T. S. Eliot’s “Nehemian” Vision

This article originally appeared at “The American Reformer”

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?

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Gage Crowder is a member at Trinity Reformed Church, a secondary humanities teacher at Providence Classical School (Huntsville, AL), a contributing member of the Huntsville Literary Association and the T. S. Eliot Society, and a master’s student in public theology at Birmingham Theological Seminary. His poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Poem Magazine, The Legend, Birmingham Arts Journal, and elsewhere.