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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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."