T. S. Eliot and the Premio Camoes: A Brief Honeymoon and Anointment of Portuguese Fascist Politics

Article excerpt

In T. S. Eliot: A Life, Peter Ackroyd writes that in April 1938 T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) "travelled to Lisbon in order to sit on the jury for the Camoens Prize" (241) without any further reference. Time and time again, I have reflected on the implications of this statement, especially after the publication of my essay, "An Overlooked Legacy: Gloucester's Portuguese Fishermen in the Background of T. S. Eliot's 'The Dry Salvages'." In this essay, I argued that Eliot was referring to the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and that this section of The Four Quartets is soaked with references to Portuguese culture. In this essay, I hope to shed some light on the overlooked episode Ackroyd alludes to while reconstructing Eliot's stay in Portugal with the few materials available. In addition, I also aim at stressing Eliot's fascination with Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's (1889-1970) fascist politics.

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Unfortunately, Eliot's widow has yet to issue the volume of his letters pertinent to this period. To complicate matters even more, the documents of the Secretariado da Propaganda Nacional (SPN), Salazar's cultural and propaganda services headed by Antonio Ferro (1895-1956), at the Lisbon Torre do Tombo archive are still unavailable for public consultation. Eliot scholars and biographers have recurrently noted his conservative views and his scepticism of democracy and its incapacity to address the problems of his time. They were often left wondering if he leaned more towards Hitler's or Mussolini'spolitical ideologies--but have failed to note that Eliot preferred a third way, a different version of authoritarianism.

While Ezra Pound was notorious for his radio broadcasts of Mussolini's fascist ideology, Eliot preferred a more discreet means such as sitting on the jury for a foreign literary prize. The scarcity of information on this issue coupled with the misleading stereotypes associated with a writer's sitting on a jury for a literary prize -especially if the nature of this prize was mostly ideological than artistic--has left this phase in Eliot's life completely ignored. I hope that the following analysis of this episode may finally help to clarify some of the speculations regarding Eliot's political views.

Trying to frame his stay in Portugal temporally and knowing what were his impressions of Lisbon (or the country), the Portuguese people, their living conditions, and other matters is--to use a cliche--like trying to find a needle in a haystack. While Ackroyd's reference does not tell us exactly when in April Eliot actually started to travel or arrived in Portugal, we do not know when he left either. What we do know for sure is that Eliot was in Lisbon on May 11th and 12th of 1938 since these were the dates when the official ceremonies were held to award the prize to the author of Portugal, Gonzague de Reynold (1880-1970), a Swiss writer. Documented evidence of his stay include pictures of Eliot among the other members of the jury as well as with a few Portuguese politicians taken during the awards ceremony and the banquet that was served. Moreover, Antonio Ferro, the regime's director of culture and propaganda, addressed Eliot (as well as the other members of the jury) during the awards speech to comment briefly on Eliot's work and personality.

Before delving at length into such matters as: the ideologies of both the recipient and work selected for the 1937 Premio Camoes (but awarded in 1938); Antonio Ferro's views on Salazar's fascist politics; and the political views of the other members of the jury, it is worth looking briefly into T. S. Eliot's political and religious views. By contrasting what a few scholars and biographers have written on this issue with the insight we gather from the episode under review, we may better understand why he found Portugal's version of fascism so appealing. Why did Eliot accept Ferro's invitation to participate in this important event and anoint Salazar's regime, which desperately sought international recognition? …