Poets clash over 'anti-Semitic' Eliot

A book by Princess Diana's lawyer has rekindled a simmering literary row, reports Ros Wynne-Jones

Ros Wynne-Jones
Saturday 01 June 1996 23:02 BST

One question has been preoccupying an unlikely range of people in recent weeks, including some of Britain's finest poets and the Princess of Wales's divorce lawyer. It is this: was our greatest modern poet a rabid anti-Semite?

At the centre of the argument is Anthony Julius, of the legal firm Mishcon de Reya, who last year published his PhD thesis on T S Eliot ("just something to keep me busy after I became a partner"). His book, T S Eliot, Anti- Semitism and Literary Form, caused barely a ripple among book reviewers at the time of publication, but in the past fortnight has become the cause of hot debate in literary circles and lecture halls, and of many feverish Fleet Street column-inches.

Oxford University's professor of poetry, James Fenton, has proclaimed Eliot a "scoundrel" to a packed lecture theatre. Craig Raine, the poet, has written an ardent defence of Eliot in the Financial Times. Tom Paulin, a fellow poet and lecturer at the neighbouring Oxford college to Raine's, has taken Julius's side, as have the Jewish poet Dannie Abse, the novelist Will Self and Christopher Ricks, one of Eliot's most esteemed biographers. Mrs Valerie Eliot, meanwhile, has broken a long silence on her late husband to rebut one of Julius's points in a terse letter to the Times Literary Supplement.

Julius's evidence relates to a core of Eliot's poems and prose and a series of lectures called "After Strange Gods", which were later suppressed. Central to his argument is the poem "Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar", which contains the lines:

On the Rialto once

The Rats are underneath the piles.

The Jew is underneath the lot. Money in furs.

A section of the poem "Gerontion" reads:

My House is a decayed house

And the jew squats on the window sill,

the owner,

Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,

Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled

in London.

The argument is not a new one. More than half a century ago, the walls of a lecture theatre reverberated to the same accusation. Dannie Abse remembers sitting in the hall a row behind Eliot in the Thirties, when the Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff read a poem entitled "To T S Eliot". Litvinoff used Eliot's language against him:

I am not one accepted in your parish.

Bleistein is my relative and I share

the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page

in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,

a billet somewhat lower than the rats.

Abse recalls that the poet Stephen Spender rose angrily to shout that Litvinoff had "grossly offended Tom Eliot who was the most gentle of men", but that Eliot, to his credit, had quietly murmured: "It's a good poem, it's a very good poem."

"It was an effective attack," says Abse, for whom Eliot's poetry is "scarred" by its anti-Semitic sentiments. "The vicious obscenities of those poems don't make literature any more than pornography makes literature."

A fortnight ago, a lecture hall in Oxford listened to Litvinoff's accusations again, this time made by the distinguished professor of poetry James Fenton. "Julius has not uncovered any new works," says Fenton. "We have known about all this for a long time, although for many people it has been somehow invisible." He is not expecting people to stop reading The Waste Land with admiration. "It just does mean that one has to take on board, or face up to, an unpalatable side of someone who has been a great hero for a lot of people."

The question remains as to why - with the exception of Christopher Ricks's book T S Eliot and Prejudice - the subject of Eliot's anti-Semitism has lain more or less dormant for 60 years.

"Eliot was very much taken to heart by Anglicans," Fenton explains. "He was known as a Christian poet and it will seem difficult to reconcile the pious figure with the anti-Semite for some. When I was an undergraduate, and an aspiring poet, we all felt that reading Eliot was a coming of age. Auden was the big poet for me, but we all felt you had to know Eliot."

Tom Paulin, poet and lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford, senses a conspiracy in the way Eliot's anti-Semitism has been marginalised over the years and in the lukewarm reception accorded to Julius's book when it was first published six months ago. "The book didn't get proper attention in the beginning," he says. "People have been loath to admit the extent, depth and pervasiveness of Eliot's anti-Semitism. They deplore it and then leave it alone."

There had been a certain embarrassment about Julius's book, he thought. "British readers have difficulty with the revisionist discomfort of looking at Eliot in this way. They would rather fall on their knees in front of him."

The novelist Will Self has argued that the reception of Julius's book has been motivated, in part, by modern-day anti-Semitism, by the "frisson" produced by "the idea that a Jew [Julius] should be in close contact with our Aryan princess [Diana]; the woman who is held to be the most inaccessible and therefore the most desirable".

James Fenton says that following his lecture, "Eliot v Julius", he has been accused of "engaging in character assassination, indulging in vicious self-righteousness".

Eliot's only public defender has been Craig Raine. "Anti-Semitism is a special case," he has written. "The Holocaust has made it so. And were the charge proven, the perceived moral blemish would effectively occlude the literary achievement."

He takes issue with Julius's interpretations of poems such as "Burbank" and "Gerontion" and concludes by paraphrasing Milan Kundera to the effect that we, in the present, should not judge too harshly those in the past.

Meanwhile, Valerie Eliot, who rarely enters public debates about her husband, felt moved to write to the TLS to correct an inaccuracy in Julius's book. For many years academics have disputed whether or not an anti-Semitic review of a book called the Yellow Spot, which appeared in The Criterion in July 1936, was written by Eliot. Sixty years on, Mrs Eliot reassures us that the review was in fact by one Montgomery Belgion.

Anthony Julius, who first read "Burbank" as an academic 14-year-old trying to get to grips with the great master, is unimpressed by Raine's arguments. "It's like Biggles Raine to the rescue," he says. "Hero-worshipping is dangerous and immature. Eliot's poetry did not reflect the anti-Semitism of its time; it was alive to anti-Semitism, it animated his poetry."

The fight for the soul of T S Eliot, the literary icon, looks set to run and run.

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