Is it always my fault?

Denis Donoghue

  • T.S. Eliot by Craig Raine
    Oxford, 202 pp, £12.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 530993 5

In 1929, in his essay on Dante, T.S. Eliot wrote:

But the question of what Dante ‘believed’ is always relevant. It would not matter, if the world were divided between those persons who are capable of taking poetry simply for what it is and those who cannot take it at all; if so, there would be no need to talk about this question to the former and no use in talking about it to the latter. But most of us are somewhat impure and apt to confuse issues: hence the justification of writing books about books, in the hope of straightening things out.

Craig Raine has made several attempts, over more than thirty years, to straighten things out in favour of Eliot’s reputation. He has published six essays, by my count, towards that end, starting with an appreciation of The Waste Land in 1973. This was included in a large selection of his essays, Haydn and the Valve Trumpet (1990), along with ‘The Awful Daring of T.S. Eliot’ (1985) and ‘To Purify the Dialect of the Tribe’ (1988). A further selection, In Defence of T.S. Eliot (2000), brought together ‘The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot’ (2000), ‘In Defence of T.S. Eliot’ (1996) and ‘Evidence in the Eliot Case’ (1996) – this last featuring a notably unkind commentary on Christopher Ricks’s editing of Eliot’s Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-17. In the new book, as in these essays, Raine assumes that his readers are likely to be ‘somewhat impure and apt to confuse issues’. It is my impression that he remained patient with readers of Eliot till 1996. In that busy year his patience gave way to exasperation. We were too stupid and prejudiced to be borne. The publication of Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form in 1995, and the hubbub that followed, gave Raine cause to feel dismayed.

The new book includes choice material from the early essays, sometimes unchanged, often more judiciously phrased. Some audacities haven’t survived. I don’t find here the claim that Eliot was ‘the century’s greatest poet’, though no greater is proposed. I miss Raine’s early assessment that ‘as an erotic poet, Eliot’s economy of means is equalled only by Wyatt.’ I hope he has not abandoned the far-reaching perception that travesty ‘is The Waste Land’s preferred modus operandi’. He seems to have allowed his early emphasis on Eliot’s graduate studies in Indian philosophy to recede. But he holds more insistently than ever to his main idea, that ‘for Eliot, the failure to live, the failure of emotion to find its proper expression, is an obsessive theme of his work.’ This emphasis is so repetitive that it amounts to a compulsion. ‘The Buried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived, is the central, animating idea of Eliot’s poetry.’

The immediate source of the motif is Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, where the lady is quoted as saying:

‘Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.’

But the motif survives that irony. Raine finds it most seriously in Henry James and Matthew Arnold; in James in ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, ‘The Private Life’, Washington Square and other fictions of the unlived life; in Arnold in his poem ‘The Buried Life’:

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