Book Review

Eliot’s Last Prose

Five years ago I saluted the inauguration of what would eventually become eight volumes of T. S. Eliot’s collected prose, edited by Ronald Schuchard and copiously annotated by his team of editors. Thus far it is available only online, although a print edition is promised (printed out, the online edition runs to roughly 6,000 pages). As one who after a manner of speaking has “gone through” these pages I can’t say that the final three volumes (1940–1965) weren’t a falling off.[1] It was easy to pay less than full attention to essays titled “Toward a Christian Britain,” or “On the Place and Function of the Clerisy.” The great criticism Eliot wrote in the 1920s and 1930s (and the years leading up to 1920) is only minimally expanded by these final volumes, filled with often obligatory performances for this or that committee on one or another cultural or religious subject. He noted in 1947 that one of the more “exhausting” aspects of being the prime man of letters in the literary world was that “There was a general expectation on the part of many whom I met that I would deliver myself on almost any occasion of some profound and oracular piece of wisdom about life in general.” As we near the end of these items, it is always a surprise to find, in a comparison between Walt Whitman and Tennyson, or a talk, “The Last Twenty-Five Years of English Poetry,” the old brilliance quite unaltered except for a somewhat more benign tone of address.

Marvin Mudrick reviewed in these pages On Poetry and Poets (Volume X, No. 4, Winter 1957–58), the main book of criticism Eliot produced during the war and postwar years. Eloquent in finding ways of dismissing much of it, Mudrick conjured up the sixty-year-old smiling public man (Eliot was sixty in 1948) and, referring to one of his last significant essays “The Frontiers of Criticism” delivered in a baseball stadium before a University of Minnesota audience of 15,000 (“I feel like a small bull walking into an enormous arena,” Eliot said). Mudrick found it typical of the essays in the book directed at poetry as subject. “The Social Function of Poetry” or “What Is a Classic?” were examples of “hollowly amplified classroom platitudes” in contrast to the essays about poets—Yeats, Milton, Byron. The public occasion of these essays, all or most of them lectures, facilitated the appearance, said Mudrick, of “Grandfather Eliot”: the great critical pieces of the two previous decades disappeared as “the Eliotic prose style has thickened into a means of shutting out fresh perception.” Mudrick worked hard to find appropriate phrases to convey his dislike for Eliot’s prevailing tone: “Opaquely official; disingenuousness, special pleading, waspish authoritativeness, elaborate confessions of humility.” In the earlier Eliot, he wrote, these rhetorical devices were a strategy for “maneuvering the reluctant reader into a closer look at the objects”; now they had “become themselves the chief visible object.”

I can imagine Eliot reading these charges of Mudrick’s and wearily agreeing with him, as if they didn’t cause him the least surprise or embarrassment. Sometimes Eliot turns the charge against himself into an occasion for satisfying wit, as when, in “American Literature and the American Language,” he justifies his scrupulous engagement with his own sentences as merely being consistent, “as I have a reputation for affecting pedantic precision, a reputation I should not like to lose.” Such an explanatory turn goes a long way toward assuring us that we can relax, since the lecturer knows exactly what he’s doing. But the essays on poetry from On Poetry and Poets are not as uniformly stiff and artificial as Mudrick claims. There are a number of places in which the critic succeeds in saying something very much worthwhile about poetry in practice. One such contribution occurs in “The Music of Poetry,” a worthy attempt to speak about a very complicated subject indeed. In Eliot’s attempt to suggest how “verse rhythm” in a poetic drama may have an unconscious effect on the audience, he devotes a couple of pages to the first scene in Hamlet. The opening exchanges between the sentries are “transparent” in that we attend to the meaning of the lines, not to their “poetry.” He proceeds to note further transitions in the scene, from a staccato effect to one where the verse glides into a slower movement, concluding with Horatio’s lines after the Ghost’s disappearance at daybreak: “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” These lines contribute to “a kind of musical design” that has “checked and accelerated the pulse of our emotion without our knowing it,” in which “we are lifted for a moment beyond character, but with no sense of unfitness of the words coming, and at this moment, from the lips of Horatio.” It is as convincing a comment on the musical aspect of a brief dramatic sequence as I’m aware of. At the end of the essay he appends a “Note” in which he performs a similar piece of listening to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, describing the musical pattern of their duet “as surprising in its kind as that in the early work of Beethoven.” We may not want to press him too closely on just what in Beethoven’s early work he had in mind or ear, but the impulse of this criticism assists in bringing out the music of poetry.

If I were to choose one moment or sequence from these late essays where the Eliotic genius appears, it would be his attempt, in “The Three Voices of Poetry,” to find words for what he called the First Voice—that is, the poet speaking to himself or to nobody. He is in agreement with the poet Gottfried Benn about this “obscure impulse,” calling it “meditative verse” rather than lyric. He formulates it this way:

In a poem which is neither didactic nor narrative, and not animated by any other social purpose, the poet may be concerned solely with expressing in verse—using all his resources of words, with their history, their connotations, their music—this obscure impulse. He does not know what he has to say until he has said it; and in the effort to say it he is not concerned with making other people understand anything. He is not concerned, at this stage, with other people at all: only with finding the right words or, anyhow, the least wrong words. He is oppressed by a burden [or] haunted by a demon . . . and the words, the poem he makes, are a kind of exorcism of this demon.

I think it likely that Eliot would have agreed that the following lines in Four Quartets from the end of “East Coker” are a strong example of that “obscure impulse”:

Old men ought to be explorers.
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

These lines seem to me a prime example of the music of poetry Eliot was concerned with: Spare of punctuation and impossible to attach to a specific tone of voice, they are rather Voice itself.

In reviewing these essays, I came across much I hadn’t fully registered, often in a more relaxed mode than the taut formulations of his earlier criticism. The 1940 essay on Yeats, written soon after that poet’s death, is marvelously open and revealing, as when Eliot quotes lines from Yeats’s late poem “The Spur” (“You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attention upon my old age”) and notes that they are “not very pleasant,” but that they are the confession of a man who was like other men, just possessed of more “clarity, honesty and vigour.” He asks rhetorically, “To what honest man old enough, can these sentiments be entirely alien?” Not alien it seems to Eliot at age fifty-two, his wife deranged and the possibility of further sexual experience unlikely (and unwanted). I noticed also how willing he was in writing about Yeats to let his guard down, call “The Folly of Being Comforted” a “very lovely poem” and the late poem “In Memory of Eve Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” “beautiful,” which indeed it is. One comparison he left out of the Yeats essay was made in “The Last Twenty-Five Years of English Poetry”: by way of pointing out the change from Yeats’s early style to a less mellifluous one, he adduced the early “Who Goes with Fergus,” terming it “more exciting than any other English poetry of its period, but very obscure.” By contrast, in the Robert Gregory elegy, two decades later, Yeats avoids the poetic in approximating to normal unaffected speech “resulting in increased intensity.” A common observation about Yeats now, but not so much back then.

The writing of this review was interrupted by the arrival of the Times Literary Supplement (1/31/20) containing an account of the complete prose by Lachlan Mackinnon. Eliot’s reviewing for the TLS was bold and innovative; Mackinnon’s is confidently patronizing of a career that he finds unpleasantly narrow, even prissy in some of its outlines. Mackinnon detects in an early TLS “leader” by Eliot an “almost snobbish” tone. He eagerly pounces on Eliot for what seemed to me some amusing sentences about Gertrude Stein, one of them a triple threat: “Her work is not improving; it is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one’s mind.” Eliot found that her prose had a kinship with the saxophone, and Mackinnon thinks the comparison might be “racist,” since Stein was Jewish. (But what about the saxophone?) He finds also that Eliot’s increasingly sought-after status as a lecturer is a mark of his “extraordinary willingness to supply what people asked for,” as if such willingness were to be slightly frowned on. The infamous much-criticized scientific analogy in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about what happens when a “filament of platinum” becomes the mind of the poet is found by Mackinnon to be as “preposterously lofty” as he found it at age fifteen. He attributes Eliot’s “parsimonious” output of poems to his adherence to the “depersonalization” theory of poetry set forth in that same essay. He notes that Eliot, as opposed to other “major critics like Johnson, Coleridge and Auden,” had little to say about Shakespeare (“a book composed of his Shakespearean thoughts would be a very short one”). He is unhappy with Eliot’s talk about the “objective correlative” (in the “Hamlet” essay) and finds that his “theory” in “The Metaphysical Poets” is no more solidly grounded than Ted Hughes’s imaginative history of Shakespeare (Why bring in Hughes?). As for Eliot’s admiration for what he called “the mind of Europe,” Mackinnon finds his range “significantly less than European.” After Strange Gods, the book which Eliot himself declined to reprint, having had second thoughts about some of its content, consists of nothing more or less than “perfervid, half-demented lectures.” While not accusing Eliot directly of anti-Semitism, Mackinnon finds his use of the word “deplore” (in relation to Pound’s anti-Semitism—”I am sure that not one of us does not deplore Pound’s way of referring to Jews”—very “thin stuff,” and recommends Christopher Ricks’s demonstration of “the unease of many of Eliot’s self-exculpations . . .” while giving no credit to Ricks’s admirably even-handed treatment of the issue. Although “Eliot wrote of Polish and German suffering but said precisely nothing about the Shoah,” which, presumably, shows how his “astonishing silence attests to an appalling moral failure.” In sum, Eliot’s “reversion to a narrow Anglicanism” was a “shabby, diminished thing” compared to the early prose that now seems “odd and lonely” compared to later examples.

Instead of attempting to refute all or any of Mackinnon’s charges, I recommend a letter of Dwight MacDonald’s in which he speaks of Eliot as combining “qualities not so often found together: intelligence, humor, and what I can only call a kind of reckless generous nobility.” In his review, Mackinnon shows himself impervious to anything like humor, even “fun” in Eliot’s prose. When we remind ourselves that a hundred years have passed since the “odd and lonely” fact of Eliot’s critical genius began to be apparent, the temptation to argue with one or another of his verdicts or his omissions, early or late, is muted; it would be tantamount to taking issue with Matthew Arnold or Coleridge about a critical pronouncement; or setting out to show Samuel Johnson why Milton’s “Lycidas” is a great poem instead of the one Johnson read. As the immediacy of Eliot’s many formulations becomes less immediate, we read him not to be instructed or corrected, but in a more disinterested approach to him as “literature.” This is a readerly attitude not much different from the way we read his poetry, our judgments suspended rather than provoked to argument.

But he was a great provoker throughout his career, and as a single example we may consider the number of potshots he took at Bernard Shaw, a literary contemporary who rivaled Eliot in public status, even as they disagreed about everything. I have no idea what Shaw thought of Eliot as a poet, but Eliot’s appreciation of Shaw as a dramatist, certainly as a critic, was minimal or absent entirely. So the feline Eliot comes into play where the now aged rival is concerned: “One is compelled to admire a man of such verbal ability as not only to conceal from his readers and audiences the shallowness of his own thought, but to persuade them that in admiring his work they were giving evidence of their own intelligence as well.” I yield to no one in my admiration for many of Shaw’s plays and for his criticism, especially his music criticism; yet—or is it therefore?—I find Eliot’s jab invigorating. In a letter he extended his attack, admitting that Shaw was “like a red flag to a bull to me.” He dismisses one of Shaw’s very best plays—“Pygmalion I have never approved of”—but then concedes a bit, by liking it “very much better as a musical comedy. In fact I sometimes think that Shaw is best at musical comedy, for The Chocolate Soldier [that would be Arms and the Man] and My Fair Lady are the only two of his works I should like to see again and again.” One thinks of him, rapt, listening to Julie Andrews singing “I Could Have Danced All Night”! So the dismissal of Shaw is turned into something more agreeable, and as always the turning is accomplished through a style hard to resist.

Even more irresistible is the following formulation from a late essay titled “The Aims of Education” where he ponders the relation between parent and child as it pertains to the matter of writing poetry:

I don’t think any parents have ever brought up their child with a view of his becoming a poet; some parents have brought up their children to be criminals; but for good and loving parents a poet is almost the last thing they could want their child to be, unless they thought it was the only way of saving him from becoming a criminal.

That should be read twice for full satisfaction, and I recommend it to Lachlan Mackinnon in case he missed it.
[1] The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Ronald Schuchard. Volume 6, The War Years, 1940-1956, ed. David E. Chinitz & Ronald Schuchard. Volume 7, A European Society, 1947-1953, ed. Iman Javadi & Ronald Schuchard. Volume 8, Still and Still Moving, 1954-1965, ed.Jewel Spears Brooker & Ronald Schuchard. Johns Hopkins University Press. Another substantial edition is in the works, edited by Archie Burnett (Faber).