Defending T.S. Eliot

Terry Eagleton tries to understand the urges to defend Eliot against charges of misgyny and anti-Semitism, in this case by Craig Raine in his TS Eliot, in Prospect.

Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours. It is true that the poet was a sourly elitist reactionary who fellow-travelled with some unsavoury political types in the 1930s, and as a Christian knew much of faith and hope but little of charity. Yet the politics of many distinguished modernist artists were just as squalid, and some—Pound and Junger, for example—were quite a lot worse. There is no need to pretend that all great writers have to be uxorious, liberal-minded, philosemitic heterosexuals. Why does Raine write as though discovering that Eliot was a paedophile would change our view of Four Quartets?

Neither is it just a question of “fine poetry, pity about the politics.” The fact that apart from Joyce and Woolf, almost all of the major “English” modernists were radical reactionaries, askew to the orthodox liberal consensus of their age, is a condition of their achievement, not a regrettable corollary. Like a lot of poets and Oxford English dons, however, Raine doesn’t really do ideas (something of a problem when tackling a poet as doctrinal as Eliot), and seems to know rather little about modernism. He dates it from 1922, which is at least two decades too late. Nor, being poor on “isms,” does he grasp the complex relations between Eliot’s modernism and his neoclassicism.

Raine defends his protégé above all from the accusation of antisemitism, and in doing so produces at least one page of magisterial disingenuousness. When Eliot writes that “any large number of free-thinking Jews (is) undesirable,” and that “a spirit of excessive tolerance (in this regard) is to be deprecated,” Raine is able to demonstrate with his close-reading skills just what a moderate sentiment this actually is. For it is, you see, large numbers of such Jews which is undesirable, not the whole lot of them; and it is excessive tolerance, not any old tolerance, which is to be deprecated. So that’s all right then.