T. S. Eliot’s “Nehemian” Vision
At first glance, the subtitle of this essay probably raises several questions—namely, what do we mean by Nehemian? Further, what exactly is this Nehemian vision that we are to emulate? And more to the point, how could he who is remembered by most as the apocalyptic prophet of the modern world’s wasteland, he who showed us “fear in a handful of dust,” be even vaguely akin to this biblical character?1
Since our beginning is in our end, we shall proceed backwards, by noting preeminently that Eliot did not remain with the chirping dry bones in the wasteland. In 1927, mid-life and mid-career, Eliot was baptized in a private ceremony behind locked doors at the village church in Finstock, Oxfordshire; and this conversion transformed his view of the inter-war West from one of hopeless malaise to one of hopeful mission. Post-conversion, Eliot became a leading mentor to the likes of Russell Kirk, Sir Roger Scruton, and scores of other conservative Christian intellectuals.
However, the aim of this essay is to show how Eliot’s ideas about society and culture are relevant for our own age. Yet, this will not be an arduous task; for, in many ways, Eliot’s age was not unlike our own. In fact, in many ways, Eliot’s age is our own. His lifetime (1888-1965) overlaps with some in attendance here today. But it is not just chronology that unites our and Eliot’s epoch. We are tethered to Eliot’s age by a pervasive spirit of acedia and ennui which, as one of our own literary giants, Marilynne Robinson, says feels more irreversible than the fall.2 We need not delineate the motley morass of postmodern peccadillos that we owe directly to the trickle-down of religious desolation and moral degeneracy from the modernist period. They are legion; and on this, the centennial year of the publication of The Waste Land, we are inclined to say that our culture is merely an a fortiori form of Eliot’s; if he could say so much about how many death had undone in 1922, how much more could we say about death’s grip on 2022?
Here we must say that Eliot, for all his notorious complexity, did indeed cast a coherent—though not systematic—vision for the renewal of English society. With the alteration of his attitude toward the culture through his conversion, Eliot slowly set out to inspire the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic reconstruction of English society through the retrieval of pietism, classicism, and conservatism through his own writing and the writings that he published in his journal The Criterion.
I have termed this vision of Eliot’s “Nehemian” for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is apparently apropos in conservative circles these days to name your particular cultural project after a fellow who best exemplifies your proposition. Most notably, we’ve got the Dreherian Benedict option and the less-reliably sourced Boniface option—the former cenobitic, the latter caustic and crusading. It is fair to say that, with an uncareful glance, Eliot could, at times, seem to fall into one of these ditches. His poetry and drama in particular can often feel like a Benedictine resignation.
Consider Ash-Wednesday’s dark night of the soul, Celia and Becket’s martyrdom in The Cocktail Party and Murder in the Cathedral respectively, or the quiet “prayer, observance, discipline” of The Dry Salvages (DS, V.17-32). At the same time, his prose can feel like a Bonifacian demolition, such as his ill-received 1934 lecture set at the University of Virginia, published as After Strange Gods, in which he accused the plutocratic secularism of the inter-war West and its literary offspring of being merely another iteration of Christian heresy3; or his letter to Bertrand Russell soon after the publication of Why I am Not a Christian, in which Eliot brick-fistedly stated, “I have just read your little pamphlet on Christianity. With some sadness. All the reasons you advance were familiar to me, I think, at the age of six or eight; and I confess that your pamphlet seems to me a piece of childish folly. . . . Why don’t you stick to mathematics.” 4
Indeed, depending on where you take up and read, Eliot can seem at times incendiary and at others introspective. But neither of these historical analogies will do, for they are both too narrow and too wide to constrain Eliot’s plan for cultural engagement. He was neither a Benedictine recluse nor a Bonifacian revolutionary but a Christian contrarian, a conservative incrementalist, a reformer. Second, and for these reasons, I call Eliot’s project Nehemian because he himself hinted toward such an identification of his work. In his “Choruses from The Rock,” Eliot draws direct inspiration for his overtly Christian pageant play from the book of Nehemiah, exclaiming the need to “[build] as men must build / With the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other” (IV.18-19); and Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s preeminent biographer, commenting on this allusion, notes that Eliot often used Nehemiah not only as a literary trope but also as a pseudonym.5 But without falling into the double-pronged temptation to over-categorize his aims or to over-psychologize his alias, we may say that, beyond the nomenclature and beyond the pseudonymous, the name of Nehemiah is metonymous for Eliot’s cultural project.
But to the point, what makes Eliot’s vision Nehemian, and how will it aid us to recapture and recapitulate this vision in our own time? To those who grew up in the Church or have even a slight knowledge of Christian Scripture, you will no doubt recall the general story: Nehemiah was the cupbearer of Darius the Mede turned governor of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. The narrative centers around Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s fortified walls among the Babylon-wracked ruins while simultaneously defending Israel against Her armed enemies. So, there is at least part of our answer: a Nehemian vision is concerned chiefly with rebuilding what is ruined and defending what is being rebuilt, shoring up the tarnished foundations, unearthing the half-sunk visages of Ozymandian edifices. A Benedict wants to retreat from the ruins; a Boniface wants to raze the new regime; but a Nehemiah wants to rebuild among the ruins. However, outlining the Nehemian vision and its competing options is the easy part. Here are the real questions: what exactly caused the ruin in the first place, and where do we begin rebuilding?
As with his ancient ancestor Nehemiah, Eliot’s chief concern is not primarily the reconstruction of a heap of stones, rebuilding the various institutions or societal organizations for the public protection of certain ideas and ideals. Nehemiah’s primary goal was the reconstruction of the tents of Jacob, the families of Israel, as evidenced by the so-called family prayers that chiastically frame the whole of the book.6 If the families were not rebuilt, no wall would stop the double devastation that would again befall the rebellious house of Jacob. Perhaps to our surprise, Eliot’s cultural project was Nehemian in just this sense. Indeed, his chief concern, especially in the twilight of his life, was not primarily the renovation of artistical, governmental, educational, or even ecclesiastical institutions; rather it was the reform of the family from which, Eliot knew, all other institutions centrifugally draw their validity and vigor.7 For Eliot, as for Nehemiah, and as for us, there will be no long-term, successful cultural rebuilding if we do not begin with the family.
In fact, Eliot warns us explicitly in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: “By far the most important channel of transmission of culture remains the family: and when family life fails to play its part, we must expect our culture to deteriorate.”8 This, however, should not come as a surprise to traditional conservatives; both his classical conservative progenitors and progenies said the same. Here is Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.”9 Here is Russell Kirk:
The conservative feels that the family is the natural source and core of any good society; that when the family decays, a dreary collectivism is sure to supplant it; and that the principal instrument of moral instruction, ordinary education, and satisfactory economic life always must remain the family. What makes life worth living is love; and love is learnt in the family, and withers when the health of family-life is impaired. . . . The family lacking, nothing very important in our culture can be preserved or improved.10
Finally, Robert Nisbet notes that where the family is atomized by totalitarian whims, all that can remain is “mindless, soulless, traditionless mass.”11
Eliot adds a poetic punch to his conservative tradition, helping us realize that we will only find the gardens of Little Gidding renewing our wasteland when we have fruitful mothers, pious fathers, and faithful children. Indeed, Eliot is unequivocal. In the Idea of a Christian Society, he states:
We may say that religion, as distinguished from modern paganism, implies a life in conformity with nature. . . . But so far has our notion of what is natural become distorted, that people . . . consider it perfectly ‘natural’ that families should be limited to one or two children. It would perhaps be more natural, as well as in better conformity with the Will of God . . . if those who were married had larger families.12
If there is to be a rebuilding of the wider culture, we must first concern ourselves with having families to reform. Small families, Eliot says, are given to “the insecure bond of affection and [sentimentalism].”13 Thus, his definition of the family includes, as he says, “the dead, however obscure and . . . the unborn, however remote.”14 The family is not merely the little platoon but a living organism with a peripheral continuity behind and before to which we belong, to which we owe our highest devotion and care. In his day, Eliot observed that the number of families was shrinking and, moreover, that those families that were had at most only a couple of children. This problem is noticeably exacerbated in our day. I will not here digress into statistics; the decline of marriage and birth rates in the Western world are readily available with a swift stroke of the keys, rendering Google results of truly staggering data; further, each of us probably knows by empirical evidence how few these days are married before the age of 25 and how even fewer are having children before the age of 30 or beyond.15
Whatever the root cause of the family’s decline, it is doubtless in decline. Consequently, Eliot inspires us to demonstrate the goodness of the family, to encourage matrimony in the face of rampant promiscuity, and to urge small families to enlarge their borders. In his early poetry, there are no families, no children. The male characters are too egotistic, the women too hysterical to know that particular type of love, the truest love, which always issues in some sort of creation of new life. A voice is heard amid the background noise of the “Game of Chess” in The Waste Land, saying, “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (Line 164), an obvious allusion to a conversational impasse between an older and a newer approach to the telos of marriage. But in his later poems, Eliot’s aesthetic becomes more juvenescent. He sings to a fictive daughter in the “Marina” Ariel poem; he opens his “Landscapes” with sounds of children’s voices, echoing through an orchard; he writes a book about cats and various farm animals for his young nieces and nephews; and his magisterial Four Quartets is punctuated with the laughter small laughter in the apple trees. Rebuilding, thus, begins with the primal command to be fruitful and multiply.
However, Eliot’s Nehemian vision is not simply a numbers game. Eliot’s chorus of men in The Rock sing, “If humility and purity be not in the heart, they are not in the home: and if they are not in the home, they are not in the City” (V.9). Indeed, a family of ten devoid of a pious father is worse than a family of two or three under the care of a loving father. For there to be good families to rebuild culture, there must be good men. In her biography, Gordon distills Eliot’s thoughts on masculinity by saying that “his modest ideal was men’s virtue.”16 This is true as far as it goes, but I don’t think that it goes far enough. His modest ideal was a father’s piety, those “overcome by religious fears so as to be overcome by religious hope.”17 For Eliot’s Nehemian project, a virtuous public square, a venerable culture is dependent on sanctified virility. To Eliot’s poetry again, we note that the male characters in his oeuvre become increasingly less insipid and increasingly more substantial. Anxious and irresolute Prufrock, young man carbuncular, and ape-neck Sweeny—images of the inept, impious, and impotent men of his milieu—all face their life as the “Hollow Men” on Ash-Wednesday’s turning of the third stair before the Lady of Silence. We hear their voices then blend into the chouses from The Rock, who begin to repair the ruins to which they have contributed, having been “a decent godless people . . . / [whose] only monument[s are] the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls” (III.34-36). The matured men of the chorus castigate their infecund foils, those remaining or presently contributing to the welter of the inter-war West, precisely because they have
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors (III.46-50)
These end, in the Four Quartets, as an exploring old man, journeying back through the gate into garden of his first world with a nameless “you” as a matrimonial “we” in Burnt Norton (I.1-46), surrounded by the laughter of those nameless children in the apple trees (BN, I.40). In East Coker, there is a primal dance around a fire, the coupling of man and woman, and the beauty of feet lifted in country mirth (EC, I.23-46). And at the twilight of Burnt Norton’s garden scene in Little Gidding, as Sir Roger Scruton notes in his important essay “Eliot as Conservative Mentor,” Eliot’s ideal, pious father is leading his family to evening prayer in the village church.18
Though still more could be said about the family’s natural telos—the inculcation of certain values into children for the propagation of those values in and for culture through education—suffice it to say that Eliot’s Nehemian vision comes full circle in that he names education as the cornerstone of culture-building in his splendid essay “The Aims of Education.”19 There, like his ancient antecedent Nehemiah, who lamented that the Israelite children knew the language of Ashdod (Neh. 13:24) rather than their native tongue, Eliot laments that, although students were learning their Greek and Latin, they were being inculcated with the religion of the State rather than that of the Christian West because families were largely abdicating their educational responsibilities, “[a] defect,” he says, “that cannot be supplied by the school and the university.”20
I think that we would do well to reclaim this Nehemian vision of Eliot’s—rebuilding our culture through rebuilding our families. Perhaps we find ourselves desperately seeking the means for restoring order in our chaotic time precisely because we have not heeded the importance of our homes. Perhaps in our well-meaning ambition, we content ourselves to bicker about the fading brick and mortar of sundry institutions, all the while seeing precious little success in the culture because we are neglecting that institution from which all others are either established or eviscerated. At the core of his social thought, Eliot teaches us that in order to fare forward into the uncertain future with a certain fortitude, we must commence our labors by rebuilding one family at a time. If all manner of things shall be well, all other concerns must be penultimate.
*Image Credit: Pexels
- The Waste Land I.30. All poetry and drama quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1950). ↩
- Marilynne Robinson, “Happiness,” an essay presented to the Yale Center for Faith and Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2011), 1. ↩
- T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer on Modern Heresy (London, ENG: Faber and Faber Limited, 1933). ↩
- T. S. Eliot to Bertrand Russell, June 22, 1927, in The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, vol. 3, 1926-1927 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 568. ↩
- Lyndall Gordon, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), 462, 494. ↩
- David A Dorsey, The Literary Structures of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 161ff. As Peter Leithart notes, there is a constant literary wordplay in Nehemiah—and indeed, the rest of the Old Testament—between the idea of the house of the Lord as the temple and the house of the Lord as the people of Israel themselves. See Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 239-248. ↩
- Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008), 276-277. ↩
- T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (London, ENG: Faber and Faber, 1949), 43. Here, for readers unfamiliar, we must note that this work of Eliot’s is primarily an exercise, as the title says, in definition. Eliot is not concerned with setting out a programmatic or systematic vision of culture but rather wrestling with definitions that are necessarily antecedent to any sort of legitimate discussion about culture. ↩
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1982), 135. ↩
- Russell Kirk, “Conservatives and the Family,” from Concise Guide to Conservatism (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway Books, 2019), https://kirkcenter.org/kirk-essay-conservatives-and-the-family/. ↩
- Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010), 195-197. ↩
- T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1940), 61-62.. Elliot is primarily reacting, as Rowan Williams notes, to his context—the second World War, in which England saw itself as a Christian society, fighting pagan forces. Dissatisfied and unconvinced of this, Eliot set out to correct and concretize what exactly a Christian society would mean in the twentieth century. ↩
- T. S. Eliot, “The Aims of Education,” from To Criticize the Critic (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 114. ↩
- Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 44. ↩
- Joseph Chamie has presented the most recent compilation of studies. See his Births, Deaths, Migrations, and Other Important Population Matters: A Collection of Short Essays (Joseph Chamie, 2021). ↩
- Gordon, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, 229. ↩
- Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 63. ↩
- Roger Scruton, “T. S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor,” The Intercollegiate Review (ISI, 2003), https://isi.org/intercollegiate-review/t-s-eliot-as-conservative-mentor/. ↩
- As Russell Kirk notes, Eliot’s copious writings on the subject of education were central to his entire program; however, I think that Kirk misses the forest for the trees in that he sees education itself as the central motif of Eliot’s social thought while it seems that, for Eliot, education was the first among other concerns that were necessary in order to rebuild and maintain the household. See Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 299-312. ↩
- Eliot, “The Aims of Education,” 109-113. ↩