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.

Nevertheless, Words Alone contains a fair deal of straight autobiographical reminiscence. A vivid presence in Dublin in the 1950s was the ‘morally intimidating’ Donald Davie, then a fellow at Trinity College, where Donoghue would drop in on him to discuss modern poetry. ‘He used the word “infidel”,’ Donoghue remembers, ‘more freely and more deliberately than I supposed it had ever been used since the 17th century,’ and risked taunts of ‘infidel’ himself by suggesting in a 1956 article that ‘The Dry Salvages’ was ‘quite simply rather a bad poem’ (Donoghue tends to agree). With his preference for the more lapidary Objectivist Pound, Davie grimaced at the concession that, yes, Eliot was indeed a great poet. Many years later the friendship ended when Donoghue described Davie’s mind as having an ‘experimental’ relationship with its contents, which Davie took to mean that he didn’t know how to think straight – and Donoghue does get Davie curiously wrong when he classes Thomas Hardy and British Poetry with Larkin’s Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse as arguing that ‘the Modernism of Eliot and Pound was a false trail,’ when this was precisely the basis on which Davie attacked Larkin. Where Eliot was concerned, though, the young Donoghue’s admiration was anything but experimental or tentative. Inspired by Eliot’s 1953 lecture ‘The Three Voices of Poetry’ and interested in his plays, Donoghue produced his first academic book, The Third Voice, on modern verse drama, and his career was underway.

‘Reflections on Religion and Literature’ – the subtitle of Adam’s Curse – could just as easily do duty for Words Alone. Discussing Eliot’s ‘Voices’, Donoghue speculates on the enormous effort it must have required for a poet so subjective and idealist to turn towards tradition, classicism and impersonality, against the native ‘urgings of his talent’; an effort comparable only to the effort of prayer. Hence the importance of all the untranslated fragments into which The Waste Land dissolves in its last few lines, and of writing ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ rather than a Christian platitude like ‘the peace that passeth understanding’. It is the strangeness that counts, of the belief itself as much as of language, the insistence on something unrecognisable to set against the natural turpitude of the self. In his early years in England, Eliot liked to sign himself metoikos (‘resident alien’) in letters to journals, and was still calling himself a ‘spirit unappeased and peregrine’ by the time we get to ‘Little Gidding’, as if plain old ‘wandering’ weren’t good enough. Donoghue devotes a useful passage in Adam’s Curse to reminding us just how odd the whole business of belief could be for Eliot, to the point where he attacked Bertrand Russell’s amazing ‘capacity for believing’, and answered Russell’s certainty that he would rot when dead with ‘I cannot subscribe with that conviction to any belief.’

One of the attractive things about belief is the prospect of nothing being entirely your responsibility any more, and writing on the subject of evil, Donoghue cites a character in a New Yorker cartoon: ‘With me it’s neither nature nor nurture. It’s Satan.’ As Donoghue observes, it is hard to imagine a serious writer producing a book on the influence of the devil on contemporary literature, as Eliot did in After Strange Gods. There is something irresistible to Donoghue, as to Eliot, in the cosmic daring of such gestures, and their poke in the eye for the ‘senile humanism’ that both men hold in such evident disdain. In many ways Words Alone, no less than Adam’s Curse, is Donoghue’s defence of the institutional theistic imagination in an age of callow unbelief. That it should be institutional matters to him very much, and he looks closely at the stand-off between Eliot’s Anglicanism and do-it-yourself Emersonianism. ‘Institutions are necessary,’ Eliot wrote at the end of his essay on Baudelaire, before his reception into the Church of England in 1927. The key to this side of his personality, as William Empson was surely right to suggest, was the sloughing off of his boyhood Unitarianism, which he seems to have associated ever afterwards with his less than properly assertive father (though on the Christian-baiting Empson of Milton’s God, Donoghue is predictably scathing). For religion as an inner light Eliot had nothing but contempt. ‘The possessors of the inner voice,’ he wrote, ‘ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear and lust’.

Donoghue bristles when poetry becomes self-sufficient, to the point of becoming a form of religion in its own right. The chief offender on this count in both Words Alone and Adam’s Curse is Wallace Stevens, his distrust of whom is one thing at least he had in common with Donald Davie. Donoghue fairly wipes the floor with Stevens as a reader of Eliot. Most critics have agreed that ‘X’ in ‘Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas’ seems to be Eliot, ‘an obstruction, a man/Too exactly himself’. For Stevens, or Donoghue’s Stevens, Christian belief was not to be countenanced, since it refused the Emersonian licence that ‘all men are priests.’ Stevens compares Eliot’s acolytes to ‘lean cats of the arches of the churches’ and scoffs that ‘They bear brightly the little beyond/Themselves, the slightly unjust drawing that is/Their genius: the exquisite errors of time.’ The snigger is audible behind that line-break, ‘the little beyond/Themselves’. In Adam’s Curse Donoghue quotes Stevens again as a precursor of Hans Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’: ‘The final belief is to believe in a fiction which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.’ ‘Believe’, Donoghue retorts, is too strong a word here – ‘entertain’ might be more appropriate. For Donoghue’s Stevens it is ‘as if’ I may entertain the fiction that it’s sunny outside when it’s raining; but exquisite as my conviction may be, I’m still getting wet. Then again, it’s ‘as if’ I’m really still dry. None of which seems to me to refute Stevens any more than Dr Johnson kicking the stone refuted Berkeley; and it was Stevens, not Eliot, who wrote a poem called ‘Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself’. Donoghue’s Stevens fulfils his role of Emersonian fall-guy admirably, but should be classified under ‘Ideas about the Thing’ rather than ‘the Thing Itself’.

Donoghue doesn’t always come down on the side of belief for belief’s sake, and he offers a spirited defence of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ against tut-tutting readings by Czeslaw Milosz and Seamus Heaney. On the charge of anti-semitism he is implacable, even reprieving the passage in After Strange Gods about too many ‘free-thinking Jews’ being ‘undesirable in a Christian society’. It would be repressive of Jews, in Donoghue’s gloss, to suggest that what they believe is a matter of indifference to society at large, the alternative being, presumably, a munificent disapproval (a line of argument that makes Eliot an unlikely forerunner of Marcuse and the theory of ‘repressive tolerance’). Addressing another much picked-over poem, ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar’, Donoghue enlists Gadamer to reclaim the word ‘prejudice’ (Eliot went further, refusing to demur at being called a ‘bigot’). ‘If I accept someone’s authority,’ Donoghue writes, ‘and go along with his judgment of a particular issue because he knows more about it than I do, I act on a legitimate prejudice.’ ‘Because he knows more about it than I do’: Donoghue is one of those rare critics who can manage to sound humble and lordly at the same time. Elsewhere he skimps on the humility, ‘endless’ though Eliot thought it was, to deliver the lordliness neat. ‘I am assuming agreement that The Waste Land is fundamental to our sense of modern literature,’ he announces at one point, while at the end of a chapter in Adam’s Curse we are told: ‘I have written of these exemplars in several books. There is no merit in going over the same ground again. Papa locutus est.’

In a much-quoted footnote to his review of The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, Geoffrey Hill complained about the decline of Eliot’s poetry from the ‘pitch’ of ‘Prufrock’ to the ‘tone’ of Four Quartets, the former as thrillingly unstable as the latter is calculated and reassuring. Donoghue isn’t having any of it, but it’s hard to deny that something has got lost in the transition from the Shantih town of The Waste Land to the City of God in Four Quartets. Donoghue’s insistence on taking seriously the question of belief doesn’t come without some finger-drumming moments for those of us who remain extra ecclesia: discussions in Adam’s Curse of his boyhood study of Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine; of how well today’s priests would do to face up to the ‘hard sayings’ of the Bible, and of the rights and wrongs of Vatican II (it’s too early to say). It’s notable, too, that he has little to say about the Christian Eliot in cruise-control mode, as in the late plays, unless those, too, count as ground already gone over all these years ago in The Third Voice.

SSomebody else who has been defending the Christian legacy recently is Slavoj Žižek. In his most recent book, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, he notes the inconsistency of The Waste Land’s gesture towards religious transcendence. Eliot may wish to replace the emptiness of secular life with the certainties of Christianity, but cannot help reinscribing it into ‘the pagan myth of the renewed fecundity of the “waste land”’, or, at the poem’s conclusion, succumbing to a proto-Buddhist ‘yearning for total annihilation rather than regeneration’. Like many apparent conservatives, in other words, Eliot secretly dreams not of conserving but of sweeping everything away. As St John of the Cross put it for him in the epigraph to Sweeney Agonistes (in English translation, for once): ‘the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created things.’

For the foreseeable future, Eliot’s reputation will remain, like the Church in ‘Choruses from “The Rock”’, ‘always decaying, and always being restored’: a magnet for the self-righteously censorious, but also for those who continue to look for poetry, ‘and not some other thing’ instead, to answer their own needs. Were his reputation to sink altogether, though, the first group, as well as the second, stand to lose. As Stevens wrote in ‘Esthétique du Mal’: ‘The death of Satan was a tragedy/For the imagination,’ and even Emersonian liberals need to have someone to blame every now and then. And as Antoine de la Pérouse says in a passage from The Counterfeiters, quoted by Donoghue in the last chapter of Adam’s Curse: ‘No, no! . . . The devil and the Good God are one and the same; they work together. We try to believe that everything bad on earth comes from the devil, but it’s because, if we didn’t, we should never find strength to forgive God.’ Eliot is the devilish God that contemporary poets find the hardest to forgive. Donoghue has written the apologia he needs. He deserves our gratitude for it, with a smidgen of forgiveness thrown in, too.