Why didn’t he commit suicide?

Frank Kermode

  • T.S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews by Jewel Spears Brooker
    Cambridge, 644 pp, £80.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 521 38277 7

Here, in six hundred double-column pages, we have what the editor describes as ‘the most comprehensive collection of contemporary reviews of T.S. Eliot’s work as it appeared’. There are other such collections, but this one will be enough for most people. The editor is American, and she is contributing to a series which gives the same treatment to Emerson, Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Faulkner, Melville and so on. Eliot’s presence on this list amounts to a claim that Eliot is an American author, a decision qualified by a willingness to be fair to the disappointed British: ‘since Eliot’s work was published first in London, this collection includes British and Irish reviews.’ Nevertheless, ‘spelling and punctuation have been changed to American style throughout.’ So much tedious editorial labour has been devoted to exhibit this anglicised and europhile poet as an American national treasure.

Jewel Spears Brooker’s long introduction offers a just survey of Eliot’s largely cis-Atlantic career, though she does not fail to be impressed by the poet’s appearance on the front cover of Time, and the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at a New York performance of The Cocktail Party. As to her selection of reviews, she apologises for omitting some very long pieces she would have liked to include, and some that have escaped that ban are curtailed; but she can reasonably claim that her book as it stands illuminates ‘the curve’ of Eliot’s reputation.

Ploughing through these packed and not always fascinating columns may tell us as much about the craft, if that is the right word, of highbrow reviewing as it does about Eliot. On the English side one notices a steady reduction in pomposity, signalled by the disappearance of the reviewer’s plural first-person pronoun – a harmless convention that can be irritating when it is clear that a perfectly ordinary individual, not a king or even a newspaper, is speaking. American reviewers had a good model in Edmund Wilson’s unaffected prose. The tone of English criticism varied from Ezra Pound’s egotistical shouting to the confident elegance of the Sunday paper reviewers, and, in Eliot’s later years, the uncompromising seriousness of F.R. Leavis’s Scrutiny.

Brooker’s single ‘curve’ is not really adequate: at least two are needed to plot the changing state of Eliot’s reputation. One would show that the brutality of some early notices of the poetry gave way to milder expressions of disapproval, though not to the point of abandoning opposition, while the other would reflect the ways his admirers found to express bewildered admiration for work they regarded as ending one epoch of English poetry and opening another.

Some of the early reviews must have made depressing reading for a beleaguered poet. Everybody remembers that Arthur Waugh likened the work of Eliot to the Spartan custom of exhibiting a drunken slave to show young men ‘the ignominious folly’ of debauchery. (Pound replied that he would like to make an anthology of the work of drunken helots or Heliots, if he could find enough of them.) One anonymous writer, here rescued from oblivion, divined that Eliot’s aim was ‘to pull the leg’ of the ‘sober reviewer’. The New Statesman thought ‘Prufrock’ was ‘unrecognisable as poetry’ but ‘decidedly amusing’, adding that ‘it is only fair to say that he does not call these pieces poems.’ From the heart of the London literary establishment Sir John Squire described The Waste Land as a poem for which ‘a grunt would serve equally well.’ Eliot’s 1925 collection, which included ‘Gerontion’, seemed to Squire ‘obscure so inconsequent . . . Why on earth he bothers to write at all is difficult to conceive; why, since he must write, he writes page after page from which no human being could derive any more meaning . . . than if they were written in Double-Dutch (which parts of them possibly are) is to me beyond conjecture.’ ‘Baudelaire without his guts,’ he concludes.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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