Ruler Over All
Notes Toward the Restitution of Christian Culture
by Ken Myers
One hundred years ago, in September 1923, the Hogarth Press published the first English book edition of T. S. Eliot’s 434-line poem, The Waste Land. The type was set by hand by Eliot’s friend Virginia Woolf, who with her husband Leonard had founded the small publishing venture. The previous autumn, The Waste Land had appeared in the inaugural issue of Eliot’s own journal, The Criterion, and then in the U.S. in the prestigious literary magazine, The Dial.
The Waste Land has been judged by many to be the most influential English-language poem of the twentieth century. Often analyzed as a depiction of the turmoil and fragmentation of Eliot’s own inner life, its continued power after a century is surely because of its account of public—not just private—dislocation. When the poem first appeared in 1922, the second volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West had just been published. Spengler predicted the twenty-first-century collapse of Western civilization following decades of decay and concomitant tyranny.
Eliot’s poem was published in a time haunted by a sense of global chaos unleashed by the destruction of the First World War and the social and political uncertainties that were both its causes and effects. Writing in the 1950s, the French diplomat and critic Georges Cattaui described Eliot’s expression of “a shipwrecked world” and “a longing for order.” In biographer Alzina Stone Dale’s judgment, “The Waste Land portrays failed civilization, or St. Augustine’s ‘earthly city’ doomed by its sterility and loss of spiritual power.”
Social and literary critic Russell Kirk engaged Eliot’s ideas about society and spirituality in depth in his 1971 book, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. Commenting on the state of the West in the decade preceding The Waste Land, Kirk noted:
This decay of order and justice and freedom within the old European community was paralleled by the decadence of the old moral order, the Church falling into disrepute and the governing motive of many eminent men being merely ‘put money in thy purse.’ For the charlatan and the cheat, large opportunities were opened everywhere; while the old motives to integrity were fearfully shaken. Out of the War’s brutality had emerged gross appetites and violent ambitions, and everywhere egoism swaggered.
In one of the drafts of the poem, Eliot affixed a blunt epigraph from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The Horror, the Horror.” Decades later, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, the presentation address cited The Waste Land’s“melancholy and sombre rhapsody [which] aims at describing the aridity and impotence of modern civilization.”
Eliot himself commented, not long after The Waste Land’s publication, that
the present situation is radically different from any in which poetry has been produced in the past: namely, that now there is nothing in which to believe, that Belief itself is dead; and that therefore my poem is the first to respond properly to the modern situation and not call upon Make-Believe.
We can be grateful that, five years after writing The Waste Land, Eliot converted from the austere Unitarianism of his New England ancestors to Christianity, specifically the faith as practiced in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England. With his newly acquired recognition of Christ as the still point of the turning world, he would go on to write some of the most profound Christian poetry of the twentieth century, including Four Quartets, written between 1936 and 1942 and published in book form in 1943, about the time Eliot began writing the chapters in the essay that would become Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.
President Richard Nixon once asked Russell Kirk to recommend one important book that he should read; Kirk named Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. In Kirk’s judgment, “Eliot might well have set upon his title page a sentence that James Fitzjames Stephen had written in 1873: ‘The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why, as we go with the stream, we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.’” Eliot’s title page did include a quotation, but in the spirit of his book’s title, it was from the Oxford English Dictionary:“definition: 1. The setting of bounds; limitation (rare)—1483.”
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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