"Noblesse oblige," wrote E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, "sounds bad until you don't have it any more." Dionne's point was that the American elite no longer seems much interested in legitimating its position by undertaking the kind of social and cultural leadership to which earlier elites had devoted themselves. Dionne's sentiment is apt for our times, but it would have been equally germane to the America in which T.S. Eliot came of age, an America in which an old elite headquartered in Boston found itself shunted aside by a rougher sort altogether: the Carnegies and Fricks and Morgans and Rockefellers, and the equally ruthless men whose stories Lincoln Steffens told in The Shame of the Cities, men who made an art of turning public resources into private profit in the burgeoning metropolises of the nation. Eliot's class, the old Boston Brahmins, with their patrician scruples about fair dealing and community leadership and responsibility, didn't stand a chance, and their decline mattered immensely to Eliot. Indeed, the decay of Eliot's class of origin would prove crucial to his Anglophilia, his poetics, and even to his love of etymology.
The elite from which Eliot descended was both money-minded and moral, staunchly in favor of trade, but against financial speculation, on the premise that wealth should be the reward of work, and finance should eschew exploitation. The Brahmins sought not only profit, but the perpetuation and legitimation of their leading social position. For this, they developed what the historian Paul Goodman has termed their "ethic of stewardship," a paternalistic emphasis on charity, religious duty, and, to a degree unheard of elsewhere on the continent, cultural patronage (446). "Unlike latter-day capitalists," writes Ronald Story, the Boston elite "did not simply purchase intellect in an immediately utilitarian sense," because their objective "was to shape not merely a business elite but a durable upper class but a durable upper class" (165). For this, they would need the legitimacy that comes only when all orders of society—the artist or lecturer receiving patronage, the clergyman bound to the elite by family and manners, the poor laborer receiving care at a charity hospital—have a stake in the works of the leading class. The culture of the Brahmins was fully formed by the 1860s, but we can already catch something typical in a letter Samuel Eliot, part of the same family that will give birth to the poet Eliot, wrote to his son in 1809. Here, he urges the young man to seek distinction by following "those paths that will best conduce to your character as a gentleman, a man of honor, the moralist, and the Christian" (see Mary L. Eliot, 170-171). That he penned this letter among the 4,000 books of his library—by no means the largest in Boston—itself tells us about the cultured nature of the emerging Bostonian elite.
In 1928 T.S. Eliot wrote that, as a young man, he "felt that the U.S.A. up to a hundred years ago was a family extension" (Read 15). Some of this emotion has its roots in the special sense of entitlement his Brahminical ancestors and their circle felt as the self-professed guardians of the national virtue. As a cultured and pious class, they were conscious of their superiority to mere materialists, and felt responsible not only for wellbeing of their families, businesses, and congregations, but of their city and indeed their nation. Almost a century before Eliot wrote, we see this sense of national importance in a letter from the Boston merchant and philanthropist Amos Lawrence to his son, Amos Adams Lawrence, urging him to devote himself "to the advancement of the moral and political influence of New England... for here is the stronghold of liberty, and the seat of influence to the vast multitude of millions who are to people this republic" (Lawrence 103-104). The younger Lawrence took the message to heart, spreading the ideals of the Brahmins by founding the town of Lawrence, Kansas as an abolitionist stronghold on the Great Plains, and by establishing the University of Kansas.
The notion of a missionary Brahminical elite, responsible for the moral wellbeing of the nation and for establishing colonies of virtue along the frontier of settlement, was not alien to Eliot's family. Indeed, his paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, set out from divinity school for St. Louis in 1834, where he founded Washington University, three schools, a fund for the poor, a church, and the city's first sanitary commission, and where a visiting Ralph Waldo Emerson would, in 1852, deem him "the Saint of the West" (Emerson 338-339). The term "city father" seems almost to have been made for this industrious and pious man: inscribed on his monument in St. Louis is the phrase "The whole city was his parish and every soul needing him a parishioner." While William Greenleaf Eliot was revered, his was not of the type to inspire familiarity. Even his friend, James Freeman Clarke, was to write of the intimidating nature of this Midwestern offshoot of the Brahminical tradition:
There is something awful about such conscientiousness. One feels rebuked in his presence. William Eliot carries with him his dignity so that no one would trifle with him. He wonders that his friends in St. Louis do not feel quite familiar with him. I do not. How can one be familiar with the Day of Judgment, which seems to attend him wherever he goes? (Clarke 67)
The Reverend Eliot's eldest son went off to Portland, Oregon to establish a Unitarian church and devote himself to social reform and civic leadership, developing a local influence much like that of his father. His second son, Henry Ware Eliot, father of the poet, stayed in St. Louis and went into business, but continued the Brahminical tradition of civic engagement, piety, and charity, making important gifts to Washington University, the Academy of Science, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, and establishing a home for the orphans and outcasts serving as St. Louis' newsboys. He was, in short, a model of the pious businessman in the old Bostonian manner, and very conscious of his origins. Indeed, consciousness of the family tradition was always high in his household. Throughout much of T.S. Eliot's childhood, for example, the poet's mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot, also of Bostonian stock, was at work on a laudatory, almost hagiographic, biography of William Greenleaf Eliot, which appeared in print in Eliot's sixteenth year.
This background mattered to Eliot, and was formative of his character. In his 1953 essay "American Literature and the American Language," for example, he tells us:
I never knew my grandfather: he died a year before my birth. But I was brought up very much aware of him: so much so that as a child I thought of him as still the head of the family—a ruler for whom in absentia my grandmother stood as viceregent. The standard of conduct was that which my grandfather had set; our moral judgments, our decisions between duty and self-indulgence, were taken as if, like Moses, he had brought down the tables of the Law, and deviation from which would be sinful. Not least of these laws, which included injunctions as well as prohibitions, was the law of Public Service... I have felt, ever since I passed beyond my early irresponsible years, an uncomfortable and very inconvenient obligation to serve upon committees. (To Criticize the Critic 44)
Not only were the social and religious ideals of the Boston elite deeply inscribed in the family culture of the St. Louis Eliots: the literary ideals of that class were also omnipresent. The patriotic and devout poet John Greenleaf Whittier's family tree intertwined with that of the Eliots, and Eliot's mother herself wrote poetry in the moralizing manner so dear to the Brahmins.
For all of his Brahminical roots, though, Eliot acutely felt his marginality to the Boston-based elite. Much of this was a matter of geography. As Eliot wrote in 1928,
My family were New Englanders, who had been settled... for two generations in the South West—which was, in my own time, rapidly becoming merely the Middle West. The family guarded jealously its connexions with New England; but it was not until years of maturity that I perceived that I myself had always been a New Englander in the South West, and a South Westerner in New England; when I went to school in New England I lost my southern accent without ever acquiring the accent of the native Bostonian. (Preface to This American World, xiii)
Eliot elaborated on these themes in a letter to Herbert Read, significantly dated not April 23, 1928 but "St. George's Day, 1928"—a reflection of the poet's Anglophilia, and his sense of unease with his American roots (roots whose persistence is nevertheless indicated by Eliot's choice of a racist epithet to describe his accent):
Some day I want to write an essay about the point of view of an American who wasn't an American, because he was born in the South and went to school in New England as a small boy with a nigger drawl, but who wasn't a southerner in the South because his people were northerners in a border state and looked down on all southerners and Virginians, and who so was never anything anywhere... (see Read 15)
Geographic marginality certainly contributed to Eliot's uneasiness with his cultural inheritance. But even more important was Eliot's knowledge that he was marginal to his class of origin in terms not just of space, but of time. Eliot's grandfather had looked paternalistically on the people of St. Louis as his wards, but by the time the budding poet came of age, it was clear that the Eliots and their kind were no longer the masters of the city. An Irish-born political boss calling himself "Colonel Butler" was the undisputed master of politics, rigging elections, placing his candidates in office, and using municipal power to line the pockets of his cronies—a process mirrored in every great American city at the time, and magnified at the level of the national elite.
In his muck-raking journalism Lincoln Steffens proclaimed that no one in St. Louis dared to take a stand against the new, corrupt elite—but there is some evidence that the Eliots joined others from the old elite in mounting a resistance to the new powers: we find in Eliot's father's scrapbook a clipping of a newspaper announcement he and his peers signed offering a reward to anyone willing to step forward with evidence of corruption in the elections of April, 1901. It was to little avail: when T.S. Eliot's uncle, Edward Cranch Eliot, spoke at the dedication of a new school in June of 1903, he observed that "a student of the times cannot fail to see the fall in standard of public morality, and the lowering of public ideals of greatness and success" (Howarth 43, 45). William Greenleaf Eliot may still have presided as the ruler in absentia of the Eliot household, but his kind were no longer the leading citizens of St. Louis. Men more like Eliot's Burbanks and Bleisteins with their Baedekers and cigars, their money and their lack of concern with the kind of paternalistic pietas of the provincial Brahmins, had pushed such men aside.
Historian Richard Hofstadter puts the struggles of people like the St. Louis Eliots in national perspective, writing, in The Age of Reform:
The rapid development of the big cities, the building of a great industrial plant, the construction of the railroads, the emergence of the corporation as the dominant form of enterprise, transformed the old society and revolutionized the distribution of power and prestige... . By the late 1880s this process had gone far enough to become the subject of frequent, anxious comment in the press... . The newly rich, the grandiosely or corruptly rich were bypassing... the old gentry... (136-137)
The old elites found themselves "checked, hampered, and overridden by the agents of new corporations, the corrupters of legislatures, the buyers of franchises, the allies of the political bosses." What is more, " in this uneven struggle they found themselves limited by their own scruples, their regard for reputation, their social standing itself" (137)[*].
Further reducing the old elite's loss of status was the appearance of vast numbers of new immigrants in America's cities, where they served as laborers in the growing industries. These were people with no established sense of deference to the old elite, and whose religious affiliations placed them outside the influence of the old elite's clerical wing. The great historian and Boston Brahmin Francis Parkman, writing in 1878, saw the troubles his class faced clearly enough, writing "Two enemies, unknown before, have risen like spirits of darkness on our social and political horizon—an ignorant proletariat and a half-taught plutocracy" (4). The paternalistic and anti-democratic impulses of the old elite stood them in poor stead in this situation, as it was anathema to appeal to the proletariat against the plutocracy—indeed, the title of the Parkman's article is "The Failure of Universal Suffrage," hardly the headline of a man with faith in democracy as a means of curbing plutocratic corruption.
Along with the old elite's loss of power came a loss of prestige: while by no means destitute, the old elite could not match the extravagance of the new plutocrats in the dawning era of conspicuous consumption. If it was difficult to see one's status in a local community reduced by the rise of local bosses like Colonel Butler, it was even harder to see the relative reduction of the prestige of all local elites when compared with the mammoth fortunes of the new national elite, the Carnegies and Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and Morgans, and others of their kind. We must not underestimate the despair and humiliation this reduction of status caused for members of the genteel elite. A sense of just how deep a blow had been struck against their sense of identity can be gleaned from Edmund Wilson's recollections of the patricians of his father's generation:
The period after the Civil War—both banal in a bourgeois way and fantastic with giant fortunes—was a difficult one for Americans brought up in the old tradition... . They had been educated at Exeter and Andover and at an eighteenth-century Princeton, and had afterwards been trained... for what had once been called the learned professions; but they had then to deal with a world in which this kind of education and the kind of ideals it served no longer really counted for much... . Of my father's close friends at college, but a single one was left by the time he was in his thirties; all the rest were dead—some had committed suicide. My father, though highly successful, cared nothing about making a fortune or keeping up with current standards of luxury, which in our part of the world were extravagant. Like many Americans who studied law, he had in his youth aimed at public life... . But he could not... be induced to take part in the kind of political life that he knew at the end of the century. (214)
The deepest blow was dealt quite close to home for T.S. Eliot, as it was the clerical wing of the old elite, so strongly represented in Eliot's family, which suffered the greatest loss of status. The secularization of intellectual life, the relative reduction in the working class's church attendance, and the reform of higher education (which entailed the replacement of clergymen on boards of trustees by bankers, businessmen, and lawyers) combined to undermine long-established authority—and there were visible material consequences to this reduction in status: the wages of many ministers declined until they were lower than those of bricklayers, masons, and plumbers (see Hofstadter 150-151).
Nothing dramatized the decline of the old elite more clearly than the onset of the Spanish-American war in 1898. Lodges and Bradfords and Storys and Jameses and others whose names were redolent of Boston's more exclusive districts banded together in opposition to a war lobby for which they had no sympathy, and whose imperial ambitions were anathema to their high-minded ideals. Harvard's president Charles William Eliot, considered by many to be the "first private citizen of the country," traveled to Washington to denounce militaristic jingoism. In response, one of the political bosses of the Boston Irish community called for a lynch mob to seize him (Tuchman 147), and, at the urging of the demagogic newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, it became commonplace for the cultured minority who opposed the war to be denounced as traitors. What is more, many rabble-rousing ministers and editorialists came to lay the blame for the assassination of President McKinley on the old elite's protestations against the war (see B.P., 285). The vast majority of the old elite had stood together against a war, and been brushed aside by more powerful and bellicose interests. It was clear that the country whose leadership they had considered a birthright was no longer theirs to command. For a man of Eliot's generation and Bostonian connections, there could not but be a sense of loss, a knowledge that his kind once had a wider reach and a more prominent social role than was now the case.
What are we to make of scruples and inhibitions that had once served to legitimate an elite when that elite has been displaced? Eliot certainly embodied an inhibiting refinement, even though his destiny would clearly not be that of his grandfather: if Eliot's class seemed "refined beyond the point of civilization," as he would later put it ("Henry James," 860), so to did the young Eliot himself, at least as far as Bertrand Russell was concerned. The great English philosopher encountered the 25 year old Eliot at Harvard in the spring of 1914, and reported on the meeting in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell: "This morning two of my pupils came together to ask me a question about work—one named Eliot is very well dressed and polished with manners of the finest Etonian type" (Morrell 255). Later, he made more elaborate observations about a party he'd attended:
My pupil Eliot was there—the only one who is civilized, and he is ultra-civilized, knows his classics very well, is familiar with all French literature from Villon to Vildrach, and is altogether impeccable in his taste but has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm. He is going to Oxford where I expect he will be very happy. (Morrell 257)
Manners and refinement without vigor or life: this is the very combination of qualities Eliot satirized in his class, satire being a form of escape from social norms and mores that had ceased to have a function.
Eliot's most famous poems satirizing his class, "Portrait of a Lady" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," remained unpublished when Bertrand Russell remarked on the refined manners and apparent lack of vigor and vitality in the young Eliot. When "Portrait" and "Prufrock" first found their way into print in 1917's Prufrock and Other Observations, they were joined by other poems that made similar indictments of the old elite, notably "The Boston Evening Transcript" and "Cousin Nancy." The first of these poems continues the pattern of self-indictment we saw in "Portrait of a Lady," only here the speaker of the poem takes on the qualities of the lady in "Portrait," standing accused of embodying the obsolete and vitality-draining norms of the old Brahminical class.
"The readers of The Boston Evening Transcript/Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn," begins the poem—but who were these readers? It is important to know, because "The Boston Evening Transcript" depends, for much of its significance, on a knowledge of the place, in the Bostonian media landscape, of the newspaper it names. The Boston Evening Transcript had a very particular niche in the media culture of Boston in the early years of the twentieth century. It was venerable, even then, having been founded in 1830. It was, too, a long-established icon of respectable taste: it had for many years in the nineteenth century been edited by the poet Epes Sargent, founder of the literary magazine of the Boston Latin School, and contributor to the Harvard Advocate. It was also stuffy to the point of snobbery, known for its column on bridge and, especially, its weekly feature on genealogy, a field of immense importance in Bostonian society. The stuffiness was truly legendary: in fact, the etymology of the term "fuddy-duddy" can be traced to allegedly humorous little dialogues in The Boston Evening Transcript between two characters, one named Fuddy and the other Duddy. So thorough was the paper's association with old-line Bostonian respectability that Ronald Story includes it along with the Myopia Hunt Club, the Tavern Club, the Gardner Museum, Radcliffe College, and the Boston Athenaeum as a cultural institution of Brahmin society (174).
It is the association of this particular newspaper with stifling respectability that gives resonance to these lines:
When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
The juxtaposition between those with life-appetites and those who subscribe to the Transcript gives a certain ironic tinge to the earlier image of the paper's readers as blowing in the wind like a field of ripe corn. One can certainly see in the ripeness of the corn a kind of ready-to-be-reaped, end-of-life quality. But ripeness is a funny thing: simultaneously an end and an apex, it can read as death-ready or as filled with the juice of life, as a kind of primal fertility. So along with the windblown passivity of the readers, we get two more ideas attached to them: death-readiness and life-fullness. But the lines that follow the initial couplet cue us to view the life-full sense as ironic, as something distant from the actual lives of the paper's readers. The life-full sense of ripeness is called to mind in order for us to see how far from pagan, fertile vitality these Transcript readers have fallen—a kind of juxtaposition of fertile past and desiccated present that anticipates a major technique of The Waste Land.
A similar juxtaposition occurs in the next lines:
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the other end of the street,
This Rochefoucauld, of course, is Francois, the sixth Duc de Rochefoucauld and the Prince de Marcillac, famous as a writer of pithy little maxims and as a habitué of the grand literary salons of seventeenth-century France. While the newspaper is devoted to the moment, maxims are meant as being nuggets of wisdom that endure forever, touchstones to which generations might gratefully return. And if the readers of the Transcript live in stifling bourgeois Boston, Rochefoucauld makes their lives seem petty and repressed indeed: he cut a swaggering swath through a world of glittering intellects and dallying ladies. There is, then, a complex emotion attached to the image of the street: on the one hand, the speaker treats Rochfoucauld the way a tired, respectable Bostonian on the way home from the bank or law firm might treat a neighbor, with a curt, none-too-familiar nod. On the other hand, we get a sense of the distance—all the way down the street of time—of the present repressed world of isolated, respectable newspaper readers and the more lively and glamorous world of the salons. Salons, after all, are places of face-to-face interaction and sparkling wit. Newspapers are generally consumed in quiet isolation.
Thus far the poem has indicted Brahminical society, but what of the speaker? The final line provides the decisive moment regarding his status. Evening quickens the appetites of life in some, and to others brings the Boston Evening Transcript. Which of these is our speaker? Neither, exactly. As he mounts the step and rings the bell, he says "'Cousin Harriet, here is The Boston Evening Transcript.'" He is not merely a man who lacks the appetites of life: he is the bearer of death-in-life, far more lost to vitality than his hapless cousin Harriet.
Another Cousin, the titular character of "Cousin Nancy," comes across as much the opposite of the type that reads The Boston Evening Transcript. "Miss Nancy Ellicott," we read,
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunt were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.
Not only was it modern, it was most certainly beyond the pale of old-line Brahminical respectability. Those dances would have been part of the social dance craze that seized the America of the 1910s, a social movement associated with ragtime music and, often, with unladylike behavior (Chinitz 25).
What is more, we read that Nancy Ellicott "Rode across the hills and broke them" while "Riding to hounds over the cow-pasture." This may seem eminently respectable, if rambunctious, aristocratic behavior to us, but only if our sense of respectability derives from a sense of the amusements of the British aristocracy. The hunt was not a well-established American tradition, and, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was perceived by members of old, cultivated elites to be an affectation of the newly moneyed, clumsily aping foreign traditions out of a pathetic Anglophilia (see Wiggins 131-142). When Cousin Nancy takes to ragtime dancing and fox hunting, she is assimilating herself to the two forces Francis Parkman had seen as the enemies of her class: "an ignorant proletariat and a half-taught plutocracy" (4). Her aunts might not know how to feel about it, but Eliot himself seems to view it as a fall from grace, and as a deviation from what had once seemed a permanent cultural order—a view underlined by the poem's final stanza:
Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.
Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson—the great English and American lights by which the Brahmins steered their way through the late decades of the nineteenth century—stand in marked contrast to Cousin Nancy. She is driven by primal urges, the thrill of the dance and the hunt; they by conscientiousness and moralism. The unalterability of their law is ironic, as the laws by which Nancy lives have nothing to do with their thinking, and the defenders of the Arnoldian and Emersonian traditions are absent, except for a few befuddled old aunts scratching their heads in incomprehension at the energetic vulgarity of the new world into which Cousin Nancy has thrown herself.
In "Portrait of a Lady," "The Boston Evening Transcript" "Cousin Nancy," and in other poems of the period such as "Mr. Apollinax" and "Aunt Helen," the cultural norms of the Brahmins are invariably presented as divorced from the forces of life, while vitality is presented as vulgar, destructive, and violent. Eliot had clearly come to see his class's norms and rituals as obsolete, and his satiric poems represent a kind of imagined dance of death of the Brahmins. But the rising world of materialism, new money, and mass culture was clearly not something he was ready to embrace. Where could a young Brahminical poet turn?
Eliot's acute consciousness of being a member of a displaced elite drove him to many of his affiliations: even his early literary enthusiasms for Jacobean drama and French symbolism bear witness to this, since both movements address the situation of dispossessed classes. It is unsurprising, then, that he should fall in love with the idea of a England as a society with an apparently undisrupted elite, its character, position, and social functions intact even after intense industrialization. Sir Herbert Read, in his memoir of Eliot, explains Eliot's Anglophilia by saying "He did not believe in democracy, and who can blame him?.... He believed in 'roots'... and above all he believed in tradition" (30). E.M. Forster puts a finer point on it, observing that Eliot drew "no clear line between literary and social tradition, and one has a feeling at moments that the Muses are connected not so much with Apollo as with the oldest country families" (91-92).
England certainly presented a more robust version of a cultured elite than did the America Eliot left behind when he went to Oxford. While the rising politicians, industrialists and financiers of the United States held the belief that low birth was proof of good character and merit when a man rose above his origins and triumphed in the polls or the marketplace, the English upper class took just the opposite view. Their credo was the reverse: that having evolved over generations, the ruling class had developed attitudes of paternalistic responsibility, gentlemanly disinterest, cultivated sophistication, and a capacity for leadership that amounted to superior fitness to stand at the helm of the nation. The aristocratic families and those that identified with them saw themselves not as responsible to the will of the people, but responsible for the wellbeing of the people, regardless of whether the people understood the wisdom of their policies (Tuchman 9-13). This was a more robust, albeit less pious, version of the paternalistic world of John Greenleaf Eliot and his generation of the Bostonian elite. To a young man who felt his own erstwhile paternalistic class had been shunted aside by a class of crude materialists (or, worse, capitulated to their norms in the manner of "Cousin Nancy"), the allure of such a class, with its aura of confidence, its relative transcendence of mere materialism, and its longstanding position of social leadership, was immense.
Eliot's idealization of the English elite was of a kind only possible for an outsider, perhaps only of an outsider who could project upon the English establishment all of the emotions connected with his own class's fall from prominence. We get a sense of the intensity of Eliot's admiration for the English establishment, and of the outsider's persistent naiveté, from an anecdote told by Richard Aldington about a dinner with Eliot in 1923, when Eliot had been in England for almost a decade. The conversation, Aldington recounts,
... turned on the late war, and Eliot told us gravely that in the next war he intended to join the British army. He worked himself almost to blood-heat in a fine frenzy of patriotism. The climax or anti-climax came as he and I left the club and walked down Pall Mall. To my horror Eliot lifted his derby hat to the sentry outside Marlborough House. You would have to be born British and serve in the army to understand the complex violations of etiquette involved in this generous and well-meant gesture. (202)
For Eliot, much was invested in the ideal of an English establishment, though he would never know the rituals of that establishment from the inside. Indeed, he would never know first-hand that establishment in its full force and flower.
Had Eliot been a generation younger, he would have arrived in an England with an apparently unshakable elite, with the top echelons of power staffed almost exclusively by great landowners whose families had held power for centuries. Nothing captures this state of affairs quite as succinctly as Barbara Tuchman's sketch of the political leadership that took office in the summer of 1895:
The Prime Minister [Lord Salisbury] was a Marquess and a lineal descendant of the father and son who had been chief ministers to Queen Elizabeth and James I. The Secretary for War was another Marquess who traced his inferior title of Baron back to the year 1181, whose great-grandfather had been Prime Minister under George III and whose grandfather had served in six cabinets under three reigns. The Lord President of the Council was a Duke who owned 186,000 acres in eleven counties, whose ancestors had served in government since the Fourteenth Century, who had himself served thirty-four years in the House of Commons and three times refused to be Prime Minister. The Secretary for India was the son of another Duke whose family seat was received in 1315 by grant from Robert the Bruce and who had four sons serving in Parliament at the same time. The President of the Local Government Board was a pre-eminent country squire who had a Duke for a brother-in-law, a Marquess for son-in-law, an ancestor who had been Lord Mayor of London in the reign of Charles II, and who had himself been a Member of Parliament for twenty-seven years. The Lord Chancellor bore a family name brought to England by a Norman follower of William the Conqueror and maintained thereafter over eight centuries without a title. The Lord Lieutenant for Ireland was an Earl, a grandnephew of the Duke of Wellington and a hereditary trustee of the British Museum. The Cabinet also included a Viscount, three Barons and two Baronets. (3-4)
It's not that there weren't commoners in the inner rings of power: there were six. One was from a family of squires that had been represented in Parliament for over 300 years, one was the Prime Minister's nephew, and the others (with the exception of a wealthy Birmingham industrialist) similarly well connected. Those of us with democratic leanings may blanche at such a list. But the view was considerably different for one whose high-minded family had seen St. Louis slip out of its hands and into the grasp of men like Colonel Butler.
But Eliot did not arrive in England in 1895. As Wyndham Lewis said, "he and war came together," in 1914 (25). Eliot arrived just at the moment when the elite he admired entered its crisis. Lewis captures the moment exactly: "He was an American who was in flight from the same thing that kept Pound over here, and with what had he been delected, as soon as he had firmly settled himself on this side of the water? The spectacle of Europe committing suicide—just that" (30).
Lord Salisbury's Tory establishment, which Eliot would have found in England a generation earlier, was already fading when Salisbury stepped down in 1902, if not earlier—as a French journalist noted, there was an irony in that what Salisbury left behind was "a democratized... vulgarized England—everything that is antithetical to Toryism, the aristocratic tradition and the High Church that he stood for" (Tuchman 59). Already in the early years of the twentieth-century England's landowning elite had been threatened by North American prairie wheat, and those with investments in the industrial sector were challenged by German and American advances and by labor unrest. But it was the war and its aftermath that most radically and dramatically altered the English social order. Robert Graves and Alan Hodge describe the situation in the years immediately following the war:
What was Society now? The former 'ruling class,' whose sons had gone into Parliament and the services as a matter of course, was now forced more and more into business; because of increased taxation, the rise of the cost of living, and the reduction of Army and Navy establishments. The old upper-middle class, those with fixed incomes of about £5000 a year were obliged to cut down their social expenditure. Their town mansions were converted into flats, and their political power lived on only in so far as they became influential in business. Politics and business were thus becoming openly the occupation of the same class. The aristocracy, for the most part, lived a quiet life, trying hard to preserve what it could of its old estates. 'Society' had ceased to have any strict meaning. (55)
In key respects this situation mirrored the social and economic transformation of the United States after the Civil War: an old elite whose values were not strictly economic was either displaced by, or assimilated into, a more overtly materialist order. There was a special poignancy to these events for Eliot since, as Eric Sigg puts it, "they deprived him yet again of something he had seemed to lose once already: the ideal of a conservative intellectual order, a moral social myth, and a living cultural tradition" (117).
Eliot had to deal directly with this materialist, business-oriented elite, and with its utilitarian values—even on a daily basis. I.A. Richards describes a chance meeting in the Swiss Alps with a "shrewd" and "charming" man who turned out to be "a high senior official" in Queen Henrietta Street branch of Lloyd's Bank—the very branch where Eliot had taken employment in 1917. When the banker asks if young Eliot is indeed a poet, and Richards replies that he is a very good poet indeed, the banker responds "I myself am really very glad to hear you say that. Many of my colleagues wouldn't agree at all. They think a banker has no business whatever to be a poet. They don't think the two things can combine." The banker breaks with his colleagues on this issue, but not out of any sense of the intrinsic value of art, or even of poetry's moral utility. Rather, he says "I believe that anything a man does, whatever his hobby may be, it's all the better if he is really keen on it and does it well. I think it helps him in his work" (5). The notion that poetry might properly be considered Eliot's work lies beyond the horizon of this man's pragmatic and materialistic outlook.
Eliot was certainly dismayed by this situation. When he arrived in England he was surprised to find Oxford did not offer an intellectual society of well-rounded, cultured gentlemen, preparing to lead the broader society, but a literary clique he described as "narrow and plebian," and where the most that could be found of brilliance was something he found reminiscent of "the clever Jew undergraduate at Harvard" with "wide but disorderly reading... and utter absence of background and balance and proportion" (Gordon 96). As Eliot's acquaintance with England grew over the course of the war, the situation seemed similar to him in society at large. Writing as "T.S. Apteryx" in The Egoist's May 1918 issue, he claimed that the culture had fallen into decay, and that "the forces of deterioration are a large crawling mass, and the forces of development a half dozen men" ("Observations," 69). One of Eliot's responses to this state of affairs was his development over several decades of a theory—implicit in his literary criticism and poetry, and more explicit in works of social criticism such as After Strange Gods, The Idea of a Christian Society, and Notes Toward the Definition of Culture—of social homogeneity, cultural continuity, and the importance of a cultured, religious elite in guarding established morals and values. The cultured elite of which Eliot dreams would defend, most of all, against a negative answer to questions that came to haunt Eliot: "Was our society... assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries," and did it have "any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?" (The Idea of a Christian Society, 64).
Another, related response was Eliot's composition of poems that, like such American-period poems as "The Boston Evening Transcript" and "Cousin Nancy," stress the distance between the cultural tradition he values and the energies of the new, materialist order. Because these newer poems—notably "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" and "Whispers of Immortality,"—work through stressing the difference between words as understood by a highly cultured minority and words as understood by the bulk of the population, they were sometimes received as poems of complete aesthetic autonomy, or even as a species of nonsense verse.
The closing stanzas of "Whispers of Immortality" offer a glimpse of Eliot's method:
Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonette;
The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.
And even the Abstract Entitites
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.
As in "Portrait of a Lady," the fundamental opposition is between a vulgar yet vital world (here, the maisonette-dwelling Grishkin and her feline sexuality) and an anemic world of culture (here so drained of the warmth of vitality that even crawling among bones gives it relative comfort). But now, unlike in Eliot's American poems, etymology takes center stage. George Steiner writes "it might not be immediately apparent to the reader just what 'bliss' T.S. Eliot promises when he qualifies it as pneumatic"—though we may assume it has to do with Grishkin's uncorseted state—but, Steiner adds, "the finesse lies in the Attic and theological antecedents to the epithet" (20). That is, the word "pneumatic," while having the contemporary denotation of things filled with air, and the connotation of a certain bouncy quality, finds its way back etymologically through the Latin pneumaticus to the Greek pneumatikós, and the root word pneûma, meaning something like "the vital spirit," or, in Christian theology, the Holy Ghost. Thus, it provides the tertium quid in a poem that seems to oppose dry metaphysics to titillating physicality, adding the spirit to the dichotomy of mind and body. It does this, though, only for the select few—and to a very select few indeed when the poem first appeared, before the creation of the scholarly glosses and critical apparatuses that now surround Eliot's better-known poems. A spiritually meaningful culture exists, Eliot implies, but in the cultural conditions at the end of the First World War, it has become the property of a small group of specialists, perhaps only of the "half dozen men" who stand against the "large crawling mass" constituting the forces of cultural deterioration.
Eliot employs the etymological technique even more elaborately in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," with its vocabulary of "polyphiloprogenitive" "superfetation," "mensual," "piaculative" and the like, all addressing spiritual themes in remote language, and all set in contrast to the bodily enormity of Eliot's carnal man, Sweeney, as he "shifts from ham to ham/stirring water in his bath." While the poem makes a point about cultured religion in the modern world much like the point made in "Whispers of Immortality," it did not seem to do anything of the kind to its earliest readers—not if the most prominent reviews are any indication. The Times Literary Supplement, for example, in its review of Eliot's 1919 Poems, accuses Eliot of making a wholly autonomous art—a "game of perversity" that doesn't say "anything at all." Quoting the opening of "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," the anonymous reviewer tells us that the verse, while "novel and ingenious... is fatally impoverished of subject matter" ("Not Here, O Apollo," 322). Another anonymous review, titled "Is This Poetry," ran in The Athenaeum a week later, quoted the first stanza of "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," and labeled the poem the verbal equivalent of a Post-Impressionist picture (491). This sense that Eliot had moved into the realm of pure poetry, of aesthetic autonomy above signification, was by no means confined to the initial reception of his Poems of 1919. It persisted in some quarters at least into the middle of the century, when Elizabeth Sewell, citing Eliot's poems of this period, allies him with Mallarmé and Lewis Carroll as a writer of "overt nonsense work" (67). But appearances aside, these are not instances of the poem as aesthetically autonomous Post-Impressionist paintings: they are reiterations, by other means, of the despair Eliot expressed in verse he wrote before leaving the United States for what he'd hoped would be a very different cultural situation.
ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU's most recent book is The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World. He is also the author of the study Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry and the poetry collections Home and Variations and Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis. He has edited Letters of Blood and Other English Writings by the late Swedish writer Göran Printz-Påhlson as well as The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing and Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias. He has received grants and awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Swedish Academy, among others. He is professor of English at Lake Forest College and blogs at samizdatblog.blogspot.com .
* * *
* Many among the old elite were cognizant of scruple, habit, and class-based reservations hampering them in their attempts to retain privileged positions. Indeed, a measure of the anti-Semitism endemic to Eliot and his class may be traced to their notion that their genteel ideals put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Jewish immigrants who were arriving in America and often thriving in an environment that did not restrict their actions to the degree that many European countries had. No less a Brahmin than Henry Adams, thinking of the man of the old class, wrote:
Not a Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow—not a furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs—but had a keener instinct, an intenser energy, and a freer hand than he—American of Americans, with Heaven knew how many Puritans and Patriots behind him... (238)
The old elite's sense of displacement, coinciding with the arrival and success of Jewish immigrants, in no way excuses the anti-Semitism of "Gerontion" or After Strange Gods, although it might be said to provide an explanatory context: Eliot's bigotry was that of his class in a particular phase of its decline. // back