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,”…

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