As, I believe, U.S. Senator Bird said or might have said, "Plus say chAnge."
or was it "Raison day eater"?

----- Original Message -----
From: "John G. Stewart" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Sunday, October 31, 2004 11:41 PM
Subject: Review from latest London Review of Books -- includes the
Pound/Eliot Waste Land debate

LRB | Vol. 26 No. 21 dated 4 November 2004 | Frank

Why didn't he commit suicide?
Frank Kermode
T.S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews by Jewel
Spears Brooker
Cambridge, 644 pp, £80.00

Here, in six hundred double-column pages, we have
what the editor describes as 'the most
comprehensive collection of contemporary reviews
of T.S. Eliot's work as it appeared'. There are
other such collections, but this one will be
enough for most people. The editor is American,
and she is contributing to a series which gives
the same treatment to Emerson, Edith Wharton,
Ellen Glasgow, Faulkner, Melville and so on.
Eliot's presence on this list amounts to a claim
that Eliot is an American author, a decision
qualified by a willingness to be fair to the
disappointed British: 'since Eliot's work was
published first in London, this collection
includes British and Irish reviews.' Nevertheless,
'spelling and punctuation have been changed to
American style throughout.' So much tedious
editorial labour has been devoted to exhibit this
anglicised and europhile poet as an American
national treasure.

Jewel Spears Brooker's long introduction offers a
just survey of Eliot's largely cis-Atlantic
career, though she does not fail to be impressed
by the poet's appearance on the front cover of
Time, and the presence of the Duke and Duchess of
Windsor at a New York performance of The Cocktail
Party. As to her selection of reviews, she
apologises for omitting some very long pieces she
would have liked to include, and some that have
escaped that ban are curtailed; but she can
reasonably claim that her book as it stands
illuminates 'the curve' of Eliot's reputation.

Ploughing through these packed and not always
fascinating columns may tell us as much about the
craft, if that is the right word, of highbrow
reviewing as it does about Eliot. On the English
side one notices a steady reduction in pomposity,
signalled by the disappearance of the reviewer's
plural first-person pronoun - a harmless
convention that can be irritating when it is clear
that a perfectly ordinary individual, not a king
or even a newspaper, is speaking. American
reviewers had a good model in Edmund Wilson's
unaffected prose. The tone of English criticism
varied from Ezra Pound's egotistical shouting to
the confident elegance of the Sunday paper
reviewers, and, in Eliot's later years, the
uncompromising seriousness of F.R. Leavis's

Brooker's single 'curve' is not really adequate:
at least two are needed to plot the changing state
of Eliot's reputation. One would show that the
brutality of some early notices of the poetry gave
way to milder expressions of disapproval, though
not to the point of abandoning opposition, while
the other would reflect the ways his admirers
found to express bewildered admiration for work
they regarded as ending one epoch of English
poetry and opening another.

Some of the early reviews must have made
depressing reading for a beleaguered poet.
Everybody remembers that Arthur Waugh likened the
work of Eliot to the Spartan custom of exhibiting
a drunken slave to show young men 'the ignominious
folly' of debauchery. (Pound replied that he would
like to make an anthology of the work of drunken
helots or Heliots, if he could find enough of
them.) One anonymous writer, here rescued from
oblivion, divined that Eliot's aim was 'to pull
the leg' of the 'sober reviewer'. The New
Statesman thought 'Prufrock' was 'unrecognisable
as poetry' but 'decidedly amusing', adding that
'it is only fair to say that he does not call
these pieces poems.' From the heart of the London
literary establishment Sir John Squire described
The Waste Land as a poem for which 'a grunt would
serve equally well.' Eliot's 1925 collection,
which included 'Gerontion', seemed to Squire
'obscure so inconsequent . . . Why on earth he
bothers to write at all is difficult to conceive;
why, since he must write, he writes page after
page from which no human being could derive any
more meaning . . . than if they were written in
Double-Dutch (which parts of them possibly are) is
to me beyond conjecture.' 'Baudelaire without his
guts,' he concludes.

The TLS remarked that 'poetry is a serious art,
too serious for this game,' and asked why, if the
state of the world was as hopeless as Eliot seemed
to think, he didn't just commit suicide. In New
York Louis Untermeyer condemned the poet's 'cheap
tricks'. In Dublin Padraic Colum detected a
Byzantine quality: 'The shadows of a long decay
are upon it all.' In London Edgell Rickword, from
whom something more illuminating might have been
expected, found that Eliot was 'sometimes walking
very near the limits of coherency'; and Clive
Bell, a Bloomsbury friend and a favoured recipient
of one of those letters Eliot adorned with
Mallarméan addresses, explained that the poetry
lacked imagination and shared 'the morbidity of
The Yellow Book'. In Cambridge the learned F.L.
Lucas identified The Waste Land as a specimen of
Alexandrianism. 'In all periods,' he mused,
'creative artists have been apt to think they
could think.' He took comfort from the reflection
that 'the Victorian "Spasmodics" likewise had
their day.' Readers may be tempted to compare the
recent obituary responses of some of our
intellectual leaders to the work of Jacques

Yet it may be too easy to enjoy what in retrospect
seems the blank imperceptiveness of these
reviewers. The vulgarity of Squire (editor of the
important London Mercury) remains disgraceful, but
a response of bewilderment, perhaps leading to
irritated mistrust, is understandable. Long after
its publication it was possible for serious
critics to ask just what it was about The Waste
Land that compelled us to treat it as a single
poem. Was not the effort required to see it in
that way entirely the reader's, brainwashed by the
poet's enthusiastic disciples? And this scepticism
soon led to more serious charges. Donald Davie was
one critic who insisted that Eliot, not only in
the early poems but just as dangerously in Four
Quartets, had turned English poetry off its proper
course. The debate continues. Eliot's stock seems
at present rather low. The second curve, the curve
of adulation, rose steeply until the 1930s, when
it flattened out, to be restored to rotundity in
the poet's later years. Perhaps it has now
levelled off.

The appearance of Valerie Eliot's edition of The
Waste Land in 1971 provided a new context for
argument. It was well known that Ezra Pound had
recommended revisions, but it now appeared that he
had torn great chunks out of the poem, so that if
the five remaining sections constituted an
integral poem it might be thought that they did so
by Pound's fiat. His more modest local emendations
left tears in the fabric of the text that were not
mended. His alterations to 'The Fire Sermon' meant
that the quatrain poem about the seduction of the
typist was broken up in such a way that some
quatrains remain intact while others are
dismantled. Pound didn't care much about the
underlying myth that was supposed to pin the whole
series together, or for the regularities of
conventional stanza form: he cared about good
verses, which is why he left 'What the Thunder
Said' alone. What remained when he had done was,
if we ignore a few places at which the poet was
stubborn, the poem as we now have it, from one
point of view a battered remnant, but with a
fortuitous unity and a beauty sanctioned by almost
a century of exposition and conversation.

Unfortunately the 1971 edition is outside
Brooker's purview, which ends with The Elder
Statesman in 1958. Eliot had early established a
high reputation as a critic, which made it harder
to maintain that as a poet he was merely an
irritating poseur. Even when one senses a
lingering desire to be disrespectful, even when
the books under review - After Strange Gods and
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, for
example - are among Eliot's less impressive, the
criticism is restrained, though far from melting
into adulation. Brooker gives special prominence
to critics like Conrad Aiken and Ezra Pound who
had been close to Eliot from the first. Aiken
never sounds quite happy about what his famous
friend is doing, and Pound bangs on about his
absurd religion and his failure to understand
economics as he, Pound, did.

Yet on the whole the second curve shows a growing
tendency to adulation. Comment and conversation,
even gossip, combine to form the medium in which
literary reputations survive. What kept the Eliot
conversation going was a fairly broad agreement
that The Waste Land, 'The Hollow Men' and some
other poems provided a durable image of what he
himself called 'the immense panorama of futility
and anarchy which is contemporary history'.

As Eliot's fame grew, critics inevitably
speculated about the autobiographical content of
the poems, always an easy escape from poetry. The
man who said poetry was an escape from
personality, and was famous for slightly
mysterious sayings about impersonality, might be
thought resistant to personal investigations. He
described The Waste Land as just a piece of
rhythmical grumbling. However, with all due
modesty he did provide autobiographical material,
as with his celebrated announcement in For
Lancelot Andrewes (1928) that he now regarded
himself as 'classicist in literature, royalist in
politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion'. His
American reviewers, who firmly associated the name
Eliot with New England Puritanism, were not alone
in being puzzled and hurt by his conversion. One
of them here points out with astonishment that
this American poet apparently believed in the
divine right of kings.

Hereafter the question of his religious beliefs
was a staple of talk about Eliot, and the two
curves approached one another for a time. He had
become too famous to be treated contemptuously,
and since his turn to religion was regarded by
some as a betrayal of the Modernism of which he
was already a kind of saint, there are worried
reviews asking how one could continue to respect a
thinker who entertained such manifestly
implausible notions.

Edmund Wilson, long noted for his achievements in
supporting adventurous new writing, was much
disturbed by For Lancelot Andrewes. He praised its
combination of 'subtle and original thinking with
simple and precise statement' but rejected Eliot's
conviction that civilisation cannot endure without
religion, and that this was evident from the state
of the world. Certainly civilisation was in bad
shape, but what we had to do was to make it
endure. This might not be easy, but 'it can hardly
be any more difficult than trying to believe that
the intellectual leadership of the future will be
supplied by the Roman Catholic Church, or by the
Church of England, or by any church whatsoever.'
Going back to Bishop Andrewes was useless; in his
day it was 'still possible for a first-rate mind
to accept the supernatural basis of religion'. The
idea that because we are badly off we should
swallow medieval theology and endorse the
Apostolic Succession seemed so absurd that Wilson
barely remains as polite as it was now good
manners to be when discussing Eliot. In England
George Orwell echoed Wilson's opinion. That the
illness of a generation was a suitable subject for
poetry was not denied, but Eliot's remedy seemed
preposterous. Such rejections were of course more
or less exactly what Eliot understood by heresy,
and so constituted evidence for his point of view.

A poet's reputation may benefit almost as much by
adverse comment as by adulation. Now the two
occurred together. Aiken said it was impossible to
read Eliot without respect, but it was also
'becoming increasingly impossible' to read him
'without misgivings'; at the end of his Dial
review of For Lancelot Andrewes he goes so far as
to say that some of the book strikes him as 'a
complete abdication of intelligence' accompanied
by a new 'note of withered dogmatism'. This from a
friend! It seems that these disillusioned admirers
were put out to discover that the master was no
longer very like the figure they originally had in

People now began once more to say nasty things
about The Waste Land: Brian Howard complained in
the New Statesman of having to deal with a plague
of poems modelled on that work, so that the mere
occurrence of the words 'stone', 'dust' or 'dry'
condemned them to the waste basket. Even among
knowing readers the standing of Eliot as a poet
was diminishing; the early novelty was gone. Ash
Wednesday was too religious for many of them.
Discussions of Eliot's prose still made frequent
use of the words 'intelligent', 'integrity',
'precision', 'sensitivity', 'taste'. As Waldo
Frank observed, 'in an epoch whose literary
critics have been insensitive and incompetent men
. . . Mr Eliot [is] an exceedingly welcome
figure.' But it was much harder to talk about the
poems, even about 'Sweeney Agonistes', in its way
quite as startling an experiment as any of the
early poems, but condemned rather inanely by D.G.
Bridson as 'all very clever, all very cutting, all
very true, and all very futile'.

Moving into the 1930s one finds more reservations.
Francis Fergusson, a respected critic, remarks, in
a review of Eliot's Norton Lectures at Harvard,
that 'there is something in Mr Eliot, when he
writes, that is carefully dead.' The
contemporaneous After Strange Gods disappointed
Richard Blackmur by its retreat into the church,
which he called 'perplexing and distressing', and
F.R. Leavis in Scrutiny remarked reluctantly that
'since the religious preoccupation has become
insistent in them, Mr Eliot's critical writings
have been notable for showing less discipline of
thought and emotion, less purity of interest, less
power of sustained devotion, and less courage than
before.' This was written in 1934, probably the
nadir of Eliot's reputation. Scrutiny was fairly
new and by temperament and conviction censorious,
but its editor was a dedicated admirer of Eliot as
well as very intelligent, which quality the master
himself had described as 'the only method'. He and
his associates had many more agreeable things to
say about the poet when new work transformed his
reputation once more.

Eliot withdrew After Strange Gods from sale. In
recent years it has been attended to almost
entirely in relation to controversy about his
alleged anti-semitism; yet the now famous passage
about freethinking Jews is barely mentioned by
Brooker's reviewers, whose main reaction is once
again to wonder why their hero has developed such
perverse preoccupations. He baffled them again
with his church pageant The Rock (1934), to Aiken
another 'contraction . . . of interest', though
the TLS found in it 'a notable demonstration of
possibilities'. But it was hard to get round the
fact that Eliot believed our culture was
degenerate because it had lost contact with the
church, while reviewers thought it was exactly the
other way about.

Murder in the Cathedral (1935) brought some
relief. Written for Canterbury, the production
toured successfully and there was talk of the poet
having reached the people. In the following year
came Collected Poems, 1909-35. With this volume on
the shelf beside Selected Essays (1932) the
evidence for Eliot's stature was plainly visible
and accessible, but there was still some worry
about his ability to go on writing poetry.
However, the Collected included a new long poem,
'Burnt Norton', notably unlike the earlier verse,
though having its origin in off-cuts from Murder
in the Cathedral.

In 1936 no one, not even Eliot, knew that this
would be the first of Four Quartets, and it was a
test for reviewers to say more about it than that
it was puzzling in a new way. Here Scrutiny proved
its timeliness; a particularly fine essay by one
of its editors, D.W. Harding, went far to justify
his opinion that this poem was among 'the greatest
of imaginative achievements'. Harding, a
psychologist by profession, was one of the best
critics of his time, deeply attentive to poetry.
As he made clear in a later review of The Idea of
a Christian Society, he had little time for
Eliot's religious speculations. He was writing
about a poem. The certainty of his judgment of
'Burnt Norton' cleared the way for Leavis's fine
Scrutiny essay on the second and third Quartets in
1942. 'To have gone seriously into the poetry,' Le
avis writes, 'is to have had a quickening insight
into the nature of thought and language.'

The influence of Scrutiny was very much greater
than its small circulation might suggest, and I
daresay this piece did more to establish the
authority of the later Eliot than all the work of
the Christian exegetes and the celebrated weekend
reviewers. Leavis's essay simply makes irrelevant
Orwell's contemporaneous complaint that Eliot's
conversion had landed him in a 'gloomy Pétainism'
appropriate to membership of a church 'that
demands intellectual absurdities of its members'.
The problem of belief, which had so bothered Ivor
Richards, remained a major critical issue in the
1940s and 1950s, but it did not trouble Leavis or
Harding, or for that matter Eliot himself.

Between 'Burnt Norton' and the other Quartets came
The Family Reunion, another highly original work
and another success on the popular stage. There
were carping reviews, but Eliot was now a
celebrity. The 1930s slump was over. His prose
writings - for example, Notes towards the
Definition of Culture (1948) - continued to elicit
polite dismay, and critical opinion divided on the
popular comedy The Cocktail Party: Eliot was now
'a master of theatrical contrivance', as Robert
Spaight argued, or a superior sort of Buchmanite,
as Desmond Shaw-Taylor alleged; or both at once.
William Barrett, in Partisan Review, wished Eliot
had followed the road he had opened in 'Sweeney
Agonistes', and so avoided producing 'the weakest
poetry he has ever written'. Nevertheless Eliot
remained for him 'the last great product of the
Puritan mind'. But he also thought the poet's
collapse was terminal; 'perhaps every new literary
generation has to begin by killing its father.'

The last plays, The Confidential Clerk (1954) and
The Elder Statesman (1959), were praised as
skilful, though Kenneth Tynan ventured to call the
latter play 'banal'. Hugh Kenner complained that
the characters in them speak English English,
rather than American English, though why he
expected otherwise of a writer who had been
listening to English talk for half a century is a

So the story ends on the familiar notes of more or
less respectful dissent, and fame of quite another
sort from the notoriety-tinged prominence of the
1920s. The last of the Quartets, 'Little Gidding',
was religious poetry that could still win the
admiration of agnostics - the greatest of English
war poems and a work of which the technical
virtuosity would have been as hard to deny as the
depth of its feeling. After that there were no
more important poems, but there were books to be
dissented from and plays to be explained; and
there was a marriage to celebrate, a benign old
sage and newspapers agog for comic or mysterious
obiter dicta. Such celebrity passes out of the
range of critical approval or scorn, resting as it
does on the opinion of many whose curiosity does
not always depend on acquaintance with the sage's
works but with his being at last a true celebrity,
famous for being famous.

Frank Kermode's The Age of Shakespeare is out from
Weidenfeld. He is a former Lord Northcliffe
Professor of Modern English at University College

Meg Ford and John Stewart
Telephone: (+44-20) 7359-4590
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
<mailto:[log in to unmask]>

-----Original Message-----
From: T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.
[mailto:[log in to unmask]]On
Behalf Of Marcia Karp
Sent: Sunday, 31 October, 2004 9:13 p.m.
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Analogy

    If you were to consider using the biological
analogy, wouldn't you
think that phonemes, morphemes and sememes have a
much stronger
resemblance to the DNA of a language than words


Ken Armstrong wrote:

> I worry a bit about explaining language with
biology as that seems to be
> the m.o. of the likes of Stephen Pinker and
Daniel Dennet, you know,
> _Consciousness Explained_, a title (among many!)
trumpeting its own
> unknowing defeat, and which in the end boils
down to old fashioned
> materialism, be it simple or complex. So I ask.
>> At 01:28 AM 10/28/2004 -0700, Francis Gavin
>> Words are the DNA of language. It's also
commutative. A virus is a
>> language.