T.S.Eliot and the Westminster Gazette

I looked at some 1914 editions of the Saturday Westminster Gazette last week, while chasing up the first printing of Arnold Bennett’s The White Feather. I found enough of interest there to make me want to look at some later copies.

Yesterday I chose the second half of 1916 to dip into, partly because I wanted to see if the tone of their fiction changed after the Battle of the Somme (I don’t think it did, notably), but also because I knew that T.S.Eliot was reviewing for them at the time. A letter of September 1916 mentions a review of Durkheim, and books about India, and even a novel by H. de Vere Stacpoole. Since Stacpoole was most famously the author of The Blue Lagoon, I was curious to discover the response to his work by Eliot, whose own take on desert island fantasy (“Under the bam / Under the boo”) was rather different.

The Durkheim piece is a review of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, and shows Eliot’s interest in primitive religion; he writes respectfully about Durkheim’s account of totemism and cults, and relates him to other thinkers. These include Jane Harrison, whose ideas about ritual I’ve previously seen named as a possible influence on The Waste Land, but I don’t remember Eliot actually name-checking her elsewhere. (Update March 2010: TSE’s Letters vol 2 contains a letter from TSE to Harrison, asking her to contribute to the Criterion. She never did so,  possibly because she was very old by this time.)

The review of Stacpoole, though mentioned in the September letter, does not appear until December 9th. It is among the “Shorter Notices”. (Had it been sub-edited down from a longer piece?). Here it is, in its entirety:

THE REEF OF STARS. By H. de Vere Stacpoole. (Hutchinson) 6s.-
Whose was the huge misshapen hand, apparently enclosed in a woollen glove, which rose suddenly out of the hatchway? No matter how seasoned the reader may be in treasure-hunting, he will experience several new shudders from Mr. H. de Vere Stacpoole’s new novel. There are all of the usual stage properties, and some original ones too. The story opens on the beach at Sydney, and conducts us up a New Guinea river. There the heroine is discovered in a Dyak village. The description of Macquart, gone mad over the gold which he cannot take away, is extremely well done, and leaves us in a state of complete exhaustion.

I think that’s quite effective as a review – it lets you know the sort of pleasures the book offers, even while it it hints that it’s not the highest art.

The Westminster’s reviews are unsigned, and it’s hard to guess which might be by Eliot. Did he write the intelligent appraisal of Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others (Sep 2)? Probably not.

Eliot broke with the paper after only a few months. On 30 Jan, 1917, Pound wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I am afraid Eliot has split with the Westminster.” Ricks, in his notes to Airs of Palestine, No.2 in Inventions of the March Hare, quotes that letter, but suggests no reason for the split. Airs of Palestine is a mock-heroic piece about Spender, the Westminster’s editor:

And Spender struck the living rock,
And Lo! the living rock was wet,
From which henceforth at twelve o’clock
Issues the Westminster Gazette.

Those who bathe in the miraculous flow of of Spender’s creation are:

Cleansed and rejoiced in every limb
And hate the Germans more and more.

Why such animus? Can it be because of a destructive review of Pound’s Lustra in the Westminster of November 25, 1916. (“…it is not easy to believe that it is seriously meant [….] though the jest strikes a little sourly on the palate when our present shortage of paper is remembered.)

This review is notable for picking up a notorious phrase from Arthur Waugh’s attack on the new poetry in the Quarterly Review for October 1916. The reviewer writes of Pound:

[S]ince he seems to wish to write altogether badly, and so nearly succeeds, our heartier applause should be given to his absurdities. He might perhaps be made to play drunken Helot for Mr Huxley and Mr Vines…

In the Egoist for June 1917, Eliot published Pound’s essay, Drunken Helots and Mr Eliot, in which Pound claims that Waugh called Eliot a “drunken Helot” – which Waugh didn’t, quite, or not as definitely as the reviewer in the Westminster applied the term to Pound himself. So was Pound’s defence of his friend made even more forceful because of the personal dig that had been made against himself?

I wonder who wrote the review of Pound. My guess is that it is Sir John Squire, a belligerent Georgian and a strong defender of traditional form in poetry.

On the subject of form: it was while he was writing for the Westminster that Eliot moved away from free verse to quatrains. This is usually ascribed to the influence of Gautier, but every issue of the Westminster is full of tightly structured formal verse. Some is poor stuff, but the best is very good. Equally, some of it definitely did encourage the reader to “hate the Germans more and more”, but there were also Sassoon’s The Stretcher Case and Graves’s The Dead Fox-Hunter. I don’t know a lot about Squire, but since he used the pseudonym “Peter Bell” elsewhere, I’d guess that the weekly poems by “P.B.” are his, and some of these are very clever and sharply rhymed. I can’t help wondering whether Eliot wasn’t maybe trying to play the traditionalists at their own game.

But now I’m piling speculation on speculation, so I’ll stop.

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