Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, January 15, 2007

The buried poetry

Tom Paulin has slumped considerably in Ellis Sharp's estimation because of a dodgy book recommendation. He hasn't slumped in mine. There's no room left. His review of Craig Raine's new book on TS Eliot's poetry (see excerpt) offers plenty more examples, following his Newsnight Review appearances, of the monotony of his left-wing philistinism.

First, I don't see how Raine's stated theme (that "the Buried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived, is the central, animating idea" of Eliot's poetry) demands, as Paulin claims, that the critic look closely at the poet's life. I read the theme to mean every modern life, not Eliot's. "The effect of this omission is to bury Eliot's life even more deeply" Paulin says. Well Eliot is dead so he can't live any more fully than through what remains, his poems, so Raine's close readings of them seems to be the right choice rather than a regretful "recourse". After all, reading them, and the thoughts of their best readers, might help us to live more fully.

But of course, Paulin's demand is to enable us to set such possibilities aside in favour of moralising. He wants Raine to discuss Eliot's "failed marriage to his first wife, the fascist Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who joined the Blackshirts and worshipped Oswald Mosley". Why not just say "his first wife, Vivienne"? Are we supposed to make a connection between their marriage and her fascism, or its failure and her fascism? Either way, in Paulin's rhetoric the woman is a fascist first and a human being second.

And if he wants Raine to read the poems in their wider context, he might start by reading the poems in their own context. The first lines of Eliot's poetry he quotes are "the most famous lines" of Gerontion ("And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner/ Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp/ Blistered in Brussels/ Patched and peeled in London") yet fails to include the less famous fact that it is not Eliot speaking here but an old man. "Eliot, as is well known, originally put 'Jew' in lower case" Paulin tells us ominously "and any account of the poem, especially post-Julius, has to address this. Raine chooses not to do so until his appendix." I don't know how Raine deals with it in the appendix but, last week, on BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves he said he looked at Joyce's Ulysses, published in the same year and hardly an anti-Semitic text, and the same word is in lower case throughout (as a search of the online text proves). What does that tell you about James Joyce and his novel? What does it tell you about TS Eliot, champion of Joyce? "In the end" says Raine of the latter case, "we are left with the poetry. It speaks to any attentive reader."

2 comments:

  1. I realize this comes months after your intial post, but yes. Yes.
    I agree with your estimation of Paulin's review. Terry Eagleton has recently reviewed Raine's book for Prosepct Magazine, and he didn't enjoy it either (although for slightly different reasons).

    On another note, TSE read Ulysses' first two chapters in manuscript before he wrote Gerontion, and this might well have influenced the small v. upper case "J." More noteworthy, I think, is when he referred to himself in prose as "anglo-catholic," he left that denomination's name in lower case. Significant, I don't know. Curious, I believe so.

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  2. Anonymous10:45 pm

    Literary Parasites

    Tom Paulin's review of Raine's book on Eliot is more about Paulin's buried life than it is about anything else. It's also about plagiarism and power. Maybe one day someone will fill in the gaps. Perhaps it will be Dan Edwards whose letter in The Observer the following week said it all. Or perhaps all that needs to be said is that when a writer has nothing more to say, s/he will feed off others. It's a shame Paulin has slumped so low. After such knowledge, what forgiveness.

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