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 TLS remarked that ‘poetry is a serious art, too serious for this game,’ and asked why, if the state of the world was as hopeless as Eliot seemed to think, he didn’t just commit suicide. In New York Louis Untermeyer condemned the poet’s ‘cheap tricks’. In Dublin Padraic Colum detected a Byzantine quality: ‘The shadows of a long decay are upon it all.’ In London Edgell Rickword, from whom something more illuminating might have been expected, found that Eliot was ‘sometimes walking very near the limits of coherency’; and Clive Bell, a Bloomsbury friend and a favoured recipient of one of those letters Eliot adorned with Mallarméan addresses, explained that the poetry lacked imagination and shared ‘the morbidity of The Yellow Book’. In Cambridge the learned F.L. Lucas identified The Waste Land as a specimen of Alexandrianism. ‘In all periods,’ he mused, ‘creative artists have been apt to think they could think.’ He took comfort from the reflection that ‘the Victorian "Spasmodics” likewise had their day.’ Readers may be tempted to compare the recent obituary responses of some of our intellectual leaders to the work of Jacques Derrida.

Yet it may be too easy to enjoy what in retrospect seems the blank imperceptiveness of these reviewers. The vulgarity of Squire (editor of the important London Mercury) remains disgraceful, but a response of bewilderment, perhaps leading to irritated mistrust, is understandable. Long after its publication it was possible for serious critics to ask just what it was about The Waste Land that compelled us to treat it as a single poem. Was not the effort required to see it in that way entirely the reader’s, brainwashed by the poet’s enthusiastic disciples? And this scepticism soon led to more serious charges. Donald Davie was one critic who insisted that Eliot, not only in the early poems but just as dangerously in Four Quartets, had turned English poetry off its proper course. The debate continues. Eliot’s stock seems at present rather low. The second curve, the curve of adulation, rose steeply until the 1930s, when it flattened out, to be restored to rotundity in the poet’s later years. Perhaps it has now levelled off.

The appearance of Valerie Eliot’s edition of The Waste Land in 1971 provided a new context for argument. It was well known that Ezra Pound had recommended revisions, but it now appeared that he had torn great chunks out of the poem, so that if the five remaining sections constituted an integral poem it might be thought that they did so by Pound’s fiat. His more modest local emendations left tears in the fabric of the text that were not mended. His alterations to ‘The Fire Sermon’ meant that the quatrain poem about the seduction of the typist was broken up in such a way that some quatrains remain intact while others are dismantled. Pound didn’t care much about the underlying myth that was supposed to pin the whole series together, or for the regularities of conventional stanza form: he cared about good verses, which is why he left ‘What the Thunder Said’ alone. What remained when he had done was, if we ignore a few places at which the poet was stubborn, the poem as we now have it, from one point of view a battered remnant, but with a fortuitous unity and a beauty sanctioned by almost a century of exposition and conversation.

Unfortunately the 1971 edition is outside Brooker’s purview, which ends with The Elder Statesman in 1958. Eliot had early established a high reputation as a critic, which made it harder to maintain that as a poet he was merely an irritating poseur. Even when one senses a lingering desire to be disrespectful, even when the books under review – After Strange Gods and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, for example – are among Eliot’s less impressive, the criticism is restrained, though far from melting into adulation. Brooker gives special prominence to critics like Conrad Aiken and Ezra Pound who had been close to Eliot from the first. Aiken never sounds quite happy about what his famous friend is doing, and Pound bangs on about his absurd religion and his failure to understand economics as he, Pound, did.

Yet on the whole the second curve shows a growing tendency to adulation. Comment and conversation, even gossip, combine to form the medium in which literary reputations survive. What kept the Eliot conversation going was a fairly broad agreement that The Waste Land, ‘The Hollow Men’ and some other poems provided a durable image of what he himself called ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

As Eliot’s fame grew, critics inevitably speculated about the autobiographical content of the poems, always an easy escape from poetry. The man who said poetry was an escape from personality, and was famous for slightly mysterious sayings about impersonality, might be thought resistant to personal investigations. He described The Waste Land as just a piece of rhythmical grumbling. However, with all due modesty he did provide autobiographical material, as with his celebrated announcement in For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) that he now regarded himself as ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion’. His American reviewers, who firmly associated the name Eliot with New England Puritanism, were not alone in being puzzled and hurt by his conversion. One of them here points out with astonishment that this American poet apparently believed in the divine right of kings.

Hereafter the question of his religious beliefs was a staple of talk about Eliot, and the two curves approached one another for a time. He had become too famous to be treated contemptuously, and since his turn to religion was regarded by some as a betrayal of the Modernism of which he was already a kind of saint, there are worried reviews asking how one could continue to respect a thinker who entertained such manifestly implausible notions.

Edmund Wilson, long noted for his achievements in supporting adventurous new writing, was much disturbed by For Lancelot Andrewes. He praised its combination of ‘subtle and original thinking with simple and precise statement’ but rejected Eliot’s conviction that civilisation cannot endure without religion, and that this was evident from the state of the world. Certainly civilisation was in bad shape, but what we had to do was to make it endure. This might not be easy, but ‘it can hardly be any more difficult than trying to believe that the intellectual leadership of the future will be supplied by the Roman Catholic Church, or by the Church of England, or by any church whatsoever.’ Going back to Bishop Andrewes was useless; in his day it was ‘still possible for a first-rate mind to accept the supernatural basis of religion’. The idea that because we are badly off we should swallow medieval theology and endorse the Apostolic Succession seemed so absurd that Wilson barely remains as polite as it was now good manners to be when discussing Eliot. In England George Orwell echoed Wilson’s opinion. That the illness of a generation was a suitable subject for poetry was not denied, but Eliot’s remedy seemed preposterous. Such rejections were of course more or less exactly what Eliot understood by heresy, and so constituted evidence for his point of view.

A poet’s reputation may benefit almost as much by adverse comment as by adulation. Now the two occurred together. Aiken said it was impossible to read Eliot without respect, but it was also ‘becoming increasingly impossible’ to read him ‘without misgivings’; at the end of his Dial review of For Lancelot Andrewes he goes so far as to say that some of the book strikes him as ‘a complete abdication of intelligence’ accompanied by a new ‘note of withered dogmatism’. This from a friend! It seems that these disillusioned admirers were put out to discover that the master was no longer very like the figure they originally had in mind.

People now began once more to say nasty things about The Waste Land: Brian Howard complained in the New Statesman of having to deal with a plague of poems modelled on that work, so that the mere occurrence of the words ‘stone’, ‘dust’ or ‘dry’ condemned them to the waste basket. Even among knowing readers the standing of Eliot as a poet was diminishing; the early novelty was gone. Ash Wednesday was too religious for many of them. Discussions of Eliot’s prose still made frequent use of the words ‘intelligent’, ‘integrity’, ‘precision’, ‘sensitivity’, ‘taste’. As Waldo Frank observed, ‘in an epoch whose literary critics have been insensitive and incompetent men . . . Mr Eliot [is] an exceedingly welcome figure.’ But it was much harder to talk about the poems, even about ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, in its way quite as startling an experiment as any of the early poems, but condemned rather inanely by D.G. Bridson as ‘all very clever, all very cutting, all very true, and all very futile’.

Moving into the 1930s one finds more reservations. Francis Fergusson, a respected critic, remarks, in a review of Eliot’s Norton Lectures at Harvard, that ‘there is something in Mr Eliot, when he writes, that is carefully dead.’ The contemporaneous After Strange Gods disappointed Richard Blackmur by its retreat into the church, which he called ‘perplexing and distressing’, and F.R. Leavis in Scrutiny remarked reluctantly that ‘since the religious preoccupation has become insistent in them, Mr Eliot’s critical writings have been notable for showing less discipline of thought and emotion, less purity of interest, less power of sustained devotion, and less courage than before.’ This was written in 1934, probably the nadir of Eliot’s reputation. Scrutiny was fairly new and by temperament and conviction censorious, but its editor was a dedicated admirer of Eliot as well as very intelligent, which quality the master himself had described as ‘the only method’. He and his associates had many more agreeable things to say about the poet when new work transformed his reputation once more.

Eliot withdrew After Strange Gods from sale. In recent years it has been attended to almost entirely in relation to controversy about his alleged anti-semitism; yet the now famous passage about freethinking Jews is barely mentioned by Brooker’s reviewers, whose main reaction is once again to wonder why their hero has developed such perverse preoccupations. He baffled them again with his church pageant The Rock (1934), to Aiken another ‘contraction . . . of interest’, though the TLS found in it ‘a notable demonstration of possibilities’. But it was hard to get round the fact that Eliot believed our culture was degenerate because it had lost contact with the church, while reviewers thought it was exactly the other way about.

Murder in the Cathedral (1935) brought some relief. Written for Canterbury, the production toured successfully and there was talk of the poet having reached the people. In the following year came Collected Poems, 1909-35. With this volume on the shelf beside Selected Essays (1932) the evidence for Eliot’s stature was plainly visible and accessible, but there was still some worry about his ability to go on writing poetry. However, the Collected included a new long poem, ‘Burnt Norton’, notably unlike the earlier verse, though having its origin in off-cuts from Murder in the Cathedral.

In 1936 no one, not even Eliot, knew that this would be the first of Four Quartets, and it was a test for reviewers to say more about it than that it was puzzling in a new way. Here Scrutiny proved its timeliness; a particularly fine essay by one of its editors, D.W. Harding, went far to justify his opinion that this poem was among ‘the greatest of imaginative achievements’. Harding, a psychologist by profession, was one of the best critics of his time, deeply attentive to poetry. As he made clear in a later review of The Idea of a Christian Society, he had little time for Eliot’s religious speculations. He was writing about a poem. The certainty of his judgment of ‘Burnt Norton’ cleared the way for Leavis’s fine Scrutiny essay on the second and third Quartets in 1942. ‘To have gone seriously into the poetry,’ Leavis writes, ‘is to have had a quickening insight into the nature of thought and language.’

The influence of Scrutiny was very much greater than its small circulation might suggest, and I daresay this piece did more to establish the authority of the later Eliot than all the work of the Christian exegetes and the celebrated weekend reviewers. Leavis’s essay simply makes irrelevant Orwell’s contemporaneous complaint that Eliot’s conversion had landed him in a ‘gloomy Pétainism’ appropriate to membership of a church ‘that demands intellectual absurdities of its members’. The problem of belief, which had so bothered Ivor Richards, remained a major critical issue in the 1940s and 1950s, but it did not trouble Leavis or Harding, or for that matter Eliot himself.

Between ‘Burnt Norton’ and the other Quartets came The Family Reunion, another highly original work and another success on the popular stage. There were carping reviews, but Eliot was now a celebrity. The 1930s slump was over. His prose writings – for example, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) – continued to elicit polite dismay, and critical opinion divided on the popular comedy The Cocktail Party: Eliot was now ‘a master of theatrical contrivance’, as Robert Spaight argued, or a superior sort of Buchmanite, as Desmond Shaw-Taylor alleged; or both at once. William Barrett, in Partisan Review, wished Eliot had followed the road he had opened in ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, and so avoided producing ‘the weakest poetry he has ever written’. Nevertheless Eliot remained for him ‘the last great product of the Puritan mind’. But he also thought the poet’s collapse was terminal; ‘perhaps every new literary generation has to begin by killing its father.’

The last plays, The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1959), were praised as skilful, though Kenneth Tynan ventured to call the latter play ‘banal’. Hugh Kenner complained that the characters in them speak English English, rather than American English, though why he expected otherwise of a writer who had been listening to English talk for half a century is a question.

So the story ends on the familiar notes of more or less respectful dissent, and fame of quite another sort from the notoriety-tinged prominence of the 1920s. The last of the Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’, was religious poetry that could still win the admiration of agnostics – the greatest of English war poems and a work of which the technical virtuosity would have been as hard to deny as the depth of its feeling. After that there were no more important poems, but there were books to be dissented from and plays to be explained; and there was a marriage to celebrate, a benign old sage and newspapers agog for comic or mysterious obiter dicta. Such celebrity passes out of the range of critical approval or scorn, resting as it does on the opinion of many whose curiosity does not always depend on acquaintance with the sage’s works but with his being at last a true celebrity, famous for being famous.