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Eliot and the Jews

T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form

by Anthony Julius
Cambridge University Press, 308 pp., $49.95


Anthony Julius is head of litigation at the British firm of Mishcon de Reya and the legal representative of the Princess of Wales. It seems unlikely that a dispute over the correct interpretation of The Waste Land will arise in the course of the divorce proceedings now underway against the Prince, but if it does, the Princess will have the advantage. For Mr. Julius is also an Eliot scholar. He holds a doctorate from University College, London, and his thesis on Eliot has now been published by Cambridge University Press.

The argument of T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form is easily summarized: T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite; his anti-Semitism is integral to his poetry; and there is nothing in the nature of poetry that renders the anti-Semitism less anti-Semitic for being expressed in the form of poetry or that renders the poetry less poetical for including anti-Semitic expressions. The final point is the critical one for Julius, and it is what distinguishes him from every other writer who has treated the subject of Eliot and the Jews. For Julius deplores, bitterly, the anti-Semitism, but he refuses to regard it as a blemish on the poems. “Anti-Semitism,” he says, “did not disfigure Eliot’s work, it animated it. It was, on occasion, both his refuge and his inspiration, and his exploitation of its literary potential was virtuose.” There is, to put it another way, no artistic difference between Bleistein and the hyacinth girl. The one is as poetically realized as the other. Exposure to anti-Semitism is simply part of the experience of reading Eliot. When we bracket the prejudice, we miss the experience.

This is presented as an argument against Eliot criticism in general, but it is most pointedly an argument against Christopher Ricks, who considered the problem of Eliot and anti-Semitism in a chapter of T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988). Julius regards Ricks’s effort as an honorable failure, on the grounds that (to put it technically) Ricks tried to thematize the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poems. A literary critic “thematizes” an expression when he or she weaves it back, so to speak, into the poem, so that instead of being an instance of what the poem “says,” it becomes an instance of what the poem “is about.”

In Eliot’s poem “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” for example, we find the line “Rachel née Rabinovitch.” We can read this as the expression of a prejudice against Jews who change their last names to un-Jewish-sounding ones; but whose prejudice is it? In merely noting the change of name, the line does not ridicule or condemn the practice. We cannot even say with certainty whether Rachel is Jewish, or what her new name might be; it might also be Jewish-sounding. And when we place the line in the context of the rest of the poem, we see that it is one instance of a general paranoia which takes in a “lady in a cape,” a “silent vertebrate in brown,” a “man with heavy eyes,” a “someone indistinct”—all descriptions which sound ominous but are perfectly innocent in themselves. Being heavy-eyed does not condemn a man to wickedness; your grandmother may possibly have affected a cape on occasion; all humans are vertebrates; and so forth. At this point, the anti-Semitism has been “thematized” by being turned into an example of the general issue of “prejudice.” “Sweeney among the Nightingales” becomes a work “about” perception, or representation, or some other morally safe abstraction.

Julius is quite willing to concede that “Rachel née Rabinovitch” may mock the paranoia of certain anti-Semites. But he refuses to assimilate this prejudice against Jews to other types of prejudice in the poem (the “prejudice” against ladies in capes, for example). And he refuses to acquit Eliot of anti-Semitism in this case merely because the poet has managed to be superior to the bigotry his poem evokes. “Sweeney among the Nightingales” is not, Julius points out, a dramatic monologue; it has no fictional “speaker,” and critics who (like Ricks) attribute its anti-Semitism to a character are inventing literary entities for the purpose of getting Eliot off the hook. It is Eliot who summons up the traditions of the particular anti-Semitic slurs his lines evoke—even as he implies that the perniciousness of the Jews is not nearly as consequential as vulgar anti-Semites imagine:

The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;

She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue;

Leaves the room, and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin.

The mouth full of gold-capped teeth, Julius points out, is a staple of anti-Semitic caricature. So are the “heavy eyes.”

Julius judges four poems besides “Sweeney among the Nightingales” to be anti-Semitic: “Gerontion,” which includes the line “the jew squats on the window sill”; “A Cooking Egg,” which refers to the Jewish financier Alfred Mond; “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” which contains a figure of evidently dubious pedigree named Sir Ferdinand Klein, a caricatural description of Bleistein (with a “protrusive eye”), and the line “The jew is underneath the lot”; and “Dirge,” a suppressed fragment in the original draft of The Waste Land, which is a lurid image of Bleistein drowned and which includes yet another association of Jews with exophthalmus in the line “Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!”1 Julius’s procedure in each case is, first, to demonstrate that the references to Jews draw on specific traditions of anti-Semitic representation—bulging eyeballs, gold-capped teeth, leprous skin, rootlessness, parasitism, animality (“murderous paws”), and so forth—and, secondly, to show how intimately these insinuations and allusions matter to the sense of the poem as a whole.

All five poems were composed in the same brief period: four are in the volume entitled Ara Vos Prec (the American edition is called Poems), published in 1920; and the fifth, the discarded “Dirge,” was probably written in 1920 or 1921, the years in which Eliot was trying, with much difficulty, to write The Waste Land, which he finished in 1922. There are very few references to Jews in Eliot’s poetry after 1922: the probable Jewishness of the vulgarians Klipstein and Krumpacker in the uncompleted drama Sweeney Agonistes (1926-1927) is not especially salient, and the figure of Simeon, in “A Song for Simeon” (1928), is treated respectfully in the tradition of Christian condescension toward the virtuous heathen.

But Eliot did discuss the Jews a number of times in his prose after 1922—most notoriously in the passage in After Strange Gods (1934) proposing that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” in the ideal community, but also in a number of less obviously inflammatory contexts. Julius considers these cases in a separate chapter, and he closes with a survey of the results of invitations to Eliot to “amend” his earlier remarks about Jews. He judges Eliot’s responses on these occasions to be confused, unconvincing, or inadequate. He takes a more consistently hard line than Ricks did on the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s prose, but their assessments are roughly in agreement.2

Julius frankly describes his criticism as “adversarial,” and he is clearly determined to make, in the juridical sense, a case. His writing retains the flavor of the courtroom: he compiles long lists of citations (many drawn from Leon Poliakov’s four-volume History of Anti-Semitism), he reduces other critics’ arguments to a series of hypotheses to be rebutted seriatim, and sometimes, after he has run through the law and the facts, he pounds the table. He describes his book as “a work of resistance as well as respect.” This is an admirable approach, but there can seem to be something a little forensic about the way it has been carried out—as though, the law being the law, Julius felt he had a kind of professional duty to demolish every possible line of defense. If the people in Buckingham Palace checked this book for clues to Julius’s flexibility, they could not have felt much encouraged. Still, Eliot’s own critical assessments of other writers are not notable for their liberality; so there is some poetic justice in the proceedings. There is critical justice, as well.

For although Julius is not much interested in the reasons why Eliot wrote the things he did about Jews—reasons why having an exculpatory tendency—he is certainly right about what Eliot wrote, and he is right as well in his claim that Eliot’s general conception of the Jews, intellectually half-baked and morally negligent though it was, formed an integral and largely neglected aspect of his thought. I think it was a relatively minor aspect: part of the reason it was so half-baked even as anti-Semitism was that Eliot didn’t give much attention to it, and in most of the poetry and almost all of the literary criticism it fades into insignificance. But it cannot be edited out of the general picture; and if the story of Eliot and the anti-Semites had been as well known as the story of Eliot and the symbolistes, if people had heard as much about Eliot and Charles Maurras as they heard about Eliot and Jules Laforgue, Eliot’s reputation in the decades following the Second World War, when his influence in the literary world was most powerful, would have been very different. Or at least (as Jake said to Brett) it’s pretty to think so.


The story of Eliot and the symbolistes goes like this. Eliot was in the Harvard Union one day in 1908, his senior year in college, when he happened to pick up a copy of The Symbolist Movement in Literature, by the English critic Arthur Symons. The book was, he said later, “a revelation.”3 It exposed him for the first time to the poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Nerval, and Laforgue. He ordered an edition of Laforgue’s poems, and his own poetic style was transformed almost overnight from an imitation of Tennyson, as read through the prism of Rossetti and FitzGerald, to the mordant, discordant, imagistic style of Laforgue. Eliot’s first modernist poems, a series of urban landscape pieces culminating in the “Preludes,” date from this period.

Symons was a man of the Nineties, a friend of Yeats (to whom The Symbolist Movement in Literature, first published in 1899, is dedicated) and a disciple of Walter Pater. It was not an accident that Eliot gave his earliest modernist efforts a musical title; for musicality was the epitome of the Paterian aesthetic, and Symons essentially invented the symbolist movement (the term was his own idea, with some assistance from Yeats) by imposing Pater onto nineteenth-century French literature.

Symons defined symbolism as the evocation of an unseen world beyond the world known to ordinary sense. Eliot accepted the definition and (characteristically) undercut it at the same time; thus, for example, the calculated dissonance of the fourth “Prelude”:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

In 1909-1910 Eliot earned a master’s degree in literature from Harvard, and then spent the next year on his own in Paris, where he became close friends with a young Frenchman named Jean Verdenal, who would die in the war and to whom Eliot later dedicated his first book of poems. The intellectual celebrity of the day in Paris was Henri Bergson; Eliot attended his lectures in philosophy at the Collège de France, and underwent, in his own words, “a temporary conversion to Bergsonism.”4

Bergsonism was entirely compatible with Symons’s Paterized notion of symbolisme. It taught the existence of an interior life of feeling, radically different from the world known to the intellect, which we have access to only through “intuition.” The key that opened the door to this inner experience was the image. “Many diverse images,” Bergson explained in Introduction à la Métaphysique (1903), “borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.”5 The fourth “Prelude” was completed in Paris; “fancies that are curled/ Around these images” is a Bergsonian idea in Bergsonian language.

It was also during this year abroad, in the summer of 1911, that Eliot finished “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—a poem which he wrote, he later claimed, as a Bergsonian. He returned to Harvard in the fall and began the graduate studies in philosophy which led to his dissertation on F.H. Bradley. In 1914, he went to England on a Harvard fellowship, and it was there that he met Ezra Pound, to whom he showed “Prufrock.” Pound was stunned. (Eliot was unable to return the compliment. He regarded Pound’s verse, he told his friend Conrad Aiken, as “touchingly incompetent.”)6

Pound was not a Bergsonian, but he had been heavily influenced by Bergson’s leading disciple in England, the journalist-philosopher T.E. Hulme. Hulme had translated the Introduction à la Métaphysique into English in 1913, and he had been busy for a number of years before that trying to derive from Bergsonism a theory of poetry—a theory in which experience might be represented by the equivalent of what Hulme called “a language of intuition.”7 It is always a little hard to know with Pound just what the intellectual bases for his enthusiasms are, but he must have recognized in “Prufrock” an extremely witty exercise in the sort of poetry Hulme had been talking about. Pound had already been peddling his own knockoff of Hulme’s theory, which he called “imagism,” and he was quick to make Eliot a protégé by undertaking to promote his work. This favor Eliot did return; he seems to have gotten over his indifference to Pound’s poetry rather quickly.

Eliot finished his dissertation in 1916, but he had already decided on a literary career. He remained in England, becoming an assistant editor at the little magazine The Egoist, which Pound had made the flagship of the imagist movement. He and Pound continued to collaborate, experimenting with different metrical forms. In 1921, Eliot wrote the famous essay in which he praised the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century—Donne, Herbert, Marvell, and so on—for “trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling,”8 and in which he proposed that the only modern equivalent to their poetry was the poetry of the French symbolistes Corbière and Laforgue. The next year, with Pound’s editorial help, he published The Waste Land, a poem organized in the five-part string-quartet structure he would use later for Four Quartets, and in which his own favorite passage was the thrush’s water-dripping song, in Part V—a passage of sheer verbal musicality.

This is roughly the account of Eliot’s development that informed the first major critical treatments of his work—in I.A. Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1931), F.R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), F.O. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T.S. Eliot (1935). The story is useful for explaining what all those critics were almost exclusively interested in explaining, which is how poems like “Prufrock” and The Waste Land, which seemed to set conventional literary decorum on its head, could be read and appreciated. The story is not useful for explaining what, beyond a general despair about modern life, Eliot’s poetry might be expressing, because it takes into account only the aesthetic influences and leaves most of the intellectual influences out.


That story begins in 1909, the year Eliot, starting work toward his master’s degree at Harvard, registered for a course taught by Irving Babbitt on “Literary Criticism in France.” Babbitt was the author of Literature and the American College (1908), an attack on what he called “humanitarianism” and a defense of what he called “humanism.” Casting his argument in terms so apparently indistinguishable was possibly not the cleverest idea Babbitt ever had; what he meant by humanitarianism was, on the one hand, a brute scientism he associated with Bacon and, on the other, a fuzzy sentimentalism he associated with Rousseau—in other words, naturalism and emotivism. What he meant by humanism was, essentially, classicism—reason and restraint. He thought colleges were promoting the former when they should be teaching the latter.

Babbitt had recently returned from a sabbatical year in Paris (1907-1908), where he had read and was greatly influenced by a book called Le Romantisme français (1907), by Pierre Lasserre. Le Romantisme français is an attack on French cultural decadence, which Lasserre blamed on nineteenth-century Romanticism and the cult of the individual, and, in particular, on Rousseau; and it is a recommendation for a return to the spirit of classicism. Much of the book had first appeared in the Revue de l’action française, of which Lasserre was the editor; for the attack on Romanticism, conceived in those terms, was one aspect of the “counter-revolutionary” program of the leader of the Action Française, Charles Maurras.

Maurras was one of the great enemies of the Third Republic, and the Action Française was his lifelong political party. He had made his name as a journalist by defending Hubert Henry, the colonel who had forged the documents used to convict Alfred Dreyfus. The Action Française arose out of the anti-Dreyfusard movement; Babbitt had, in fact, attended some lectures sponsored by the group on an earlier visit to Paris in the late 1890s. Anti-Semitism was therefore central to its program. Maurras later cited Edouard Drumont’s rabidly anti-Semitic La France juive (1886) (a best-seller) as the intellectual landmark of his youth. He believed, as he argued in Trois idées politiques (1898) and on innumerable occasions thereafter, that the Jews were responsible for the poison of individualism; he blamed the Jews, in fact, for Protestantism. And he called, in the name of a return to order, for monarchism, Catholicism, and extreme economic and cultural nationalism.

Babbitt admired Lasserre’s critique of Romanticism—he would eventually produce his own tome on the subject, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919)—although he regretted the extremism of the political movement the book was associated with. He helped to persuade Eliot to take his year abroad, and he encouraged him, when he got to Paris, to get a copy of Maurras’s own attack on French cultural decadence, L’Avenir de l’intelligence (1905). Eliot took the advice; he bought the book in 1911, and it became one of the touchstones of his thought.

L’Avenir de l’intelligence has four parts, only two of which are likely to have interested Eliot: the first, which is an analysis of modern French history as a struggle between “Blood and Gold,…the Usurer and the Prince, Finance and the Sword”9 ; and the third, which is an attack on “Le Romantisme féminin.” A crucial element in both discussions is the claim that the corrupting influences—the obsession with money in the first case and feminine solipsism in the second—were not French. They were the products of what Maurras called the “métèques“—foreigners who adopt French ways. He habitually referred to Rousseau (and to the concepts of liberty, fraternity, and equality themselves) as “Swiss”; he described Madame de Staël as “a Swiss of Prussian origin.”10 There is no explicit attack on the Jews in L’Avenir de l’intelligence, but any reader of Drumont, who had argued that Jews had taken over France by controlling its finances, would have had no trouble identifying the alien representatives of finance and usury as Maurras described them.

Maurras’s argument in “Le Romantisme féminin” is that the Romantic imagination is inherently feminine. It spawns self-absorption, perversity, emotional anarchy—the general attitude of, as he put it, a perpetual “je souffre, donc je suis.”11 To say that French culture was blighted by Romanticism was to say that it had been feminized. Two years later, Lasserre, in Le Romantisme français, included a chapter on “Le Sacerdoce de la femme,” which recommends “Le Romantisme féminin” as the best treatment of the subject. “Romanticism,” Lasserre explained, “when one considers its impact on ideas, sentiments, manners, literature, or art, manifests everywhere the instincts and the travail of the self-indulgent woman.”12

Eliot finished “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shortly after he read L’Avenir de l’intelligence. Ricks, in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, has a great deal of fun with the many critics, from John Crowe Ransom to Helen Gardner, who have simply assumed that the women in the lines

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

must be prating nonsense. “The absurdity of discussing his giant art, in high-pitched feminine voices, drifting through a drawing-room, adds merely extra irony to the underlying sense of the lines,” as Helen Gardner once put it. It’s true, as Ricks smugly points out, that the poem says not a word about the intellectual quality, or, for that matter, about the pitch, of the talking these women are engaged in. But it is a little hard, after reading what Eliot had been reading with admiration just before turning his attention to this poem, not to believe that Dame Helen spoke truer than she knew, and that the intention of the lines is to name a condition of cultural debilitation, and precisely for the reason that the talkers are women and not men.

Eliot’s personal meeting with Maurras, in 1910 or 1911, was probably arranged by Jean Verdenal, who is reported to have had a literary and political interest in the Action Française.13 Reactionary politics were common among young Parisians at the time, and Maurras had a gang of young followers, who were known as les camelots du roi, “the hawkers of the king,” since they sold the movement’s newspaper, L’Action française, on the sidewalks. They also engaged in the harassment of the movement’s enemies—which is to say, liberals and Jews, whom they chased through the streets and sometimes beat.

In April 1911, for example, during Eliot’s stay, the Comédie-Française put on a play, called Après moi, by Henri Bernstein. Bernstein, who was Jewish, was an established playwright who had, in his youth, deserted briefly during his military service, an episode apparently largely forgotten in 1911. But on opening night, the camelots plastered the theater with stickers denouncing “Le Juif Déserteur“; they drowned out every performance with catcalls and disturbances. After two weeks, and a discreet official request, the play was withdrawn. The incident attracted considerable attention, and Maurras, to accompany the protests, published daily attacks on Jews on the front page of L’Action française.14

In March, the paper had published an article by Lasserre (who had become its literary critic in 1908) on “La Philosophie de Bergson.” The article identified Bergson with Romanticism, condemned his philosophy for its emphasis on individuality, sensation, and the irrational, and attacked him for being a Jew. (Maurras would later protest Bergson’s election to the Académie Française because Bergson was Jewish; he protested on the same grounds after hearing that Albert Einstein might come to the Collège de France after fleeing Germany in 1933.) Whether Eliot read Lasserre’s essay is not known; but T.E. Hulme read it—he had already taken an interest in Maurras and the politics of the Action Française, and he met personally with Lasserre to discuss the article—and it marked the beginning of a complete transformation in his theory of art.

Hulme was killed in the war, in 1917, and his writings have come down to us in the form of a collection called Speculations, edited in 1924 by Herbert Read, then Eliot’s assistant at The Criterion. For years critics tried to treat the pieces in Speculations as though they were somehow intellectually consistent, until Michael Levenson pointed out, in his indispensable A Genealogy of Modernism (1984), that about half the pieces—those written before 1912—are Bergsonian and the other half—those written after 1912—are anti-Bergsonian. Hulme completely changed his mind in 1912, going from a late-Romantic subjectivism largely derived from Bergson to a profoundly anti-humanist objectivism largely derived from the German aesthetician Wilhelm Worringer. Lasserre’s article, Levenson suggests, was probably the reason.15

So that by the time Eliot met him, Pound, influenced partly by this turn of Hulme’s and partly by the self-promotional success of the Italian futurists, had dropped imagism for a “harder” aesthetic theory, something he called (in collaboration with Wyndham Lewis) “vorticism.” Pound had become suspicious of the emotionalism and subjectivism implicit in the sort of impressionistic free verse he had once encouraged; when Eliot showed up at his door, his views were in the process of a severe hardening.

Two years after that meeting, in the fall of 1916, Eliot, having decided to remain in England and needing money, taught a course in the Oxford University Extension program on “Modern French Literature.” His syllabus was essentially an outline of French anti-Romanticism; the reading list included L’Avenir de l’intelligence, Le Romantisme français, and Babbitt’s Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), which contains Babbitt’s own attack on Bergson. 16 The following year marked the beginning of Eliot’s closest collaboration with Pound, which was inaugurated by a joint decision to react against what Pound called the “emotional slither” and subjectivism of imagism and free verse. This was the decision that produced the anti-Semitic poems of Ara Vos Prec, with their strict metrical patterning and their “impersonal” voice.

These poems—“Sweeney among the Nightingales,” “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” and the rest—are not dramatic monologues because they are programmatically antagonistic to the very idea of self-expression as a literary value. They were written in deliberate reaction against “Romantic individualism” and all its evils. Given the association of individualism, sensation, and “emotional slither” with women and Jews in the French criticism Eliot had been reading and teaching since 1910, it is not surprising to find the poems populated by figures like Rachel and Bleistein, Princess Volupine and Sir Ferdinand Klein, and the shadowy étrangers of “Gerontion”: Mr. Silvero of the “caressing hands”; Hakagawa “bowing among the Titians”; Fräulein von Kulp. For these are (in Eliot’s mind) the representatives of the very dissolution for which the ostentatious formal regularity of the poems in which they appear is the symbolic antidote. They are literally what the poems are trying to “contain.” When Eliot undertook this exercise in “classical” poetic form, the alleged lubriciousness of Jews and women must have come to him as his natural subject matter.

A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time

Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.

In 1920, Pound, on a visit to Paris, picked up a book by Julien Benda called Belphégor. He admired it, and mailed a copy to Eliot in London. Pound must have recognized the book immediately as the equivalent in prose of the poems Eliot had just published in Ara Vos Prec. For Belphégor (1918) is an attack on cultural decadence in the familiar Maurrassian and Lasserrean mode. “Contemporary French Society demands that all works of art shall arouse emotion and sensation,”17 it complained; and it recited the familiar list of Rousseauian toxins: emotionalism, self-indulgence, the craving for newness and originality.

Benda suggested several candidates as possible sources of cultural debility, among them the Jews. There are, he explained, two types: “the severe, moralistic Jew, and the Jew who is always greedy for sensation—speaking symbolically, the Hebrew and the Carthaginian, Jehovah and Belphegor [one of the Biblical names for Baal], Spinoza and Bergson.”18 But the Jewish influence, he says, does not explain enough; for although French society has proved susceptible to the corrupting effect of the second type of Jew, it must have been corrupted already, or it would not have been so susceptible. It is the classic anti-Semitic form of anti-anti-Semitism: the corrosive power of the Jews has been exaggerated.

Benda therefore goes on to consider several anterior causes, including “the entrance into French society of people of a different class, whose minds are in a state of nature (parvenus of trade, industry and finance, etc.).”19 But the crucial reason for the debasement of French culture, he says, “lies in the fact that it is entirely created by women20 : “All the literary attributes exalted by contemporary aesthetics are those with which women are most highly endowed, and which form a kind of monopoly of their sex; absence of general ideas, cult of the concrete and circumstantial, swift and entirely intuitive perception, receptiveness to sentiment alone, interest centered on the self…. Men…try to imitate the literature of their rivals. Alas!… There is a degree of unintellectuality and shamelessness to which they will never attain.”21

Pound knew his man. Eliot responded enthusiastically, and asked for more Benda. A month later, he told Scofield Thayer, editor of the American literary magazine The Dial, that “Benda’s book is ripping,”22 and recommended that The Dial serialize the whole thing. (It did.) In 1922, when Eliot was starting up The Criterion, he eagerly solicited something from Benda; Benda eventually gave him a short piece, which Eliot ran in 1923 with a note calling Belphégor “one of the most remarkable essays in criticism of our time.”23 He later reviewed (unsympathetically) the book for which Benda is now famous, La Trahison des clercs (1927), but took the opportunity to describe Belphégor as “an almost final statement of the attitude of contemporary society to art and the artist.”24

When Eliot went to work at Faber and Faber, he published an English translation of Belphégor, with an introduction by his old teacher Irving Babbitt. And in 1926, he announced in The Criterion the emergence of a “classical” tendency, which the magazine would henceforth endeavor to promote, and recommended six books as exemplary: Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership, Georges Sorel’s Réflexions sur la violence, Jacques Maritain’s Réflexions sur l’intelligence, Hulme’s Speculations, L’Avenir de l’intelligence, and Belphégor. With the exception of Benda and the equivocal exception of Babbitt, every one of these writers had at one time or another been associated with the Action Française.

The following year, Eliot underwent his conversion to Anglicanism—a secret first unveiled, for most of his readers, in the famous preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), where he explains that his “general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”25 The unusual trio (as several commentors have noted) is almost certainly an echo of a 1913 article on Maurras in the Nouvelle revue française, entited “L’Esthétique des trois traditions,” in which Maurras’s views are described as “classique, catholique, monarchique.”26 (The formula was current among admirers of the Action Française before the NRF article. Hulme used a version of it in 1912 in “A Tory Philosophy,” which begins: “It is my aim to explain…why I believe in original sin, why I can’t stand romanticism, and why I am a certain kind of Tory.”)27

The allusion is fitting because, as Eliot apparently told Paul Elmer More privately, Maurras had been a principal reason for his conversion.28 Eliot made public acknowledgment of the influence as well, though his wording was elliptical: responding, in 1928, to the charge that Maurras’s influence “is to pervert his disciples and students away from Christianity,”Eliot testified that “upon me he has had exactly the opposite effect.”29

But the influence was of a peculiar kind; for Maurras was not himself a believer. Eliot had felt called upon to defend him in 1928, in fact, because two years earlier the Pope had condemned the Action Française and placed many of Maurras’s works (including L’Avenir de l’intelligence) on the Index of forbidden writings. Maurras’s promotion of Catholicism was inspired entirely by his enthusiasm for the prospect of greater order and authority that he thought it afforded. Eliot, of course, was a genuine believer. But having been persuaded into his faith by the arguments of a man for whom religion was an instrument not of personal salvation but of national cohesion, he proceeded to treat Christianity as the basis for social, economic, educational, and political reform. Thus the bizarre spectacle of Eliot’s religious writings, in which twentieth-century Anglicanism, a faith not exactly noted for its proselytizing or millennarian spirit, is made the foundation for a theocratic political vision.

The Jews therefore figured, in Eliot’s sociology, as the vestigial remainder of a phase Christendom had left behind. What is almost as startling as the direct reference to the undesirability of Jews in After Strange Gods (1934) is the almost complete lack of attention given in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) to the problem of what to do with any group not assimilable to a racially homogenous Christian order. Eliot does not seem, in those writings, antipathetic to the Jews, only indifferent. Their fate (short of conversion) simply did not matter to him. “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality,” he wrote in 1931. “The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”30 Non-Christians can feel glad at least for the recommendation of patience.


The great mistake in trying to make sense of Eliot is the assumption that he had a very consistent idea of what he was doing. The mistake is easy to fall into because of the sense of authority Eliot’s writing has always conveyed. It was an extremely precocious authority: by the time he was thirty-two, he had written three of the most influential essays in twentieth-century literary criticism—“Hamlet and His Problems,” “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and “The Metaphysical Poets.” But a knack for assurance is readily exploited, and Eliot sometimes used his capacity for sounding official as a mask for judgments that were genuinely ad hoc.

Eliot was always announcing projects, movements, doctrines, tendencies; but as soon as anyone tried to climb up on the platform with him, he pushed him off. I.A. Richards, Herbert Read, and even Babbitt were subjected to public chastisement by Eliot for what they must have assumed were views Eliot would approve. That the posthumous Speculations of T.E. Hulme was a hopelessly muddled collection hardly bothered Eliot—when the book appeared, he hailed Hulme as “the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own”31—because the muddle so closely matched his own. He was, as a poet, Bergsonian and anti-Bergsonian, Romantic and anti-Romantic, throughout his entire career. “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” is a reaction against symbolism; it is also, in its willful image-piling and narrative indeterminacy, a work unimaginable without symbolism.

Eliot’s was, remarkably, a mind of bits and pieces. His sources are easily traced, but what matters in his writing always comes from something untraceable. The influence of various aesthetic theories on his poetry can all be mapped and measured, and in the end they fail to account for what he actually wrote. There is nothing in imagism, or Bergson, or Pater, that prepares one for:

When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table

or for

April is the cruellest month.

Eliot picked up things he encountered and turned them to uses no one had quite imagined. The famous definition of the “objective correlative” in the essay on Hamlet—“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked”32—is lifted straight out of a review by Pound’s great friend Ford Madox Ford: “Poetry consists in so rendering concrete objects that the emotions produced by the objects shall arise in the reader.”33 But critics spent decades pondering Eliot’s essay, and no one remembers Ford’s. And having so spectacularly introduced the term to literary criticism, Eliot never used it again.

Kenneth Asher’s elegant and perceptive T.S. Eliot and Ideology (1995) makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the importance Maurras had for Eliot, but it gets hung up at the start by looking for signposts where there are only many, many signs. “From beginning to end,” Asher proposes, “Eliot’s work, including both the poetry and the prose, was shaped by a political vision inherited from French reactionary thinkers, especially from Charles Maurras.”34 No doubt it was, and in ways which Asher does a lot to illuminate; but Eliot’s work was shaped by a dozen other influences as well, some consistent and some inconsistent with Maurrasian philosophy.

Richard Wollheim once suggested that Eliot “was progressively led to substitute in his mind, on the one hand, ideas of less content for ideas of more content, and, on the other hand, poorer or softer ideas for better and stronger ideas.”35 Two things are distressing about the political and sociological writings Eliot produced in the 1930s. One, of course, is the deeply anti-modern animus, the high-minded intolerance, that informs them. But the other is the comfort they seem so blithely to give to people and doctrines whose potential for evil must have been perfectly manifest.

Some of these cases involve the fate of the European Jews, and Julius goes over those whose references to Jews are explicit carefully and critically, noting, for example, that Hitler had already come to power when Eliot made his remarks about the undesirability of “free-thinking Jews,” and had been in power for a year when those remarks were finally published. That Eliot was indifferent to the threat posed by Nazism to German Jews is chillingly suggested by an unsigned book notice which appeared in The Criterion in 1936. The book was The Yellow Spot: The Extermination of the Jews in Germany; it carries an introduction by the Bishop of Durham. Julius, following several other scholars, believes the writing is Eliot’s own. This is the review Eliot ran:

There should be someone to point out that this book, although enjoying a cathedratic blessing, is an attempt to arouse moral indignation by means of sensationalism. Needless to say, it does not touch on how we might alleviate the situation of those whose misfortunes it describes, still less on why they, among all the unfortunates of the world, have a first claim on our compassion and help. Certainly no English man or woman would wish to be a German Jew in Germany today; but not only is our title to the moral dictatorship of the world open to question, there is not the least prospect of our being able to exercise it. More particularly, it is noticeable that the jacket of the book speaks of the “extermination” of the Jews in Germany, whereas the title-page refers only to their “persecution”; and as the title-page is to the jacket, so are the contents to the title-page, especially in the chapter devoted to the ill-treatment of Jews in German concentration camps.36

Because it is the most explicit, this is the most appalling of Eliot’s refusals to engage with the reality of fascist anti-Semitism. But it is hardly unique; for Eliot seems to have thought it a brilliant strategy to use the spread of fascism in Europe as a stick to beat the British liberals with. So, for example, in his “Commentary” in The Criterion for October 1938—after Mussolini’s Ethiopian war, after the Anchluss, after Munich—we find him attacking “the heirs of liberalism, who find an emotional outlet in denouncing the iniquity of something called ‘fascism.”‘ “The irresponsible ‘anti-fascist,”‘ he complains, “is a danger in several ways. His activities…distract attention from the true evils of his own society. What some of these are may be learned by reading Viscount Lymington’s Famine in England37—which he goes on, at some length, though in vague terms, to praise.

Now, Viscount Lymington, later the Earl of Portsmouth, was a man named Gerard Wallop. He was a friend of Eliot’s; they had met some years earlier at a private dinner in the House of Commons. Famine in England (1938) is a warning against war with Germany, a war the British are being driven to, Wallop advises, by Communist propaganda and by those who would benefit from the chaos war would bring. What England needs instead, he argues, is a renewal of its agricultural and its human stock: “It is blood and soil which rule at last.”38 It seems that the real danger is within:

Foreign invasion of England has not happened in war time. It has happened in the last hundred years at peace. Anyone who has been able to notice with his own eyes the foreign invasion of London should read Colonel Lane’s The Alien Menace to see the extent to which it has been carried on…. These immigrants have invaded the slums and the high places as well. It should not be forgotten that those aliens who now appear to have a stake in this country have a stake also in many others. But most of those, who are obscure, have a definite stake in revolution and no instinct for or interest in English life and tradition. One by one they have ‘muscled in’ on the Englishman’s livelihood till they are everywhere in key positions. With them has come corruption and disrespect for the ancient decencies.39

Arthur Lane’s The Alien Menace is a work of classic paranoid anti-Semitism, in the tradition of Nesta Webster, whom Lane repeatedly cites. Two sentences are sufficient to give its flavor: “It is unsound and inconsistent of our Government to spend large sums of money in emigrating our best people instead of expelling and repatriating the scourings of the earth, whose natural climate and country is the East. Why not settle this evil horde in Palestine and the Euphrates Valley?”40 Following the publication of Famine in England, Wallop was invited to Berlin. He went for a week in 1939, meeting with Hitler (he had also had an audience with him earlier in the decade) and “being,” as he put it in his autobiography, “wined and dined, seeing youth work camps, bride schools, and a very great many of the good things Hitler was doing.”41

Eliot’s inability to dissociate himself from men whose anti-Semitism was virulent and overt was lifelong. Such a man was Ezra Pound, long before he listened to the economic theories of Major Douglas or heard of Mussolini. In a series entitled “Patria Mia,” in the British paper The New Age in 1912, he praised the ethnic diversity of New York City, but found it necessary to add, “The Jew alone can retain his detestable qualities.”42 Such a man was John Quinn, the New York lawyer who was the patron of Pound, Joyce, and Eliot. Quinn had written to Eliot in 1919 concerning some trouble with the publisher Horace Liveright (who was Jewish), and expressing his satisfaction on hearing news of Polish pogroms and his keen desire to start a pogrom in New York—so that Eliot must have thought it a useful piece of stroking when, writing to Quinn several years later to complain again about Liveright, he commented that he was sick of what he called Jew publishers and asked whether Quinn couldn’t find a decent Christian one.43 And such a man was Charles Maurras, who shouted, “C’est la revanche de Dreyfus!” upon his conviction by a French court for collaborating with the Nazi occupation in 1945. After the trial, the right-wing French newspaper Aspects de la France et du Monde published a special issue in homage to Maurras; Eliot contributed an essay in which he described Maurras as “a sort of Virgil who led us to the doors of the temple.”44

Julius’s argument about the poems in Ara Vos Prec seems to me unassailable: they are poetry, and they are anti-Semitic, and the two qualities are inseparable, for the poems have a place within a very specific tradition of anti-Semitic literary thought. His claim that anti-Semitism casts a shadow on Eliot’s writing after 1922 is right as well. And in the end, even his refusal to concede ground to exculpatory arguments seems just. For indifference is not a defense.

There is no evidence that Eliot ever demonstrated personal hostility to a Jew. His anti-Semitism was certainly not, as some of his defenders claimed over the years, “genteel” (whatever it could mean to be a genteel bigot); but neither was it, except as a spur to writing, acted upon or intended to be acted upon. I don’t think Eliot ever wished any harm to the Jews. But he took support from and gave support to many people who did. He was a traveler in that terrible fellowship.

For most of his career Eliot laid claim to a position outside the fray. It was his role, he seemed to feel, to be the one man who could think eschatologically while everyone around him was thinking merely biologically. Kenneth Asher has a nice phrase for the rhetorical gambit Eliot used when he assumed this stance: “the calling of a truce while he attacks from above.”45 But I don’t think Eliot’s personal associations with anti-Semitism were unworldly. I think they were all too worldly.


The Band Wagon July 11, 1996

Pound, Eliot, & Anti-Semitism October 17, 1996

  1. 1

    Julius, following other writers, asserts that the word “jew” in these lines is lower-case in all editions of Eliot’s poetry until 1963 and upper-case thereafter; but my edition of The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (Harcourt, Brace and World) has a 1971 copyright and retains the lower-case spelling. 

  2. 2

    In fairness to Ricks it should be pointed out, against Julius’s general criticism, that he does find an unthematized anti-Semitism in some of Eliot’s poems, and that he recognizes the difficulty of isolating or ignoring the anti-Semitism in any consideration of Eliot’s work. “It is better,” he says, “not only as ultimately more complimentary to the best in Eliot but also as more illuminating of the poems and the depth of their life, to acknowledge that in so far as Eliot’s poems are tinged with anti-Semitism, this—though lamentable—is not easily or neatly to be severed from things for which the poetry is not to be deplored or forgiven but actively praised” (University of California Press, 1988), p. 72. I assume that Julius would object to this as a continuing effort to argue that the anti-Semitism is to be deplored not only because it is offensive but also because it is inherently unpoetical. 

  3. 3

    T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, second edition (Methuen, 1928), p. 5. 

  4. 4

    T.S. Eliot, A Sermon Preached in Magdalene College Chapel (Cambridge University Press, 1948), p. 5. 

  5. 5

    Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by T.E. Hulme, second edition (Liberal Arts Press, 1955), pp. 27-28. The essay was first published in Revue de métaphysique et de morale in January 1903. 

  6. 6

    T.S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken, September 30, 1914, in The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1, 1898-1922, edited by Valerie Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), p. 59. 

  7. 7

    T.E. Hulme, “Searchers after Reality—Haldane,” The New Age, August 19, 1909, p. 316. 

  8. 8

    “The Metaphysical Poets,” in T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays, new edition (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950), p. 248. 

  9. 9

    Charles Maurras, L’Avenir de l’intelligence (Flammarion, 1927), pp. 16-17 (my translation). 

  10. 10

    Maurras, L’Avenir de l’intelligence, p. 208. Mme. de Staël was, of course, born in Paris. 

  11. 11

    Maurras, L’Avenir de l’intelligence, p. 220. 

  12. 12

    Pierre Lasserre, Le Romantisme français: essai sur la révolution dans les sentiments et dans les idées au XIXième siècle, new edition (Société du Mercure de France, 1908), p. 155 (my translation). 

  13. 13

    See Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot: A Life (Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 42. 

  14. 14

    My account of the Bernstein demonstrations is drawn from Eugen Weber’s Action Française: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth-Century France (Stanford University Press, 1962), pp. 83-84; information about Maurras’s articles is from Nancy Hargrove’s very useful “‘Un Présent Parfait’: Eliot and La Vie Parisienne, 1910-1911,” in T.S. Eliot at the Turn of the Century, edited by Marianne Thormählen (Lund [Sweden] University Press, 1994), p. 49. Eliot later nostalgically recalled witnessing one of the riots instigated by the camelots in 1910; see “A Commentary,” The Criterion, April 1934, p. 453. 

  15. 15

    Michael H. Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908-1922 (Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 80-102. Hulmes’s writings have at last been collected, by Karen Csengeri, in a chronologically correct edition, in which Csengeri provides an account of Hulme’s development, and notes the confusion caused by Read’s edition. The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1994). 

  16. 16

    The syllabi of Eliot’s extension courses were first published by Ronald Schuchard, in “T.S. Eliot as Extension Lecturer, 1916-1919,” Review of English Studies, N.S. 25 (1974), pp. 163-173, 292-304. 

  17. 17

    Julien Benda, Belphégor, translated by S.J.I. Lawson (Payson and Clarke, 1929), p. 3. 

  18. 18

    Benda, Belphégor, p. 113. 

  19. 19

    Benda, Belphégor, p. 117. Benda was himself the son of a Jewish tradesman who had emigrated from Belgium. 

  20. 20

    Benda, Belphégor, p. 123. 

  21. 21

    Benda, Belphégor, pp. 80-81. 

  22. 22

    T.S. Eliot to Scofield Thayer, August 10, 1920, Letters, p. 401. 

  23. 23

    The Criterion, April 1923, p. 242. 

  24. 24

    “The Idealism of Julien Benda,” The New Republic, December 12, 1928, p. 105. 

  25. 25

    For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (Faber and Faber, 1928), p. vii. 

  26. 26

    The NRF article was by Albert Thibaudet; Eliot subscribed to the magazine after returning to America in 1911. See Herbert Howarth, Notes on Some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot (Houghton Mifflin, 1964), p. 177. 

  27. 27

    “A Tory Philosophy,” The Commentator, April 3, 1912, p. 294. 

  28. 28

    See Paul Elmer More to Austin Warren, August 11, 1929, quoted in Arthur Hazard Dakin, Paul Elmer More (Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 269 n1. 

  29. 29

    “The Action Française, M. Maurras and Mr. Ward,” The Criterion, March 1928, p. 202. 

  30. 30

    “Thoughts after Lambeth,” in Selected Essays, p. 342. During the war, after Maurras had become a supporter of Pétain, Eliot conceded that the Pope’s condemnation of the Action Française in 1926 was probably sounder than he had argued at the time. See The Christian News-Letter, August 28, 1940, pp. 1-4. Eliot later deplored the imposition of Nuremberg-style laws on French Jews by the Vichy regime. His remarks on the subject (discussed by Julius) are in The Christian News-Letter, September 3, 1941, pp. 1-4. 

  31. 31

    “A Commentary,” The Criterion, April 1924, p. 231. 

  32. 32

    Selected Essays, pp. 124-125. 

  33. 33

    Ford Madox Hueffer, “From China to Peru,” The Outlook, June 19, 1915, p. 800. 

  34. 34

    Kenneth Asher, T.S. Eliot and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 2-3. 

  35. 35

    Richard Wollheim, On Art and the Mind (Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 249. 

  36. 36

    The Criterion, July 1936, pp. 759-760. 

  37. 37

    “A Commentary,” The Criterion, October 1938, p. 59. 

  38. 38

    Viscount Lymington, Famine in England, (H.F. and G. Witherby, 1938), p. 208. 

  39. 39

    Lymington, Famine in England, p. 43. 

  40. 40

    A.H. Lane, The Alien Menace: A Statement of the Case, fourth edition (Boswell, 1933), p. 20. 

  41. 41

    Gerard Wallop, Earl of Portsmouth, A Knot of Roots: An Autobiography (New American Library, 1965), p. 151. 

  42. 42

    “Patria Mia, II,” The New Age, September 12, 1912, p. 466. Readers of “Patria Mia” in Pound’s Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (New Directions, 1973) will not find this sentence. Cookson chose to reprint a later version of the essays. 

  43. 43

    John Quinn to T.S. Eliot, June 30, 1919; T.S. Eliot to John Quinn, March 12, 1923. The letters are in the Quinn Collection of the Manuscripts Division of the New York Public Library. They have not been published. 

  44. 44

    “Trois écrivains anglais,” Aspects de la France et du Monde, April 25, 1948, p. 6 (my translation). 

  45. 45

    Asher, T.S. Eliot and Ideology, p. 97.