Negative Capability

Dan Jacobson

  • T.S. Eliot and Prejudice by Christopher Ricks
    Faber, 290 pp, £15.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 571 15254 6

T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. Keats and Embarrassment. The parallel between the title of Christopher Ricks’s new book and that of his earlier study of Keats is not accidental. In each case he takes a state of mind which is usually held to be disadvantageous, humanly and artistically speaking, and offers a critical re-examination of its presence in the work of his chosen author. One sees the polemical point clearly enough. Who would wish to read a book called T.S. Eliot and Piety? Or Keats and Enthusiasm?

Still, one might think ‘prejudice’ a hard case to plead – and especially so since the recent newspaper furore over the propriety or otherwise of eminent British Jews sponsoring a charitable appeal in the name of a poet who had written some deeply offensive lines about this or that ‘jew’ in one group of his poems; who had never repudiated these poems or the sentiments apparently expressed in them (except to the extent of granting the dignity of an upper-case ‘J’, in all printings of the poems after 1963, to the unfortunates involved); and who had also, at a time when the Jews of Europe were more seriously threatened than at any period in their long history, made a few unmistakably hostile remarks about them in his prose writings. Of course, Ricks could not have known while he was working on the book that this particular aspect of his subject would be quite as topical as it now appears to be. It is all the more to his credit, therefore, that a study which is in general so strongly admiring of Eliot should include a longish chapter which faces up to (almost) the worst that can be said about him in this regard – and in some others.

T.S. Eliot and Prejudice is a cunning and passionate book. One would not usually think of using such adjectives about a work of criticism, but this book earns them, not only because of the intensity of its engagement with the details of Eliot’s verse (and much of his prose), but also because of the way its argument is put together. It is, in fact, unlike most works of criticism in having a discernible ‘plot’, or at least a quite elaborate narrative line. Ricks deals sequentially with the phases of Eliot’s entire oeuvre: but the shape of the book derives more from his exploration of the term ‘prejudice’ than from mere chronology. For instance, the first chapter throws the light or darkness of that term into the reader’s eyes, by showing how prejudiced, how quick to draw self-flattering conclusions, have been some interpretations by well-known critics of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The second chapter, labelled starkly enough ‘Anti-Semitism’, turns the argument back upon Eliot himself; and in so doing deals with the group of poems – ‘Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar’, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ and ‘Gerontion’ – in which typified Jews are presented in repellent form. Only then does the author attempt to grapple abstractly or generally with his controlling concept, by examining the ways in which psychologists, sociologists and writers on politics have treated it. And indeed literary critics too, like Eliot himself.

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