T. S. Eliot died on January 4, 1965. His widow, Valerie Eliot, spent the later years of her life—she died on November 9, 2012—establishing her husband’s archive. The first fruit of this work was the publication in 1971 of her edition of the original drafts of “The Waste Land.” This was followed by the publication in 1988 of the first volume of The Letters of T. S. Eliot, which she edited. A revised and much extended version of that volume appeared in 2011, with Hugh Haughton as co-editor. The fifth volume of the letters is about to be published. Meanwhile, in 2006, Mrs. Eliot commissioned The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. That was thought of at first as a scholarly print edition, of which Johns Hopkins University Press would do an electronic edition afterwards. But it was decided by the publishers, for reasons not known to me, that they would first do an online edition in eight volumes, and, later on, a limited print edition based on those. The eight separate online volumes will then be integrated into a fully searchable web platform. The first two volumes of the eight have now been published online. Two more volumes will be out next year, the remaining four in 2016–2017. Students and faculty in every subscribing university, college, and library will have immediate access to the volumes as they appear, which they can download on their iPads or other gadgets. The editors inform us that the edition will include more than one hundred items—essays, reviews, lectures, broadcasts—hitherto unpublished, and more than two hundred not recorded in Donald Gallup’s standard bibliography of Eliot.
The first volume runs from January 1905 to November 1918: It contains some juvenilia, including a schoolboy essay scolding Kipling for sundry defects, but mainly it starts off with the papers Eliot wrote as a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard and later at Merton College, Oxford. These are brilliant performances in the application of a destructive intelligence to problems of definition and terminology. The most formidable of them is “The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual,” which he wrote for a meeting of Josiah Royce’s seminar in Logic on December 9, 1913. Eliot was already on the way to becoming a great critic, relentless in diagnosing errors and contradictions in William James and other masters. His own position in philosophy was equivocal; he mostly found himself among the relativists, but not with much confidence, as in “The Relativity of the Moral Judgment.” It was inevitable that he would soon talk himself out of philosophy, though he stayed in it long enough to complete, in a somewhat casual fashion, his doctoral dissertation on F. H. Bradley, in 1916. In June 1914, he arrived in Europe, officially to spend a year on a fellowship at Merton, but in truth to see something of Europe, before the War put a stop to his travels. On January 6, 1915 he wrote to Norbert Wiener, not yet the inventor of cybernetics, but for now a mathematician vacationing in philosophy at Cambridge:
For me, as for Santayana, philosophy is chiefly literary criticism and conversation about life. . . . The only reason why relativism does not do away with philosophy altogether, after all, is that there is no such thing to abolish! There is art, and there is science.
He didn’t return to Harvard to defend his dissertation, so the degree was not conferred. He had no desire to spend his life teaching philosophy, so the loss of the doctoral degree was not a grief to him. The dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, was not published until 1964. Eliot never withdrew his admiration, or at least his respect, for Bradley, but in later years he lost much of his interest in his philosophy and quoted him mainly as a stylist, a master of English prose. You may read the dissertation at your leisure in Vol. 1.
The second volume goes from April 1919 to December 1926. Eliot was now a formidable poet, author of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1919), Ara Vos Prec (1920), and “The Waste Land” (October 1922). He was also a notable man of letters, a major literary and cultural journalist in London. Bertrand Russell helped him to get a start in reviewing for the International Journal of Ethics and The Monist. But he made his own mark in The New Statesman, The Athenaeum, Art & Letters, The Egoist, and especially The Times Literary Supplement, where the editor Bruce Richmond encouraged him to write full pages on whatever aroused his interest. Mainly he wrote on the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century and the minor Elizabethan dramatists. But he also took up an agenda of several good causes, starting with the need to establish what “modern” meant in the phrase “modern literature.” He did this not by propounding a theory of modernity that his favorite writers fulfilled, but by repeating, again and again, the names of those artists he deemed worthy to be called modern. Primarily, Ezra Pound. Then Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and T. E. Hulme. Frazer in anthropology. Bradley of course in philosophy. Marianne Moore in poetry, yes indeed. Remy de Gourmont and Julien Benda in literary criticism. In ballet, Massine. In music, Stravinsky for The Rite of Spring. Yeats, not yet, despite Pound’s endorsement of him: he hadn’t yet written The Tower. Thomas Hardy, never: “a faint infection of decadence.” Conrad, the early novels. D. H. Lawrence: Eliot couldn’t quite decide, though he was leaning toward “nay.” Shaw, not at all—“Shaw’s mind is a free and easy mind: every idea, no matter how irrelevant, is welcome.” Meredith, no. Gilbert Murray, the enemy, think of the damage his translations of Greek tragedy continue to do, “Greek without tears.” And behind all the modernists, the lonely figure of Henry James, “the most intelligent man of his generation.”
Another item in Eliot’s agenda: to invoke the sentiment if not the conviction of Europe as a cultural entity, “the European idea, the idea of a common culture of Western Europe.” When he founded The Criterion and edited it from 1922 to 1939, Eliot did the best he could to forward this idea, but he soon learned that it was a burden to persuade his favorite Europeans to join him. He published a few essays that could be called European—it was good to have Valéry Larbaud praising Joyce—but he could not summon Europe to rise to his occasions, and the coming War rendered his dream null. It was hard enough to keep his Londoners—John Middleton Murry and Herbert Read among the boisterous lot—under control. If he had any energy left over, he had a third project, the possibility of creating a poetic drama, more specifically a verse drama:
The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material . . .
—this last an idea he mentioned again in his essay on Marie Lloyd (1923): it can be seen, if only as a mirage, in Eliot’s first attempt at a verse play, the unfinished “Sweeney Agonistes” (1932).
Eliot’s critical method, the only one he recommended, was “to be very intelligent.” He practiced that method boldly, and usually finished off his paragraphs with an aphoristic flourish. Some of these have a deplorable tendency to lodge in one’s memory: “Yet I am not sure, after reading modern theology, that the pale Galilean has conquered.” “We cannot return to sleep and call it order.” “The suspicion is in our breast that Mr. Whibley might admire George Meredith.” “The book is written in an artless style, which ends by pleasing.” “I do not mean to suggest that all discontent is divine, or that all self-righteousness is loathsome.” It is not a surprise that, during his first years in London, he was so prolific that he could not stop to verify his quotations or to give scholarly references. This makes a problem for the editors of these two volumes, who have had to pursue his allusions through several languages: Greek, Latin, Italian, German, and French. It is their practice to leave the errors untouched in Eliot’s texts, but to correct them in the notes. The volumes are most helpfully annotated. The only occasion on which I feel that the editors have somehow missed the point is when Eliot makes the cryptic remark: “The trial of Oscar Wilde led to the constitution of the Irish Free State.” I’m still puzzled. If Eliot meant that the evidences of immorality that came out in the trial impelled the leaders of the Irish Free State to draft a morally stringent constitution in 1922, he was wrong: that Constitution was not at all oppressive. It was Eamon de Valera’s Constitution of 1937 that introduced contentious sentences about the privileged position of the Roman Catholic Church, the prohibition of divorce, and other domestic observances. But apart from that opacity, I find that the editors have given me a belated education in the liberal arts. For instance, I am glad to know that Eliot was being merely cheeky in attributing to Santayana the statement that “the only philosophy Shakespeare had was expressed in the statement that Duncan is in his grave.” Santayana never said that.
Eliot selected from these early essays and reviews enough of them to make slim volumes of his criticism, The Sacred Wood (1920), Homage to John Dryden (1924), For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), and Selected Essays (1932). He might well have chosen, but he didn’t, “The Borderline of Prose,” “Reflections on Vers Libre,” “Ulysses, Order and Myth,” “Donne’s Sermons,” “A Brief Introduction to the Method of Paul Valéry,” and his reviews of The Education of Henry Adams and Yeats’s The Cutting of an Agate. Some good essays were rescued for later books, notably an essay on Sir John Davies (1926) for On Poetry and Poets (1957), “Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry” (1917) and “Reflections on ‘Vers Libre’ ” (1917) for To Criticize the Critic (1965), this latter already chosen by John Hayward for his T. S. Eliot: Selected Prose (1953). But The Sacred Wood, Eliot’s choice of his essays written in 1919 and 1920, was the book to buy. F. R. Leavis bought it and read it thereafter three times a year, sharp pencil in hand.
It is a new experience to come upon the famous essays in the midst of occasional pieces which none of us, except the editors of the two volumes, can have read before. The now-notorious phrases—“dissociation of sensibility,” “objective correlative,” Hamlet “is most certainly an artistic failure,” and more besides— rest on the page as if they had no intention of cutting a dash in the world or causing tempers to rise in the seminar room. It is hard to believe that “Andrew Marvell” and “The Metaphysical Poets,” not to speak of the great essay on Dante, were written as if in a short day’s work or between one domestic tribulation and the next. Not that they have gone unchallenged. The poet Geoffrey Hill, in a passage I gasped to read in his Alienated Majesty a year or two ago, said that Eliot, having written in “The Waste Land,” “ ‘On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing.’ ” subsequently became, in the lecture halls of Harvard, London, Chicago, Swansea, and Leeds, “increasingly able to connect everything with everything.” The Complete Prose will present all the evidence, more than we have now, and we will be able to decide whether Hill’s sentence is a joke, a jibe, or a vast implicative censure.
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