THE INTERNATIONAL RECEPTION OF T. S. ELIOT. Edited by Elisabeth Däumer and Shyamal Bagchee. London and New York: Continuum, 2007.
Sometimes a great reputation is suddenly eclipsed; a star vanishes from the firmament and is heard of no more. Sometimes the reputation slumps, loses its magnetic power, and its bearer survives only in encyclopedia entries, embalmed in academia, venerated in small fan clubs that hope for the day when the world will once again recognize his or her greatness. I experienced this “twilight of the idols” in greater or lesser degree in the cases of G. K. Chesterton, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Karl Marx and all his clan, even Sigmund Freud and his. I expect the same phenomenon to overtake Samuel Beckett. Literature has many once great luminaries who can never expect to thrill people as they once did: Byron, Hugo, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, whereas others glow with undiminished brilliance: Austen, James, Proust, Rilke, Yeats, Woolf, and some rather minor luminaries show a resilience, an ability to pop up brightly, that one would not have expected of them: Trollope, Forster – but no doubt the present constellation, too, is a temporary phenomenon, reflecting only the taste of our particular cultural moment.
The longest and most painful of these deflations has been suffered by T. S. Eliot, whose fame stood at the zenith fifty years ago, when he was seen as a poet of the first order, a critic whose every pronouncement was to be treasured, a sublime dramatist, and one whose career both as a poet and as a man represented an exemplary pilgrimage of Christian faith. Now he is likely to be seen as a poet of the second order, very much of his “period”, an erratic and often prejudiced critic, a fake dramatist, and in his personal life a rightist, a misogynist, an anti-Semite and Heaven knows what else. Building on his famous thesis that the new ‘individual talent’ reorganizes the previous landscape of literary history and establishes new hierarchies, Eliot was no respecter of reputations: he knocked the Romantics from their pedestals and did much damage to the standing of Milton, while raising the Metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists to a lofty status they had not known before. In the days of Eliot’s austere domination, people breathed a sigh of relief on finding that he had deigned to confer his approval where they had feared he could only frown – on Tennyson for example, or on Kipling – and read with gratitude his second essay on Milton, in which he was pleased to recognize that Milton was a great poet after all, well worth reading. Now the toppler of reputations is himself tottering. Marjorie Perloff has tried to prop him up recently, but only as the avant-garde innovator of his early verse. Genuine enthusiasm for The Waste Land or Four Quartets, despite their anthology status, is regarded as the mark of an old-fashioned critic, just as was enthusiasm for Shelley in the heyday of the Eliot-influenced lit. crit.
But salvation for Eliot may come from an unexpected quarter. If he is a spectral presence in the English and American literary world, even in academic departments of English Literature, he is a spectral presence in another sense beyond the limits of this world, in the sense that the multiple trajectories of his influence in many countries open up a spectrum of fascinating images of Eliot, alter egos who have an exciting impact similar to the first impact of his verse in England long ago. It seems that to read The Waste Land as a living poem today one must resort to the translation of Eva Hesse, just as jaded Shakespearians resort to the classic German translation of Shakespeare. Elisabeth Däumer reveals that it brilliantly captures the variety of voices in the poem and its underlying passionate intensity, whereas the earlier translation of E. R. Curtius had tamed the poem to smooth its reception, imposing a leveling literary style that was also quite unidiomatic. Ironically, Grass’s translation evoked in Germany the same unease and hostility that had greeted the original in England. The professors rounded on Grass and continued to teach Eliot in the same conventional, deadening way, perhaps thwarting a new reception of Eliot as a living poet in Germany. (A precious detail: the line ‘In the mountains, there you feel free’ derives from the opening line of a Bavarian folksong composed in response to the death of Ludwig II: ‘Auf den Bergen wohnt die Freiheit’. Eliot would have learnt this from Marie Larisch – ‘Marie,/ Marie, hold on tight’ – who was intimate with Ludwig’s childhood friend the Empress Elizabeth.)
E. R. Curtius, as J. H. Copley shows, was no stalwart ambassador of Eliot’s fame in Germany. After World War II, when Eliot was admired as a playwright in Germany, his poetry having been lost to view during the years of Nazism, Curtius had the temerity to declare that Eliot was a great minor poet, whose plays lacked ‘the indefinable aura of life’ (p. 248) and whose standing as a critic was largely due to his ‘superior and reserved way of speaking’ and the ‘studied modesty’ of his style which masked dogmatism and deep-seated arrogance (p. 250). I don’t see why this should be considered as ‘ad hominem attacks motivated by personal bias rather than critical and literary judgement’ (p. 248). Curtius was irritated at Eliot’s condescending attitude to Goethe – a touchy subject with Germans who made Goethe a refuge from Nazism and after the war presented him as the true glory of their nation. Eliot blandly declared in Harvard in 1932 that Goethe ‘dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either’ (p. 250). Curtius saw that Eliot himself had only dabbled in Goethe and was speaking beyond his competence. Since Eliot did not detect the faults in Curtius’s translation of The Waste Land and did not suggest improvements, his knowledge of German cannot have been very deep. In fact, an ‘illuminating sample of Eliot’s German, shrewdly omitted from the first volume of his correspondence,… shows that there were serious deficiencies in his knowledge of basic grammar’ (p. 256). Rather hurtfully, Curtius did not reciprocate Eliot’s admiring friendship, or was prepared to sacrifice it ‘for the sake of national pride’ (p. 252), believing that Eliot was advocating ‘the formal exclusion of Goethe from Europe; but also the exclusion of Germany, her language and her culture… His judgment shows that literature can also be the expression of politics’ (p. 253). He refused countless appeals from Eliot to contribute to The Criterion. J. H. Copley attempts to convict Eliot of ‘Germanophobia’ with arguments reminiscent of those used by Anthony Julius in alleging anti-Semitism (p. 254). After the war, Eliot struck up a warmer relationship with Germany. He daringly advocated ‘the unity of European culture’ to a German radio audience in 1946; his talks became a school textbook; and ‘he took various steps to invite German scholars to Britain to build cultural bridges between the two countries’ (p. 256); his lecture, ‘Goethe as the Sage’, on reception of the Goethe Prize in 1954, ‘was probably addressed to Curtius more than anyone else’ (p. 257) – but none of this sufficed to restore the warmth of their friendship. Copley draws the melodramatic conclusion that Curtius was guilty of betrayal ‘like Judas’s’ (p. 259); ‘instead of showing gratitude, Curtius stabbed a good friend in the back’ , and may be imagined now to languish in ‘the worst place in hell, reserved for those who betrayed their masters and benefactors’ (p. 258). If Eliot held that ‘even the harshest criticism could never bring an end to a long-standing friendship’ , it was because ‘he never fully understood the extent of, or the reasons for, his friend’s betrayal’ (p. 259). It is surely unnecessary to be so paranoid and vindictive on behalf of Eliot, who, as a sharp-tongued critic himself, and a good self-critic, no doubt respected the freedom and appreciated the astuteness of his friend’s critical views.
The bulk of the essays are business-like surveys of the reception of Eliot in individual countries. In Italy there are striking similarities, as Stefano Maria Casella notes, with Eugenio Montale, though ‘no direct influence can be demonstrated’ (p. 131). The most striking conjunction is between ‘Eliot’s famous short poem “Silence” (1910)’ and ‘a no less famous lyric’ of Montale. I must confess I had not heard of Eliot’s ‘famous’ poem (in Inventions of the March Hare) of which Casella manages to quote fourteen words ; all contributors seem heavily inhibited from quoting Eliot, no doubt because of the expensive fees charged by the Eliot estate, and this limits the intelligibility of the book for those who do not know Eliot by heart. Another poet, Mario Luzi, wrote ‘countermelodies’ to Eliot’s poems, which at first glance look like pastiche: ‘Here I am, a person in a room./ a man at the bottom of a house, I listen/ to the sputtering of the flame’ (compare ‘Gerontion’). In Spain before the Civil War, Eliot was seen as a Romantic, the successor of Wordsworth and Coleridge; during the Franco dictatorship he was prized as a conservative religious voice; more recently the radical innovativeness of ‘Prufrock’ has taken the ascendant. Juan Ramon Jiménez was his foremost admirer and translator, though critical of his poetic ‘tricks’ and contemptuous of his conservative politics. Two leftist homosexual poets, Luis Cernuda and Jaime Gil de Biedma, drew on the urban, demotic, decadent side of Eliot. Cernuda, displeased at Eliot’s unfavourable review of Edmund Wilson’s translations of his verse, panned Eliot’s provincial attitude to Goethe and put it down to religious prejudice. In Iceland, K. E. Andrésson’s pioneering 1949 essay on Eliot identifies as the basic element of his verse the ‘centrepiece of the bourgeois world view nowadays, fear of life’ (p. 110).
Among modernist Israeli poets of the 1950s and 1960s T. Carmi drew on the ‘mythical method’ of Ulysses and The Waste Land, to reveal ‘the Bible’s early Near Eastern, idol-worshipping and magically oriented cultural origins’ (Leonore Gerstein, p. 75) in The Brass Serpent (the title refers to Numbers 21). Critic Ruth Nevo explored the presence of the Hebrew Bible in The Waste Land, yet Israeli poets had no interest in the biblical resonances in Eliot. Gerstein sees ‘the lacunae in the Israeli construction of Eliot not as an insufficiency, but rather as a system of interesting, culturally-specific filters’ (p. 85). In China we find pastiches of the following type: ‘Man bears too much reality/ And sometimes cannot find its meaning./ The cold wind withers our hopes,/ withering them like flowers’ (p. 165). In Japan, where, as Shunichi Takayanagi reports, a key role was played by the meteoric passage of the Scottish poet G. S. Fraser in 1950, an academic Eliot industry flourished in the 1970s, but there has been a slump since. Eliot pastiche is found here too: ‘This Ash-Wednesday afternoon, I saw off/ A march of so many corpses, / And asked you to go with me to eat peaches, /And we walked an endless monotonous street’ (Tachihara Masaaki, quoted, p. 191). Oe Kenzaburo’s 2005 novel, さようなら、私の本よ is steeped in quotations from Eliot as it ruminates on old age and human destructiveness – which does not sound like a promising basis for novelistic inspiration.
Others contributors study Eliot’s influence on individual authors such as Czeslaw Milosz, the Bengali poet Bishnu Dey and the Canadian poet A. J. M Smith. The last two, rather weak, essays in the volume are subjective memoirs on how it felt to read Eliot in Bengal and in Australia respectively. The latter, by Sean Pryor, contains a fine observation: ‘Eliot’s poetry anticipates its own alienation in time, place and language. It courts the fate of old stones that cannot be deciphered’ (p. 288).
This book takes us on a giddying tour of the planet, and reveals how the voice or voices of Eliot continue to percolate throughout world literature. While over-exposure of his not very voluminous poetic work has made Eliot an influence to flee from in the English-speaking world, its resurfacing in the dialects of other tribes is a great triumph for this half-forgotten ‘dead master’ , ‘both intimate and unfamiliar’, who has now indeed become a ‘compound ghost’ (‘Little Gidding’).