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THE COMPAKATIST THE SACRAMENTAL DADA OF T. S. ELIOT Sean Cotter Eliot's baptism and confirmation in the Anglican Church in 1927 is usually taken to mark a conversion, not only in his spiritual life, but also in his aesthetics. This year divides the "early" from the "late" Eliot, the author of "Prufrock" and The Waste Land from the author ofAsh- Wednesday and Four Quartets, the ironic avant-garde ventriloquist from the dogmatic czar of letters. Helen Gardner's statement is exemplary: The change in Mr Eliot's poetry cannot be discussed without reference to the fact that the author ofAsh Wednesday is a Christian while the author of The WasteLandwas not. Nobody can underrate the momentousness for any mature person ofacceptance ofall that membership ofthe Christian Church entails. (103) While it is not clear what all is entailed, we can hear in "momentousness " the solemn tone reserved for this moment in Eliot's life, as though he has made a desperate and possibly fatal choice. I will argue that we are mourning a false sense ofrupture. We know from his Harvard notebooks (Gordon 537-8) and from poems such as "The Love Song of St. Sebastian" that Eliot wrestled with Christian belief throughout his life, and 1927 marks his public avowal of this commitment. Eliot's statement ofbeliefdoes not, however, mark his withdrawal from the avant-garde. In fact, this statement shows the depth of his involvement with that particular faction called Dada. Eliot was not a Dadaist in that he did not perform at the Cabaret Voltaire, he did not contribute to Dada journals, and he did not write or sign any of the many Dada manifestos. But we can understand the dynamics of his Anglican beliefs more accurately if we see them as an extension of this continental avant-garde tradition. As Ronald Bush and Denis Donoghue both argue, Eliot's poetry does undergo a change, beginning with Ash-Wednesday (1930), his first long poem published after 1927. This poem moves his aesthetics closer to, not further from, those of the Dadaists Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. In it Eliot employs the aesthetic nonsense ofDadaist goading as a structural technique, making his Christianity not into a solemn funeral but into a music-hall comedy. Eliot must have expected, when For Lancelot Andrewes was published , the overwhelmingly hostile reaction that his preface would evoke. For example, Eugene Jolas (the editor of transition, publisher ofJoyce's Work in Progress and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons) called Eliot "senile" and assumed that he had given up literary creation: The gratuitous act ofthe creator having become apparently abhorrent to him, Mr. T.-S. Eliot constrains his reformatory forces into the straightjacket of political and religious dogma. Although I retain a profound Vol. 26 (2002): 69 THE SACRAMENTAL DADA OF T. S. ELIOT admiration for the great poet that he was, and although I try to have tolerance for another man's viewpoint, I cannot help feeling that Mr. Eliot has committed intellectual treason. (11) The extremity of this reaction, with its strange emphasis on allegiance to a cantankerous and factional avant-garde, was not confined to Jolas. The Times Literary Supplement called Eliot "a kind of traitor" (Gordon 226). Ezra Pound rhymed "psychosis" with an accusation that Eliot "abandoned the muses for Moses." Mark Van Doren summarized the Eliot "legend" a year later: Mr. Eliot[. . .]has withered into a triple faith, hardened into a three-headed dogma—turned a fastidious, tired back upon our glorious confusion and gone the easy, empty way ofabsolutism. The author of"The Waste Land," people say, has repudiated even his vision ofour contemporary intellectual desert—a vision which was useful at least in that it showed us what we are—in honor ofmeaningless formulas from old time which he alone mumbles, thinking thereby to achieve impossible certitudes. (590) Eliot was seen as isolating himself from the avant-garde: he is not part of"our" confusion but states formulas "he alone mumbles." Blind as these critics were to the fact that Eliot was not alone in a church which dated from the English Renaissance, they also missed the fact that he had not left the avant-garde...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 69-82
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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