Of Possums and Pomposity: T. S. Eliot’s “Complete Prose”

November 3, 2021   •   By Gregory McNamee

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

T. S. Eliot

IN 1946, while visiting the United States and, it’s said, a long-ago paramour, T. S. Eliot recorded his long poem The Waste Land (1922) for the Library of Congress.

His voice is wispy, frail, high-pitched, his pronunciation an exaggerated British English: “April,” he intones in the opening line, “is the crue-ell-est month.” Granted that he had been living in England for 32 years, the accent is odd, all the more so because his contemporary and sometime champion Ezra Pound, who was an expatriate for even longer, kept his flat Midwestern accent to the end of his days.

But that was Eliot, born and raised in St. Louis, who aspired to be more English than Henry VIII, more Anglican than the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a fan of monarchy, political conservatism, tradition. His bearing, even as a young man, was of a creaky stuffiness. Yet he was adept at cutting his critics to rhetorical ribbons in the snidest of Edwardian English with what he seemed sure were his superior insights: murder ex cathedra, so to speak, committed with all the zeal of a self-appointed minister of good taste.

Eliot, known as “Possum” to his closest friends, was more than all that; the nickname speaks to a trickster aspect of his character. Though quick to offer his opinions, on many matters, he was hard to pin down. Did he believe in God because he was an ardently observant Christian or because proper English gentlemen did so? Was he as pompous as he sounds on that crackly Library of Congress record? These are questions, among many others, that emerge from the pages of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press in eight volumes containing a grand total of 7,148 pages.

A similarly overstuffed collection of Eliot’s letters appeared 10 years ago, published by Yale University Press. It opened on a disarmingly confessional note: “I was very immature for my age, very timid, very inexperienced,” Eliot recalls of his adolescence, just before packing off to Harvard University to study literature. The Complete Prose opens with a short piece for his prep school literary magazine, published in 1905, that imagines a battlefield that wouldn’t have been out of place two decades later in The Waste Land: “The dead lay scattered about in great heaps, which were already black with the countless scavengers who had scented them from afar,” writes Eliot, capable of conjuring a striking image at only 17. He was also capable of an undergraduate essay bearing the presumptuous title “The Defects of Kipling,” in which 20-year-old Eliot decried the subject’s “Oriental obsession.” He received a B+.

There’s more to the story, as the volume editors reveal in an extensive footnote: half a century after Eliot turned it in, the professor’s biographer found it among his subject’s papers and sent it to Eliot, who replied that he agreed with the professor’s assessment that his writing had been “unduly harsh.” Eliot was a great fan of footnotes himself, as witness The Waste Land, and he would have approved of the thousands that figure in this set, the diligent products of general editor Ronald Schuchard and his colleagues.

Duly or unduly, Eliot could be harsh indeed, sometimes categorically. He completed a doctoral dissertation in philosophy in 1916 but, in those days of U-boat wolf packs, did not sail across the Atlantic to defend it. Many of the prose pieces in this collection, beginning about then and continuing on to the end of his life in 1965, center on philosophical theories and questions, to say nothing of philosophers themselves, many of whom he views with gimlet eye:

The Realists have won their victory simply by concentrating on scientific methods, leaving the implications as to theology still implicit. They have not wholly extirpated theology from philosophy; they have disturbed it and left it to take root again as best it can.

That note is from 1918, and it sounds a theme that would occupy Eliot for years to come. Dismissing ethics and economics as being more concerned with theory than information, he writes, in 1936, “Even philosophy, when divorced from theology and from the knowledge of life and of ascertainable facts, is but a famishing pabulum, or a draught stimulating for a moment, leaving behind drought and disillusion.”

His emphatic writings on theology, churchly affairs, and religious literature fill hundreds of pages here but with subtle shadings behind his apparent orthodoxy. Just as he would tell an audience of high school students in Cornwall that it’s better to read and take pleasure in bad poetry than to read and loathe the good stuff (“At the beginning, the important thing is to enjoy something”), so does he take a decidedly undogmatic view of dogma:

In the present ubiquity of ignorance, one cannot but suspect that many who call themselves Christians do not understand what the word means, and that some who would vigorously repudiate Christianity are more Christian than many to maintain it.

But more often than not, across more than 7,000 pages, Eliot settles back to his inflexibly learned, inflexibly conservative, inflexibly rule-bound persona. He protests disinterring William Shakespeare’s body, a project done in the early 1960s, not on the grounds that digging up the playwright’s bones violated Shakespeare’s famous wishes but instead that it was impious to open the grave “of any man or woman who had been given Christian burial.” He writes that a maligned master must instead be ranked among the foremost poets in English:

[Alfred Tennyson] has three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence. […] We may not admire his aims; but whatever he sets out to do, he succeeds in doing, with a mastery which gives us the sense of confidence that is one of the major pleasures of poetry.

(Take that, enervated beatniks!)

He manages to take a deft swipe at both a novel of which he disapproves and the newspaper that has reviewed it negatively: “[W]hereas Miss Hall’s hysteria is an aberration from civilization, that of the Sunday Express is a degradation of civilization, and is much the more alarming of the two.” And he disses the greatest sleuth in British literature, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: “There is no rich humanity, no deep and cunning psychology and knowledge of the human heart about him; he is obviously a formula. […] He is not even a very good detective.”

Even in praise, Eliot could be backhanded. He notes of the American critic and editor Dwight Macdonald, whom he met on that trip to the United States, that he

is a kind of Trotskyite or ex-Trotskyite and seems to me more like George Orwell than anybody else here, inasmuch as he likes to disagree with everybody. This means that he is frequently right though some of his articles on the British Empire are extremely irritating.

Eliot made huge mistakes. As the editorial director of Faber, he rejected W. H. Auden and James Joyce, not to mention the Paddington Bear franchise, still a going concern more than 60 years later. He rejected Orwell twice: first Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) — of which Eliot said, “It is decidedly too short, and particularly for a book of such length it seems to me too loosely constructed” — and then Animal Farm (1945), that fable of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, which Eliot turned aside with the dismissive comment, “[W]e have no conviction […] that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time.”

That the most Tory of Tories would be so concerned about Stalin’s feelings seems one of the great ironies of literary history, especially when in the 1930s he seemingly defended a future enemy with his comment, “It is not our business to criticise fascism, as an Italian régime for Italians, a product of the Italian mind.”

Reading this tome — better, this set of tomes — one might think that T. S. Eliot was incapable of smiling. His humor often has a mean-spirited bite to it, as when he lampoons the folksy dialect of his on-and-off friend Ezra Pound, who had commented that a book of Eliot’s belonged in the wastebasket: “I am going to set round the chimbly and have a chaw terbacker with Miss Meadows and the gals; and then I am going away for a 4tnight where that old Rabbit can’t reach me with his letters nor even with his post cards.” But here and there a genuinely funny line slips out, as when he confesses to the Harvard alumni newsletter, “I am afraid of high places and cows.” The reader might well wish that Eliot had taken more cues from his pen pal Groucho Marx, whose name, and name only, appears precisely once in this collection.

T. S. Eliot doesn’t figure much in the current literary studies curriculum. (Fittingly, though, seniors at Thomas Aquinas College are required to read The Waste Land.) The same is all the more true, I’d warrant, for modernist peers like Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Hilda Doolittle. And for all the boffo box office of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1981), even Eliot in his Old Possum guise is fast retreating from view. The publication of his Complete Prose, though undoubtedly an important moment in Eliot studies, probably won’t find him many new readers. But it will find the right readers and, with luck, continue to raise the right questions to ask of its curious author.

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Gregory McNamee is a writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona.