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’:

And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves –
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpressed.

Arnold allows for the possibility, however rare, that in love we may gain access to our buried life: ‘And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.’ But Eliot, according to Raine, resorts to F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality to be told that ‘every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it.’ Bradley enabled Eliot to disguise a debt to Arnold, ‘his irritating father-figure’. But Bradley and Arnold don’t name the same predicament. The complaint of Arnold’s poem is that we are opaque not only to others but to ourselves. Raine offers this as the key to Eliot’s poems: ‘The failure to live fully is a central, recurring theme of Eliot’s poetry.’ He keeps coming back to it. ‘The Hollow Men’, he asserts, ‘is an attack not on the active commission of sins, but on negativity – an unlife unlived, a kind of dishonesty, an existential mauvaise foi.’ Prufrock ‘fails to make a proposal of marriage’, does not ‘seize the day.’ Eliot’s plays address his ‘lifelong preoccupation with discovering what we really feel under the carapace of convention’. Agatha in The Family Reunion ‘is the character who most obviously embodies the theme of the buried life’. ‘The buried life in Eliot has a headstone with many names, different names for a familiar compound ghost.’

One of those names might be Walter Pater. In his essay on Coleridge, Pater referred to ‘that inexhaustible discontent, languor and homesickness . . . the chords of which ring all through our modern literature’. Eliot quoted those words in his essay on ‘Arnold and Pater’, only to reflect that Pater exhibited those ills more positively than Coleridge did. Those ills, too, must be symptoms of the buried life. But it is not clear from Raine’s account whether my failure to reach my buried life is, according to Eliot’s poems and prose, a constitutional defect, a deficiency of character or a sin: is it always my fault? And what would a fully achieved life be, if I could have it? For writers, Raine says, ‘the fully lived life also means the interior life, the mental life. Grey matter acting on reading matter is a matter of passion, too.’ But what about the rest of us? The figures in Eliot’s poems have more ‘interior life, mental life’ than they can use: their problem, as Northrop Frye put it, is an excess of consciousness over being.

Raine assumes that a complete life can be described in psychological terms, since therapists help their patients to live more abundantly, form richer friendships and see the world in a new light. There is at least one passage in which Eliot, too, seems content with a psychological presentation of the value of poetry. Poetry, he wrote in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,

may effect revolutions in sensibility such as are periodically needed; may help to break up the conventional modes of perception and valuation which are perpetually forming, and make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.

But more frequently, and not surprisingly after his conversion to the Church of England in 1927, Eliot insisted that religious belief and practice constitute the essential commitment in a serious life. Mundane therapy isn’t enough. Raine doesn’t warm to this assertion, and prefers to deflect it by putting it in secular and psychological terms, where it becomes compatible with Emersonian individualism, a system of values Eliot could not have approved. Raine cites, as the epigraph to his book, Eliot’s gloomy report in After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), ‘But most people are only very little alive,’ and he proceeds as if Eliot had a psychological defect in view. But the context of the remark, in a passage about D.H. Lawrence, enforces a different emphasis:

It would seem that for Lawrence any spiritual force was good, and that evil resided only in the absence of spirituality. Most people, no doubt, need to be aroused to the perception of the simple difference between the spiritual and the material; and Lawrence never forgot, and never mistook, this distinction. But most people are only very little alive; and to awaken them to the spiritual is a very great responsibility: it is only when they are so awakened that they are capable of real Good, but at the same time they become first capable of Evil.

The passage is clarified by a sentence that Eliot wrote a year or so later: ‘What I do wish to affirm is that the whole of modern literature is corrupted by what I call Secularism, that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.’ Raine thinks to take the harm out of such passages by removing them from religion to psychology. You don’t need to believe anything; you merely share with other people a disabling predicament.

So Raine goes through Eliot’s Collected Poems, his single key in hand. He is continually attentive to the surface and texture of the early poems, but by the time he comes to Four Quartets he is a little tired of commentary and offers goodwill for the critical deed. He does, though, rouse himself to say that ‘the passages documenting in undeniable detail “the moment in and out of time” are the most successful attempts at the mystical in poetry since Wordsworth’s spots of time in The Prelude – themselves a refiguration of the mystical.’ The chapter on Eliot’s plays is inert: Raine is not much interested in them. The chapter on the criticism, too, is perfunctory; except for a few witty remarks and allusions, it is a survey course in the standard phrases – ‘dissociation of sensibility’, ‘the auditory imagination’, the ‘objective correlative’. ‘The objective correlative, in the non-dramatic sense,’ he tells us, ‘is an account of the artist straining to objectify and embody his subjective inner murk – his buried life.’ This chapter needs a far more interrogative context, such as Geoffrey Hartman provides in The Fateful Question of Culture (1997). Raine keeps such a context distant by concentrating on the English Eliot. We hear a lot of Arnold and Kipling, something of Browning and Clough, Shakespeare and Milton, less of Pater, but virtually nothing of Dante, Pascal, Goethe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine or Laforgue. The book is a bit provincial, and it makes Eliot seem less ranging, less comprehensive, than he was.

The most attractive quality of Raine’s mind, in this book, is its vivacity, its enthusiasm, its racy pleasure in turning aside to compare a detail in Eliot with something in Nabokov, Kundera or Lawrence. We hear of Raine’s friends, James Fenton, Martin Amis; of Heaney’s Station Island; harshly of Walcott: ‘In Omeros (Chapter XII), you can see Derek Walcott’s botched, fatally indebted copy of Eliot when he describes his encounter with his father Warwick’s ghost: Eliot’s drained pool full of mystical water becomes a defunct fountain where, “it seemed”, “water sprang in plumes.”’

Raine loves to quote, however inaccurately. I hope a revised edition will allow Yeats to write ‘murderous’ rather than ‘dangerous’ in ‘On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac’: ‘ I knew that horse-play, knew it for a murderous thing.’ Arnold and Pater will be quoted accurately. So also will ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, The Waste Land, ‘Ash-Wednesday’, ‘Marina’ and ‘Burnt Norton’. Misquotation apart, Raine writes exuberantly of the sixth section of ‘Ash-Wednesday’ that Eliot

wishes for the earth, which he cannot renounce as the illusion he knows it to be – a distraction from the claims of eternity. Nine lines or so of the most beautiful poetry in English bring the world indelibly before us. They are drenched in desire, rapt with repetition, in love with every charged particular. It is Eliot’s indestructible Das Lied von der Erde. Look at his repeated use of the word ‘lost’ and you see the lines are also his ‘temps perdu’, a memory of happiness:

From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying

Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell

Quickens to recover
The cry of the [sic] quail and the whirling plover

The most controversial part of the new book is likely to be the first appendix, ‘Eliot and Anti-Semitism’, largely recovered from ‘In Defence of T.S. Eliot’ and ‘Evidence in the Eliot Case’. Raine now (correctly in my view) interprets the questionable poems – mainly ‘Gerontion’ and ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar’ – as dramatic monologues and therefore exempt from attribution to Eliot in his personal capacity. The suppressed ‘Dirge’, too, is inadmissible evidence, as parody, for the same reason. Commenting on the notorious passage in After Strange Gods that ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,’ Raine links it to a passage two pages earlier where Eliot says that tradition ‘involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of “the same people living in the same place”’. The last phrase refers to the episode in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom defines a nation as ‘the same people living in the same place’. Raine maintains that by alluding to Bloom – a free-thinking Jew – and by ‘marking the allusion with inverted commas, Eliot effectively includes free-thinking Jews in his recipe for a unified culture.’ The claim seems to me a stretch – I don’t think Eliot felt any more esteem for free-thinking Jews than for free-thinking Christians – but I suppose some readers may find it persuasive. Raine takes as his opponents in this chapter Anthony Julius, Christopher Ricks, George Steiner and Louis Menand, critics with very different positions on the issue, which he does his best to respect. In the end, he describes his own position as ‘reserved. We do not have all the evidence. There may be things in the correspondence.’ I doubt that any further evidence will make a difference. Most people have probably made up their minds, one way or another, on what Eliot did or did not do, why and wherefore, his writings, speeches, silences. But new readers will join the quarrel.