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eliot last words

With this number I terminate my editorship of The Criterion. I have been considering this decision for about two years: but I did not wish to come to a conclusion precipitately, because I knew that my retirement would bring The Criterion to an end. During the autumn, however, the prospect of war had involved me in hurried plans for suspending publication; and in the subsequent detente I became convinced that my enthusiasm for continuing the editorial work did not exist.

Sixteen years is a long time for one man to remain editor of a review; for this review, I have sometimes wondered whether it has not been too long. A feeling of staleness has crept over me, and a suspicion that I ought to retire before I was aware that this feeling had communicated itself to the readers. A stale editor cannot do his contributors justice.

I have also felt a growing discontent, in that increase of work in other directions (both inside and outside of Russell Square) has made it less and less possible for me to perform to my own satisfaction a job which might well occupy the whole of one man’s time. I am convinced that The Criterion is not the kind of review which can be taken up and continued by one editor after another. Another man might make something better of it, but he would have to make something very different; and in so doing he would be handicapped rather than aided by The Criterion‘s tradition. If a similar review is needed, then it will be far better for someone else to start a new review with a new title. New conditions will very likely require new methods and somewhat different aims.

The Criterion has, I believe, represented a definite though (I hope) comprehensive constellation of contributors; whatever part it may have played in the literary history of these sixteen years should emerge all the more definitely for its having begun and ended under one editorship. At this point I trust that a brief review of its phases, both material and intellectual, is not out of place. The Criterion was founded in 1922 by the generosity of Viscountess Rothermere; the general intention was that it should serve as a kind of successor to the defunct Art and Letters. No one expected that it would be more than an ‘amateur’ review: its editing was the evening occupation of an editor who, being on the staff of a City bank, was not in a position to accept a salary. [I removed a number of personal thank yous — BjB] I welcome this opportunity of expressing my appreciation of the complete editorial freedom which I have enjoyed.

It should be apparent from what I have just said, that The Criterion did not start with any ambition of emulating the traditional type of British quarterly. It was a quarterly partly for reasons of economy, but also because the editor then had so little time to give to it. It certainly acquired a definite quarterly character; and during a brief period when it was run as a monthly, I came to the conclusion that whatever editorial talent I possessed did not extend to the preparation of a review appearing oftener than four times a year. [I removed a number of journal comparisons/mentions — BjB] It was the aim of The Criterion to maintain close relations with other literary reviews of its type, on the Continent and in America; and to provide in London a local forum of international thought.

The period immediately following the war of 1914 is often spoken of as a time of disillusionment: in some ways and for some people it was rather a period of illusions. Only from about the year 1926 did the features of the post-war world begin clearly to emerge—and not only in the sphere of politics. From about that date one began slowly to realize that the intellectual and artistic output of the previous seven years had been rather the last efforts of an old world, than the first struggles of a new. [I removed more personal thank yous — BjB]

Such was the activity of The Criterion during the first half of its career. Gradually communications became more difficult, contributions more uncertain, and new and important foreign contributors more difficult to discover. The ‘European mind’, which one had mistakenly thought might be renewed and fortified, disappeared from view: there were fewer writers in any country who seemed to have anything to say to the intellectual public of another. Divisions of political theory became more important; alien minds took alien ways, and Britain and France appeared to be progressing nowhere. Here in England, a definitely post-war generation began to speak. At this stage, our efforts turned to what was possible in a situation of enforced insularity; to the introduction of younger British writers, and the extension and development of ‘Books of the Quarter’. Of the international attempt, the chief vestiges are the Foreign Chronicles and the Reviews of Foreign Periodicals.

I have felt obscurely during the last eight years or so—and how obscure and confused my own mind has been, my Commentaries bear painful witness—the grave dangers to this country which might result from the lack of any vital political philosophy, either explicit or implicit. (To this need, writers in France—witness many of the books and periodicals which Mr. Belgion has from time to time discussed in his chronicle—have been more alive than we, though un-happily their thinking has not yet introduced any unanimity or order.) For myself, a right political philosophy came more and more to imply a right theology—and right economics to depend upon right ethics: leading to emphases which somewhat stretched the original framework of a literary review. In retrospect, it would seem that perhaps I devoted too much of my gossiping attention, as Commentator, to the doctrines of communism. I can only say that I was commenting on ideas, or the lack of them, and not engaging in political prophecy. I was concerned with ideas chiefly as they originated in, or penetrated to, England; and the version of fascism, which was offered locally, appeared to have no great intellectual interest—and what is perhaps more important, was not sufficiently adaptable to be grafted on to the stock of Toryism—whereas communism flourished because it grew so easily on the Liberal root.

During these years, the persons in this country who are not Liberals by temperament, and who are not attracted by the ambitious drudgery of practical politics, have remained dispersed and isolated. Some have been engaged in promoting the claims of one or another scheme of monetary reform; I am as convinced as anybody of the necessity of such change; but unfortunately the tendency of concentration upon technical economics has been to divide rather than to unite.

I have wondered whether it would not have been more profitable, instead of trying to maintain literary standards increasingly repudiated in the modern world, to have endeavoured to rally intellectual effort to affirm those principles of life and policy from the lack of which we are suffering disastrous consequences. But such a task, again, would be outside the scope of The Criterion, would require the whole of the editor’s time, and probably a more competent editor: this is perhaps another indication that The Criterion has served its purpose.

It should not be inappropriate, at this point, to turn to consider the probable future of the literary review. There have been recently some signs of apprehension about the decline of literacy: I cite the series of articles in the Times Literary Supplement called ‘Present Discontents’, and a letter from Mr. Middleton Murry, on the state of reviewing, which followed them. And a curious symptom was the appearance, in the Times Literary Supplement also, which has recently abandoned its policy of anonymity of contributors, of an excellent article defending anonymity, by Mr. Stephen Spender—with his name in large type, and a portrait of Mr. Spender in the centre. I would refer the reader to ‘Present Discontents’ (now reprinted as a pamphlet) for a survey of some of the specifically literary symptoms of decline. For they are only symptoms; they cannot be treated by themselves; the demoralization of society goes very much deeper. Even the terms used by those who are to some extent conscious of this demoralization are sometimes alarming: to use a phrase like ‘moral re-armament’ is to be in danger of betraying the word ‘moral’, of suggesting that Britain should merely invoke ‘morals’ in order to compete with the modern world on its own terms, instead of finding better terms; is to risk the accusation of seeking to arouse enthusiasm and sacrifice for an order which is in important respects inferior to that which threatens to supersede it, instead of for the realization of an order which would be better. It will perhaps need more severe affliction than anything we have yet experienced, before life can be renewed. As the state of arts and letters is a symptom of decline, so it might be a symptom of a true revival. But in any case, the immediate future is not bright.

For this immediate future, perhaps for a long way ahead, the continuity of culture may have to be maintained by a very small number of people indeed—and these not necessarily the best equipped with worldly advantages. It will not be the large organs of opinion, or the old periodicals; it must be the small and obscure papers and reviews, those which hardly are read by anyone but their own contributors, that will keep critical thought alive, and encourage authors of original talent. I wish that a periodical could be sold like admission to a theatre, at a varying scale of prices; for just as the majority of the more critical and appreciative part of the public is often to be found in the cheaper seats, so I suspect that the price at which The Criterion has had to be published is prohibitive to most of the readers who are qualified to appreciate what is good in it, and to criticise what is faulty.

In the present state of public affairs—which has induced in myself a depression of spirits so different from any other experience of fifty years as to be a new emotion—I no longer feel the enthusiasm necessary to make a literary review what it should be. This is not to suggest that I consider literature to be at this time, or at any time, a matter of indifference. On the contrary, I feel that it is all the more essential that authors who are concerned with that small part of ‘literature which is really creative—and seldom immediately popular—should apply themselves sedulously to their work, without abatement or sacrifice of their artistic standards on any pretext whatsoever.

I wish in closing to express my gratitude to the contributors to The Criterion, during sixteen years, and especially to those whose contributions have been most constant. My thanks are due especially to the reviewers: for a review up to the standard which we have endeavoured to keep, is a piece of work costing the writer more time and thought than any practicable scale of payment can remunerate. And particularly to those who have, from time to time, assumed the arduous responsibility of reviewing foreign and other periodicals: the labour of reading and digesting a mass of periodicals is, on any scale of payment, a labour of love. The Criterion has brought me associations, friendships and acquaintanceships of inestimable value; I like also to think that it may have served contributors, by initiating friendships and acquaintances between those who might not otherwise have met, or known each other’s work.

Books by T.S. Eliot may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. From T.S. Eliot, “Last Words,” The Criterion 18 (January 1939): 269-275. Ed. Note — transcribed by Brad Birzer, May 23, 2012.

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