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Marked by Beauty

By: James Baresel
August 21, 2018

eading T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral for the first time led me to a conscious love for literature’s aesthetics. It remains my favorite play—ahead of Much Ado About Nothing by a nose—and its author my second favorite playwright behind John Dryden. To learn that the latest volume of Eliot’s letters included those from the period during which he composed his interpretation of Thomas Beckett’s death was, therefore, of no small interest to me.

The Letters of T.S. Eliot Volume 7: 1934-1935 brings the publication of his extant correspondence to approximately the midpoint of his adult life. The letters reveal a more elevated, more civilized, more polished, and more elegant way of life than exists today. I do not mean to fall into what Evelyn Waugh described as being “naturally inclined to regard all periods but one’s own as a conservative Utopia.” Eliot’s letters do not conceal the grave evils marring the society in which he lived. Even further from my meaning is nostalgic sentimentality. What I do mean is what Russell Kirk repeatedly—to the point of excess—explained as the long and slow building of higher forms of civilization, which must be refined over generations but which can be destroyed almost overnight. Eliot’s letters demonstrate a life in which such mundane daily occurrences as the composition of business letters achieved a higher level of aesthetic elegance than is now often the case even for those things intended to be artistic. His was not the exaggerated and indulgent aestheticism of Oscar Wilde, which was a sort of gluttony for the beautiful. Rather, it was a half-conscious supposition that as much of life as possible ought to be marked by beauty rather than by drab Philistine pragmatism. The fact that Eliot’s letters were elegantly composed while addressing the most trivial aspects of ordinary life makes vivid the way in which his life was permeated by beauty.

The life revealed his letters was, ironically, put in sharp relief by a book about a single year—1922—in the life of Eliot and three other writers, which I had begun shortly before receiving the volume of his correspondence and which I delayed finishing until after reading the latter. Despite its author’s success in the world of literary criticism, The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Foster, and the Year that Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein is as pedestrian in its presentation as it is informative in its contents. Goldstein combines excellence at the level of biographical fact with a general failure to prove, as opposed to assert, that 1922 witnessed a dramatic literary revolution. One comes away with the impression that the author used the idea of revolution as no more than a selling point, on the logic that whatever is “revolutionary” must be valuable and interesting—and so the lives of the four examined writers must be worth reading about. Whereas Eliot addressed the mundane in a beautiful manner Goldstein, both in his book and in his televised presentations of literature, addresses the beautiful in a manner which is mundane.

It is also impossible to avoid the impression that Goldstein either disregards or is unfamiliar with Eliot’s understanding of his own work. Though even encyclopedia entries on Woolf, Lawrence, and Foster give greater recognition to the ways in which they were influenced by literary and cultural traditions than does Goldstein, his oversight might be defended on the grounds that one author cannot cover all angles, and that all three became less traditional as time went on. In contrast, failure to give full credit to Eliot’s deliberate and self-conscious traditionalism is inexcusable. Beginning with 1920’s The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism Eliot articulated a position of literary, aesthetic, and cultural traditionalism which he maintained until his death. His eventual conversion to the Anglican Church did not imply a rejection of his earlier attitudes on the subjects with which Goldstein deals. It implied rather that his views on religion caught up with them or, if you prefer, “caught back with them.”

What Eliot’s literary theories articulated—and what his writing as well as that of Woolf, Lawrence, and Foster embodied—was a literary evolution, one that built on tradition without either strictly imitating or breaking with it in a revolutionary fashion. While the facts presented by Goldstein are interesting his interpretation of them gives every appearance of a politicized view which sees positive value in the overturning of tradition.