An American poet who expatriated to Great Britain, Nobel Prize recipient Thomas Stearns Eliot, better known as T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), is widely considered as one of the 20th century’s most influential and innovative poets.
David Chinitz is a professor at Loyola University, past President of T. S. Eliot Society, and the author and editor of several books and articles about the poet.
Simply Charly: You’ve written about Eliot in books such as T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide and A Companion to T. S. Eliot. What first attracted you to Eliot’s poetry?
David Chinitz: I was first drawn to Eliot’s intellectual side. The brilliant montage of allusion in The Waste Land, the wit of “The Hippopotamus” and “Whispers of Immortality,” and the philosophical depth of Four Quartets were tremendously exciting. The poems engaged me and made me want to understand. But what brought me back to Eliot after that first encounter was the emotional resonance of lines like, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” and “I know the voices dying with a dying fall / Beneath the music from a farther room.” I wouldn’t be the first to say that the musical quality of Eliot’s writing is a large part of what makes it memorable. But his melancholia has always appealed to me too. This may sound perverse, but good melancholic poetry can be uplifting—like a great symphony in a minor key.
SC: The back cover of A Companion to T. S. Eliot mentions the “surge of critical interest” in Eliot that has emerged since the 1990s. Could you describe what this surge has been like? What do you think prompted it?
DC: Until the early 1970s, Eliot held a unique position as the great man of modern letters—a poet who maintained an unquestionably central position in an eternal literary canon and a critic whose dicta had almost a Mosaic authority. As both the traditional literary canon and the existing critical regime came in for criticism, Eliot was an irresistible target. By the 1980s, Eliot’s name was routinely invoked in disparagement, and both he and the modernism of which he had been the leading figure were reduced to negative caricatures.
But the 1990s gradually brought new life to the study of modernism, and it became possible to revisit Eliot not as a dogmatic authority but as one of the fresh, original voices that had reanimated literature in the early 20th century. The ability to re-engage Eliot as a historical figure rather than a present-day cultural lawgiver made a tremendous difference to his reputation. His influential ideas—some antiquated, a few objectionable, many still bracing and vibrant—could be contextualized and discussed objectively. And of course, his genius as a poet had never really gone away. Eliot’s work, it turned out, had interesting things to tell us about gender and sexuality, popular culture, the rise of literary modernism, the nature of modernity, and other topics of deep interest to contemporary criticism.
SC: What did your first book, T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, contribute to the Eliot revival, and how was it received?
DC: For many years Eliot was thought of as the ultimate highbrow writer. His poetry was taken to represent pure art at its furthest remove from popular culture, and he was regarded as a great intellectual champion of the arts against the growing domination of “mass culture.” He was the opposite of television. In 1946, the art critic Clement Greenberg found it amazing that “one and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song”; in 1947, the literary critic Cleanth Brooks wondered whether “the sensibility of our age” was better represented by Eliot or detective novelist Dashiell Hammett. The fact that Eliot himself loved detective fiction and popular song, and that these and other forms of “low” culture influenced his poetry, was lost on his mid-century admirers. It was lost as well on his late-century detractors, who saw themselves as cultural egalitarians and detested the elitism associated with Eliot.
My book shows that, in fact, Eliot was productively engaged with forms of popular culture throughout his career. His attitude was not simply dismissive: it was complexly ambivalent. I also suggested that if this were true for Eliot, critics would need to rethink what we’d been saying about modernism as a whole for the past 50 years. This argument was well taken, even by readers who had once been skeptical. People were ready to hear it.
SC: Eliot is primarily remembered as a poet, but he was also a prominent literary critic in his own day. What was Eliot’s primary influence on the world of literary criticism? Did his peers respect his input?
DC: Eliot’s literary criticism was widely admired for setting new standards of seriousness and precision. To his own surprise, a few theoretical concepts promulgated rather casually in his early essays (especially the “objective correlative” and the “dissociation of sensibility”) were treated as gospel by younger critics for whom Eliot was a revered figure. Many of his critical judgments—his downgrading of John Milton and the Romantic poets in the canon, for example, and his elevation of John Donne and the metaphysicals—carried such weight with his contemporaries that even Eliot’s own attempts, later in his career, to mitigate or revise those judgments could not dislodge them. Delmore Schwartz’s 1949 essay titled “The Literary Dictatorship of T. S. Eliot” gives some idea of Eliot’s status at mid-century though it also reveals the existence of a (mainly) polite opposition. Eliot’s exalted stature remained intact until after his death in 1965. Over the next decade, the New Critical regime that had lionized him was finally routed by newer schools of criticism, such as poststructuralism, and Eliot, as the idol of the ancien régime, suffered some hard knocks to his critical reputation.
Eliot was more skeptical of his own pronouncements than many of his followers were, and his later prose consistently critiques his influential earlier essays. Ultimately, he urged a historical view of his own work: it should be seen as an expression not of transcendent aesthetic truths but of what he and like-thinking modernists had believed during the period in the early decades of the century when they were still struggling to get a hearing. His essays were most valuable, he thought, when they spoke most closely to the concerns of his poetry: “The best of my literary criticism—apart from a few notorious phrases that have had a truly embarrassing success in the world—consists of essays on poets and poetic dramatists who had influenced me.”
Despite his own modest appraisal, Eliot’s literary criticism contains too much genuine insight to be relegated entirely to the status of historical documents. His most lasting legacy as a critic, though, resides less in any particular judgments or concepts found in his essays than in his success in raising the stakes of the critical enterprise. Culture, language, literature: for Eliot, these are not merely pastimes suitable for “appreciation” in prose. They are reflections of and influences on the way human beings live their lives, and thus they demand close, careful attention on the one hand and a keen historical perspective on the other. In Eliot’s wake, criticism appeared a socially significant enterprise that engaged with and affected the world at large. The sense of purpose that Eliot conferred on criticism, which inspired the New Critics in their heyday, remains operative today—even among critics who are hostile or indifferent to Eliot’s opinions and methods.
SC: You are working now on a project involving Eliot’s critical prose, aren’t you?
DC: Yes. I am editing The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Volume 6 (1940–1946) with Ronald Schuchard, the general editor of this eight-volume series. Eliot was a prolific essayist and a significant contributor to public discussion not only of literature, but also of contemporary culture, education, religion, politics, sociology, and anthropology. Few readers realize that the familiar Collected Essays represents only a fraction of Eliot’s output in prose, while hundreds of pieces are accessible only in library archives. The prose for which Eliot is now known does not represent the depth or breadth of his thought, and he is incompletely understood as a result.
In the years covered by vol. 6, he produced over 120 works of prose, including major and minor literary essays as well as topical pieces written in response to the Second World War and to various controversies of the day. The Complete Prose will give readers all of Eliot’s essays—including quite a few that have never been published anywhere before—together with rich annotation to make them accessible. The series is being published sequentially over the next several years in a digital edition by Johns Hopkins University Press. The first two volumes appeared in July 2014.
SC: Eliot studied language in prep school, and in his essay “The Social Function of Poetry” he posited that a poet has a “direct duty to his language.” What was the influence of language on his poetry? Did he speak any languages other than English?
DC: It was Eliot’s knowledge of languages that made him a valuable employee in the foreign exchange department of Lloyds Bank—in spite of his diffident claim that he had “entered the bank under the false pretense of being a linguist.” Eliot was fluent in French, and, after graduating from college, he spent a year living in Paris. In the late teens, he even published several poems in French. He had the usual genteel education in Greek and Latin, but he took the classical languages seriously and was able to discuss translations of Euripides and Virgil in his criticism. He knew enough German to study philosophy in Germany, though that venture was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. He studied a good deal of Asian philosophy at Harvard and read Buddhist and Hindu texts in the original Sanskrit. His love for Dante led him to learn some Italian as well. The literatures of these languages all find their way into his poetry. More broadly, his experience of other languages reinforced the internationalism he championed as a social thinker and as the editor of the Criterion. Familiarity with other languages and cultures helps one understand the perspectives of others and thus realize the limited nature of one’s own.
However, when Eliot speaks of the poet’s “duty to his language,” he is referring in particular to the poet’s own language, which, he believes, poets are responsible for nurturing. The social function of poetry in English is to refine the English language as a medium for the expression of contemporary realities and feelings.
SC: What was the relationship like between Eliot and his two wives, Vivien Haigh-Wood and Valerie Fletcher? Were these relationships ever expressed through his poetry?
DC: Eliot married his first wife impulsively, after only a brief acquaintance, in 1915. At this time, he was living in England and hoped to carve out a literary life for himself there—but he knew that the hopes and expectations of his family were that he would soon return to the United States, complete his doctorate in philosophy at Harvard, and enter the professoriate. Marrying Vivien, an Englishwoman, helped him sink his roots deeper in his adopted country and resist the call to a sober, responsible, ordinary life he felt from overseas. Of course, Vivien had her own attractions. She was a spirited, intelligent, and rather unconventional woman, a talented dancer, and a strong supporter of her husband’s poetic career. Unfortunately, her physical and mental health, both fragile to begin with, were increasingly unstable, and, over time, the strain of caring for her destabilized Eliot as well. Her infidelity with Eliot’s trusted mentor, Bertrand Russell, probably hastened the marriage along its downward spiral. “To her,” Eliot later commented, “the marriage brought no happiness … to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” In this unhappy sense, Vivien was his muse for a time. Eliot separated from her in 1933; her brother committed her to an asylum in 1938; and she died, at the age of only 58, in 1947.
Eliot’s relationship with Valerie is of a completely different character. When they married in 1957, Eliot was 68 years old, and she was 30. He had not written any major poems—and scarcely any minor ones—since 1942. Elements of his last play, The Elder Statesman, were probably inspired by his feelings for Valerie, and his final poem was a short dedication to her that he published as a preface to that play. But the Eliot that Valerie married was more an eminence than an active writer. On the other hand, Eliot felt that the years of their marriage were, by far, the happiest of his life. He might even be said to have rediscovered the possibility of happiness with Valerie. Theresa Eliot, the poet’s sister-in-law, averred that Vivien “ruined Tom as a man but made him as a poet.” Valerie cannot be said to have ruined Eliot as a poet—his work was already finished—but she had the opposite effect on “Tom as a man.”
SC: What were Eliot’s religious views? Did his faith have any effect on his poetry?
DC: Eliot professed no faith when he wrote his early works, and some of them treated religion satirically. The Waste Land was admired as a forthright poetic expression of a post-religious sensibility. Eliot, according to literary critic I. A. Richards, had “effect[ed] a complete severance between his poetry and all beliefs.” It is clear from the start, though, that Eliot does not revel, as, for instance, Modernist poet Wallace Stevens does, in a world without faith. His view, buttressed by his study of anthropology, was that religion was an essential element of any culture. Could civilization thrive on some substitute for religion? Both Richards and Stevens, like poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold before them, believed that poetry itself could take religion’s place; Eliot’s early mentor Irving Babbitt and his followers believed that Humanism could. Eliot thought otherwise. “Nothing in this world or the next,” he wrote in this context, “is a substitute for anything else.”
There are a thousand ways to read The Waste Land, but if it can be said to describe what life without religion looked like to Eliot, one can imagine the religious yearning in him that found its course in his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. As an Anglo-Catholic, Eliot adhered to a movement within the Church of England that upheld such doctrinal traditions as Apostolic succession, the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, and the centrality of the sacraments. In its emphasis on ritual and dogma, the Anglicanism he practiced was poles apart from the Unitarianism of his family, which he had long since rejected.
Yet faith, as he discovered, was not something one suddenly came into but something one strained toward, against all the doubts prompted by one’s own intellect. Ash-Wednesday (1930)—perhaps the most personal poem Eliot ever published—beautifully records its speaker’s arduous struggle for faith, and the feelings of despair, bereavement, and even anger that arise from—and in turn impede—his leaden progress. Most of Eliot’s creative work from this point on, including Four Quartets and his plays, deals directly or indirectly (though not exclusively) with the paradoxes of faith and the challenge of adapting one’s own human will to the will of God.
SC: Eliot was a product of two worlds, an American upbringing, and a British adulthood. Can Eliot’s dual nationality be seen in his work? Did he identify as an American, an Englishman, or neither?
DC: Eliot once joked that poet W. H. Auden had usefully provided him with an answer to the question of whether he himself was an English or an American poet. Thanks to Auden, who had expatriated in 1939 from England to America, Eliot could say, “whichever Auden is, I suppose I must be the other.” Some of his English friends reported themselves unconscious of any national differences between Eliot and themselves; others thought they detected a slight exaggeration in his “Englishness” that gave away its constructedness. Eliot acknowledged an “indestructible American strain” in himself. In a late interview, he remarked that his poetry “wouldn’t be what it is if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America. It’s a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.”
When Eliot speaks of the “emotional springs” of his poetry, he’s thinking of subtle characteristics—habits of thought and association that even expatriation never entirely breaks. A reader looking for evidence of “dual nationality” on the surface of his poems will find surprisingly little. The scenes depicted in his “Landscapes,” a series of short lyrics, ranging from New England and Virginia to Wales and Scotland; and while three of the Four Quartets are set in English locales, “The Dry Salvages” moves between the Mississippi River and the New England coast, just as Eliot’s family, in his youth, resided in St. Louis and summered in Massachusetts. For the most part, though, very little of the cultural scene or language in Eliot’s poetry from The Waste Land onward is identifiably American. And the milieu of his plays, from Murder in the Cathedral to the end, is decidedly English.
Rather than thinking of “dual nationality,” we might do better to think in terms of cosmopolitanism. It may be in a kind of detachment from nationality that one discovers in Eliot the pliable American who became an Englishman. For example, Sweeney Agonistes—Eliot’s jazzy first, unfinished attempt at verse drama—is ostensibly set in London, but the linguistic and cultural elements of the play are so mixed as to make the work placeless. The city in The Waste Land is explicitly London, but it is implicitly everywhere. Indeed, a conflict between a strong sense of place and a general sense of placelessness was crucial to Eliot’s poetic inspiration. He himself traced that sense to his experience as a child whose Missouri upbringing made him an outsider in New England, yet whose family’s strong New England ties made him equally an outsider in St. Louis. He found a sense of belonging in Paris but was more English than French, yet never really English…. In short, as he plaintively told his friend Herbert Read in 1928—not long after he became a British subject—he was “never anything anywhere.” It may be in the existential homelessness expressed in his poetry that one sees most clearly the significance of his split nationality.
SC: You’ve recently completed a three-year term as president of the T. S. Eliot Society in St. Louis. What sort of activities and productions does the Society put out?
DC: The Eliot Society is an interesting mix of scholars and non-scholarly enthusiasts who come to Eliot for quite diverse reasons. The annual meeting is our main activity. It’s normally held in St. Louis, the city of Eliot’s birth, on the weekend closest to his September 26 birthday. (We’ve occasionally held the meeting elsewhere—London, Paris, and the Massachusetts coast—places of importance to Eliot’s life and work.) The keynote session, which is always open to the public, is the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture, given by a distinguished critic or poet. In the daylight hours, when we’re focused on Eliot, we’re intensely engaged; but during social times we’re anything but stodgy. I suppose we take after our man, who was certainly serious when he was serious, but who also wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and some rather explicit light verse.
In addition to putting on the annual meeting, the Eliot Society also publishes a substantial newsletter called Time Present, organizes relevant sessions at academic conferences, and generally does what it can to promote Eliot’s legacy.