Bernard O’Donoghue

Still Old Possum

Lives and Legacies: T S Eliot

By

Oxford University Press 202pp £12.99 order from our bookshop
 

Craig Raine’s lively new book on T S Eliot conforms to its series by simply naming the poet as its subject; but it has a marked thematic line which could have borrowed its title from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘The Buried Life’. Raine concludes that Arnold is ‘Eliot’s powerful, repressed father figure’; as with Arnold and other predecessors and early contemporaries (Henry James in particular), Eliot’s great dread is of life not fully lived, left interred. In this way Eliot is placed in an odd position between Romanticism, with its ‘careless claim to passion’, and Classicism, with its deflationary gift for bathos or Pope’s ‘sinking’. The challenge for the writer of Eliot’s era was to reconcile the Romantic desire ‘to live with all intensity’ with a Classical distrust of ‘violent emotion for its own sake’. Raine’s broadly chronological discussion of Eliot’s work is framed by this duality.

The book is rather oddly constructed though, with a Preface as well as an Introduction preceding its six chapters, and a series of Appendices at the end, the first of which is a return to Raine’s concern with ‘Eliot and Anti-Semitism’. The first two chapters, ‘The Failure to Live’ and ‘Eliot as Classicist’, deal with the successful early poetry which preceded Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land, the subject of Chapter Three. Chapter Four is about Four Quartets, and Chapter Five deals with the drama, concluding with an uncompromising recognition that the plays ‘fail in varying degrees, because we couldn’t care less what, say, Edward Chamberlayne really feels. Edward isn’t a character. He is an illustration – almost a slide.’ The sixth chapter is an original account of the criticism (which of course is generally seen as Eliot’s great strength, alongside the poetry). Raine’s view is that Eliot’s philosophical training empowered him to bring to his literary criticism a ‘theoretical inclination’ and an ‘instinct for definition’. Strikingly, he concludes that Eliot’s famous critical concepts (‘dissociation of sensibility’, ‘objective correlative’, ‘the auditory imagination’ and the rest) are, like Arnold’s, mostly well-turned shorthand for pretty familiar thoughts. His great gift, according to Raine – again perhaps like Arnold’s – was for reading particular writers, or for just happening on a profound insight with an ‘occasional flash of helpless, counterintuitive, fearless brilliance’ (though the example Raine gives of this seems to me less than overwhelming: ‘perhaps no drama has ever been greatly and permanently successful without a large melodramatic element’. To borrow Raine’s verbless dogmatism: Not so breathtaking).

Thus far I have accounted for any reservations Raine has about Eliot, to clear the way, more representatively, for his campaigningly positive apologia. He rises with energetic wit to the linguistic and idiomatic strengths of the poetry up to 1928 (when Eliot made his famous avowal of classicism – a classicism which, by Raine’s definition, was operative already). Prufrock is ‘a thin-skinned sensitive – a dithering compass of cowardice and crippling lack of self-esteem’; Madame Sosostris ‘is a tabloid Tiresias’. Raine’s emphasis in the early chapters is on Eliot as a complex last Romantic in the English tradition, reflecting Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Dickens and George Eliot, as well as Arnold. He proves too the importance for Eliot of another of Raine’s heroes, Kipling – particularly the direct influence of the short story ‘They’ on a crucial passage in Burnt Norton. There are some insights of great critical originality, notably when the dryness of The Waste Land is related to the ecological damage caused by the westward march of the railways in America. Best of all is the way he shows us exactly why the unforgettable passages in Eliot are so powerful, like this lyrical description of one of ‘our intenser experiences of other human beings’, correctly diagnosed by Raine as falling in love:

I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Raine, then, is strongest where Eliot is strongest; he is predictably less compelling where he finds Eliot less engaging. Though he has excellent things to say about some of the great passages in Four Quartets, his imagination doesn’t fire as he tries to capture their more programmatic mysticism. As an idea, the ‘simultaneity of time’ lacks the complexity and force of its medieval, Neoplatonic discussions. And, of the two definitive elements of the book’s series, lives and legacies, Raine is better on the legacies. In a way, the book is written against Raine’s belief that Eliot’s life has already been drawn upon too much in glossing the poems.

In returning to the question of anti-Semitism in Eliot’s writings, Raine seems to be struggling for fairness, conceding for example that some letters not yet available may establish after all that Eliot was guilty of this most hateful attitude – what Eliot himself called a ‘terrible slander’. Raine is already on record in vigorous defence of Eliot against the charge, and I am not convinced of the wisdom of returning unprovoked to it in such circumstantial detail now. Raine’s appendix replaces Christopher Logue’s list as the fullest brief itemising of the accused passages. Some of them, for whatever reason, make grim reading: for instance the ‘Dirge’ in the Waste Land manuscript that Raine acknowledges as ‘tasteless and distasteful’. His impulse to explain away such offences leads to a rather embarrassing piece of self-aggrandising: having made the interesting suggestion that the anti-Semitic passages in the poems are dramatisations of anti-Semitism, Raine muses ‘This new interpretation will seem implausible for a time, in the way that radical re-readings do before they become accepted’ – a self-assessment, oddly enough, most famously made by George Steiner, with whom Raine is crossing swords here.

It will be a pity if this is what this brilliant reading of Eliot comes to be remembered for. This book is an ingenious and convincing demonstration that Eliot is still the Old Possum: lying unassertively low, but anxiously aware that the disinterment of the buried life is an undeniable imperative. Most of the time it is open-minded about the weaker points in Eliot: the plays, or occasional linguistic defects in the poems. But most importantly, it shows perceptively why Eliot’s poems work with their unique compulsiveness.

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