Nobody denies a serious poet like Eliot the extent of his
seriousness about his belief, and of course it will have the cultural
and historical context to it. What is hurtful is showing others in a
sordid light, notwithstanding the fact that it was the done thing
in those days. And Eliot has done it so consistently in his
early poetry that defending him on a patch of turf here or
there hardly helps. Even the most staunch critics of
Julius's book have failed to defend him when it comes
to the poems in question. Here's an instance:
James Wood is a severe critic of Anthony Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and
Literary Form: "His book is tendentious, misleading and unremittingly hostile."
Let's see what he has to say on Eliot's anti-Semitism in three of his poems in his review of Julius's book.
After Strange Gods
Only at TNR Online | Post date 09.23.03
The three poems are: "Gerontion," "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" and "Sweeney Among the Nightingales." They do not offer attractive reading, and Julius is at his best when supplying the dismal tradition of abuse from which Eliot's lines spring. In the best of the poems, "Gerontion," an old man, confused, bitter and frantic for the fertility of order,
casts about himself and dribbles allusions to Lancelot Andrewes, Henry Adams, Job, St. Matthew's gospel, the Elizabethan poets:
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled
These lines cannot be mitigated. True, "Gerontion" is a dramatic monologue, and the old man is perhaps a bitterer anti-Semite than Eliot. (This is the usual argument in favor of Eliot's innocence, made most recently by Christopher Ricks.) But what we know of Eliot's wider anti-Semitism allows us to read, without unreasonable forcing, these lines as simultaneously lines of dramatic monologue and lines congruent with Eliot's own internal monologue. More
devastatingly, Eliot originally published the poem with "Jew" in lower case ("jew"), enriching the typography only in 1963, when the Jew suddenly walked tall in his own capital. This emendation is an admission of guilt. It was not Gerontion who changed the typeface, it was Eliot.
Still, these are the only anti-Semitic lines in the poem, and though their foulness forces an arrest on us, we have to be able to free ourselves. " Gerontion" is a poem with an anti-Semitic rash, but the rash is confined to a limb. It is a poem blemished. One cannot say this for "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar," which fawns at the Gentile reader, slobbering anti- Semitism. Bleistein, the Jewish-American tourist, ("Chicago Semite Viennese") is ridiculed, and the poem rises to this peak:
The rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot.
"Sweeney Among The Nightingales"
does not crawl with distaste in quite the same way, though it features "Rachel nee Rabinovitch" who "Tears at the grapes with murderous paws."
Julius's discussion of the anti-Semitism in these three poems is valuable...
The further difficulty, as I see it, is that the readings of Eliot as
anti-Semitic fail to ask //how a serious poet, serious about his belief in
Christ, would portray it in relation to his culture and history in his
poetry.// I don't think that consideration enters the picture in a positive
way, yet that is what is going on. //Eliot's poetry, in effect, takes up a
far greater burden// that the
critics seem capable of granting it.
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