T. S. Eliot and the Jews 3

It also during this year abroad, in the summer of 1911, that Eliot finished “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—a poem which he wrote, he later claimed, as a Bergsonian. He returned to Harvard in the fall and began the graduate studies in philosophy that led to his dissertation on the British philosopher F. H. Bradley. In 1914, he went to England on a Harvard fellowship, and it was there that he met Ezra Pound, to whom he showed “Prufrock.” Pound was stunned. (Eliot was unable to return the compliment. He regarded Pound’s verse, he told his friend Conrad Aiken, as “touchingly in¬competent.”)
Pound was not a Bergsonian, but he had been heavily influenced by Bergson’s leading disciple in England, the journalist-philosopher T. E. Hulme. Hulme had translated the “Introduction d la Mdta- physique” into English in 1913, and he had been busy for a number of years before that trying to derive from Bergsonism a theory of po-etry—a theory in which experience might be represented by the equivalent of what Hulme called “a language of intuition.” It is always a little hard to know with Pound just what the intellectual bases for his enthusiasms are, but he must have recognized in “Prufrock” an extremely witty exercise in the sort of poetry Hulme had been talking about. Pound had already been peddling his own knock-off of Hulme’s theory, which he called “imagism,” and he was quick to make Eliot a protégé by undertaking to promote his work. This favor Eliot did return; he seems to have gotten over his indif¬ference to Pound’s poetry rather quickly.
Eliot finished his dissertation in 1916, but he had already decided on a literary career rather than an academic one. He remained in England, becoming an assistant editor at the little magazine the Egoist, which Pound had made into the flagship of the imagist movement. He and Pound continued to collaborate, experimenting with different metrical forms. In 1921, Eliot wrote the famous essay in which he praised the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century—Donne, Herbert, Marvell, and so on—for “trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling,” and in which he proposed that the only modern equivalent to their poetry was the poetry of the French symbolistes Corbiere and Laforgue. The next year, with Pound’s editorial help, he published The Waste Land, a poem organized in the five-part string-quartet structure he would later use for Four Quartets, and in which his own favorite passage was the thrush’s water-dripping song, in Part V—a passage of sheer verbal musicality.
This is roughly the account of Eliot’s development that informed the first major critical treatments of his work—in I. A. Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1931), F. R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), and F. O. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1935). The story is useful for explaining what all those critics were almost exclusively interested in explaining, which is how poems like “Prufrock” and The Waste Land, which seemed to set conventional literary decorum on its head, could be read and appreciated. The story is not useful for explaining what, beyond a general despair about modern life, Eliot’s poetry might be expressing, because it takes into account only the aesthetic influences and leaves most of the intellectual influences out.

The intellectual story begins in 1909, the year that Eliot, starting work toward his master’s degree at Harvard, registered for a course taught by Irving Babbitt on “Literary Criticism in France.” Babbitt was the author of Literature and the American College (1908), an attack on what he called “humanitarianism” and a defense of what he called “humanism.” Casting his argument in terms so apparently in¬distinguishable was possibly not the cleverest idea Babbitt ever had; what he meant by humanitarianism was, on the one hand, a brute scientism he associated with Bacon and, on the other, a fuzzy sentimentalism he associated with Rousseau—in other words, naturalism and emotivism. What he meant by humanism was, essentially, classicism—reason and restraint. He thought colleges were promoting the former when they should be instilling the latter.
Babbitt had recently returned from a sabbatical year in Paris (1907-08), where he had read and was greatly influenced by a book called Le Romantisme francais (1907), by Pierre Lasserre. Le Roman- tisme francais is an attack on French cultural decadence, which Lasserre blamed on nineteenth-century romanticism and the cult of the individual, and, in particular, on Rousseau; and it is a recommendation for a return to the spirit of classicism. Much of the book had first appeared in the Revue de Vaction franqaise, of which Lasserre was the editor; for the attack on romanticism, conceived in those terms, was one aspect of the “counterrevolutionary” program of the leader of the Action Franqaise, Charles Maurras.
Maurras was one of the great enemies of the Third Republic, and the Action Frangaise was his lifelong political party. He had made his name as a journalist by defending Hubert Henry, the colonel who had forged the documents used to convict Alfred Dreyfus. The Action Franqaise arose out of the anti-Dreyfusard movement; Babbitt had, in fact, attended some lectures sponsored by the group on an earlier visit to Paris in the late 1890s. Anti-Semitism was therefore central to its program. Maurras later cited Edouard Dru- mont’s rabidly anti-Semitic La France juive (1886) (a best-seller) as the intellectual landmark of his youth. He believed, as he argued in Trois idees politiques (1898) and on innumerable occasions there¬after, that the Jews were responsible for the poison of individualism; he blamed the Jews, in fact, for Protestantism. And he called, in the name of a return to order, for monarchism, Catholicism, and extreme economic and cultural nationalism. Babbitt admired Lasserre’s critique of romanticism—he would eventually produce his own tome on the subject, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919)—al¬though he regretted the extremism of the political movement the book was associated with. He helped to persuade Eliot to take his year abroad, and he encouraged him, when he got to Paris, to get a copy of Maurras’s own attack on French cultural decadence, L’Avenir del’intelligence (1905). Eliot took the advice. He bought the book in 1911, and it became one of the touchstones of his thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*