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'Underneath the Lot'

December 21, 2006 By:
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A new book about T.S. Eliot is always an occasion, of one sort or another, depending on who's doing the reading or who's formulating an assessment. Those with purely literary interests want the author of such a study to give them some new critical entry or insight into the life or the poems or both.

When it was announced that the distinguished British poet and critic Craig Raine was writing such a book, the fit between subject and critic seemed perfect. Raine is Fellow and Tutor in English at New College, Oxford, and editor of Areté, a tri-quarterly arts magazine. Aside from his own poetry and critical works, Raine has also written plays and librettos and, according to a publisher's blurb, "has been a powerful voice and an adversarial, intellectually independent figure in the literary world for the last 40 years."

Now that Oxford University Press has published his T.S. Eliot in its "Lives and Legacies" series -- "brief, erudite" biographies on movers and shakers in arts, politics and science -- one has a chance to truly assess the fit between these two poets. In the end, it's turned out to be far odder than I'd imagined.

In the book's introduction, titled "Eliot and the Buried Life," Raine diagrams his thesis:

"In his essay 'John Ford,' Eliot says that 'the whole of Shakespeare's work is one poem.' He continues, 'and it is the poetry of it in this sense, not the poetry of isolated lines and passages or the poetry of single figures which he created, that matters most.' Eliot maintains that it is this 'one significant, consistent and developing personality,' that makes Shakespeare 'a great poet.' And yet, though he identifies the presence of this 'personality,' he does not analyze its constituents. In this study of Eliot, I have attempted to characterize his 'significant, consistent and developing personality.' I want, in the words of Matthew Arnold, to see his achievement 'steadily and see it whole.' But I have also tried to do local justice to Eliot's genius at the level of the word, the phrase, and the passage. I am interested in the 'one poem,' but it would be philistine to slight the detail of individual poems."

In addition, Raine intends to show that Eliot's "lifelong themes" were consistent, and that perhaps the major one "is the failure to live fully."

"Eliot inherits this theme, the theme of the 'buried life,' from his awkward critical and poetic father figure, Matthew Arnold. Arnold formulated the idea of the 'buried life.' For Arnold, the buried life describes our failure to realize our emotional potential -- essentially because the business of living supplants the cultivation of the inner life. ... But Arnold adds the refinement that the problem is not simply one of frustration: ignorance of what we really feel, lack of true self-awareness, means that we are mysteries to ourselves, and therefore find fulfillment difficult or impossible."

Raine has clearly done all this explication to remove any sense that Eliot is a forbidding, intentionally obfuscatory poet, one who wishes to mystify his readers as all good modernists once meant to do. That has been the aura that has clung to Eliot since perhaps his most famous poem "The Waste Land" first appeared in 1922, along with several other basic texts of modernism.

Mystifyingly Obscure

Raine's intentions are all laudable -- and his identification of this major theme seems extremely helpful -- but from the minute his book truly starts, it is mystifyingly obscure (there is also the problem, as evident in the passages quoted above, of his dense repetitive style). Though Oxford's "Lives and Legacies" series is meant to help introduce readers to the works and lives of their subjects, Raine's book should not even be attempted by anyone not thoroughly conversant with Eliot's poems -- and conversant in a most intimate way.

I thought I knew enough about Eliot's work -- the poetry, as well as the criticism and the plays -- but I couldn't make head or tails of what Raine was saying. Here and there a nugget of insight cropped up, but they were few and far between and were embedded in prose so dense that it seemed to proliferate like thick underbrush -- impervious to even determined study and explication.

But in the end, none of this matters if the reader approaching a new book on Eliot happens to be Jewish, since in that case the only really important facet at this late date in literary history is the discussion of the poet's actual or presumed anti-Semitism. Raine leaves that discussion for the first of three appendices. In these, he manages to return to the simpler critical stance (and prose style) that he demonstrated in the book's introduction.

Raine surveys the criticism leveled at Eliot from the late 1950s on, when the accusations first started appearing in places like the Times Literary Supplement. Eliot denied them all, no matter what evidence from his poetry was presented to him, though even Raine suggests that he never really answered the accusations head-on.

According to the author, the reason why Eliot refused to answer the charge was that he "was genuinely convinced of his own innocence. For him, there was no cause to answer. Therefore, the incriminating cluster of apparent instances of intolerance will not have felt so to Eliot. For him, these references are scattered across long periods of time -- months, years -- so their concentration will not have seemed a concentration to him. They will not have felt like a program or the anti-Jewish agenda that [author] Anthony Julius wishes to attribute to him. The grouping together and the adversarial interpretations must have seemed malicious."

Raine then sticks to the evidence gathered by the above-mentioned Anthony Julius in his book T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form of 1996: The troubling passages pop up in certain of Eliot's reviews, in his critical works (most famously, in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, which appears to consider Christianity the bedrock of Western culture), and finally, in the poetry. Raine refutes them all. The prose seems a bit easier to do, but his argument is not airtight. The worrisome phrases are still shocking, whether in Eliot's occasional reviews or his longer critical books, no matter how Raine explicates them.

'Very Difficult Poems'

But the worst offense -- to my ears -- comes from the poetry, especially in "Gerontion" and in "Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar." Here is how Raine handles the matter (there's no other way to demonstrate his technique than to quote at length):

"These are very difficult poems. Yet Julius is prepared to preface hostile readings of Eliot's poems thus: 'While the poem cannot be reduced to a resolvable riddle, its hostility to Jews is instantly recognizable'; 'whatever its interpretative obscurities ...' In other words: 'I do not understand this poetry but I know for a certainty it is anti-Semitic.' "

Raine moves from the "consideration of details, the proper weighing of each iota of evidence," and takes up his "general objection to Julius's methodology," which he says is "guilt by association."

"His thesis is that Eliot placed his great gifts at the service of anti-Semitism -- that he invigorates the stale clichés bandied about by rabid anti-Semites. Inevitably, this places Eliot in criminal, pathological company and assumes an equation between the articulate Eliot and the most cruel excesses of anti-Semitic discourse. I think this unlikely because I believe Eliot to have been proud of his intellectual independence. Remember, it was Eliot who admired Henry James for possessing 'a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.' There are three allegedly anti-Semitic lines in 'Gerontion':

My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window-sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.

"Julius prefaces this quotation prejudicially: 'the passage breathes hate, the sibilants hissing scorn.' We are then told that the speaker, Gerontion, in these lines, is 'spitting at the Jew in this opening stanza.' Untrue. But Julius arrives at this baseless reading by asserting that 'the word these other words intimate is "spit." ' And he cites Shakespeare's Merchant -- Antonio's spitting and Shylock's bitter complaint about being spat on. I do not see why."

Raine continues in this vein.

Consider another example: "When Julius comes to the infamous 'Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar,' he once more, understandably, editorializes Eliot's words. Again, he is anxious to rule out the possibility that the poem is a dramatic monologue, with a loophole therefore through which the anti-Semitic Eliot could escape. On the other hand, he cannot resist the introduction of theatre because it improves his argument against Eliot. 'One imagines the sentence lispingly spoken' [my italics]. I imagine nothing of the kind. This is a difficult poem to defend. I myself have always thought the crucial lines indicative of Eliot's anti-Semitism: 'The rats are underneath the piles./The Jew is underneath the lot.' I have changed my mind.

... On the Rialto once,
The rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs. The boatman smiles ...

"There is anti-Semitism here. But it is not Eliot's. It is Burbank's. It has to be."

You'll have to be the judge of whether Raine's argument is convincing or not. But I doubt whether you can shake the effect of these lines and images. Eliot was clearly a great and immensely influential poet, but like many other writers of his time, he was tainted by a prejudice that animated his entire worldview. No thinking person can escape what such words meant, voiced as they were at a crucial point in history, considering what was eventually done to Jews during that same fateful period of the 20th century.

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