TS Eliot's greatness as a poet is established beyond all doubt. So why do critics feel the need to defend him against all charges of misogyny and antisemitism?by Terry Eagleton / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
TS Eliot by Craig Raine (OUP, £12.99)
For a good many decades, thick fumes of incense have been wafting from the English literary establishment in the general direction of TS Eliot. The latest offering by the acolytes to the high priest is this study by Craig Raine, which admits that some of Eliot’s drama isn’t up to much but otherwise won’t hear a cross word about the great man. “There is no evidence,” Raine piously remarks, “that Eliot was either a fornicator or a homosexual,” as though being homosexual was a trespass to be vigorously rebutted. Eliot was not, he rashly maintains, a misogynist either, even though the poetry is shot through from end to end with a fear and loathing of women. He even seeks to face down the charge that this ascetic ex-bank clerk was a bit of a dry old stick, although Eliot himself admitted as much.
Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours. It is true that the poet was a sourly elitist reactionary who fellow-travelled with some unsavoury political types in the 1930s, and as a Christian knew much of faith and hope but little of charity. Yet the politics of many distinguished modernist artists were just as squalid, and some—Pound and Junger, for example—were quite a lot worse. There is no need to pretend that all great writers have to be uxorious, liberal-minded, philosemitic heterosexuals. Why does Raine write as though discovering that Eliot was a paedophile would change our view of Four Quartets?
Neither is it just a question of “fine poetry, pity about the politics.” The fact that apart from Joyce and Woolf, almost all of the major “English” modernists were radical reactionaries, askew to the orthodox liberal consensus of their age, is a condition of their achievement, not a regrettable corollary. Like a lot of poets and Oxford English dons, however, Raine doesn’t really do ideas (something of a problem when tackling a poet as doctrinal as Eliot), and seems to know rather little about modernism. He dates it from 1922, which is at least…