whisper music

Craig Raine – T.S. Eliot

There were hints and mutterings of his prejudices; but with Anthony Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, the charge was set forth aggressively. Eliot's sovereign standing had gone unchallenged for a generation or two, his pronunciamenti acquiring the weight of orthodoxy in the literary world. His poetry of negation spoke to a shared spiritual rudderlessness, as he searched painfully for meaning in a desacralised universe: Eliot, ..”a poet of apocalypse, of the last days and the renovation, the destruction of the earthly city as a chastisement of human presumption, but also of empire.”
      So Frank Kermode, in his Sense of an Ending. “He had his demonic host, too,” Kermode adds; “the word 'Jew' remained in lower case through all the editions of the poems until the last of his lifetime, the seventy-fifth birthday edition of 1963.” Julius levelled against Eliot the gravest of accusations. Insisting that the anti-Semitic insults weren't merely blemishes on the poetry, but actually somehow nourished it, he argued that Eliot's work was enhanced by malignity: hatred was its lymph. The boldness of Julius's position still might give us pause. But it convinces only insofar as we accept anti-Semitism as something more than just a regrettable psychic kink. Julius wants to impress on us that in Eliot it was programmatic. (James Wood described Julius's study as “..an unstable book about an unstable subject; reading it is like watching a maniac trying to calm a hysteric.”)

Over a decade later the intensity of the controversy has waned, and it's a nice question as to how damaged by it Eliot's reputation finally was. As the poetry of Philip Larkin can no longer be read quite innocently – the same covey of critical shrikes as have set upon Eliot saw to that - so are we obliged to make certain readerly concessions, greater or lesser, as we examine Eliot's work. Craig Raine has defended Eliot from the kick-off, holding that the documentary evidence for his anti-Semitism is inconclusive, that his poetics militate against mere self-expression, and that we cannot uncomplicatedly infer the personal from the subtle play of the poetry's language – which, after all, works with involutes of word, tone and image that require careful parsing.
      Reading the poems as encoded autobiography is fraught with difficulties, anyway – especially with so continent a man as Eliot appears to have been. Hints and guesses are all we have to go on, if we follow that tack. Raine detects in the body of work a theme which does lend itself to critical scrutiny, however. (The alleged anti-Semitism is reserved for an appendix.) He traces 'the figure in the carpet', the unifying strain of thought that pulses faintly through the poetry, a poetry haunted by the 'failure to live', vital spirits throttled and the seedless diversion of emotional energy: more prosaically, “the cautious circumspection of our sluggish hearts.” From the strange études of the earlier work to the visionary hymnody of 'Ash Wednesday' to the chamber music of Four Quartets, via the penumbral jazz of Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot contends with the inertial drag of matter, the grotesquerie of the body and the wager on transcendence – all refracted through an obscure personal vision, and Raine's account is by no means the full picture.
      Matthew Arnold's poem 'The Buried Life' is the crib-sheet by means of which Eliot grasped this elusive theme. But Raine asserts rather than argues for its importance to Eliot. The poem itself is an reflection on spiritual blockage and the impossibility of true intimate contact: “And long we try in vain to speak and act/Our hidden self, and what we say and do/Is eloquent, is well – but 'tis not true!” - to which Eliot's answering cry redounds: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' is a poem 'about' a soul hamstrung by convention, by caution; and its goading awareness that life, for others perhaps, is yet brightly unconstrained – something fuller, richer in reserve for others. (It evokes, as Hugh Kenner has it, “..a nervous system snubbed by the Absolute without committing [itself] as to whether that Absolute is the moral rigour of an implacable Creator or the systemized social discomfort of a Boston tea-party.”) Raine's key insight, the 'animating idea', is that this psychic deadening haunts the oeuvre. “In the early poetry,” he says, “the idea is animated by all of Eliot's young man's savagery, all his militant hatred of sentimentality, all his aggressive insistence on what we really feel – how unpleasant that can be, and frequently how meagre.” True, we find in Eliot's work a whispering gallery of unmoored selves, all more or less unfinished and subject to a variety of suppressions. But it's a flimsy, trivial notion of Raine's, creating the illusion of some mystery brought to light while doing nothing of the sort. With equal justice could you claim that the buried life was Larkin's master-theme. There is more to Eliot than this.
      'Unpleasantness' is something Raine responds to with a wry delicatesse. He warms in Eliot to the poet's willingness to acknowledge the ill-favoured and the damaged – the conventionally unpoetic: the quatrain poems are doodles of disgust, and 'Hysteria' registers the speaker's fear and loathing of female sexuality with a stiff-necked deadpan: “I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.” (If the critic seeks a common thread uniting the poetry, he might do worse than examine the instances in Eliot's work of such rejection of our creaturely selves, mired as we are in the gnarl of imperfect matter.)
      But a close reading by Raine is really a crabwise apology for his own practice as a poet. His criticism - interpretative frottage, really - gloats over the verbal detail in Eliot's poetry, skimping on a dimension which places it in a very particular socio-historical 'spot of time'. (Tom Paulin, by contrast, has suggested that 'The Waste Land' is a 'Keynesian epic', shaped in part by Eliot's engagement with J.M. Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace; and Eliot was a writer “..impelled by the currents and extremities of the social moment, pushed and pulled by history.” The 'corporate raider of English poetry', as Paulin has it, “...also expresses despair and anger, courage and idealism in what is really the greatest poem of the First World War.”) The peculiarity of its address, its unforgettable cadencing, the micro-transactions at the level of the line between the seedy actual and the exalted: all this somehow contributes to the enduring mystery of Eliot's poetry, and why it should still affect us.

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