“April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”
So begins T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), not infrequently cited as the most influential English language poem of the 20th century. The poem is long – 434 lines plus additional pages of the author’s notes – difficult, confusing and filled with obscure references. Nevertheless, readers continue to be drawn to the compelling beauty of its language and imagery. Readers are struck as well by Eliot’s devastating critique of European culture in the wake of World War I – a culture then, as now, lost in a sterile wasteland of hollow men and women, forgetful of their past and staggering into a future of empty, ugly and soulless materialism.
Literary critics have been quick to point out that F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) drew deeply from Eliot’s poem in writing “The Great Gatsby” (1925), an equally harsh indictment of the shallowness and banality of the money-is-everything 1920s. While Eliot paints London as the “Unreal City,” Fitzgerald targets New York City and its environs as the focal point of a materialistic wasteland.
I have been a fan of Eliot (1888-1965) since my college days. I have often quoted to all who would listen the opening verses of “The Waste Land”; and I have even more frequently quoted from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table.”
Eliot’s brilliant use of language, the depth of his intellect, the breadth of his erudition and the acute sophistication of his literary criticism led to a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. That very same year – by then the poet, though born in St. Louis, had become a British citizen – King George VI honored him with the Order of Merit for his many literary achievements.
And yet … It cannot be denied that T. S. Eliot was a vile, vicious and unrepentant anti-Semite. In the opening stanza of his 1920 poem, “Gerontion,” for example, he writes: “My house is a decayed house,/And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,/Spawned in some estaminet (café) in Antwerp,/Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.”
Even this mean-spirited stereotype of the Jewish landlord is not so unforgiveable as his portrayal of the money-grubbing Jewish businessman in another 1920 poem, “Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar:” “...On the Rialto once./The rats are underneath the piles. The jew is underneath the lot./Money in furs.”
It would appear that in the young Eliot’s twisted scheme of things, the Jew’s place is the lowest of the low, mired in “protozoic slime,” even beneath the rats. What disturbs me even more is that, despite Eliot’s blatantly anti-Semitic and hurtful words, neither King George VI nor anyone on the Nobel Prize committee seemed to have taken notice when they chose to honor him in 1948.
In 1951, the distinguished Jewish poet, Emanuel Litvinoff (1915-2011), was invited to participate in the inaugural public poetry reading at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts. Litvinoff, a great admirer of Eliot, had for years dismissed his fellow poet’s anti-Semitism as a sin of his youth. However, Eliot elected to reprint “Burbank with a Baedecker...” in “Selected Poems” in 1948 – that is, after the events of the Holocaust were widely known. Deeply distressed by Eliot’s unrepentant anti-Semitism even after the murder of 6 million Jews,
Litvinoff attacked Eliot in his poem, “To T. S. Eliot,” which concludes with these words: “So shall I say it is not eminence chills/but the snigger from behind the covers of history, the sly words and the cold heart/and the footprints made with blood upon a continent?/Let your words/tread lightly on this earth of Europe/lest my people’s bones protest.”
Litvinoff read his poem of protest to a large crowd just after Eliot had entered the room. While most of those present erupted in displeasure, it is widely reported that Eliot himself said softly: “It is a good poem, a very good poem.”
Eliot’s anti-Semitism complicates my appreciation of his work. When I share with others my admiration for Eliot’s words, am I not in some way his accomplice? Am I not at some level using his literary genius to “excuse” his anti-Semitism? I know how to ask but do not know how to answer such questions. Part of me feels compelled to read and reread the best of his poems, to drink of their beauty and their wisdom; and part of me wants to assign Eliot’s soul to a permanent place beneath the rats, where he, in his icy dismissiveness, had assigned us Jews.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.