although aggressively vanguardist in structure, idiom, and rhythm, is defensively expository of what he takes to be a true culture that has been rendered effete and moribund by the decline of Christianity.
In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot personifies waning Western culture as an anxiety-ridden, stultifyingly middle-class, and middle-aged man who is no longer subjectively conversant with great art and literature and who cannot face the reality toward which his introspection is leading him. The title of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land (1922), refers to the modern Western world as bereft of religion and consequently of culture: Fragments of the education that formerly reflected the culture are gathered together like the fragments of a broken vase whose reassemblage requires an adhesive that only religion can provide; the need for religion is likened to thirst, and the water to quench the thirst is to be found only in India, where a religion still satisfactorily sustains a culture.
In several poems Eliot also personifies the grossly sensual residue of an irreligious society as a coarse, apelike lecher named Sweeney. In The Waste Land, illicit sex, between a typist and a “young man carbuncular,” is shown as boring and, in the absence of Christian standards of morality, an act of animal instinct and bleak impunity. Sweeney is the embodiment of the drive to perform this act.
Eliot claims in The Idea of a Christian Society that education in a Christian society must be religious “in the sense that its aims will be directed by a Christian philosophy of life”; he envisages his ideal Christian society as limited to England. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, he expands his horizons to include the whole of Western civilization, which, as a product of the Christian philosophy of life, must refurbish itself as a Christian society if it is to retain its culture. The tone of the latter essay, while less mockingly ironic than that of his earlier poetry, carries the same resignation and world-weariness. The didacticism is positive and not without intimations of hope, but the essay says overall that this is the way it could be and should be but will not be because the departures from the Christian way of life are too pronounced.
Eliot’s argument can win little approval from non-Christian members of Western society or from those of democratically liberal persuasion. His conservatism is such that he actually condemns any variations from the...
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Eliot’s career as a poet extends from the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915 through the publication of his theological poems, Four Quartets. His career as a literary critic continued from 1917 until his death, but all of his most influential essays had been published before 1937. His five plays appeared during the years 1932 to 1958. In the life of this poet, literary and social critic, and dramatist, the 1930’s, the decade of Eliot’s forties, embrace a shift in creative activity away from poetry and literary essays toward drama. They also embrace the beginning of a preoccupation with social and cultural criticism, namely, the publication in 1934 of After Strange Gods, which is a combination of literary criticism and cultural commentary.
The sociological preoccupation was resumed at the beginning of the next decade with The Idea of a Christian Society and tapered off in 1948 with Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The triad amounts to an interjection of social and cultural criticism into the late midcareer of the poet, literary critic, and playwright. That it was a less than felicitous interjection was generally recognized. Eliot’s staunchest admirers conceded that these works were, to put it kindly, not Eliot’s best. In them the precision and insight, the perfection of phrase, and the pointed support of general observation by impeccably selected specific examples—the constant characteristics of his essays in literary criticism—give way to editorial rhetoric, unsupported generalities, and disclaimers which do more to try the patience of than effectively to disarm the reader. They are praised only by those who believed that Eliot was infallible or by those who considered that whatever Eliot wrote was worth reading. The latter may have gone astray in their praise, but they were not aberrant in their consideration. The chief value of a work such as Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, at least for students of literature and literary history, lies in the explicitness with which Eliot gives voice to his most cherished convictions.