The Magazine

Old Possum Renewed

Craig Raine's appreciation of Eliot's life and work.

Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By EDWARD SHORT
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T.S. Eliot

by Craig Raine

Oxford, 224 pp., $21

For the bookmen who ruled literary London in the years after World War I, T.S. Eliot was an absurdity. Arthur Waugh spoke for many of his generation when he wrote of the innovative poet: "It was a classic custom in the family hall, when a feast was at its height, to display a drunken slave among the sons of the household, to the end that they, being ashamed at the ignominious folly of his gesticulations, might determine never to be tempted into such a pitiable condition themselves. The custom has its advantages; for the wisdom of the younger generation was found to be fostered more surely by a single example than by a world of homily and precept." In A Little Learning, Evelyn Waugh remarked of his father's not altogether joking jest: "This was the function he predicted for the future idol of the academies."

Yet, from the 1920s until the '60s, Eliot's influence was immense. As poet, critic, and publisher, he set the literary standards of his age as decisively as Samuel Johnson had set those of his. Poets and critics around the world put themselves to school to his exacting discriminations. Then, with the collapse of academic standards in the 1960s and the rise of postmodernism, Eliot fell out of favor. If Arthur Waugh wanted him exhibited as a literary delinquent whose antics should dissuade the young from preposterous experimentation, the custodians of the new political correctness continue to hold him up as an example of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and fascism.

The editors of Oxford's "Lives and Legacies" series should be commended for commissioning the poet and critic Craig Raine to revisit Eliot's work. Raine's contribution will usher in a more balanced assessment of a man who hardly deserves the obloquy to which he has been subjected. In the same series Paul Addison rescued Churchill from his detractors; Raine has done an equally adroit job of rescuing Eliot.

Raine is a shrewd, learned, and entertaining critic. His readings of "The Waste Land" (1922), "The Hollow Men" (1925), and "Ash Wednesday" (1930) reacquaint us with a dazzling poet. He shows Eliot's work preoccupied first and last with the "buried life," a theme that Eliot borrowed from a poem by Matthew Arnold, whom Raine convincingly depicts as Eliot's "poetic father figure." From Prufrock (1917) to The Elder Statesman (1958), Eliot plumbed what Arnold called "the unregarded River of our Life." But whereas Arnold saw only unfelt emotions in the "buried life," Eliot saw things "more distant than the stars and nearer than the eye"; "time present and time past"; "motives late revealed"; "the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings"; and perhaps most insistently, "the loud lament of the disconsolate chimera." Here is a thesis that elucidates the full range of Eliot's art.

Eliot rebelled against Arnold's influence by extolling what he considered the classical virtues of reason and objectivity against the romantic vices of emotionalism and subjectivity. This is why he called himself a "classicist in literature." It is also at the heart of his idea of the "objective correlative," his insistence, as Raine says, that "the emotion of a character should be bodied forth in the action"--as Lady Macbeth's guilt is bodied forth in her sleepwalking. In After Strange Gods (1933), Eliot described some of the characteristic fallacies of romantic art: "It is a cardinal point of faith in a romantic age to believe that there is something admirable in violent emotion for its own sake." Worse, "many people act upon the assumption that the mere accumulation of 'experiences,' including literary and intellectual experiences, as well as amorous and picaresque ones, is--like the accumulation of money--valuable in itself." For Eliot this would ensure, as it has ensured, a meretricious art judged not on its objective merits but on the acceptability of its experiences, its "point of view." And, indeed, it is in accordance with such subjective standards that Eliot's own art is now misjudged.

Eliot never depreciated emotion
per se. As a young man he might have famously asserted, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." Yet even in that early essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), he was careful to qualify: "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." Eliot was skeptical of emotions not because he felt them too little but because he felt them too much. This is why renunciation had such an appeal for him, and why, in so many of his poems, that appeal is met with prayer.

For example, in "Marina" (1930):

This form, this face, this life

Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me

Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,

The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

Many have been baffled or repulsed by Eliot's spirituality. His conversion to the Church of England in 1927 continues to be seen in many quarters as an act of reactionary deviance. Some have even suggested that between the subversive poet and the orthodox critic there was something almost schizophrenic. In the undeniable inconsistencies of Eliot's work, Raine sees not schizophrenia but honesty.

His attitude to religion was publicly uncompromising: he didn't want religion to make any compromise with the secular impulse. In "Religion and Literature" (1935), he is certain that modern literature is "simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life." "Ash Wednesday" argues precisely this position--the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life--and fails. It is possible to argue that, therefore, the poetry is truer to reality than Eliot's theoretical position. But the difficulty of true religion was precisely what attracted Eliot. Its requirements are intractable, absolute--and difficult to fulfill. Were they not difficult, they would not be worth struggling towards.

Regarding the charge of anti-Semitism leveled at Eliot by Anthony Julius, George Steiner, and Louis Menand, Raine demonstrates that it has been brought by malice. In addition to being sloppy prosecutors, Julius and his friends are incompetent critics. "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" (1920), for example, as Raine shows, "is not an anti-Semitic poem, but a poem about anti-Semitism." Eliot's critics need to familiarize themselves with the dramatic monologue. (If their reasoning were applied to other poets, the authors of "My Last Duchess" and "The Farmer's Bride" would have to be charged with very dark inclinations.)

Raine's sympathy for his subject is not unqualified. He scoffs at what Eliot called "dissociation of sensibility," or his theory that, between Donne and Tennyson, thought and feeling parted company and never reunited. For Raine, "Eliot's theory is surely a myth--almost Wildean in its sacrifice of rigour to éclat." Most readers would agree. The poetry of Pope, Johnson, Clare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Browning, and even Tennyson makes mincemeat of such a theory. Raine is equally dismissive of Eliot's theory that "genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood":

If you do not speak a language, you may communicate by bodily gesture--smiling or tearing your hair--because these gestures are understood. But without any understanding, no communication is possible. You are in Tblisi airport. You don't speak Georgian. An announcement in Georgian on the (expressionless, unsmiling) public address system tells you that your luggage has gone to Riga rather than Heathrow. At that moment, you won't get the joke. You won't see the funny side until much later.

This is amusing but unpersuasive. Poetry is not analogous to an announcement on a public address system. Its meaning extends beyond the whereabouts of luggage. Poetry that also happens to be difficult--Eliot's own poetry is a good example--must communicate before it is understood: Not, perhaps, most of its meaning, but enough to prompt the reader to reread, attend more closely, delve more deeply. Understanding, like the knowledge it attempts to acquire, is a matter of degrees. If the meaning of poetry could be communicated only after it was understood, our aesthetic experience should be radically impoverished. After all, not knowing a thing, finding it mystifying, is often as much a part of understanding as knowing a thing. We know that we do not know. But this is a quibble.

Raine is more frequently right than wrong. He is right to see that what the postmodernist academy finds most objectionable about Eliot is the "fundamental polarity" he proposes between "a theological view of the world, in which every action is significant and carries moral consequence, and a humanist view of the world, in which every action is drained of significance because there is neither salvation nor damnation, neither a heaven nor a hell, only moral opinion."

Elsewhere he says, accurately enough: "I think Eliot writes acutely about sex--in all its variety. He does acute justice to the variety of its disappointments." There is no more honest catalogue of the sorrows of sex than "The Waste Land." In another passage, he says that "Eliot's religious writings demonstrate the angularity and awkwardness, the unbiddable intransigence of sincere belief." This is true; there was nothing of the Vicar of Bray in Eliot. As his Selected Essays (1951) show, he enjoyed going against the grain.

In excavating the buried life of T.S. Eliot's art, Raine uncovers the unfamiliar compound ghost of genius. He has written a book that all Eliot fans and all Eliot foes will want to read.

Edward Short is writing a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.