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.

It is at this stage that Ricks develops most fully his arguments for the defence: the defence, that is, not of T.S. Eliot’s prejudices, but of ‘prejudice’. Yes, he argues, racial and social and intellectual prejudices are malign in their effects both on those who are their victims and on those who cherish them. That is easy to see, and easy to say. What is more difficult is to detect the forms such prejudices can take within oneself rather than others. What is most difficult is to consider the relationship that exists or might exist between such prejudices and all the habits and unthinking responses, the myriad mental and physical prepossessions and preconceptions, without which our lives would literally be impossible to sustain. For without them we would be unable to see, to hear, to attend, to organise our experience, to recognise ourselves, to live together in families and communities. Ricks contends that Eliot’s work reveals and embodies an ever-deepening concern with the tortuous relationship between these two kinds of judgment: between a maleficent prejudice, on the one hand, and an attentive prepossession on the other. We are to see his verse slowly purging itself of the energies released by the first, so that it might take greater advantage of the energies saved by the second. Indeed, each of these movements of mind and sensibility was a condition of the other; both depended on the capacity, which his art had had from the outset, ‘to challenge itself’.

The next two chapters in the book, which focus on The Waste Land, consider ‘tone’ and ‘accent’ in English verse generally; and the difficulty of determining these in Eliot’s verse in particular. Being neither Englishman nor foreigner to England, Eliot had to learn to express himself as both, in the one breath; longing for a rooted faith, he had to develop a verse which would have the courage, so to speak, of its own precariousness. So the argument proceeds, through ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Ash Wednesday’ – poems of transition which make transition their very subject – to Four Quartets, which also succeed in matching their subject to their form and feeling, and vice-versa. They are poems about redemption in which the poet imagines, among much else, how he might be redeemed from the deceptions and animosities of the past: not by denying what he had made of them, but by fully acknowledging what they, for good and ill, had made of him.

So much by way of paraphrase of the book’s central thesis. In one respect, though, what I have written must give an inaccurate impression of it, since Ricks chooses for the most part to make his case not in general terms, as I have done, but through the closest examination of individual passages of Eliot’s verse. ‘The supreme difficulty of criticism’, he quotes Eliot as saying, is ‘to make the facts generalise themselves’; and Ricks rises fiercely to the challenge that this observation sets him.

No line-ending, no hyphen, no parenthesis, no punctuation point (present or absent), no internal rhyme, no hidden allusion, no possible ambiguity of stress or intonation, seems to escape his attention. The effect is both liberating and slightly claustrophobic. Liberating because again and again he reveals hidden subtleties and strengths even in verses which the reader might have been familiar with for years or decades. Claustrophobic because – well, though Ricks repeatedly praises the Keatsian concept of ‘negative capability’ (‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’), he is himself a compulsive reacher after fact and reason. His ‘reaching’ is never ‘irritable’: on the contrary, it is ardent and generous and scrupulous. But the unremitting intensity of it can have the effect of putting into shadow certain qualities in the verse. Even in their socially most excruciated modes, Eliot’s poems seem to me more hallucinatory, more trance-like, more somnambulistic in their rhythmic certainties and uncertainties, than Ricks’s way of dealing with them seems to allow. (He himself does use the word ‘hallucinatory’ on one occasion at least, in speaking of ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’.) And inevitably, this has consequences for my response to the argument overall.

For one thing, the distance between Eliot as critic and Eliot as poet seems greater to me than it does to Ricks: the criticism strives for a rationality and decorum (sometimes for the illusion of these) which the poet usually knows himself to be better-off without. For another, I find the resolution of long-felt torments and the disavowing of ancient enmities at which Eliot arrives in Four Quartets less poetically convincing than Ricks does. Certainly the abstemiousness of the verse is a condition of the gravity and impersonality of the gaze which Eliot turns on himself: it helps, too, to endow the landscapes, seascapes and townscapes in the poems with a fullness that conveys as nothing else could both their permanence and their fragility. But the absence of imaginatively known and knowable persons in the Quartets seems to me to make their invocations of love (human and divine) sound rather hollow.

The most vivid presence in them, other than that of the poet himself, turns out to be a generalised figure, ‘a familiar compound ghost’; the rest are ‘anxious worried women’ (an uncharacteristically otiose coupling of adjectives), country yokels, fishermen, hidden children and so forth. All those Sweeneys and Bleisteins and Hayakawas and Equitones who so readily used to arouse the poet’s disgust and fear, pity and disdain, and sometimes, however fleetingly, satiric fellow-feeling, are left out of the Quartets: they and the passions which they aroused are not what Eliot now wishes to contemplate. The trouble is, though, that nobody steps in to take their place.

‘Marina’ and ‘La Figlia che Piange’ show that tenderness and regret, as well as the emotions mentioned above, could characterise Eliot’s apprehension of individuals and the lives they lead. However, it remains true that the queasiness of much in the verse, its recurring preoccupation with what the poet finds loathsome and unnerving, present a problem to the reader who is unable to swallow the line that Eliot himself sometimes seems to urge: namely, that it is ‘civilisation’ itself, his civilisation and ours, which is to blame. Those utterances in a few of the poems which by apposition and implication assimilate Jews to rats, apes, toads and protozoa are an extreme instance of this tendency: but they are continuous with all the other occasions for disgust which the poems incorporate – that young man carbuncular, for instance, who appears in The Waste Land; those female smells in shuttered rooms, from ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’; that eructation of unhealthy souls in a poem as late as ‘Burnt Norton’. It is not that one wants the poet to ‘speak up for life’, to quote the phrase that Leavis borrowed approvingly from D.H. Lawrence. Life can be left to go about its business without the encouragement of poets. But one would not wish to endorse hysteria and emotional deprivation masquerading as a lofty spirituality and a devastating judiciousness.

As Ricks says, the ‘uglier touches’ are not merely continuous in their turn with the great poetry: they are ‘intimate with it’. In effect, he attempts to establish a critical distinction between a poem like ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar’, which is itself hysterical, and poems like ‘Gerontion’ or ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ which succeed in making of hysteria their subject. (To be fair to Ricks I should stress that that is my way of putting it, not his.) In the latter the poet is not speaking shiftily of others from whom he may easily distance himself (and the reader likewise): instead, he implicates himself and the rest of us in the experience – by dramatising it, by objectifying it, by giving it a frame, by finding a voice appropriate to the utterance of it. Thus, the Jew who ‘squats’ in toad-like fashion on Gerontion’s windowsill is mediated to us by Gerontion, whose word we cannot accept at face-value, for he is himself a character, and a wretched, dried-out one too, in his own poem.

If I have reservations about this line of argument, it is not because I feel that Ricks is trying here to excuse the inexcusable. Nothing of the kind. I think he overlooks the likelihood that in poems as obscure as these a spasm of so ‘traditional’ and unmistakable a feeling as Jew-hatred might serve as a relatively fixed point of reference for the writer himself; and that it might perform something of the same function for the reader too. Even if I am wrong here, this does at least suggest the nature of the difference between us. When I say that – up to ‘Ash Wednesday’, anyway – the poems seem to me more unstable than they do to him, I do not use the word with a derogatory intention. Instability can almost be called their aesthetic.

It is hardly an exaggeration to remark that there is no lyric impulse in them, no glimpse of transcendence, no capacity for sustained eloquence, which does not spring from an unusually intense exposure to feelings of degradation – at once suffered in the self and imposed on others. Gerontion may be supposed to be a little, dried-out old man, living in a decayed house, his senses gone: but notice the intellectual penetration he displays and listen to the wounded grandeur with which he speaks.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving ...

And so on, to the end of the verse-paragraph and beyond it. In the poem devoted to them, Burbank, Princess Volupine and Bleistein (‘Chicago Semite Viennese’) conspire together to produce – what?

The horses, under the axletree
     Beat up the dawn from Istria
With even feet ...

And when, after the contemplation of a few fragments of fragmented lives, a voice in The Waste Land asks,

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?

I am tempted to answer: What grows out of it, and what could for you grow nowhere else, is the capacity to speak in just so masterful a fashion.

Neither the ‘negative’ nor the ‘positive’ element in the poems is there for the sake of the other; neither is subordinate to the other; the poem is their conjunction, the transformation of their incompatibility into a mutual dependence. That is the human possibility which it gives us to experience. Christopher Ricks writes of the earlier poetry deriving ‘its animation from prejudicial animosity insistent and resisted’; and of the later poetry freeing itself ‘from the stringencies of animosity ... into the stringencies of loving-kindness’. Obviously the processes I am trying to describe are closely related to these: but they do not seem to me identical with them.