Image result for portrait of t.s. eliot
Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot (1938, Durban Municipal Art Gallery)

T.S. Eliot’s own observations about ‘the direction taken by taste and thought from Arnold, through Pater, to the nineties, with, of course, the solitary figure of Newman in the background’ are set out in the first paragraph of his essay on Arnold and Pater.[1]

Initially, Eliot estimates the aesthetic and religious views of Arnold, which, to borrow Arnold’s own phrase, as Eliot does, contain ‘an element of literature and an element of dogma’.[2] Eliot agrees with J.N. Robertson (whom he refers to) that Arnold ‘had little gift for consistency or for definition’, and suggests the two texts which were of interest then and likely to continue to be were Culture and Anarchy (1869) and Friendship’s Garland (1871). For Eliot, Arnold was a writer of a more sympathetic nature than either Ruskin or Carlyle, or Pater. Eliot notes that we don’t turn to Arnold as disciples (as I suggest we do when reading Ruskin, or even in part Carlyle to some extent). Instead, we turn to Arnold for companionship, as a ‘kindred point of view to our own’.[3] That being said, Eliot suggests that Arnold’s definitions for ‘Culture’ survives better than that of ‘Conduct’ because it can ‘better survive vagueness of definition’.[4]

Eliot identifies Culture as having three aspects in Arnold’s work because Culture stands against a background of perfectly definite items of ignorance, vulgarity and prejudice. Compared with Carlyle, Arnold’s definition looks like ‘clear thinking’![5] Eliot also points out what could be considered an oversight on our part: in our response to Arnold’s claim that culture ‘is a study of perfection’ we do not raise an eyebrow to admire how much culture appears to have arrogated from religion’.[6] Whilst Eliot doesn’t grapple with this in any detail, it is fair to say that he is suggesting this arrogation is part of the decline of innate unquestionable faith, that period of inexorable crisis during the nineteenth century. If we pause to consider Eliot’s suggestion that Ruskin and Carlyle were prophets who excelled in ‘denunciation’ rather than ‘construction’ it seems Eliot was holding them responsible, in part at least, for the querulousness of the time.[7] This is contrast to Arnold who Eliot sees not as a leader but a ‘stimulus to proceed’.[8] Arnold’s Culture ‘is powerful to aid or to harm’ (unlike Carlyle!) but marks the beginning at least of Humanism (or Eliot describes him as a ‘forerunner’ perceiving it to flow from Arnold’s doctrine quite naturally).[9]

Eliot debates whether the view of Arnold could ‘father’ (note the choice of an inherently patriarchal term) ‘the view of life of Pater’.[10] Arnold’s view of religion and art fit together and ‘humanism is merely the more coherent structure’ although Arnold’s writings fall into two parts: Culture, and Religion.[11] This separation could mean, and did to the likes of Pater, that those interested in Culture would find the Christian faith impossible. The solution to this problem was to sustain the ‘emotions of Christianity without the belief’.[12] Eliot suggests this resulted in two types of man deducing two conclusions:

  1. Religion is morals.
  2. Religion is art.

Eliot, a religious man, concludes ‘the effect of Arnold’s religious campaign is to divorce religion from thought’.[13]

Eliot’s concern is not the differences between Christian denominations, but the tone. Observing that ‘truth’ and ‘thing’ are interchangeable terms for Arnold, Eliot swiftly rebukes this approach: complaining that a ‘fundamental truth’ in theology and a ‘fundamental thing’ have nothing comparable about them.[14] Eliot is clearly unhappy about Arnold’s attempt to ‘set up Culture in the place of Religion, and to leave Religion to be laid waste by the anarchy of feeling’.[15] It is light of the vagueness of Arnold’s terms and definitions, particularly for ‘Culture’ that the ‘gospel of Pater follows naturally upon the prophecy of Arnold’.[16]

The second section of Eliot’s essay compares two sections, the first by Pater and the second by Arnold. Both are below:

The theory, or idea, or system, which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract morality we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us. Although more outspoken in repudiating any other measure for all things than man.

Culture, disinterestedly seeking in its aim at perfection to see things as they really are, shows us how worthy and divine a thing is the religious side in man, though it is not the whole of man. But while recognising the grandeur of the religious side in man, culture yet makes us eschew an inadequate conception of man’s totality.

Eliot is once again critical of Arnold’s prose, complaining that when he goes to the text to further question what is ‘man’s totality’ he is left wanting. It is Pater who competently continues what Arnold commenced.[17] Eliot seems to be suggesting that Pater’s taste for art, particularly Italian art, was something Arnold lacked (Eliot credits Ruskin as introducing this interest to the general public, although this is perhaps an overstretch which was typical of Eliot’s tie of writing). It is this interest in the arts which makes Pater of interest to us, argues Eliot. Pater takes emotion of religion into culture (the arts) but is only able to do so because ‘Arnold had given licence to do’ so.[18]

The ‘vague religious vapourings of Carlyle’ & the ‘literate social fury of Ruskin’ also paved way for Pater.[19] However, and Eliot is quick to remind us, Pater was a morality. Pater, compared to Wilde, or Fry, or Berenson, is always the morality. Pater writes:

To treat life in the spirit of art, is to make life a thing in which means and ends are identified: to encourage such treatment, the true moral significance of art and poetry (Pater, Wordsworth essay).

Pater sought to find the ‘true moral significance of art and poetry’ and as such, remains a morality, even if the morality he finds is suspect or even perverse.[20] Pater more typically presents or associates himself with morbidity, with decay, with physical malady: Eliot too notes this tendency.[21]

Inevitably, how could he not, Eliot quotes Pater’s Art for Art’s sake dictum which can be found in The Renaissance (1873) the book Eliot relies upon throughout his essay:

Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s .sake has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake’ and describes it as ‘a theory of ethics’.[22] ‘Art for Art’s Sake is the offspring of Arnold’s Culture says Eliot, who even pushes that beyond and suggests (or rather ‘ventures’) it to be a perversion of ‘Arnold’s doctrine, considering how very vague and ambiguous that doctrine is’ (once again this criticism of ambiguity and vagueness is levied at Arnold).[23]

Eliot suggests that the relationship between art and religion flows most naturally when society ‘is moderately healthy and in order’.[24] It is interesting that he uses the term ‘moderately’. This language of Social health is a descendent of Carlyle’s own bodily rhetoric. Eliot suggests that it is only when Arnold has ‘partly retired and confined’ religion and reminded us that Culture is wider than religion, that we get ‘‘religious art’ and in due course ‘esthetic [sic] religion’’.[25] Eliot notes that Pater’s High Churchmanship differs from the likes of Newman (it is only on page 6 out of 7, that Eliot mentions Newman after introducing him in the first paragraph) who were dogmatic but ‘singularly indifferent to the sensuous expressions of orthodoxy’.[26] Eliot further shows Pater to be different to other clerics, for he was, after all, a ‘cultivated Oxford don and disciple of Arnold, for whom religion was just a matter of feeling, and metaphysics not much more’.[27] Pater’s make-up resulted in a disposition that prevented him taking philosophy and theology seriously, just as his moralism prevented him seeing art purely as art –  a surprisingly summation considering Pater’s ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ dictum.

The final stages of Eliot’s essay comment upon Pater’s less than rigorous intellectual scholarship. Eliot mentions Hellenism, Platonism, Aristotelianism as evidence of Pater’s lack of rigour, claiming, for example, he seems to have no ‘realisation of the chasm to be leapt between the meditations of Aurelius and the Gospel’.[28] Interestingly, despite Pater’s importance during his lifetime, he has not influenced anyone of merit since. The ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ dictum remains valid for the ‘artist to stick to his job’ but never for the spectator, reader, or auditor’.[29] In conclusion, Eliot considers Pater merely as being a product of his time, a time which would have happened without him.[30] Eliot concludes that Pater’s kinship is really with Carlyle, Ruskin, and of course, Arnold, albeit at some distance. His The Renaissance remains important but ‘as a document of one moment in the history of thought and sensibility in the nineteenth century’.

Portrait of T S Eliot
Gerald Kelly, T.S. Eliot (1962, Private Collection)

Images via National Portrait Gallery

[1] T.S. Eliot, ‘Arnold and Pater’, The Bookman, Vol.72, No. 1 (Sep., 1930), pp.1-7 (p.1)

It is also worth noting here that at the time of T.S. Eliot writing, Arnold and Pater (particularly Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy) were more often discussed than Ruskin whose reputation dipped somewhat before a revival in the latter part of the twentieth century.

[2] T.S. Eliot, ‘Arnold and Pater’, The Bookman, Vol.72, No. 1 (Sep., 1930), pp.1-7 (p.1)

[3] Ibid.

[4] T.S. Eliot, ‘Arnold and Pater’, p.2

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Eliot, p.3

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 4.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 4.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 5.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 6.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 7.

[30] Ibid.