Well versed in the criticism of poetry

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Was T S Eliot a perverse critic and inhuman poet? As details of his personal failings grow, Frederic Raphael advises us to trust the poem, not the poet.

Just over 40 years ago, T S Eliot wrote, in an occasional poem: "There are several attitudes towards Christmas." Today, there are several attitudes towards Mr Eliot (as my generation was induced, not least by Leavisites, to call him). That we are no longer dragooned into pious deference does not mean that Eliot should be downgraded from mastery. It is not, however, impertinent to attempt, as F R Leavis used to say, to "place" a now less mysterious Eliot towards the end of a century during which he has been, so to say, the head of the poetic corner.

Christopher Ricks's meticulous edition of Inventions of the March Hare - which contains mostly petty variants of early poems, as well as some purportedly scandalous hot-cakes juvenilia, seems to come as a timely response to the renewed "spat" concerning Eliot's anti-Semitism. The naughty, negligible verses turn out to be of a more or less traditional, rugger-bugger crudeness, and would not be chosen for changing-room song-sheets unless their author's name lent them popularity.

The issue of Eliot's attitude towards Jews was revived, this year, by Anthony Julius, whose T S Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form was a pitiless appreciation of Eliot's unnerving ability to breach aesthetic norms by proving that he could base good poems on evil ideas. Julius's scholarly caution did not exempt him from sighing, wincing responses. There are, it emerged, powerful "reasons", or at least motives, for continuing to repulse attempts to dethrone Eliot from the position of sagacious "sainthood" in which No l Annan and other masters of the subtler arts remain willing to niche him.

Their cant could hardly be more kneelingly expressed than in Lord Annan's Our Age: "As the years passed his poetry reached new heights until it culminated in Four Quartets. The generation that succeeded ours did not have the experience of growing up at a time when a great poet was publishing, who changed the style of poetry as Wordsworth had, and when each new publication did not diminish but added to his reputation. As each Quartet appeared during the war in its paper cover you were humbled. Eliot's modesty and gentleness reminded you of other worlds of sin, repentance and death whether or not you were a Christian . . . Eliot taught me that opinions, prejudices, beliefs are an inescapable part of a vision of life, but to be moved and touched by that vision does not mean that you have to sign a contract with the poet and implement all its clauses. "

What emerges from this honeyed paragraph is a po-faced version of the estimate of Eliot's achievement and character which has become canonic. Within it are concealed the complacencies of those who prefer to have their cultural cakes and eat them too. The image of Eliot climbing, climbing until he is so far above the common herd that we can only be "humbled" has been keenly burnished by his acolytes.

Does re-reading Eliot justify the conclusion that Four Quartets is as great as the war-time Annan thought? My impression is that Eliot peaked early, and brilliantly. By the end of the 1920s, he showed signs of yielding to that self-parodic temptation which afflicts those to whom success - in the mundane sense of being famous, to which few writers are as indifferent as they pretend - comes with dignifying publicity. Much is said, by those who advance it as a way of hushing criticism, about Eliot's personal unhappiness during his first marriage, less about his uses of eminence. If Eliot himself alleged that 'The Waste Land' was "a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life", his sly masterpiece was also a claim to fame - and it was almost instantly honoured.

The lampooning rage with which he can be seen, in Inventions of the March Hare, to have responded to Jack Squire's curtailment of his reviewing for The Spectator suggests a zeal for influence in the literarysocial world which his own editorship of The Criterion was somewhat to satisfy. It is not my purpose here to reheat coals over which to drag a dead poet, but it must be said that it is very convenient to use "the intentional fallacy" to render Eliot's political obiter dicta irrelevant to his reputation. What should we make of apparently purposeful verses such as this from 'Choruses from the Rock': "A Church for allAnd a job for eachEach man to his work"? If you cannot smell a whiff of corporatism and enforced belief in that, you have a poor nose for the scents of the 20th century.

That a man without any clear practical project should pose as a political "thinker" and dignify, if not endorse, anti-democratic (that is, fascistic) ideas cannot escape scrupulous criticism, even in a "saint". Eliot himself wrote, in 1927, "We cannot be primarily interested in any writer's nerves . . . or in anyone's heredity except for the purpose of knowing to what extent that writer's individuality distorts or detracts from the objective truth which he perceives." Eliot emphasised the "primarily"; the longer emphasis is mine, but much the same point is upheld by both: the work may be hermetically considered only as the work, but the individual character and history of the writer, and the way in which they hobble his stride or impair the generosity of his vision, are bound to excite our interest and, at times, our reproach.

What is remarkable about Eliot's response to the war (in which, morally - even "religiously" - speaking, it can be argued that the Holocaust was the supreme "event") is that he appears hardly to have had one. What then did the war mean to Eliot? What kind of Christianity did Four Quartets assert or embellish? Eliot did not only more or less ignore what happened to Europe's Jews (as did the Foreign Office, which contributed to it by attitudes not very different, in their fastidious beastliness, from the poet's) he could be said to have remained in elderly, wilfully ignorant retreat during the whole of the Second World War.

In his Clark Lectures, Robert Graves did not spare Eliot, and other militant stay-at-homes. Under the rubric "These Be Thy Gods, O Israel", he mocked them for their lack of active service. Proximity to the front is, perhaps, a dubious aesthetic measure, but to write lines such as "There will be time to murder and create . . ." without any experience of blood (except on bed-sheets) is hardly prettier than W H Auden's regretted line about "necessary murder". Eliot's sustained respect for Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed on the Western Front in the First World War, may be evidence less of his putative philo-Semitism than of a certain sense of the unworthiness of those who, as Dr Johnson put it, had not "been for a soldier".

Even in civilian society, Eliot was a very specialised sort of observer. He did not seem to relate to people, but to types (poems are often more like the plots or maquettes for novels than they are like details from them). Eliot's generalising style was acutely analysed, by William Empson, as akin to that of Henry James's: "Sweetly funny in its way, but a patent attempt to cheat. " The snob and the arriviste tend to be at one in their alert assimilation of the social odds, the ins and the outs, and also, in their wilful accuracy, to be almost involuntary satirists of what they crave to please. They "cheat" by making knowingness a form of knowledge; they hint at what they themselves have only guessed.

For whatever reasons, Eliot was better at catching atmosphere than at closing with specific character or incident. He remarked, however, in 'Sweeney Erect': "The lengthened shadow of a manIs history, said EmersonWho had not seen the silhouetteOf Sweeney straddled in the sun". It is not Eliot's fault that his shadow is now less majestic in the light of history, which entirely eluded his imaginative grasp or his conscientious response. Yet it is a fact that he established - silhouetted - himself as the commentator on the century, as well as its leading English language poet. Our assessment of him cannot, and should not, ignore occasions when he was "At times, indeed, almost ridiculous - Almost, at times, the Fool", as he put it in 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' (1917).

One does not legitimately criticise a writer for not achieving what was beyond, or marginal to, his chosen scope. But it does not follow that the observation of his limits, and limitations, is irrelevant to assessing his achievement (or even to underlining it). Also in 'Prufrock', Eliot - while claiming to be "no prophet" - had the foresight to remark: "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker" and in 'Conversation Galante' the question is posed: "And - 'Are we then so serious?'". The determination to regard Eliot seriously is, I suspect, part of what has led us to misunderstand and perhaps even to underestimate him.

Christopher Ricks's exemplary editing of Inventions of the March Hare is part of a sustained solemnifying process. The printing of the alleged to be naughty, in fact egregiously puerile, Bolo verses is typical of an age in which it is supposedly endearing to learn of the "human" side of the princes, real or literary, who govern us. It would be better to "teach" Eliot as a controversial polymath, vivid with contradictions and riven by vices as well as virtues, than to preserve his reputation by the kind of perverse ingenuity which renders the poet inhuman and the critic perverse.

Eliot once wrote: "The British race assured of a missionPerformed it,but left much at home unsureOf all that was in the past, you eat the fruit, either rotten or ripe."

Trust the poem, not the poet.

Inventions of the March Hare by T S Eliot is edited by Christopher Ricks and published by Faber and Faber, Pounds 30

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