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Eliot

Sometime in 2011, a person I very much respect challenged me as to why I possess so much of an affection for T.S. Eliot, especially since it is known he was an anti-Semite.

At this point in my post, I should admit two things. First, I didn’t know that anyone still took the charges–especially as someone as well read, learned, and respectable as this person—of Eliot’s anti-Semitism seriously any longer. That this person stated this so openly, and with clear concern for me, made me pause.

Really, Eliot was anti-Semitic?

Second, I definitely have a strong fascination with Eliot, probably something well beyond affection even, as my wife and students can confirm. I’ve been reading him since my senior high school English teacher had me memorize “The Hollow Men.” I learned a great deal from Mr. Knauer back in 1985, and much of what he taught me has stuck with me. 

Not that I would want to, but I feel as though I will never escape Eliot in my life. I come back to him again and again, and he reigns as an Anglo-American demigod in my soul’s imagination. 

There have been times in my life I’ve found his “Four Quartets” even more calming, comforting, and inspiring than the New Testament. His collected plays and poetry sits next to my bed, and I reference it frequently. This is one of three versions I own–one at home, one at school, and an electronic copy I keep my laptop and iPad.

For years, I’ve listened to Eliot read his own poetry. I even had his accent and intonations down for a while. “The river god. . . .” I have memorized much of his poetry and many of the choruses from his plays.

So, back to point one. When this person challenged me about Eliot’s supposed bigotry, I was a bit stunned. Of everything I’ve read, Eliot seems to me to be one of the single most humane persons of the twentieth century. Did the man possess a bigoted bone in his body? Eliot, an anti-Semite?

There is an odd little poem Eliot wrote in the 1910s about an unattractive Viennese man who was also Jewish. His description of the Jewish man certainly makes me uncomfortable, and I would not want my own name attached to the poem. In no way, however, is this one of Eliot’s best poems or even really worth remembering or studying. I’m not in the least convinced Eliot was anti-Semitic as much as he was anti-Semite (that is, he didn’t like this one Jewish character he had created for this poem).

Or, do I just want one of my heroes not to be anti-Semitic?

Eliot also made one strange comment in his 1933 University of Virginia lecture during which he criticized secular Jews. Eliot never allowed these to be reprinted after the initial release of After Strange Gods (1934). Despite this one awkward comment, these lectures are some of the best I’ve ever read, and After Strange Gods is one of the strongest attacks on ideology and a defense of imagination penned in the twentieth century. Unlike the strange little poem from the 1910s, After Strange Gods actually deserves to be read and studied.

Please know, I would never defend someone for anti-Semitic views. Such views are and would be as anti-humane, as anti-Natural Rights, and as anti-Christian as possible. But, it’s worth pointing out, that no one looks good in Eliot’s early poetry. He described “the Wasteland” not only in the poem of that title but in others as well. Consciously or not, Eliot’s poetry follows the pattern of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The earliest poems are Hell; the middle poems (such as The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday) are Purgatory; and the Four Quartets are Paradise.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that Eliot fought even more against secularized Christians than he did against secularized Jews. So, his one comment in After Strange Gods is not as surprising in context as it is in isolation.

Eliot was horrified by the thought that some of his contemporaries regarded him as anti-Semitic. As he told one person, “I am grieved and sometimes angered by the matter.” How could he, as a practicing Christian, despise Jews? “In the eyes of the Church, to be anti Semitic is a sin.” Categorically, he denied the charge. “I am not an anti-Semite and never have been,” he stated.

One of Eliot’s closest friends, the important literary critic and anarchist, Herbert Read, also denied the charges. As he noted after Eliot’s death in a book edited by Allen Tate, in all of their many conversations over half a century, he had never once heard Eliot make a comment that could be taken in any way as anti-Semitic.

Still, Eliot did make the two comments that can be regarded as anti-Jewish, as noted above: one in the early poem and one in his 1933 University of Virginia lectures. Even one of his greatest followers and friends, Russell Kirk, refused to apologize or defend Eliot on this matter. As Kirk wrote in a footnote to his memoir/biography, Eliot and His Age (1971), “Eliot was strangely insensitive” in these matters.

It should also be noted, Kirk believed–probably correctly–that certain lines in “Little Gidding” offered an apology for previous comments made by the author, especially those misconstrued by readers.

Again, I would never defend a person’s anti-Semitic views. Such beliefs are not only repulsive but also undignified. Still, Eliot should not be dismissed because of two comments he made during the entirety of his life. For, if we judge Eliot by his words, we have to take them as a whole. If we do, we find that the comments he wrote to promote the dignity of the human person so far outweigh those that don’t, that to focus on the two poor ones he made is grossly unfair.

So, while I’ve done my best to take the charges against Eliot seriously, I can only conclude that Eliot was a humane and brilliant man, truly one of the greats–in every way–of the twentieth century. Did he write some things he should have not? Yes. Did he write many more that he should have, blessing every one of his readers? Yes.

God bless you, Mr. Eliot, faults and all.

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12 replies to this post
  1. Hi Dr. Birzer! I have to say, I think the anti-Semitic overtones in his early poetry go further than a single poem; but ultimately I haven't studied him enough and I'm not enough of a literary critic to make any kind of statements about their place in his poetic vision, etc. But, while some of the evidence in this article (about very recently published letters) is probably not incriminating, I think some of it is, or shows a deeper bias: http://www.forward.com/articles/142722/

    Obviously, having anti-Semitic ideas (in whatever form they come) is not at all the same as supporting anti-Jewish violence, let alone the Holocaust. But clearly Eliot was influenced by his family and culture, in the stereotypes which came naturally to him (yes: he disliked one Jewish character, but he wrote the character, and he conceived of the character as Jewish in the first place.) Clearly he didn't let it dominate his life or affect his moral sensibilities, as far as I can tell; I'm no expert, but a few comments in a lifetime of letters or unguarded conversation is not obsessive. But talking about racial proclivities towards Bolshevism (even "non-political" Bolshevism, whatever that means) and the kinds of descriptions present in his poetry, show that he lived within a certain cultural mindset. We all do, and it takes a particular level of self-correction and self-consciousness (not to mention awareness of others) to amend our prejudices. It seems like as he got older, these kinds of comments stopped. I haven't seen anything incriminating past the 1920s, and apparently he made efforts to distance himself from extremists. But I do think it is fair to argue that he was some form of an anti-Semite. But then, I've just lately come around (or conceded) to the idea that we all become racists-of-some-sort by default, as we grow up within our culture (especially as privileged white people), and it's our job to correct it within ourselves to whatever extent we can. Unfortunately in the early 20th century that kind of nationalist/nativist impulse went wild, and many conservatives (*especially* conservatives) picked it up or accepted it as reasonable, if not very pretty. And that still is an issue for conservatives today, unfortunately.

    I do like Eliot and I have nothing against him, but I think it's best to be honest about something like this (not saying you weren't.) God bless!

    Courtney (Wegener)

  2. Courtney, wonderful to hear from you. And, thanks for taking the time to offer such a well-argued comment. I've not read the published letters of Eliot from the 1910s and early 1920s, so I can't comment on these. I have volumes 1 and 2 right behind me (as I type this), so I need to. And, you've inspired me to. I have read the letters between Eliot and Paul Elmer More in the late 1920s and 1930s–which have absolutely no suggestion of anti-Semitism. But, I need to read through Eliot's earlier letters. If you see any thing else that smacks of anti-Semitism in his published poetry, let me know. The one I reference in the piece above was the only one I can find. I'm no Eliot expert, though–just a lover of his (well, most of) his poetry. Again, thanks, Courtney. Much to think about.

  3. Many thanks, Dr. Birzer, for your thoughtful comments on this issue, and thanks to Courtney for a well-balanced response.

    It would have been rare indeed in Eliot's cultural milieu not to be somewhat anti-Semitic, and we might as well admit that he exhibited occasionally such ignoble sentiments–but decreasingly in later years, as Courtney suggests. It is curious that scholars seem to give a pass to people who were viciously and overtly anti-Semitic, such as Ezra Pound, but they delight in accusing Eliot.

    Besides the instance in "Gerontion" there is a passage in "Burbank with a Baedecker, Bleistein with a Cigar" that is suspect: Bleistein is "Chicago Semite Viennese" and is described somewhat negatively. But as Brad says, nobody gets a pass in the satiric poetry of Eliot's early years, including fellow WASPs. Look, for instance, at "Cousin Nancy." And I think it is right to say that his criticism in "After Strange Gods" is aimed at secularized Jews, not Jews as a whole. Eliot was under contract to allow publication of those Univ. of VA lectures, but he never permitted the book to be reprinted–quite likely he felt that he had, in the first flush of his conversion, overstated a number of things.

    You can't really use the "some of my best friends are Jews" defense, but it is actually true that TSE had friendly relationships with many Jews.During WWII he helped care for some Jewish refugees from Germany. All this has been presented in an essay by Ronald Schuchard.

    The "smoking gun" in the second volume of his letters, published two years ago, is in a letter of 12 March 1923 to his NY patron John Quinn. Quinn was a vociferously anti-Semitic, and Eliot momentarily falls into his way of speaking: "I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to . . ." (p. 71). I don't think we will see similar comments when later volumes of the letters appear, but there it is. He was under pressure from a very important patron of his, but that isn't much of an excuse.

    I would say that TSE expressed some anti-Semitic thoughts in his early days, ones that would have been fairly mild in the world he grew up in, but certainly ones we should not try to excuse. Later, he does renounce such attitudes and consider them un-Christian.

    BGL

  4. Brad,
    You know of course that Russell Kirk was accused by neocons of anti-semitism, and that he often defended Eliot against such charges. Russell's accusers had slimmer evidence, but then so did Buckley when he effectively destroyed Joe Sobran's career with his infamous polemic. It is a Serious Thing to be Called Anti-Semitic. It is not a serious thing to be anti-Catholic, and it is even less serious to be anti-white. Bigotry is largely in the eye of the beholder, and who gets morally prosecuted for bigotry depends on which tribes happen to be favored at any given historical moment. Am I an anti-LDS bigot because I write that being a serious Mormon is a deal-breaker in terms of my vote for President? We right now have a category of laws called "hate crimes" in this country. Hate crimes are almost exclusively crimes committed by white people against black people, and by heterosexual people against homosexual people. Ironically, right now most anti-semites in the US (at least the ones who are willing to talk about "hymie-town" and such things in public, are black. And on, and on. American tribes during Eliot's generation, roughly my grandfather's generation although Eliot was a bit younger, were more distinct and separate than now, but the cross-tribal violence was probably no greater. One of the very unfortunate aspects of where the very difficult concept of equality has taken us is into just this kind of conversation. Eliot, remember, grew in every way, especially spiritually. He could not have written Four Quartets in 1920; and I'm glad he could not have written The Wasteland any time after he did. Can't we just leave it at that?

  5. Thanks for these comments, Prof. Birzer. Have you or anyone else written, here at TIC, about charges of antisemitism made against G.K. Chesterton?

    John, since you asked the question, "Am I an anti-LDS bigot because I write that being a serious Mormon is a deal-breaker in terms of my vote for President?" I'll give you my answer: If that is what you really believed, then yes, that makes you an anti-LDS bigot.

  6. Ah, such glib certainty, Mr. Crandall! Then, I assume, if I also said that being a committed Muslim would constitute a deal-breaker for me (that is, and this is the only question in play, in terms of my vote for President) that you would label me an anti-Muslim bigot?

  7. A fine article, Professor Birzer!

    I think we should return to the original meanings of words like "bigot," "bias," and "prejudice." The bigot, as Chesterton says, is not the man who firmly believes that he is right, but the man who cannot possibly imagine how someone else can believe differently. By this definition, most anti-Christians these days are little more than arrant bigots, as is made evident by the astonishingly stupid things they say, without knowing in the slightest how stupid they sound, and how ignorant of genuine Christian belief and teaching they are. The person with a bias will allow some irrelevant factor to sway his opinion or action in some way; the image comes from bowling (the bias is an off-center weight to make the ball hook when rolled). Prejudice is the act of coming to a judgment before the evidence is considered.

    So then, if I say, "I believe that unwed motherhood is a bad thing for children," and I've reached that conclusion after much observation, then that is not a prejudice, but a considered judgment. If I say, "Secular Jews seem more virulently secular than their non-Jewish comrades-in-arms, and there is a good reason for this, in their more concerted rejection of the covenant God has made with them," then that is not a prejudice either, and it certainly is not bigotry. It may be true or not true, as the case may be — people often err in their judgments not from ill will but merely from the infirmity of our human nature.

    With what measure ye measure …

  8. Prof. Esolen (thank you, by the way, for what you do in Magnificat, one of my favorite publications), The wonderfully wicked Ambrose Bierce says that prejudice is a "Vagrant opinion without visible means of support." But as Russell Kirk and many others have pointed out, without prejudices we simply would not be able to function. If we were committed to gathering evidence about everything we meet up with every day and making reasoned judgments, we would all be insane within a week. Prejudices are necessary short cuts to healthy lives, are they not? My point above, however, is that the current notion of equality is silly relativism that rewards those who control the definitions. If we were to judge everyone we know or ever knew, or ever read about, on the basis of today's convictions on, say, race, there would be few men left standing, including our current President.

  9. I found your comments informative and insightful Brad, but I think you missed a very important point. You didn't really address what it means if a writer or thinker expresses thoughts that could be construed as anti-semitic (or racist or misogynistic or whatever) or even if they express thoughts that are unambiguously anti-semitic (or racist etc etc.).

    There is a tendency among certain people today that would basically dismiss any figure who did express such sentiments. I have seen this, for instance, with Chesterton.

    Now without, as you say, defending anti-semiticism or racism, I would firmly disagree that we should not read or draw inspiration from thinkers and artists who have such views. As long as you are not endorsing the bigoted views themselves I think it is silly to dismiss the figures because of this if they have other things of worth to say. This is of course clearly true in terms of Eliot or Chesterton or Shakespeare where the evidence of bigotry is ambiguous or minor. But I think that even when it is less ambiguous, say in the case of William Cobbett who I adore, it is still silly to dismiss figures because of it alone.

    I think with Eliot a lot of the opposition is ideology.If he were not known for being a traditionalist then he could have probably have got away with saying a lot more anti-semitic remarks without having people trying to dismiss everything he said because of it. The same goes for Chesterton.

    I also agree with what Tony Esolen wrote about prejudice and bigotry.

  10. First of all, if you didn't want an answer, then don't ask the question. You asked. I answered. There's no reason to be snide about it.

    Secondly, I believe if one uses a religious test to choose a candidate then that makes one a bigot, at least in the political arena. Were Protestants who refused to vote for JFK solely because he was Catholic anti-Catholic bigots? I think they were even if they worked with and had plenty of Catholic friends. In fact, that someone can have plenty of wonderful relationships with someone of a particular faith and then say, "But I'd never want that person to be President of these United States." strikes me as an irrational position.

    By the way, after I answered your question, I browsed your TIC article concerning the LDS, Romney, and how you'd vote for POTUS. I understand not voting for him because you don't like the policies he proposes and who he looks to for advice (I might not agree with you on that, but those are reasonable arguments). I do not understand rejecting him solely for his religious views.

    We're voting for President of these United States. Not Theologian-in-Chief. I would vote for any LDS member, Muslim, atheist, Jew, or Hindu if I thought that person would make a good President and Commander-in-Chief, before I'd vote for a fellow Christian who would take us further down the Leftist's path.

  11. Mr. Crandall, I find your use of "snide" to be a bit vexing. I was merely marveling at your certainty in a matter that has troubled the civilization of the west since its origins–a certainty without blinking, without even feeling you had to admit to any nuance or grey area. Yup, sir, you are a bigot, you say: You ask, I tell! Which is "snide?" Furthermore, you, again without explanation, assert in the best progressive tones that anybody of any religious persuasion is suited to be our President as long, I suppose, as they would be willing to make the same assertion. Remember, I am positing here a convinced member of LDS–or, if you want to bring in any other religious tradition, fine. Would there be no consequences for the rule of law if we were to have a Muslim head of state? Would there be no danger to religious freedom if someone who believed sincerely in no God were to be making the decisions our current President is now making? Or, to turn the question into a slightly different direction, does the fact that no member of the generation that wrote our Organic Law would have entertained the notion of even a Catholic President (which must, by your definition, make them bigots) mean that what they achieved must be taken very lightly since it was obviously arrived at through flawed morality? That argument is out there, you know, and widely believed by people who make statements quite similar to yours. It is also a bit snotty to use the old saw about "Theologian-in-Chief." Where did I imply that? I simply said that one's theology, in particular circumstances and with a particular candidate, may be a deal-breaker for my vote. If I know what I want to conserve, it is prudent, is it not, to avoid voting for someone whose view of the world might very well put what I want to conserve in peril?

  12. Buon Giorno, Dr. Birzer:
    By way of introduction, my name is Tom Jensen, a retired Navy-man living the full life in San Vito dei Normanni, Brindisi, Italy. Reading, in search of permanent truths, has been a life’s calling; especially renewed after retirement. My natural progression from Cicero-Burke-The Adamses-Kirk, led me to T. S. Eliot (long since absent following high school).

    I was especially fascinated by this posting of yours on TIC. Our ‘postino’ recently delivered my copies of “Christianity and Culture,” and “The Waste Land.” My reading of the former formed my dismay that anyone could possibly consider TSE as either an anti-Semite or anti-Semitic. What further irks me, are the recent biographers whose lead-in on Amazon Book Reviews continue this trend.

    So, I am in search of your help and advice. Of course, “Eliot and His Age,” and “T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962,” are on my soon-to-be-ordered list. However, can you recommend additional biographies of TSE that treat him with fairness, based on fact, rather than conjecture? Further, I’m torn between Williamson’s and Southam’s guides to TSE. Would you recommend either, or others that you may be familiar with?

    As a final general thought, it’s rare that a great poet was also a great prose stylist. I’m finding that TSE’s style in “C and C” is very rhythmical. It seems each word and sentence convey a strength and meaning well-beyond merely throwing words to paper.

    Thank you very much for your valuable time spent on my behalf.

    My best to you and yours, very sincerely, your ex-pat,
    Tom

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