Eliot at Smokefall
SIR: Peter Ackroyd’s Eliot appears to have profoundly upset Barbara Everett. Her essay (LRB, 24 January) accuses the biographer of bringing two incompatible systems into conflict, the poet’s and the biographer’s, of eviscerating the poems by dredging them for biographical detail, and of imposing a socialised image of the poet on the poems. It is an intelligent attack, but misconceived. To make it, Ms Everett forces an antithesis between the life without the poems and what she calls the life of the poems. Biography should subserve the poems and make them more available, whereas Ackroyd lessens their availability. Nowhere does Ms Everett mention that Ackroyd (who could, I believe, have gone further than he did in terms of ‘fair dealing’) felt legally constrained to quote no more than a snatch here and there of Eliot’s work. In that sense the poems are relatively unavailable. But the pity is that Ackroyd is well aware that the relation between the life and the work must be a major theme. Other biographers – James R. Mellow on the Fitzgeralds, for example – may go overboard from the corpus into the supporting element, the life, but Ackroyd’s sensitivity to this as to other issues is what distinguishes his book, and makes it so signal a contribution to Eliot studies.
There are many points at which one wishes to take issue with Ms Everett, and no doubt Peter Ackroyd has a reply to make. But let me take two. Ms Everett, who has grandly dismissed the biography as ‘not scholarly’, snipes en passant at Ackroyd’s ‘going wrong’ over the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’. However, Ms Everett’s reference to the ‘heavy-genteel London village behind Harrods where Eliot lived during the later Thirties’ is well wide of the mark. Eliot’s London addresses at the time were at Gloucester Road, two stops down the line from Knightsbridge and from Harrods. As for the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’, Ms Everett might as well be shelling her own position. She slates Ackroyd for wrongly attributing the lines to a draft speech of the Second Tempter’s in Murder in the Cathedral. What Ackroyd in fact states is that the lines ‘had been spoken by the Second Priest after the departure of the Second Tempter’. Ackroyd, not Everett, is right here. But whether Everett scores in the original attribution of the phrase ‘old Tom, gay Tom’ can only be established from the typescript now at the library of the University of Maryland, which, incidentally, Ackroyd shows (page 356, note 14) he has consulted. Of course all this is, in the Pauline phrase, to speak as a fool. The main issue is the one Eliot himself took up, about life and work, personality and poetry, biography and criticism. Barbara Everett has joined a dated fray which derives from the preoccupations of the early Eliot. In later years his attitude changed. The phrase, ‘we understand the poetry better when we know more about the man,’ was á propos of Muir in 1959. In a lecture seven years previously (‘Charybde & Scylla’) Eliot had in effect restated his impersonality principle in terms of universality of reference, stressing the importance of ‘the deep level of experience which is the seedbed of poetry’.
A final thought. Should not the smokefall in the draughty church be that of incense? That would be far more regular as the indicator of a time of day than Ms Everett’s bonfires.
Barbara Everett writes: My essay may well be full of errors and misconceptions. But Roger Kojecky hasn’t yet mentioned any.
1. ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’. Ackroyd writes (page 230): ‘The lines excised from Murder in the Cathedral … had been spoken by the Second Priest, after the departure of the Second Tempter who had suggested that Becket might return to the days of “Old Tom, gay Tom”.’ It is widely known that the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’ take their source from a (finally unincluded) draft speech by the play’s Second Priest. Ackroyd attempts to use this bibliographical fact to argue Eliot’s sensual feelings at the time, by giving ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’ to the Second Tempter, who immediately precedes the Second Priest; and it is plain that he (Ackroyd) is urged to do this by his belief in Emily Hale’s importance to ‘Burnt Norton’. Unfortunately the Second Tempter neither uses the words ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’, nor suggests a return to a younger, more sensual self, but offers worldly power and the Chancellorship (‘Power obtained grows to glory’). It is the First Tempter who proffers sensual pleasure, and who speaks the words ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’ in his first speech. The two scenes and the two characters are quite different. Any reader with a copy of Murder in the Cathedral can check these facts.
2. ‘Behind Harrods’. Mr Kojecky would seem to be a Middlesex man, and I myself passed much of my first three decades a few miles down the line from Eliot’s Kensington. But LRB readers are hardly confined to Londoners like Mr Kojecky and myself, but include many more familiar with (say) Newcastle, not to mention Arizona or New South Wales. The phrase ‘heavy-genteel London village behind Harrods’ was an attempt, perhaps even echoing Eliot’s own ‘behind the pig-sty’ for Little Gidding, to render in half a dozen words the character of a place as specific as Kensington still is, for farflung readers many of whom (in my experience) are more acquainted with Harrods than with any other spot in contemporary London. Certainly the job could be done better, but Mr Kojecky’s ‘at Gloucester Road’ doesn’t seem much of an improvement.
3. ‘Smokefall’. The uncertainty, or very lack of regularity, in Eliot’s times and locations was the theme of my essay. There can hardly be any objection, therefore, to Mr Kojecky’s reading of incense into smokefall if he so wishes. Mr Craig Raine has already (privately) mentioned to me his impression of incense; it is clearly a reading that has validity as well as adherents. But if the church is ‘draughty’ winds outside are hinted at; the syntactic echo of ‘where the rain beat’ predisposes the mind to a natural and outdoor context; and bonfires occur potently elsewhere in the Quartets, as incense does not. One fourth reservation about ‘incense’ must be added. Mr Robert Burchfield, whom I have now consulted (and who has himself in the past read the line as including incense), kindly allows me to quote him as saying that the Fourth Volume of the OED Supplement, to be published next year, defines Eliot’s nonce-word smokefall (with a definition derived, it seems, from a communication by Dame Helen Gardner) as ‘the moment when the wind drops and smoke that has ascended, descends’. My own feeling about ‘smokefall’ is that it is just a coinage analogous with ‘nightfall’, but with the ‘night’ replaced by ‘evening’, or rather by the ‘Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose … /With the smoke coming down above the housetops’ – because the coming on of evening actually is more moving than the coming on of night. But a person might well be disposed to turn his thoughts to the darkening air outside by the clouds of incense in a church. The whole debate only seems to support my argument that Eliot, who has often been treated as so clear and authoritative a writer, is in most ways private and inward: not at all an easy subject for a biographer.
4. ‘Profoundly upset’. Johnson once remarked that where there is room for fiction there is little grief. People who are ‘profoundly upset’ surely don’t write nine-thousand-word essays on Eliot and Biography. The upset is inread by Mr Kojecky, who accuses me of ‘accusing’, and who describes me as accusing Ackroyd of ‘eviscerating’. I accused Ackroyd of nothing, and I don’t believe that poems, which are made of words, have bowels (or can be ‘dredged’, either). I do believe that there is something that should provoke thought in the fact that a writer like Eliot can cease to be a positive literary presence among us, while coming to be a central biographical topic. The thought it may provoke is that though biographies (often) provide a lot of pleasure and information, they may not have much to do with what the writer is actually up to. This is what writers seem to think, and one ought perhaps to give it a sympathetic hearing. My point was also that what a person writes may in some sense that matters give a truer sense of him/her than any context of social talk about him/her, and that this makes reading more important than whatever ‘biographing’ means. Mr Kojecky has as it happens made my point for me by quoting Eliot’s own ‘deep level of experience which is the seedbed of poetry’. Peter Ackroyd’s well-informed, thoroughly interesting and readable life failed, to my mind, to give any convincing sense of that capacity for ‘deep level’ existence in Eliot, unless it is confusable with what Ackroyd called ‘something missing’ in the writer. It is possible that even the very best modern biography is bound to fail in this way. But if this is so, the fact needs to be stated, and its consequences measured.
The Oxford Vote
SIR: Professor Pulzer (LRB, 7 March) is living in a dream world. The old Butskellite consensus for which he hankers could not continue, because the time came when the country had to realise that it must earn its living in a competitive world, and by its tolerance of the greedy and stupid oafs who were running the big trade unions the Butskellite consensus was making that impossible. I have suffered, both as teacher and as parent, from what I regard as the present government’s philistine and insensitive attitude towards universities. But what matters most to me is that this is the first government since the war that has faced the fact that one cannot exist for ever on borrowed money.
Voting for someone to have an honorary degree does not mean that one approves all that person’s actions. I never thought of opposing the proposal to give an honorary degree to Lord Wilson, whom I detest and despise. After all, he was an Oxford man who had risen to a high position. That is why I find the attitude of Professor Pulzer and the other left-wing ideologues who took advantage of the inability of many scientists to see beyond their own immediate concerns another example of the meanness of spirit that has always been characteristic of such people.
Christ Church, Oxford
SIR: It is careless of Mr Gardner to have left out from his letter (Letters, 7 March) the evidence on which he bases his rosy view of Sartre. I wrote that Sartre was ‘self-centred’, not ‘self-indulgent’, and so, judging by the War Diaries, he was, I would like to know what, in these fluent and cocky entries, Mr Gardner sees as the expression of Sartre’s ‘impotence’ or ‘suffering’. I find nothing of the kind. Nor does Mr Gardner’s lonely quotation from page 22 serve too well the purpose he introduces it for: it shows Sartre as alert to certain discreditable things that were going on in France, but not to what might be going on in Germany, a subject scarcely raised in the Diaries. The comment of Sartre’s which Mr Gardner uses is in any case ironic: the sham anxiety of a self-confessed ‘moral clown’. To Sartre ‘freedom’ was an item in his philosophy, not a political virtue worth fighting for. In the Diaries he lights with pleasure on the evidence that France is divided within itself and not united as it should be against an enemy country – witness his ruminations on the difficulties faced by those refugees from the eastern part of the country who had resettled further west.
What was Sartre’s ‘later activity in the Resistance’ which I am said to have derided? Sartre himself never that I know of claimed to have done anything much or to have been a member of the Resistance. I was objecting to the blurb of the book, which duly enrolled him in it as if it were unthinkable that this post-war hero of the Left could have kept his head well down during the war.
I do not know what Mr Gardner means when he says that Sartre’s descriptions of fellow-soldiers are ‘intended as appraisals in an unorthodox and distinctive moral dimension’. Moral dimensions I find more acceptable when they are orthodox and not strenuously ‘distinctive’. Sartre’s descriptions are contemptuous and the idea that they somehow embody ‘respect for others’ is absurd. His victims are not ‘ends in themselves’ but ‘ends-for-Sartre’. Mr Gardner should consider the paradox which Sartre can’t avoid: if he presents us with examples of human freedom of action and responsibility he does so for his own ends and thereby cancels out their freedom.
I do not regard authenticity as a serious question, or as a serious moral category by which one might discriminate between one kind of behaviour and another. It may be fun to decide who around us is authentic and who is not but to try and extend that into an ethical system is disreputable.
SIR: I read with interest the review of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial (LRB, 7 February). I was even more interested to discover that your reviewers relied in several spots on my review of Peters’s book. My review appeared in the Autumn 1984 Journal of Palestine Studies, and it was cited in Alexander Cockburn’s column in the 13 October Nation. The statement that in viewing the 1893 population of Palestine she confuses a majority with a plurality, and her ignoring the existence of a Christian Palestinian community – these come from my work as cited by Cockburn. I am pleased and flattered that you referred to my work. I would appreciate it, however, if you would acknowledge it, since you did acknowledge the work of both Norman Finkelstein and Alexander Cockburn as it appeared in the 13 October column.
Union City, New Jersey
Ian and David Gilmour write: Mr Farrell wrote an interesting review in the Journal of Palestine Studies but he can hardly claim copyright for every argument he put forward. His points about confusing a majority with a plurality and about the Christian Palestinians would have occurred to anyone who read the book carefully and knew the subject; and indeed they had occurred to us. Mr Farrell was the first person to cite Justin McCarthy (which we acknowledged in a letter to him), but in a book review it is surely right to mention the primary source and not the secondary source. After all, one cannot cite every single person to whom one is remotely indebted.
SIR: I have been commissioned to write a biography of Charles Dickens. Any documents or memorabilia concerning the subject of this book would be gratefully received (and carefully returned).
Hamish Hamilton, Garden House, Long Acre, London WC2E 9JZ
‘Times’ Personal Column
SIR: Replying to an advertisement in the Personal Column of the Times, Peter Fleming went in search of Colonel Fawcett, and wrote the book Brazilian Adventure. I am researching a book about the more curious uses to which this famous column has been put. I should be extremely grateful for any examples, whether from personal experience or otherwise.
34 Tite Street, London SW3