:::this is the way the world ends:::

Poetry Post: The Buried Life

Just back from a tremendous week in the Caribbean. By way of a Poetry Post, here’s a review of a new book on T. S. Eliot that seems relevant and interesting. The idea of “the buried life” seems central to Eliot–perhaps, in some ways, to all of us in the Hollow Men. –Shotts

Books of The Times
A Devoted Tour Guide to a Desert of a Soul

Published: January 16, 2007

By Craig Raine
202 pages. Oxford University Press. $21.

In a culture that now seems long ago and far, far away, T. S. Eliot was a rock star. The poet made the cover of Time magazine in 1950, and several years later, 14,000 people turned out in Minneapolis to listen to him talk about “The Frontiers of Criticism.” Modernism was the ruling aesthetic inside and outside academe, Eliot was one of its high priests, and his most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” was hailed not only for its groundbreaking technique and glittering shards of language, but also for its difficulty — its density, its allusiveness, its recondite knowledge.

In his new book, “T. S. Eliot,” the British poet Craig Raine gives us a new, more accessible Eliot, an Eliot he describes as a virtuosic fox in terms of style, and a single-minded hedgehog when it came to themes. The one great animating idea of Eliot’s poetry, Mr. Raine persuasively argues in these pages, is the theme of the “Buried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived,” a life of missed opportunities, repressed passions, forsaken loves — the same theme, of course, that lies at the core of so much of Henry James’s work, from “The Beast in the Jungle” to “Washington Square.”

Eliot himself presented a buttoned-up banker’s mien to the world — Harold Nicolson described him as “a sacerdotal lawyer — dyspeptic, ascetic, eclectic,” while Virginia Woolf likened him to “a chapped office boy on a high stool, with a cold in his head” — and the theme of caution’s costs seems to have been deeply embedded in his own life, framed by a repressive family upbringing and a long, unhappy marriage to the unstable Vivien Haigh-Wood.

Unlike many academic critics who have expended huge amounts of energy on uncovering Eliot’s sources, pointing to obscure allusions that might unlock hidden meanings in the verse, Mr. Raine zeros in on the emotional core of the poems, using his own familiarity with Eliot’s work to give the lay reader a visceral understanding of how the poet came to articulate his ideas and how those ideas evolved over the years.

As a poet himself, Mr. Raine has a practitioner’s understanding of language and rhythm and sound, and he uses this knowledge to convey the beauty and power of Eliot’s verse, and the myriad, subtle ways it works its magic on the reader. He points out how the use of the pedantic word “therefrom” in “Gerontion” (“I that was near your heart was removed therefrom …”) functions as a “tiny cough in ink,” underscoring the narrator’s self-conscious, wallflower personality. And he points out the sexual urgency contained in the “two adjacent, cunningly unpunctuated, present participles” in these lines from “The Waste Land”: “the human engine waits/ Like a taxi throbbing waiting.”

Locating thematic links between masterworks like “The Waste Land” and lesser-known works like “Animula,” Mr. Raine does a dexterous job of showing how Eliot developed the idea of “the buried life.” The two most famous poems to address this theme directly are “The Hollow Men,” which depicts those gutless, empty souls who, as Mr. Raine puts it, have been rejected by both “heaven and hell because they have neither sinned nor been actively virtuous,” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which depicts a sensitive but timid man who has failed to seize the day, who, in Mr. Raine’s words, has resolved “to remain repressed,” to avoid “the element of risk that is part of truly living.”

“Animula,” Mr. Raine goes on, similarly depicts “a psychically damaged, confined soul corroded by its own caution,” while “Gerontion” is narrated by “a voluptuary of inaction with an extensive collection of alibis” for his circumscribed life.

As for “The Waste Land,” the title is itself a reference to the desert — a symbol of aridity, emptiness, the failure of feeling, as these lines from Eliot’s 1934 play “The Rock” make clear:

The desert is not remote in southern tropics,

The desert is not only around the corner,

The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,

The desert is in the heart of your brother.

In “Ash-Wednesday” (which was completed a few years after Eliot was received into the Church of England and which is commonly read as a poem about religious faith), Eliot revisited the idea of the failure to live, but looked at it, Mr. Raine says, “through the other end of the telescope, not as a failure,” but as a choice — “the ascetic renunciation which chooses to turn its back on pleasure, on the temporal, on sensuous emotion, on the self itself, the better to embrace eternal verities.”

Incisive as Mr. Raine’s readings of these poems are, he unfortunately appends to the main narrative of this book an embarrassing, ill-judged essay (seemingly based on earlier pieces he wrote for British newspapers in the ’90s) that attempts to defend Eliot against charges of anti-Semitism. These charges have already been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, not only by books like Anthony Julius’s 1996 study “T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form,” but also by any common-sense reading of damning passages in “Gerontion,” “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar” and the 1933 lecture in which Eliot wrote that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” and “a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.”

Mr. Raine ties himself into knots in an effort to rationalize these passages, then asserts that “we do not have all the evidence” to reach a conclusion about Eliot’s anti-Semitism. In this final chapter Mr. Raine’s admiration for Eliot — which helped him write so eloquently about the poet’s work in the book’s earlier chapters — leads him into a state of numbed denial, afflicting him with an inability to recognize the plain fact that a great artist, one of the 20th century’s pre-eminent poets and arguably its premier modernist, was also a terrible bigot.

Correction: January 18, 2007
The Books of The Times review on Tuesday, about “T. S. Eliot,” by Craig Raine, included an erroneous reference in the book to the site where 14,000 people turned out in Minnesota to hear Eliot speak in 1956. It was Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, not a baseball stadium in that city.


  1. Ned

    I read the poetry post last night and came back to it to see if my initial feelings held. I have great respect for Kakutani who has written some great reviews in the past. I also acknowledge the dangers of idol-worship, which was part of the theme of Tobias Wolff’s, Old School, which I finished before the semester started. I also acknowledge, as Jeff has pointed out in an earlier email, that we live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and any tendency toward this kind of behavior should be fought against. I was a bit disappointed by the ending of the review, or the way it ended, though. Perhaps it was fair, but it seemed cynical to end the review that way. This, of course, does not diminish my appreciattion for the post.

  2. Shotts

    Ned, I assume your disappointment of the end of the essay has to do with Kakutani’s discussion of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and Raine’s defense of it. Eliot’s anti-Semitism is what’s disappointing, ultimately, and it would have been a glaring omission for Kakutani not to discuss it, since it’s been a widely discussed issue (as has Raine’s rather odd and strained apologist stance on it).

    Part of the very “buried life” theme that Raine seems to suggest in his book is the idea of human flaw. Eliot was a deeply flawed human being. That is part of his personality and part of his art. But whether that diminishes his achievement is up for debate, and I’d guess that Ned feels it does not, ultimately. I’m not so sure, myself, since in Eliot’s case, his anti-Semitism now seems so blatant, and since it does enter into the poetry, essays, and drama and thus becomes inseparable from the artistry.


  3. Ned

    I would agree that Eliot’s anti-semitism diminishes his art, as does Pound’s or Carlyle’s or Wagner’s tendency towards fascism or supremacists. I neither excuse nor overlook Eliot’s anit-semitism. Neither did I have a problem with Kakutani discussing what seems to be Raine’s embarrassing defense of Eliot’s comments. What I questioned was Kakutani choosing to end his essay on a comment on Eliot rather than on Raine. That’s all. But as I said in my earlier comment, perhaps it was fair. I don’t know.

    Perhaps it says more about me. Perhaps my naive, protestant mind still has problems accepting heroes with flaws. Either way, I think we can all admit that it is disappointing. Maybe it comes down to an issue of a glass half-empty or half-full. At any rate, I suppose whether or not Eliot is read in fifty years and considered great, depends very little on what I say, do, or think.

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