Serious Business

The considered high-mindedness of Eliot or Larkin is no longer a prerequisite for members of today's literary establishment

T. S. Eliot: A paragon of high-seriousness

Joseph Epstein, sometime of this parish, has written a trenchant elegy for the decline of high seriousness in the November issue of Commentary magazine. “T. S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture” reminds us that the great Anglo-American poet achieved a celebrity in his lifetime that would be “unfathomable” for any writer today: “Eliot was the equivalent in literature of Albert Einstein in science in that everyone seemed to know that these men were immensely significant without quite knowing for what.” It is indeed hard to imagine any poet in our day being used to endorse a product in the way that Einstein is regularly wheeled out, most recently to advertise “Genius bread”. Peer pressure is also a deterrent: Kingsley Amis was mocked for appearing in a wallpaper ad: “Very Kingsley Amis. Very Sanderson’s.” But which literary figure’s endorsement would the Mad Men now consider worth seeking — apart from J. K. Rowling’s?

Well, there was one post-war poet who did achieve, in Britain at least, a fame comparable to Eliot’s. In his Letters to Monica (Faber, £22.50), Philip Larkin recalls a lunch at Hull in 1959, when he and Eliot might have met, but didn’t: “I left early so Eliot didn’t get a chance to talk to me.” The provincial librarian, whose reputation then rested on two slim volumes of poetry, was determined not to pay court to the English-speaking world’s most famous man of letters. Six years later, Eliot was dead.

Yet Larkin respected the older poet for all his affected disdain of the self-consciously literary culture that Eliot represented — “silly book-drunk buffer though he is, he has dignity,” he told Monica, his mistress, in 1969. That year, Larkin was commissioned by Anthony Thwaite (the later editor of his works and letters) to write a review for the New Statesman of the new edition of Tennyson by Christopher Ricks. It takes an effort of the imagination to recall that in those days, a new edition of a major poet was treated as a literary event of the first magnitude, and Larkin took great pains over his piece. He was rewarded by a “herogram” from the editor: “Paul Johnson wrote to me saying it was one of the best reviews they’d ever printed, which surprised me — but the credit is yours,” he wrote to Monica. 

Would today’s New Statesman have dreamt of commissioning such a piece, let alone from a Tory such as Larkin or Eliot? I doubt it, to judge from the diminution in quality and quantity of the magazine’s books pages. The fall in paid circulation from more than 100,000 in those days to fewer than 20,000 readers today tells its own story. This would not be so bad if it were the consequence of unashamed elitism, rather than its opposite: unashamed dumbing down. Even the leading lights of today’s literary culture lack the authority of an Eliot, who insisted that his journal, The Criterion, “does not aim at a very large circulation, but aims solely at publishing the very highest class of work”.

Consider, by contrast, this typical sentence by Britain’s most influential literary critic, Professor Terry Eagleton, in a recent article about Prince Charles for the Guardian‘s usually excellent Review section: “Despite almost certainly never having heard of him — a deficiency that doesn’t hold him back here — His Royal Highness should recall Bertolt Brecht’s parable about the troubled king of the east who summoned his wise men and commanded them to inquire into the source of all the miseries of this world.” It is inconceivable that Eliot would have let through a sentence lacking in syntax (a riot of third person pronouns), sense (how could HRH recall a writer of whom he has supposedly never heard?) or sensibility. In a single egregious sentence, Eagleton reveals himself as pretentious (he is no Brecht scholar) and an intellectual snob: the Prince (who, unlike the professor, speaks a little German), may well have heard of Brecht. Yet this is the man whose Literary Theory: An Introduction has sold nearly a million copies and is compulsory reading on almost every Eng Lit course in the land. According to Epstein, “Eliot claimed that the best method for being a critic was to be very intelligent.” That is a deficiency that has never held Professor Eagleton back. 

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