Reviewing the newly released second volume of a biography of T.S. Eliot, Philip Hensher finds himself asking if the dean of modernist poetry really deserved the prominence that he attained in his own lifetime, and has held onto after his death. One of the “cracks” that Hensher finds appearing in Eliot’s “once unassailable reputation” involves his anti-Semitism, which showed up occasionally in his verse.
In [the poet’s] lifetime, challenges were made to some directly anti-Semitic lines in the poetry (“The rats are underneath the piles/ The Jew is underneath the lot”) and the essays: “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable [in society].” Private statements that have since emerged are worse still: “Why is there something diabolic about so many Jews?” “There are enough Jews in the English universities as it is.”
Many similar statements can be found in other writers, but what puts Eliot on another level was his continuing to make them and, even in the face of the Third Reich, commending an article talking of “so-called anti-Semitism,” or expressing a concern about the arrival of refugees: “Jews in the mass are antipathetic.” When one refugee child was adopted by a friend, Eliot was happy to note that “it” was “not at all objectionably Jewish to look at.”
His was the worst kind of anti-Semitism, being elevated to an idiotic sort of principle. Of the Holocaust he suavely observed: “To suggest that the Jewish problem may be simplified because so many will have been killed off is trifling: a few generations of security, and they will be as numerous as ever.” His own view of this was clear: his writing would only seem “anti-Semitic” to “the Semite.”
I don’t see how this horrible accumulation of evidence can do anything but close the long debate. We can accept the mastery of the poetry and the immense good that it and Eliot himself did in the world, but the ugly stain is not going to go away. Wagner, who took care to exclude explicit anti-Semitic statements from his artistic productions, has survived. Eliot, who did not, may in time be downgraded.