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Conference Papers Year : 2023

“How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!”: Steering through two difficulties in Eliot Studies

Abstract

“How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!” exclaims the first line of Eliot’s little poem, which then proceeds to mocks his own “grim”, “prim” and pedantic manner. This stern image that Eliot himself recognised is inextricably intertwined with the sense that his work is difficult. The wide-ranging and often obscure allusions found in Eliot’s works can be off-putting, even irritating for some readers, and the ‘Notes on the Waste Land’ does more to inflame than quell such rancour. One thinks of Larkin’s complaint to Martin Amis about certain contemporary poets of his such as Tony Harrison: “Boring too-clever stuff, litty and ‘historical’”. Even if most of us do not feel this way as academics, as teachers, we may have to confront the difficulty of teaching difficulty. Eliot’s socio-politics and biography pose another challenge. Among the many perceptions of Eliot in wider cultural discourse, one might identify three main ones: one is the young avant-garde poet who revolutionized poetics along with other modernists, another is the Nobel Prize-winning elder statesman of twentieth century literature, and the last is the perception of Eliot as antisemitic, racist and misogynistic, an arch-Conservative whose socio-politics are anathema to the largely left-wing or centre-left politics of university English departments. All three of these perceptions of Eliot can be accused of being reductive, but the third is undeniably the most controversial, fraught with difficulties that are constantly re-examined (or pointedly re-avoided) each generation. “One must separate the man from his art”, that oft-used line in such discussions, seems to be increasingly rejected by a growing minority. For Eliot in particular, it was never simple to hold this position in the face of ‘Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a cigar’. One may add to this socio-political difficulty the accusations Eliot faces vis-à-vis his marriage to Vivienne and the (often linked) discussions around his sexuality. Both topics tend to employ his poetry as evidence for the argument—a practice in itself controversial. Meeting Mr Eliot then, though a poetic joy for many, can indeed be “unpleasant”, necessitating steering through or around difficulties. These difficulties are flammable, sometimes eliciting accusations that slide the discussion from the intellectual to the moral and emotional.
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Dates and versions

hal-04224487 , version 1 (02-10-2023)

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  • HAL Id : hal-04224487 , version 1

Cite

Kit Kumiko Toda. “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!”: Steering through two difficulties in Eliot Studies: (Roundtable event : The Politics of Poetics: Revisiting Modernist Difficulties). Difficult Conversations in Modernist Studies, British Association of Modernist Studies (BAMS); Société d'Études Modernistes (SEM); Modernist Studies Association (MSA); Modernist Studies in Asia Network (MSiA); Australian Modernist Studies Network, Jul 2023, EN LIGNE, France. ⟨hal-04224487⟩
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