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T.S. Eliot may have been flawed, but a new book reminds of his greatness on the page

Johns Hopkins University Press; Vintage Classics (Johns Hopkins University Press; Vintage Classics)
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While death can be an astute career move for underrecognized writers, it proved critically disastrous for T.S. Eliot, who succumbed to emphysema in 1965 at age 76. His 1922 masterpiece, “The Waste Land,” which celebrates its centenary this year, had already lost its avant-garde luster, having faded into a term-paper subject for AP English classes. Far worse, by the advent of the 21st century, Eliot had been labeled racist (see the smutty King Bolo poems, unpublished in his lifetime), antisemitic (mainly, but not entirely, because of a paragraph in his University of Virginia lectures, “After Strange Gods”) and an apologist for imperialism and fascism through his unswerving admiration for the work of Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis.

On a personal level, he didn’t fare any better. Biographers accused the poet of cruelly mistreating his first wife, Vivienne, whom he never visited during her many years confined to a mental hospital. Following Vivienne’s death in 1947, the poet then callously broke the heart of Emily Hale, the recipient of hundreds of letters expressing his prim devotion. Instead of marrying Hale, who had waited half her life for him, Eliot unexpectedly wed his longtime secretary Valerie Fletcher. As the Widow Eliot, this formidable woman later exercised chokehold control over the poet’s literary estate well into the current century.

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For some readers today, this agglomeration of personal failings — after such knowledge, what forgiveness? — carries over to a blanket rejection of Eliot’s creative work. This would be a mistake. Art and morality belong to separate spheres. Flawed, often seriously flawed people create immortal works. Are Gesualdo’s madrigals and Caravaggio’s masterpieces any less beautiful because the composer and the painter were murderers?

So let me confess that T.S. Eliot remains my favorite 20th-century poet. I’ve reread my copy of “The Complete Poems and Plays” — a Valentine’s Day present from the woman I would later marry — more times than I can count. Nevertheless, till recently, I wasn’t so keen about Eliot the essayist and literary critic. In his reappraisals of underappreciated Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights he unerringly singled out electrifying quotations — “Oh God, Oh God! that it were possible to undo things done; to call back yesterday!” (from Thomas Heywood) — but his more theoretical pieces, such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” could be a slog. As W.H. Auden once said, “to this day, I have never understood exactly what the objective correlative is.”

Still, that’s all changed now. During the last months of 2021 I passed many happy, desultory hours grazing in “The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot.” Under the general editorship of Ronald Schuchard, this set — from Johns Hopkins University Press, which also offers its eight volumes in a less expensive digital format — must be one of the most ambitious and revelatory scholarly achievements of our time.

Within these several thousand pages are the contents of Eliot’s published essay collections and pamphlets, as well as all the literary journalism and scholarship he never reprinted. The range of material alone elicits awe: a Harvard University paper on “The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual,” outlines for the extension courses in British and French literature the expatriate American taught in England, appreciations of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” and Fowler’s “Modern English Usage” — “every person who wishes to write ought to read in it (for it is inexhaustible) for a quarter hour every night” — and even periodic critiques of the latest whodunits. There are editorials from Eliot’s literary magazine, The Criterion, multiple essays devoted to Dante, Ben Jonson, Baudelaire and the Church of England, transcriptions of engrossing radio talks on Tudor translations of Greek and Roman classics, tributes to A.E. Housman, W.B. Yeats, Paul Valery and other poets, a major address on the unity of European culture and much, much else, all of it superbly annotated.

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To my surprise, Eliot — who, in photographs, often resembled a thinly smiling cadaver in a three-piece suit — turns out to be quite lively, even snarky in his more casual journalism. We sometimes forget that the author of “The Idea of a Christian Society” could also bring out, in the same year (1939), the light verse of “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Needless to say, Eliot’s later ruminations as a public intellectual, though sometimes pompously expressed, remain touchstones of traditional conservative thought.

I marked up many passages in “The Complete Prose” — thus ruining its resale value for my heirs — but let me share at least a few of Eliot’s more pointed observations:

Dostoevsky “appears to satisfy the usual definition of genius; that is, an infinite capacity for taking no pains.”

Henry James’s “technique has received the kind of praise usually accorded to some useless, ugly, and ingenious piece of carving which has taken a very long time to make.”

Of D.H. Lawrence’s fiction: “In the series of splendid and extremely ill-written novels — each one hurled from the press before we have finished reading the last — nothing relieves the monotony of the ‘dark passions’ which makes his Males and Females rend themselves and each other.”

Of Sir Philip Sidney’s “Arcadia” and John Lyly’s “Euphues”: “The latter is a very dull book; the former I believe to be the dullest novel in the language.”

On Liberalism and Conservatism: Both “can be equally repellent: if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrifaction.”

Concerning the proper aim of the literary critic: “Perhaps the essence of his work is bringing the art of the past to bear upon the present, making it relevant to the actual generation through his own temperament, which must itself interest us.”

Given its cost, “The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot” is clearly beyond the means of many readers. Still, it’s well worth looking for at the library. Like the six prose volumes of Princeton’s “Complete Works of W.H. Auden,” the uniform editions of the essays of Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley (six volumes each), and the assembled criticism of Edmund Wilson, this monumental set bears witness to the intellectual power conferred by wide reading and deeply considered humanistic learning.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition

Ronald Schuchard, general editor

John’s Hopkins University. Eight volumes, 7,148 pages. $700

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