In Eliot’s Footsteps by Auberon Waugh

Auberon Waugh

In Eliot’s Footsteps


Dr George Steiner, the international literary polymath and extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, recently published an uncharacteristically accessible manifesto in the page six ‘Why, oh Why?’ spot of the Daily Mail in which he announced that the age of the book was coming to an end. He welcomed this development for two reasons: that electronic stimuli, like cable television and Sony Walkman, were ‘much quicker’ and ‘much jollier’; and that the few who retained an interest in literature – whether in the universities or in small groups outside – would be driven to make a greater effort and experience the greater excitement of discovery as a result.

It read rather like Graham Greene’s apologia for preferring Kosygin’s Russia to President Johnson’s America, on the grounds that the Soviet authorities were at least interested in what writers had to say to the extent of stopping them from saying it, locking them up, making them eat worms, etc.

Steiner suggested two reasons for this apparent development – that schools no longer inculcate the classics, such as the Bible, Shakespeare and Homer, and that there is no privacy or silence in modern life:

‘What young couple today has a library room? There is no such thing in a modern flat. Who today has the thick walls which were the marks of the classic library?’

It is all nonsense, of course. What proportion of the population ever enjoyed the benefit of a thick-walled library? When did as many as five per cent of the population ever take an interest in literature?

The depressing aspect of Dr Steiner’s message is that a highly intelligent man should welcome a general collapse of literacy on the grounds that it might provide more fun for the few. A cheerful aspect is that the Daily Mail with its three million-odd middle-brow readers, should choose to print his crazy rubbish as a middle-brow talking point.

* * *

These thoughts are prompted, more than anything else, by the impending T S Eliot Centenary celebrations. Eliot, whose death in 1965 seems surprisingly recent, was born in St Louis, Missouri on September 26, 1888, which seems reassuringly long ago. The London Library is launching a £100,000 Centenary Appeal (cheques to the Centenary Fund at 14 St James’s Square, SW1Y 4LG) for various admirable library purposes.

Many will remember Eliot as a poet, but I prefer to revere him as a bookman, critic and editor of Criterion (1922–1939). Criterion was the first considerable attempt at a literary magazine since The Yellow Book (1894–1897) to which my Grandfather, Arthur Waugh (who denounced Eliot peremptorily as a ‘drunken helot’) was a founder-contributor, along with Henry James, Beerbohm, A C Benson, A J Symons, Waugh’s cousin Edmund Gosse, and the illustrators Beardsley, Leighton, Rothenstein, Furse and Sickert. It was followed by Leavis’s Scrutiny (1932–1953) and Connolly’s Horizon (1939–1950).

To all of whose traditions Literary Review is, however unworthily, an inheritor. No doubt we should be humbled by the reflection. This magazine has little in common with any of its predecessors except that none ever made a profit, and all were engaged in the search for new talent.

Possibly Eliot’s reputation as a poet will survive inside the closed and shrinking literary-academic circles which Steiner foresees. For many years I returned to the Four Quartets hoping that advanced age, profounder reading and greater application to crossword puzzles, anagrams and acrostics would help make some sense of them. Then last year I went to see Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party, first produced in 1950, two years after the author’s stature had been recognised by an O M and a Nobel Prize for Literature. Although well produced and brilliantly acted, it convinced me that Eliot’s sensibility was as meretricious, in its way of deliberate obscurantism and bogus religiosity, as Alfred Austin’s or Colley Cibber’s. I shall not be returning to the Quartets. This year also marks the 300th anniversary of Thomas Shadwell’s appointment to the Poet Laureateship, of whom Dryden wrote, rather unkindly:

‘The rest to some faint meaning make pretence
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.’

Perhaps someone would like to mark the occasion with a bumper prize for the Literary Review poetry competition.

* * *

Best news of all is £1,000 worth of Poetry Prizes to celebrate the 200th birthday of the very wonderful firm of Soho Solicitors, Messrs Allen and Sons, of 17 Carlisle Street W1 presented by Mr David Lavender. They will start in October at £150 per month, culminating in a bumper £400 bonus for the best of the lot, to be announced in January.

The August competition, for a poem on the subject of Race produced an enormous number of dud entries, only ten or twelve decent ones. Possibly this was because I could offer only the standard £50 as first prize at the time, but Mr Walter Greenwood has bumped this up to £100 on behalf of the Henry Robert Bookshop of 7 Stramongate, Kendal, the largest bookshop in Cumbria, and a very nice garagiste in Kensworth, near Dunstable, has promised a different case of wine every month for six months. This month it is a case of Viña Linderos 1983 ungrafted (prephylloxera) Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. I know it well, and it is utterly delicious. I hope anyone buying a new or used motor car in the Dunstable area will go to Mr Christopher Todd of the Kensworth Garage, all of whose young salesmen read the Literary Review. So £100 and the case of wine goes to Noel Petty, £20 and a bottle of Janneau’s VSOP Armagnac to Derek Campbell, £10 to all the others printed and a copy of Collins’s excellent new English Dictionary. Winning poems can be found on pages 62 and 63.

October’s first prize, then, will be £200 (£150 from Messrs Allen and Sons), with a case of wine and for the best poems which rhyme, scan and make sense on the subject of Betrayal. I hope competitors try a little harder this time. Entries marked Betrayal in the top left corner, should reach the Literary Review at 51 Beak Street, London W1R 3LF by August 22nd.

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