It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose
We cannot revive old policies
Or follow an antique drum
—T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding (1942)
For the immediate future, and perhaps for a long way ahead, the continuity of our culture may have to be maintained by a very small number of people.
—T. S. Eliot, in The Criterion (1939)
It is now our unsparing obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot.
—Cynthia Ozick, “T. S. Eliot at 101” (1989)
Mistah Eliot—he dead. This is the message that the natives are sending back about T. S. Eliot. From our vantage point at the end of the millennium (maybe it should be called our “disadvantage” point), the extraordinary literary and critical authority that Eliot once commanded is almost incomprehensible. This is not simply because Eliot no longer occupies the exalted place he once did. It is also because that exalted place is itself largely unavailable. The culture that Eliot’s authority both presupposed and helped to sustain—the culture of high modernism—seems to be everywhere out of stock, back-ordered: no longer carried because no longer called for. Today, Eliot subsists mostly as a toppled icon: the source of a handful of indelible phrases, a venerable addition to academic bibliographies, reliable sustenance for the literary jackals who practice the indelicate art of diminution-through-biography. Just so the culture that Eliot sought to salvage through his poetry and critical writings. One gets the impression that, especially for younger observers, the entire world that Eliot’s sometime authority animated is irrecoverably strange and distant. For many, Eliot’s vaunted power is little more than an occult blend of mystification and tyranny—a bit like the iron charisma exercised by Conrad’s character Kurtz, whom Eliot famously memorialized in the epigraph to “The Hollow Men” (1925). It is difficult to say what is more remarkable: the potency of Eliot’s influence at its peak or the suddenness of its eclipse.
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.