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
Published in March 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
TS Eliot by Craig Raine
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 two decades too late. Nor, being poor on “isms,” does he grasp the complex relations between Eliot’s modernism and his neoclassicism.
Raine defends his protégé above all from the accusation of antisemitism, and in doing so produces at least one page of magisterial disingenuousness. When Eliot writes that “any large number of free-thinking Jews (is) undesirable,” and that “a spirit of excessive tolerance (in this regard) is to be deprecated,” Raine is able to demonstrate with his close-reading skills just what a moderate sentiment this actually is. For it is, you see, large numbers of such Jews which is undesirable, not the whole lot of them; and it is excessive tolerance, not any old tolerance, which is to be deprecated. So that’s all right then.
hankfully, however, the book steers clear of ideas for most of the time, apart from informing us that the “meaning” of Eliot’s poetry lies in the theme of the buried life. It is an incapacity to live fully, Raine suggests, which is the poet’s persistent concern. This is a staggeringly reductive claim. If some poor unfortunate left-wing critic were to suggest that Ted Hughes’s writing is all about the destiny of Nature in the epoch of late capitalism, the literary establishment would come down on the hapless scribe like a ton of bricks. How dare one diminish the delicate complexity of Hughes’s work in this crudely monolithic way? Yet Raine will get away with it, not least because we are talking about something as portentously metaphysical as life, not as trivial and prosaic as late capitalism. He believes that Eliot is a “hedgehog” rather than a “fox,” in the sense of a writer who doggedly pursues one all-pervading theme. On the contrary, he is a devious Old Possum.
Raine, then, is certain that he has the “meaning” of The Waste Land under his belt. He does not understand that Eliot’s poetry is not a question of meaning in the first place. The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said—in the resonance of the signifier, the echoes of its archetypes, the ghostly associations haunting its grains and textures, the stealthy, subliminal workings of its unconscious. Meaning was for the birds, or perhaps for the petit bourgeoisie. Eliot was a primitivist as well as a sophisticate, a writer who made guerrilla raids on the collective unconscious. For all his intellectualism, he was averse to rationality. Meaning in his poetry is like the mysterious figure who walks beside you in The Waste Land, vanishing when you look at it straight. When Raine enquires of a couple of lines in one of Eliot’s poems whether we are supposed to be in a brothel, the only answer which would be true to Eliot’s own aesthetic is that we are in a poem.
The book, then, is really yet another reader’s guide to Eliot, trawling its way doggedly through poem after poem, chasing up allusions and explicating the hard bits. Much of this is perfunctory, while some of it is brilliantly perceptive. The speaker in “Gerontion” is “a psychic wallflower, a noncombatant, an over-conscientious objector, a constitutional abstainer.” The book is excellent on the influence on Eliot of Jules Laforgue, and has a poet’s astute ear for the stray effects of sound and syntax. It is just that it is also given to Janet-and-John paraphrases like “God, the Word, exists; but for a variety of reasons people find it difficult to accept the Word, difficult to believe in God.” It also has a problem distinguishing the smart from the smartass.
Perhaps the best one can say of Raine’s criticism, as of his poetry, is that it is scintillatingly shallow. He is a good man for the offbeat detail, but an indifferent hand at the moral vision or the overall portrait. The verbal intricacy and panache of his writing contrasts with its conceptual poverty. If there is very little stark, authentic emotion in Eliot’s work, there is also a shortage of it in this commentary. The author is, however, notably generous in his comments on other critics. A review essay by Ann Pasternak Slater is, he tells us, “the best account of Eliot’s marriage to be found anywhere.” Fortunately, he remembers to add that Pasternak Slater is his wife.