- “Always Present”: T. S. Eliot and Re-cantation
“Re-cantation” does not normally require a hyphen, so at the outset my usage needs defending. Its insertion is intended to suggest more possibilities than those contained by the customarily unhyphenated “recantation” (implying a retraction or disavowal of earlier utterance: effectively, “I unsay my former saying”).1 I want to emphasize the almost opposite connotation: repetition, more particularly a “singing again” that has some fellow feeling with “incantation.” In what follows, I shall be more concerned to explore suggestive possibilities of the hyphenated form, but the conventional understanding also deserves attention. Both the customary understanding and the extended resonances of my hyphenated form have relevance to the critical debate surrounding the nature of T. S. Eliot’s achievement and legacy, and to an important embedded feature of his poetic practice. The impulse and the opportunity to examine this aspect have been given by the recent surge of publications by and about Eliot, resulting from his late widow’s resolve to enlist the help of others in bringing the entirety of his writing before the public. This more readily enables us to see Eliot steadily and whole, and in doing so to test the sense he himself had, of the fundamental unity of his poetry. That unity does not, however, constitute a wholeness entire of itself (in Donne’s phrase): as the single poem relates to the oeuvre, so that in turn is seen to relate to the works of foregoing generations. This model is applicable—Eliot would himself have argued—beyond his own example. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he asserted that any artist’s meaning derives from the context of preceding art. The ways in which the past asserts its presence in his poetry, both through conscious and [End Page 369] involuntary evocation, implies that striking out on an original relation to the universe involves tracking in your predecessors’ snow. These are some of the larger issues behind local manifestations of “re-cantation.”
During Eliot’s lifetime, the issue of recantation presented itself in several ways. For those who were unsympathetic, like Virginia Woolf and (to some extent) Ezra Pound, his conversion to Christianity looked like a renunciation of the energies exemplified by The Waste Land and driving forward what Pound had described as “our modern experiment.”2 This was summed up in the charge made in 1928 by the Times Literary Supplement reviewer of For Lancelot Andrewes: that Eliot seemed to have swapped modernism for medievalism.3 The issue of recantation, named as such, was also the subject of an essay by the critic William York Tindall, which focused on the poet’s shifting critical positions—most spectacularly, his revised estimate of the contribution made by Milton to English verse.4 One or two correspondents (J. V. Healy was particularly tenacious) raised with Eliot the issue of his evident anti-Semitism, and Eliot’s impulse to recantation on that front was reflected (and apparently exhausted) in the decision not to republish After Strange Gods.5 There were those—both friendly and less so—who criticized him for his “attitude to life” (Richard Aldington, in a letter of 1930); in 1927, Geoffrey Faber warned Eliot against “the rigidity of your way of life,” and drew forth a revealing response.6 Aldington’s offence was compounded by his lampoon, Stepping Heavenward (1933), in which he alluded woundingly to Eliot’s miserable first marriage, in this prefiguring subsequent adversarial linkage of the poet’s negativity towards both life and wife.7
“There was something he said that I might have challenged”: such esprit de l’escalier has some resemblance to hostile recuperations of Eliot’s influence more recently heard in the academy (Poems, 1:25). His “objective correlative,” his “dissociation of sensibility,” his “mind of Europe” and, for many, his particular “idea of a Christian society” no longer exert their former cultural traction (Essays, 145, 288, 16).8 After his death, as biographical material leaked piecemeal, beyond control of his estate, the issues noted above became more urgent, and more urgently bore upon the question of recantation or, more accurately, upon its absence. It was asked why he had...