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,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled
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. …