T.S. Eliot seemed to us as inevitable as Shakespeare. The first words of his we read were the first he published as a mature poet, beginning with that magisterial and irresistible invitation, "Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky. . . ." Entranced, we followed, as we followed no other poet and as most of us were never to follow one again.
Why? It was the meter, the diction, the address. The verse that as Eliot himself said was related to living speech, the rhymes and stress there because they had to be there, even though you had not known that they would be there, and finding them there took your breath away.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
[from "Burnt Norton"]
We were marvelously drawn into these journeys not taken, into places furnished with a Weltschmerz (or is it mal du siecle?) that thrilled us, as only the young can be thrilled by Weltschmerz, actually knowing nothing of it.
We--my generation--at the same time knew not only that we did not know enough of the world even to begin to be weary of it but that we were avid for it, eager to learn what to become weary of, to discover this entrancing and romantic wasteland into which we were evoked to learn to despair of it and, because Eliot had turned Christian, to hope for it.
That of course was a time, in the decade after World War II, when Christianity and issues of metaphysical and ontological truth, sin and salvation were taken very seriously in certain universities: at Oxford and Notre Dame here and the Benedictine Saint John's, the Jesuit colleges and all of the nuns' various Saint Marys, which were then at the trail's end of a Catholic philosophical, theological and artistic revival that had begun decades earlier in France, Germany and Italy.
We were American products of what was, in terms of secular and materialistic America, a subversive movement, producing an internationalist and historical consciousness rare among Americans and also what Mary McCarthy once described as a straining against American reality, "a rebellious nonconformity that, again, is rare in America. . . ." We read neo-Thomist philosophers and the aesthetics of Aristotle and Maritain, as well as Dostoevsky, Bernanos and Baudelaire and the French prophetic polemicist and novelist Leon Bloy's furious denunciations of a hated "bourgeoisie" of which we, somewhat mystified, were mostly products. We recognized in Eliot's monarchism and romantic high Anglicism something we could not accept, indeed something phony for an American, as we might have put it, but we could understand his stance and were moved by his poetry and believed that he was ours.
It was a time--the end of the '40s and early '50s, when earnest and intellectual young Catholics read Thomas Merton's autobiography and wrestled with their consciences over whether to become Trappist monks or nuns, or Carthusian hermits, to pray for a world in recovery from the atrocities of the war. Major writers identified themselves as Christians and argued about the moral responsibility of the author to the eternal salvation of the reader. The French novelist Francois Mauriac, the English Graham Greene and later America's Flannery O'Connor were the cases most debated, but it was taken for granted that the serious subject for an artist was the human condition considered in terms of sin and transcendence.
Eliot the playwright moved us when, in "The Cocktail Party," his holy conspirators assist the young mistress of a worldly barrister to find martyrdom by crucifixion, near an anthill in an unnamed country of "natives" and when the mysterious psychiatrist says to the barrister and his wandering wife:
When you find, Mr. Chamberlayne,
The best of a bad job is all that any of us make of it--
Except of course, the saints . . . you will forget this phrase,
And in forgetting it will alter the condition.
[from "The Cocktail Party"]
I have quoted or misquoted that line for nearly 50 years, since first hearing it spoken by Alec Guinness on the second night of his New York debut as "An Unidentified Guest, later identified as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly," the psychiatrist as agent of salvation, Eliot's elegant rebuke to a contemporary sensibility that in America was Freud-obsessed.
All of this was struggle for the soul of man. Only the naive, we believed, thought Marx and Freud the serious contenders. We and Eliot had 2,000 years of Christian civilization to validate our affirmation that this was not so. For us it was duty to redeem time past in time future.
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget