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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”:

  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.

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