by A.N. Wilson

The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot
Ronald Schuchard (general editor)
Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 7148, $700.00

One of T.S. Eliot’s cleverest attempts at a demolition job was his essay “Goethe as the Sage,” which he delivered as an address at the University of Hamburg on the occasion of receiving the Hanseatic Goethe Prize for 1954. In the course of the twenty-page discourse, he tells us that he has come to appreciate Goethe while giving almost no example of a work by Goethe which he actually admired. Eliot had been obliged to overcome “antipathy” both to Goethe’s view of life and to his behavior. He acknowledged that for someone such as himself, “who combines a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinistic inheritance, and a Puritanical temperament,” Goethe, the pantheistic practitioner of free love, caused problems. Eliot recognized him as a “great European” on the level of Dante and Shakespeare; but, he quotes his own words, penned in 1933, “Of Goethe it is truer to say that he dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either.” Although the rhetorical cast of the piece implies that Eliot was retracting this point of view, he never exactly does so, falling back on the attempt to draw a distinction between the philosophy of a poet and his “wisdom.” In conclusion, he wrote, “The best evidence of the wisdom of a great writer is the testimony of those who can say, after long acquaintance with his works, ‘I feel a wiser man because of the time I have spent with him.’”

In the huge, two-volume edition of Eliot’s poems, annotated by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, Faber, the London publisher of which Eliot was a director and whose “list” he filled with all the best Anglophone poets of the age, produced in 2015 a true monument to his genius. Any reader will have felt wiser, each hour they have spent with these two volumes. And now, more wisdom! Yes, in spite of everything, reading Eliot makes us feel—if not exactly wiser, then attuned to a wisdom. Faber combined with Johns Hopkins University Press to publish his complete prose. I for one feel enriched by the experience of reading through this huge body of work. Enriched, the more so, because in each of the volumes, there were occasions when I was troubled, either by the familiar old spectres of Eliot’s prejudices; or by the sense that, in obsessing about the Church of England’s Lilliputian concerns, he demeaned himself. Ezra Pound, his mentor and friend, opined, when Eliot became a Christian, “I believe that post-war ‘returns’ to Christianity have been merely the gran’ rifute, and in general signs of fatigue.” The reference is probably to Pope Celestine V, who resigned and who is cast by Dante to the borders of Hell for having made a great refusal, having detached himself from his responsibility; this was how Pound saw Eliot’s involvement with Church, rather than with the difficult business of writing poetry in an age which had lost touch with its cultural roots.

Nevertheless, this is a truly magnificent scholarly and publishing achievement. The eight volumes under discussion contain all the prose written by one of the greatest of twentieth century poets. They begin with stories penned when a schoolboy at Smith Academy, St. Louis (founded by his grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot) through his undergraduate papers when a student at Harvard, and his graduate philosophical essays. Something which strikes us again and again in these volumes is how often themes which fascinated his young brain continue, like musical leitmotifs, to reverberate through his maturity. This is especially true of his Ph.D. thesis, done at Merton College, Oxford on “Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley.” Here, the themes which were set to the unforgettable Eliot-music of The Waste Land and Four Quartets are explored. “We can never, I mean, wholly explain the practical world from a theoretical point of view, because this world is what it is by reason of the practical point of view, and the world we try to explain is a world spread out upon a table—there!” Here, we seem to hear the harbingers both of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with the patient etherized, and the poet of “Burnt Norton,” aware that “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future.” The Harvard undergraduate considers the defects of Kipling; the mature poet and sage of Russell Square, Bloomsbury, reassesses the judgment.

Eliot’s famous three-fold self description was repeated often, as in his preface to For Lancelot Andrewes from 1928. “The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion. I am quite aware that the first term is completely vague, and easily lends itself to clap-trap; I am aware that the second term is at present without definition, and easily lends itself to what is almost worse than clap-trap, I mean temperate conservatism; the third term does not rest with me to define.” So, we do not expect to find, nor do we find, anything temperate in these conservative pages. There is, however, an almost overpowering cohesion.

Thus, we find in these eight enormous volumes, even before he had arrived at this position, or series of positions, a great movement of mind. There is a huge underlying unity, especially after the momentous day, June 29, 1927, when, aged thirty-eight years old, he was baptized, and his life, not merely as a Christian poet, but a Christian public man, was inaugurated. The baptism was obsessively private—he insisted on the church door being locked before the priest began the rite. No sooner had the waters of redemption flowed, however, than Eliot “came out” as a Christian. Thereafter, we find in these volumes an outpouring, of letters to the press, of reviews, of essays, of lectures, defensive of the (Anglican) Catholic and Christian viewpoint.

Readers of the biographies of Eliot will find an aptness in the conclusion of the eighth volume. There we find, on the one hand, anguished public reflections upon the impact of the New English Bible, and on the other, a posthumous note—unpublished until January 2020—which reflects the inner torment at the heart of his relationships with two women, Emily Hale and Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

On the one hand, we read this: “So long as ‘The New English Bible’ was used only for private reading, it would be merely a symptom of the decay of the English language in the middle of the twentieth century. But the more it is adopted for religious services the more it will become an active agent of decadence.” On the other, the pained, and deeply painful, “sealed statement” concerning his relationship with Hale, and with his wife: “Upon the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, I suddenly realized that I was not in love with Emily Hale. Gradually I came to see that I had been in love only with a memory, with the memory of the experience of having been in love with her in my youth.” He added: “I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale. . . . May we all rest in peace.”

Consider the costiveness of Eliot’s character, both as a public and as a private man, and the obvious costliness of these sentences is driven home. Lyndall Gordon began her second volume of her biography Eliot’s New Life with the reflection, “Though Eliot’s new life was backed by friends and even Vivienne’s brother, the past left a sense of contamination that shut him off . . . from any close relationship until the last eight years of his life. Those who believed themselves closest to Eliot, his faithful first love, Emily Hale, and his friends, Mary Trevelyan and John Hayward, all come to discover, after twenty, thirty, or fifty years, an inexplicable remoteness.” We hear that remoteness, strangely, in the recorded voice. We certainly read it here in these abundant pages, which reveal an overpoweringly “intemperate” reading of human experience, with a kind of cunning, hooded anonymity of temperament.

All the famous titles which the volumes contain were works which cohered around a pattern not just of personal concealment but of the wish to remove the biographical, still more the autobiographical, from the discussion of poetry and literature. The Clark Lectures at Cambridge on the Metaphysical Poets; the lecture of the same year on Lancelot Andrewes, the short book on Dante, the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “After Strange Gods, A Primer of Modern Heresy” were works which defined for Eliot and his growing band of admirers the sense of what a Culture was, how it could be threatened, how it could be defended. The attention given by subsequent generations to Eliot’s private life and the curiosity aroused by the letters of Hale would have been anathema to him.

What overwhelms, as we turn the pages of these eight volumes, is the seriousness of the struggle. In an essay on “Religious Drama and the Church” from 1934, he lays out the groundwork of his task as apologist and defender of the faith: “There are only two causes now of sufficient seriousness, and they are mutually exclusive: the Church and Communism.” Although this sentence is very much one of its time, the reader can have no doubt that Eliot continued to maintain this standpoint until his death in 1965. As a very profoundly committed Christian, he continued to defend the faith, and it is of interest that in a Spectator article entitled “What does the Church Stand For?” he should have pointed to two of the papal encyclicals reflecting political and economic viewpoint: Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, which was vigorously echoed forty years on by Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno.

In the offices of Faber and Faber during the 1980s I once found myself standing beside the Catholic journalist and polemicist Paul Johnson as well as Eliot’s widow, Valerie. Johnson opined that, had he lived a little longer, Eliot would have become disillusioned by the liberalism of the Church of England and would have submitted to Rome. Valerie harrumphed at this opinion. “Tom would rather have become a Buddhist!” she stated. (She continued to the end of her days to attend St. Stephen’s Gloucester Road in Kensington, the church where Eliot was a churchwarden and daily communicant.) In Volume Five, we find the essay “A Liberal Manifesto: The Place of Reason in the Thought of the Church.” It first appeared in the Church Times in 1939 and describes and defends the faith of what used to be called a “Prayer Book Catholic,” loyal to the Church of England and its formularies, believing firmly in the unity of the Universal Church in its Sacraments, and, while wishing to remain always open to the developments of modern biblical scholarship, firmly opposed to “modernism.” That is, he accepted as historical truths, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. A letter to the liberal Church newspaper The Guardian in 1940 openly mocks the modernist position.

It is interesting that Eliot singled out those two papal encyclicals, Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno, since they are the ones which address the question of the place of a Christian calling within society. They are designed to draw the sting from communism by asserting Christianity’s commitment to the rights of the working classes. There is no doubt that Eliot saw the social implications of the Gospel, and his admiration for Charles Maurras might make some people suppose he would have been tempted to blur the line between private faith and the alliance, in the 1930s between Catholicism and the political Right. This was something which Eliot never, quite, did. Nor did he ever, quite, become a fascist.

To this, we call as a witness his letter to the New English Weekly of March 1935, “It sometimes seems as if the Church was opposed to Communism, only because Communism is opposed to the Church. I have at hand a book containing statements by Sir Oswald Mosley, which anyone with the merest smattering of theology can recognise to be not only puerile but anathema.”

That said, Eliot’s relationship with what would later be defined as the “extreme” right is of interest. He dedicated his Dante book to Maurras, after all, the Frenchman who would be arrested in 1944 for collaboration with the German enemy, and who, upon being sentenced to life imprisonment, exclaimed, C’est la revanche de Dreyfus!—it is the revenge of Dreyfus. Maurras had dedicated his life, via his newspaper and organization known as L’Action Francaise, to a defence of ultra-right monarchist Catholicism heavily tinged with anti-Semitism. Maurras thought of Catholicism as a force of social conservatism, rather than a set of teachings which were actually true. (Only in 1952, as he was dying, did he change and revert to the actual practice of the faith of his childhood.) Hitherto, Maurras, whose organization was formally anathematized by the Papacy, had taught that Catholicism was a useful social glue, something which encouraged an hierarchical, patriarchal society, and whose mythologies need only be believed by peasants. Yet Eliot writing to the Church Times in 1928 quoted the writer Denis Gwynn as saying, “There can be few publicists in all Europe who have had their consistent political predictions so literally fulfilled as M. Maurras.”

And here we enter what is surely our difficulty. The problem, when we take Eliot as a whole—the man, the public man, the poet—is not so much whether we can absolve him from holding opinions of which nowadays many would disapprove. Such an exercise might please those readers who see themselves as the contemporary equivalent of tricoteuses, seeing off historical figures to posthumous decapitation for thought-crimes of which we, in our enlightened modernity, are pure. But our problem is, in a way, deeper than that.

This is the worry: suppose Eliot had been right when he entwined his version of the Catholic faith with monarchism and classicism. Suppose the Tradition which he defended, the Culture in which he believed, actually depended upon a set of assumptions and attitudes, and a condition of society which, for better or worse, has disappeared, and which many (most?) enlightened contemporaries—not just the tricoteuses—feel glad to have seen the back of. These abundant pages reflect a forty-year struggle to defend a worldview made up of conservative Christianity in public and personal life, and in literature: Eliot’s eclectic combo of symbolism, modernism, and classicism. Modernism in literature that is, but not in religion. At the time they were written, these letters, reviews, and lectures all take it for granted that the struggle had at least a hope of victory. Does the worldview he adopted and promulgated seem sustainable in our very different world, which has seen other truths, perhaps truths which eliminate the possibility of being a Catholic Christian in Eliot’s intolerant manner, with its dismissal as “heresy” of viewpoints inimical to his own, with its undoubted racialism and elitism?

To answer the question, let us return to the thorny and incredibly painful subject of Eliot’s anti-Semitism.

In 1995 Anthony Julius published T.S. Eliot, Antisemitism and Literary Form. It is a learned book which explores many of the murkier reaches of European anti-Semitism, but it concentrated upon the anti-Semitism in five poems: “Burbank,” “Gerontion”, “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” “A Cooking Egg,” and the posthumously published “Dirge.” It was, for non-Jewish readers who admired Eliot, a disturbing book. Until it appeared, we had been trying to say either that the anti-Semitism was marginal or that these were just five poems, and that the magnitude of Eliot’s poetic achievement elsewhere outweighed the nastiness contained in these poems. At the time, I was a literary editor on an English newspaper, and I asked my friend Hyam Maccoby, who had himself written on this subject, to review Julius’s book. He drew from the book the point that Eliot had created good poetry out of the anti-Semitism. Julius made the point himself when he describes Eliot’s poetry as “one of antisemitism’s few literary triumphs.” That, in a way, is more disturbing than the anti-Semitism itself.

Julius concentrated on anti-Semitism and five poems. But the collected prose of Eliot reveals an attempt to defend Tradition and Culture itself in Eliot’s phraseology against not just against the “large numbers of freethinking Jews” whom he had considered “undesirable.” Now the freethinking majority includes those for whom the modern consensus is a given. Even to question it is a kind of wickedness. But is it possible for a modern person, who is a freethinker, and who accepts the modern status quo, to find any wisdom in Eliot’s pages? More disturbing—this is where I find myself sinking in a quagmire—is it possible to believe any of the things Eliot professed to believe without in some way or another subscribing to, or at least being implicated in, the dodgy stuff?

Since the 1990s when Julius published his book, Western society, and the atmosphere, both in the academy and in the public sphere, has altered. We have entered the so-called cancel culture in which the opinions, attitudes, and actions of people in the past are held up for judgment; often the judgment of young people who are entirely, or almost entirely, ignorant of the societal and credal settings in which these surprising actions and attitudes are to be found: I mean, attitudes towards race, gender, sexuality, and so on. The point does not need laboring.

This is where we run into the difficulty, and After Strange Gods provides a very good starting point. What if the anti-Semitism, vulgar and unpleasant as it was, was really best understood as the underbelly, or nasty side, of a much bigger thing, not all of which was nasty at all? And that is the whole culture of the Catholic Western world, which, in After Strange Gods, Eliot wished to commemorate and preserve. He set out to defend and to define the “tradition” of such a culture, and he defined “tradition” involving “all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger which represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place’.” (The words in quotation marks come from the Cyclops sequence of Joyce’s Ulysses.)

You can see the way in which my mind is going, and why I am afraid this automobile—not just my essay here, but the “tradition” Eliot is defending—is heading for the edge of the cliff. The “tradition,” the “Classicism,” the “orthodoxy” which Eliot is defending in these lectures is of a kind which even conservative-minded readers in 2022 might find a bit disturbing. He began the lectures by stating that there was more chance of preserving the “tradition” in Virginia than in his own New England. “You are farther away from New York; you have been less industrialized and less invaded by foreign races.”

I do not want to devote the whole of this essay to the question of Eliot’s anti-Semitism or xenophobia or racism. The difficulty to which I referred at the outset is much deeper than that. I mean, suppose Eliot was right? Suppose the “Culture” and the “Tradition” in which the Individual Talent of Western humanity was supposed to flourish did indeed depend on a monarchical, cultural setting, which has not been “invaded” by “foreign races”? We see this in England at the moment with many who wish the Royal Family well feeling that monarchy has run its course. The fact that the Anglo-Catholic movement of which Eliot was so fervent an adherent had smithereened over the questions of feminism, gay rights, and the Roman claims, with some Anglo-Catholic priests leaving for Rome, others abandoning the faith once delivered to Eliot and to the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of the 1930s.

One way out of the quagmire, I believe, is in the contradiction which Eliot himself never totally appeared to recognize. While wanting to create a stockade around his beloved Traditions, and to take potshots at the foreigners and freethinkers who opposed them, he was actually a widely read and polyglot who enjoyed Latin, Greek, French, and Italian literature, and whose appreciation of Virgil, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound (to name but three non-monarchist, non-anglocatholic figures) was unshaken by their “heresy.” Here is no monoglot narrowness. Still, if you want to put Eliot or his words in the dock, there is enough material in his prose to cancel him many times over.

It is not in my nature to enjoy watching victims trundled off to the guillotine, and I would prefer to stay with Julius, recognizing the greatness of Eliot, while deploring those aspects of his imagination which could produce “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” or “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar.” We ought not to seek to outlaw Eliot’s poems, but neither can we submit to them. We should not ban them; but we must not abandon ourselves to them. Instead we must contest that poetry, with strategies that acknowledge both its value and its menace. Refusing either to acquiesce in, or to rail at, Eliot’s contempt for Jews, one strives to do justice to the many injustices Eliot does to Jews. This is what adversarial reading allows. It is an alternative to two kinds of silence: the coercive silence of censorship, the passive silence of the submissive reader. It combines resistance with respect.

What Eliot wrote of Donne’s sermons could be said of his own prose, taken as a whole: “Donne’s prose is worth reading both because it is a significant moment in the history of English prose, and because it has at its best uncommon dignity and beauty.” His estimation of Baudelaire is also apt: “The important fact about Baudelaire is that he was essentially a Christian born out of his due time, and a classicist born out of his due time.”

Eliot himself was born out of due time, and those who read him with a sympathetic heart will sometimes feel themselves reading works of prophecy. His sense that Christians were singing the Lord’s song in a strange land was strong in the 1930s. What would he feel ninety years on, when the decline of practicing Christians in the West has been so marked, and when the mainstream churches are themselves rent, incapable of knowing—over such matters as homosexuality, abortion, divorce—whether they should hold fast to the tradition or accommodate themselves the times?

In 1955 in a paper on Billy Graham Eliot wrote:

Christian faith can no longer be something that one simply inherits. It is something that has to be won individually, with serious reading, with hard thinking, with discipline, and with much study of one’s own emotions. What of the person of inferior capacity, of weaker character, who has drifted away—still more, those whose parents or grandparents even did the drifting. At their level, all the forces of education (and I do not mean formal education, but all the social influences which educate for better or worse—the films they see, the papers they read—will be against the awakening of the religious life). Do we perhaps incline, in despair, to accept for others, methods of conversion of the mass as the mass? If we do, there is always the danger of gnostic heresy—of our accepting the situation of esoteric doctrine and exoteric cult.

Christianity is the discovery of Christ by individuals though they come together as a church, as in the Easter ceremony, where, from one paschal candle, a single flame is passed from one, to another one, to another one, until a whole church is built up of a starlight of individual flames. Eliot accepted this in his poetry, but in his prose there surfaced a yearning for society itself to embrace the faith.

Twenty-three years before his meditations on Graham, he wrote in The Listener, “The Christian view of society is, if you like, a paradox, for it is an organism in which each part has an equal value to the whole; but out of this paradox you can escape only into anarchism on the one hand or the opposite heresy, communism, on the other. And that gives you a further paradox; for anarchism and communism respectively, in suppressing half the value of life, suppress the whole. I conceive, then, not of conversions one by one to the faith, but of a kind of mass-conversion—by which I mean just the opposite of what is meant by a revival or a mass-meeting. In this mass conversion, you start at the other end, because you do not hope to convert the world to complete Christianity, but to cherish the more modest hope that every individual will be a Christian so far as he is anything.”

Eliot’s mild mockery of “Goethe as Sage” could in all likelihood be applied to himself, and perhaps that is useful. Perhaps those of us for whom The Waste Land and the Four Quartets will always remain cherished, vaulted chambers in our hearts, should not mind too much that once upon a time, a very unhappy man, dressed in what his friend Virginia Woolf called four-piece suits, should have written appreciative letters about the Fascists, or dedicated a book to one of the nastiest-minded of all European intellectuals. The poetry is what matters, and in some ways it outsoars the shadows of his “views.”

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