I heard Craig Raine interviewed on the radio about this book. Didn’t he feel, he was asked, that his often abrasive dismissals of fellow critics (“execrable,” “stupid”) lowered the standards of academic writing? His answer was contemptuous: “Yeah, but who reads academic writing, for God’s sake?”
Well, quite a few people do—he has even read some himself—and they will have to go on doing so if they want real help in understanding T. S. Eliot. Raine’s book, in a series called “Lives and Legacies,” gives a biographical chronology, and adopts a chaotic approach to Eliot’s work, the continuity and development of which are obscured. There is no mention of Emily Hale, a key figure in Eliot’s life, in the chronology or the text. Raine is outraged, on behalf of the poet’s widow (to whom his book is dedicated “with love”), at any suggestion that Eliot treated his first wife, Vivienne, badly, or that his sexual orientation might have been open to question, and he wriggles uncomfortably with the indictment of Eliot as anti-Semitic. He has one central insight—indeed obsession—to offer: that the master-theme of Eliot’s work is that of “the buried life … the idea of a life not fully lived.”
Considering it is buried, this corpse sprouts prolifically. We hear that The Waste Land is “a series of demonstrations” of the theme, in which “the Grail story itself has a buried life” (Raine likes these heavy-breathing italics); that Eliot’s account of the subconscious tug of poetic rhythm describes “the buried life of language”; that in Four Quartets he “touches on the buried life of his spirit”; that his idea, such as it is, of the “objective correlative” involves the artist’s “straining to objectify and embody his subjective inner murk”; that the theme is omnipresent in the plays but has become “a theorem for Eliot by now, an over-familiar, zestless platitude.” Not only for him, we mutter to ourselves. Raine finds Eliot’s source, reasonably enough, in Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life,” without remarking on the tension between two possible meanings of “buried”—stifled or unfulfilled, as in “Prufrock,” or deliberately repressed as in The Family Reunion. In the latter, incidentally, Eliot’s staging of what Raine himself calls “his desire to be rid of his wife” is hailed as “an act of exemplary artistic courage,” a verdict with which Vivienne Eliot, who was still alive when the play was staged, might have found it hard to agree. Too little, perhaps, remained buried on that occasion.
In fact, there is more of relevance in Arnold’s poem than Raine indicates: its couple, bandying “light words” and strained smiles, and the male narrator’s fear of being received with “blank indifference” clearly underlie “Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady.” Raine is right to see Arnold as a literary father-figure Eliot could never quite make peace with; right also to see his influence on Eliot’s prose (though there is too little about this, and next to nothing about the contributions of Pater or F. H. Bradley to Eliot’s style and tone). He correctly attributes Eliot’s greatest unease about Arnold to the latter’s sentimentalizing of religion and his prophecy that poetry would come to do the work of religion. Yet what did Eliot believe in, according to Raine? “In larger forces, in mystical experience, in the suprarational.” No: he believed in Christianity, a faith rooted in history, which has specific doctrines, which are precisely formulated in creeds. Religion, for Eliot, could never be a matter of mere intuition, tinglings down the spine, opinion, or point of view.
Raine is impressed by the “mystical experience” evoked in the opening lines of “Burnt Norton,” and takes this as a license for fuzziness. He quotes Eliot’s terror of Original Sin (“a very real and tremendous thing”) without realizing its force. Crucially, he shies away from the sheer unpleasantness of much of Eliot’s religion, in which a dualism derived from his Puritan forebears, singularly lacking in joy and ill-at-ease with the life of the body, is bizarrely presented as a variety of Catholicism. It is simply untrue that “Eliot writes acutely about sex—in all its variety.” It is true that he “does accurate justice to the variety of its disappointments,” but until his second marriage that was about the limit of his range. Raine compares him with D. H. Lawrence, but Lawrence at his best is a far greater poet—in verse and prose—of sex than Eliot ever was. It is no good praising, as Raine does, the line “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender” without adding its successor: “which an age of prudence can never retract.” What is expressed there is not fulfillment: it is fear.
Raine manifests a kind of dualism himself in two chapters which examine Eliot’s classicism and romanticism—terms which Eliot relegated to the realm of “literary politics” and came to regard as virtually meaningless. Raine is led into some extraordinary contortions by his insistence on polarizing these concepts. Yes, Eliot called himself “a classicist in literature”—in 1928, later disavowing the statement. “Classicist” here simply means, according to Raine, “anti-romantic”; Eliot is torn between regret for opportunities not taken, and distaste for a life lived so intensely as to involve an excess of emotion (compare his celebrated deprecation of Hamlet). But to define classicism by a negative is to make little headway, as we see when Laforgue, of all people, is described as a classicist—Laforgue, whose brittle ironic manner, like Eliot’s, descends from the Baudelarian dandy and whose poetic personae are late romantic constructs! Raine elsewhere attributes to classicism a scepticism about “theoretical, exaggerated emotion.” Yet a romantic can also be an anti-romantic—witness Arthur Hugh Clough, correctly cited by Raine as an influence on Eliot, but one less like Laforgue than Raine claims. Heine might a better comparison. (For more about Eliot’s debt to Clough, which is deeper than Raine acknowledges here, see my review of Antony Kenny’s Clough in The New Criterion for June 2006.) Conversely, as Eliot’s writing on Virgil and Dante testifies, the classical poet can also be a conduit for powerful emotion. J. Alfred Prufrock is both romantic in his idealism and classicist in his detached self-analysis. Eliot’s early admiration for Donne rests on the latter’s fusion of tendencies Raine treats as mutually exclusive. When we find him making a supposed distinction between the classicist’s interest in “fugitive and unusual emotions” and “the standard powerful emotions of romantic literature,” we are forced to conclude that he simply does not know what he is talking about.
Raine’s coverage of Eliot’s works, as previously hinted, is uneven. His target audience is ill-defined. There is not enough help for a beginner, and not enough new material for the more experienced. The manner often recalls that of the tutorial in which an impressionable student is to be stirred to a hazy excitement, and awed by what he takes to be the supervisor’s intellect, but not forced to think about anything particularly closely. Self-indulgence, irrelevant digressions, and awkward style are common. Some poems appear briefly or not at all. It is good to see “Lune de Miel” and “Dans le Restaurant” discussed, but this is at the expense of weightier items such as “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “Conversation Galante,” “The Hippopotamus,” “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service,” “La Figlia che Piange,” and “Coriolan,” most of which receive no mention at all. Is “The Boston Evening Transcript” really “a tiny masterpiece of comedy” or “Aunt Helen” “a great comically subversive anti-elegy … crackling with mischief”? The laborious analysis of “Ash-Wednesday” at least correctly recognizes that it is a poem about the search for belief rather than a statement of the belief itself. The chapter on The Waste Land is sketchy, that on Four Quartets frankly scrappy. Inexplicably, Raine fails to quote the lines on the Incarnation from the close of “The Dry Salvages” in which (as F. R. Leavis saw) Eliot performs his subterfuge of using the doctrine of embodied mortal Godhead as a reason for discounting life in time and in the body altogether. Perhaps there wasn’t enough mysticism here.
After a cursory glance at the plays—which admittedly are worth no more, though the creepy religiose neurosis of The Cocktail Party could have been noted—we come to a chapter on the criticism. Why, when Raine sensibly urges that we should not be dazzled by the notorious catch-phrases by which Eliot in later life felt embarrassed (“objective correlative,” “dissociation of sensibility,” “auditory imagination”), does he give over most space to discussing these? How does he square his scepticism about these coinages with his belief that Eliot’s “theoretical inclination” was a positive advantage in the criticism? Why does he not supply any context for such various and miscellaneous writings? We hear nothing of Eliot’s predecessors or contemporaries in criticism, of Symons, Babbitt, Santayana, de Gourmont, Pound, Middleton Murry; nothing in detail of The Criterion and its relations with other journals; nothing of Richards, Leavis, or Eliot’s Bloomsbury affiliations. Why, when he says the real value of the critical essays lies in Eliot’s “criticism of individual authors,” does Raine not tell us which ones he has in mind? There is nothing of Eliot’s essays on the Elizabethan dramatists, which contain some of his best and some of his weakest writing and on which a new reader needs guidance; nothing on his later thoughts or changes of mind about Donne, Milton, or Dante; nothing in detail on the Clark Lectures (as yet the only prose of Eliot’s to have been properly edited), on the equivocal essay on Yeats (who is mentioned once, as a less successful poet of old age than Eliot, “monotone, monochrome … melodramatic”); no hint of the decline in quality from the taut early reviews to the flabby later lectures; nothing about the revisions and little about the still extensive body of uncollected prose. For these matters we must go to Christopher Ricks’s scandalously ignored book Decisions and Revisions in T. S. Eliot. On the poetry we can be grateful to A. David Moody’s Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet and, of course, to Helen Gardner’s The Composition of “Four Quartets.” None of these is mentioned by Raine, doubtless because they come into the despised category of “academic writing.” (We do hear, as we should, of Valerie Eliot’s edition of The Waste Land drafts.)
I have left until last the matter of Eliot’s anti-Semitism, not wanting it to swamp the review. Raine opposes the case first made extensively by Anthony Julius in T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (1996) and since taken up by Ricks, George Steiner, James Fenton, and others. In brief, Raine contends that Eliot’s detractors have distorted his comments in After Strange Gods (but his suppression of the book is surely a material fact), have failed to see that the alleged anti-Semitic lines come in poems which are dramatic monologues (and hence are not authorial utterances), and have discounted Eliot’s explicit denials of malice and some later statements supporting Jews. Raine admits that clinching evidence for his defense is lacking, though without mentioning that this is partly because the Eliot estate is dragging its feet over publishing the relevant volumes of the poet’s correspondence. He wants to enter a “plea of mitigation.” The element of special pleading here arouses unease. My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that Eliot, when newly arrived in England, absorbed the casual anti-Semitism fashionable in the social circle to which he aspired to belong, and that when he realized the truth about the Holocaust (whenever that was) he felt, for whatever reason, unable either to repudiate his earlier views or to state his new ones plainly. It was too late to alter his poems, which had too long been in the public domain, but he put conciliatory statements into circulation as opportunity allowed. It seems very difficult to maintain that he had simply never been anti-Semitic at all.
Ultimately, as both Raine and, to do him justice, Julius insist, however much Eliot may have been compromised as a person, as we all are in our several ways, his greatness as a poet remains. I regret most of all that Raine has written a book which, with his name on it, will sell, but which so perversely hinders its readers from forming a balanced estimate of Eliot’s true achievement, his strengths and weaknesses. But there we are, what does my opinion matter? After all, who reads academic reviewing, for God’s sake?
- T. S. Eliot, by Craig Raine; Oxford University Press, 224 pages, $18.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 8, on page 81
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