Dead poets

In the comments on the “T.S. Eliot Prize” post by Marcus, George Szirtes makes *the* salient point regarding T.S.E. Eliot and his anti-Semitism, which can be summarized as: nice poetry, shame about the politics.

Eliot’s magnificence as a poet does nothing to excuse his anti-Semitism, just as his anti-Semitism should not detract from his mastery of verse. More than once I’ve had the same discussion regarding a much-maligned Kipling and his racist tendencies.

We should never lose sight of what is and isn’t acceptable in the realm of art, but to undertake a critical analysis ignoring or ignorant of historical or social context, is next to meaningless. This doesn’t demand, for example, a grudging tolerance of 19th century literary racism, but we ought to recognise that dominant race theory as practised and preached by esteemed scholars of that era, effectively proscribed the possibility that the Victorians would ever establish their own Commission for Racial Equality. If someone like Darwin thought this about women, what do we suppose was the commoner gardener view of Africans?

Kipling was a product of an imperial age which was intellectually predicated on the belief that the British were, effectively, the chosen people. His childhood influences and experiences inside and outside India pretty much made it impossible that he could have turned out anything other than racist. Society and specious science as he knew it fostered the myth of the omnipotent and omniscient white man, which meant he had little trouble getting his work published even when it referred to “Fuzzy Wuzzies” in the Sudan.

You bet Kipling was a racist, but if we denounce him for this, we may as well ridicule his choice of dress and absurd moustache while we’re at it.

Consider the author of this:

“I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.”

No, not Nick Griffin’s great-great-great-grandfather, but the father of democracy himself, Thomas Jefferson, whose political philosophizing should henceforth receive short-shrift from any thinking person…..or not.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains.
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys.
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Who wouldn’t cut off at least one limb to be able to write like that?

I read Prufrock when I was in the third-year of secondary school (that’s year 9 in new money), and was hooked. Later that year, at the height of summer, we took a school trip to Little Gidding. As Little Gidding is two-horse town 10 miles up the A1, few fellow students could be bothered with a visit, so I was one of only 5, accompanied by our genius English teacher, Mr. Brown.

Eliot paid a visit to Little Gidding in the late spring of 1936. St. John’s church, there, houses the tomb of Nicholas Ferrar, with whom Eliot had something of a fascination. Eliot later remarked to friends that he experienced a deep, spiritual, contemplative moment in the grounds of the church and went on to write about this episode, the hamlet and the church in the last of his “Four Quartets”.

After a brief wander, I left the company of the other students and sat down in the long grass, in the shadow of the church, and enjoyed my own – and to this date only – spiritual moment.

I did so without any foreknowledge of Eliot’s experience, so when I later read of this, I convinced myself in a moment of adolescent lunacy that I was the reincarnation of this wonderful writer (I was a mixed-up kid). I then spent the next 6 months cooped up in my bedroom experimenting with poetry until I finally had to admit that I was a crap poet and, yes, I did know it.

Anybody else once believe they were a literary giant reborn?