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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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):