"I Bought and Praised but Did Not Read Aquinas": T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and the Ontology of the Sign

By Wilson, James Matthew | Yeats Eliot Review, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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"I Bought and Praised but Did Not Read Aquinas": T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and the Ontology of the Sign


Wilson, James Matthew, Yeats Eliot Review


In W.H. Auden's sociological send up of England in the nineteen-twenties, that almost clinical answer to Wordsworth's Prelude titled "Letter to Lord Byron," he portrays himself as the bien pensant young poet, come from the provinces up to Oxford to imbibe the canons of high modernist sensibility. He makes, naturally, an exaggerated bow to the magus of modernism, T.S. Eliot, and his organ of good taste, The Criterion. "Eliot spoke the still unspoken word," Auden writes, teaching him to abandon the Georgian pastorals of Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy in preference for "gas-works and dried tubers" (Auden Prose 1.333). This obvious reference to The Waste Land is followed by a caricature of the young poet that effectively interprets Eliot's poem of 1922 in terms of the Classicism and Anglo-Catholicism its author would a few years later come to promote in his journal. Auden continues,

   All youth's intolerant certainty was mine as
      I faced life in a double-breasted suit;
   I bought and praised but did not read Aquinas,
      At the Criterion's verdict I was mute,
      Though Arnold's I was ready to refute;
   And through the quads dogmatic words rang clear,
   "Good poetry is classic and austere." (Auden Prose 1.333)

The "Letter to Lord Byron" does not set out to depict Auden as the idiosyncratic virtuoso who appears in so many of his other works. It attempts rather to portray its author as typical of his generation, and, for such a character as he, Eliot's Criterion was identified in some ambiguous fashion with St. Thomas Aquinas; or, to be precise, with the neo-Scholastic or neo-Thomist movements that had sprung up in all the Catholic intellectual centers of Europe, and above all in Paris, Rome, and Louvain. (2)

That Eliot was deeply influenced by the French intellectual culture of his day rests beyond doubt. His debt to Henri Bergson, Georges Sorrel, Julien Benda, and Charles Maurras have been noted and much speculated upon. (3) Scholars have not failed either to observe Eliot's multiple references in his prose to the French neo-Thomist philosopher, Jacques Maritain. (4) But, because Eliot's interest in and indebtedness to French intellectual life is so wide and multifaceted, it is tempting to assume that his substantial knowledge of Maritain's work can be understood merely as one among many French connections, rather than as the continuation of a long and sophisticated intellectual engagement with the ascendant neo-Scholasticism that would dominate Catholic political and intellectual life until the nineteen-sixties. If we are willing to contemplate Eliot's career as a whole, however, we will find this to be the case. That is, we can and should understand Jacques Maritain as standing alongside his sometime fellow traveler in L'Action francaise, Charles Maurras, as prominent influences on the development of Eliot's cultural vision in the nineteen twenties; we can and should look to them and other French writers in our efforts to define the key terms of Eliot's critical vocabulary, especially as he positioned himself as a conservative man of letters and an Anglo-Catholic in the pages of The Criterion. (5)

The significance of Maritain for Eliot's work cannot be so easily circumscribed, however. The neo- Thomist made plausible for the poet-critic the moderate realist metaphysics of Scholastic philosophy with which Eliot had become familiar in the years immediately following his abandonment of his dissertation on the British Hegelian philosopher, F.H. Bradley. (6) This afforded Eliot a foundation--namely, the foundation of being--on which to set the diverse critical assertions about poetry he had been making for several years. Moreover, the connection Maritain helped Eliot to make between aesthetics and metaphysics would strengthen Eliot's already marked desire to extend his critical gaze beyond the poetical to the political and the theological. The universal language of being made such translations not merely possible but intuitive, and it is arguable that the writings of Maritain and other neo-Thomists resulted in Eliot's forgoing his early intentions of writing more systematic treatises on meta-physical poetry, poetry and religion, and even on matters of Church and State.

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"I Bought and Praised but Did Not Read Aquinas": T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and the Ontology of the Sign
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