An Encounter With T.S. Eliot

I discovered poetry (as POETRY, not as nursery rhyme, etc.) when I was about 10 years old and immediately began reading and writing as much of it as I could.

About four years later, during one of my high-school classes, someone passed around what was supposed to be a joke: a piece of paper on one side of which was an excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky” and on the other, an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”

I got the joke, of course, but didn’t think it was particularly funny. In fact, I fell madly in love with Eliot at that moment and have remained so ever since.

Flash forward to 1956 or ’57. I’m a graduate student at the U. of Chicago in one of its interdisciplinary, experimental programs called the “Committee on Human Development.” (I was, incidentally, a piss-poor student and barely made it out of there by the skin of my teeth.) Another, even grander one of Hutchins’s grand, interdisciplinary experiments was the “Committee on Social Thought,” in which all the great writers, artists, scientists, intellectuals and men-of-letters of that time were adjunct faculty. T. S. Eliot was one of them, and in that capacity he came to the U. of Chicago in ’56 or ’57 to give a series of lectures and at least one public reading. I attended the latter.

The auditorium they used for the reading was surprisingly small, considering it was Eliot, but likewise the attendance, so there was a real sense of intimacy and closeness between him and the audience, and I could see and hear him, when he later began speaking, as if he were standing right in front of me.

As people filed in, Eliot sat alone on a plain wooden chair, upstage left. He looked weedy and crumpled and frail, with his hands on his knees, which he held tight together like a modest old maid. It was very touching to see.

Finally, a faculty member introduced him and there was polite applause. (As I think back, I’m amazed at how much taken-for- granted the great poet was by everyone there, including himself.)

Eliot read from his poems in his characteristic, pursed-lip, phony British accent that I had learned from recordings to imitate pretty well myself. I don’t remember exactly which poems he read because I was in a kind of trance listening to him. When he finished, he asked for questions. I remember two of them in particular: one was asked by me and another by someone else.

The other person asked Eliot what he meant by a certain piece of imagery in a certain poem (again, I can’t remember exactly which one) and Eliot’s reply, as best I can remember after all these years, was: “I write my poetry under a kind of divine inspiration, so that often I myself don’t understand what it means.” (He may not have used the word “divine” but strongly implied it.)

Then, at some point later, I asked my own question. I identified myself as an admirer of his poetry and a Jew and asked him if he could comment on the anti-Semitism in some of his work, and particularly the so-called, “Sweeny Poems.” Again, as best as I can recall, this is what he answered, after a long and thoughtful pause:

“I grew up in a certain social and intellectual climate where prejudice towards the Jews was simply taken for granted as part of one’s social and intellectual outlook. I’m not trying to excuse this, but to explain it. That was before WW II, during the time when I and many others were writing from within that condescending attitude, when it wasn’t considered, by us at least, to be bad or hostile. It was during that time that I wrote the poems you allude to.

“But all that changed after Hitler began his persecution of the Jews. We realized that what we had considered merely religious and social snobbery was actually vicious and unacceptable racial persecution.

“I regret and apologize for the way I portrayed the Jews in my poetry and other writings before WW II and hope it can be forgiven.”  (I believe he may even have added, ‘by you and all the Jewish people.’)

Please remember that this happened over half a century ago, and memory is fallible. These aren’t the EXACT words Eliot said, but rather my attempt to reconstruct their INTENT, if not their exact content, as best I can. 

My sense then, as now, is that this great poet was genuinely ashamed of whatever anti-Semitism he had allowed to creep into his poetry, and sincerely regretted it. I believed him then, and I believe him now.

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