No one writing in the English language is likely to establish a reigning authority over poetry and criticism and literature in general as T.S. Eliot did between the early 1930s and his death in 1965 at the age of 77. Understatedly spectacular is the way Eliot’s career strikes one today, at a time when, it is fair to say, poetry, even to bookish people, is of negligible interest and literary criticism chiefly a means to pursue academic tenure. Literary culture itself, if the sad truth be known, seems to be slowly but decisively shutting down.
The fame Eliot achieved in his lifetime is unfathomable for a poet, or indeed any American or English writer, in our day. In 1956, Eliot lectured on “The Function of Criticism” in a gymnasium at the University of Minnesota to a crowd estimated at 15,000 people. “I do not believe,” he remarked afterward, “there are fifteen thousand people in the entire world who are interested in criticism.” Eight years earlier, in 1948, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. In later years, when he went into the hospital, which he did with some frequency, suffering from bronchitis and heart troubles, news of his illnesses appeared in the press or over the radio both in England and America; and so too did news of his second marriage, in 1957, at the age of 69, to his secretary, a Miss Valerie Fletcher, 38 years younger than he. He lectured often and everywhere, so much so that Lyndall Gordon, his most penetrating biographer, wrote that his “face acquired a sort of exposed reticence from the habit of looking down from a lectern into rows upon rows of eyes.” 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.
An immitigable highbrow, Eliot was concerned about the slackening of high culture and the diminishing quality of education—concerns that have proved prophetic. The poetry on which his reputation as a leading figure of the modernist avant-garde was based was not easily comprehended. “Poets, in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,” he wrote, but he also wrote that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” which seems to have been the case with his. His criticism, much of which began as lectures, always came from on high. This was not a man who wrote or spoke down to his audience, ever. Which makes all the more curious his widespread fame. . . .
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