"Several Centers": T. S. Eliot's Wartime Agenda of Cultural Unity and Diversity

By Williams, David A. | Yeats Eliot Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

"Several Centers": T. S. Eliot's Wartime Agenda of Cultural Unity and Diversity


Williams, David A., Yeats Eliot Review


In his reflections on poetry's social significance in times of conflict, Seamus Heaney quotes a low-point in T. S. Eliot's wartime morale--a letter written to E. Martin Brown in October, 1942:

In the midst of what is going on now, It is bard, when yon sit down at a desk, to feel confident that morning after morning spent fiddling with words and rhythms is justified activity[...]. And on the other hand, external or public activity is more of a drug than is this solitary toil which often seems so pointless. (1)

It is comforting, if incongruous, to catch the usually Olympian Eliot in a moment of such candid self-doubt. Incongruous, especially in light of the industrious way in which he went about his literary business throughout the War years: in addition to "fiddling with words and rhythms" (he wrote three of the Four Quartets and several other minor poems), Eliot published more than seventy short pieces of expository prose during the War, and kept up a full schedule of radio talks and public lectures, even making the journey to Dublin in 1940 amid increasingly strict travel bans to deliver the inaugural Yeats lecture there. In the midst of this crisis, where no less was at stake than the "legacy of Rome, Greece, and Israel"--in other words European culture itself--Eliot launched a wide-ranging campaign of "public activity" to defend culture, especially poetry, and its place in society. The ongoing war both frames and shapes these lectures, speeches and essays, and Eliot makes clear in them that the link between a healthy and active poetry and a peaceful and prosperous nation is fundamental. The best known of these efforts is "The Social Function of Poetry," but that essay represents only the beginnings of Eliot's wartime socio-poetical theory. The ideas presented there undergo considerable development as the war progresses, fully maturing when peace finally opens the possibility of reconstruction and reconciliation. In these pieces, often delivered as talks to refugee and ex-patriot associations in London, Eliot proposes what he calls an "organic unity" of European culture, in which local, national, and international cultures combine and influence one-an other in mutually respectful and salutary ways. It is, in the final analysis, a paradigm for political as well as cultural peace. What may surprise some readers, especially those whose image of Eliot is, as Cynthia Ozick has written, as an "autocratic, inhibited, depressed, rather narrow-minded, and considerably bigoted fake Englishman," (2) in other words as the imperious personification of official "high culture" which must be overthrown to make room for the unrecognized or underprivileged literary modes--what may surprise those who subscribe to this view is the degree to which Eliot's model for social and cultural renewal draws its strength from the diversity--we may even say "ethnicity"--of its constituent parts.

World War II was the second war that Eliot witnessed, and his response to its prosecution and denouement was informed by his experiences during and after World War I. Though Eliot had not been allowed to fight in the Great War, he had been involved to a small but significant degree in the normalization of relations that followed the peace. In 1920 he was put in charge of settling all pre-War debts between Germans and Lloyd's Bank, a complex task which familiarized him with intricacies of "that appalling document," the Treaty of Versailles. (3) Eliot had already read and had been deeply influenced by John Maynard Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), where he found ample corroboration of his own misgivings concerning that treaty. (4) Eliot was among those many contemporary observers who considered it a dangerous folly for the European victors to punish and plunder their defeated neighbors. The Waste Land draws in many ways on this foreboding. Another response, at least partially, was the founding of the Criterion magazine in the summer of 1922, in which Eliot actively sought the collaboration of "men of letters" from across the European continent.

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