The Devilish God

David Wheatley

  • Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot by Denis Donoghue
    Yale, 326 pp, £17.95, January 2001, ISBN 0 300 08329 7
  • Adam’s Curse: Reflections on Religion and Literature by Denis Donoghue
    Notre Dame, 178 pp, £21.50, May 2001, ISBN 0 268 02009 4

Few presences were more imposing in postwar poetry than that of T.S. Eliot, but from his eminence as the Pope of Russell Square, Eliot has now shrunk to something more like a holy ghost. Pound’s right-wing unpleasantness, because so deranged, seems somehow more forgivable, to the huddled ranks of Poundians at least. Critics unimpressed by the psychodrama of Eliot’s Christianity, such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, much prefer Yeats and Stevens. And as a glance at any anthology of 20th-century British poetry will show, the prewar voices most audible today belong to Auden and MacNeice. From the maudlin Tom and Viv to Peter Ackroyd’s unauthorised Life and Carole Seymour-Jones’s Painted Shadow, the collateral damage, too, has been heavy. Even now, much about Eliot remains opaque: 13 years after the first volume of his letters appeared, we can only speculate as to what continues to hold up publication of the second. Partisans of Anthony Julius’s 1995 study, T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, will have reached their own conclusions. The anti-semitic charge was squatting awkwardly on Eliot’s reputation long before Julius’s book, but old habits of deference died hard, even among his detractors. In ‘T.S. Eliot at 101’, Cynthia Ozick remembers swallowing ‘without protest’ the nasty bits of Eliot’s poems as an undergraduate and the long, slow disenchantment that followed, but manages to end on a note of wistful nostalgia for the ‘Age of Eliot’: ‘What we will probably go on missing for ever is that golden cape of our youth, the power and prestige of high art.’ To Tom Paulin by contrast, post-Julius, Eliot is practically the devil incarnate, portrayed in Paulin’s poem ‘The Yellow Spot’ gloating with Montgomery Belgion over the transportation of Jews and (could there be a connection here?) playing his favourite game of trying to find a rhyme for ‘Ritz’ (‘no not Biarritz’). ‘Resign resign resign,’ screams the last line of Eliot’s ‘Difficulties of a Statesman’. With the catcalls from the terraces grown so strident, how much longer can Chairman Tom cling on?

Denis Donoghue was an admirer of Eliot’s before Paulin was born, and brings the fruit of many decades’ reading and rumination to Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot. Donoghue begins by invoking his own 1990 memoir, Warrenpoint, which he had hoped to follow by writing something on literary Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s. Contemplating the slender yield of bohemian anecdotes from his time as a student and young lecturer at University College Dublin, he wisely decided to leave the field to Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. The closest thing he could write to a memoir of those years, he realised, would be a book on Eliot, the writer whose work had left the deepest impression on him. As a lecturer he was by all accounts not without an Eliotian streak of his own: distant, Jesuitical, cosmopolitan. With titles like The Sovereign Ghost, Ferocious Alphabets and Connoisseurs of Chaos, his books flamboyantly advertised their distance from the local entanglements of Irish Studies. Though his remarks on Irish politics in Warrenpoint are firmly nationalist, there is something back-of-the-envelope about them, as though unable to conceal their author’s impatience to move on to the very disparate subjects considered in The Pure Good of Theory, The Old Moderns and Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls.

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