Eliot and Owen

In the new Volume Two of Eliot’s Collected Letters, there’s a 1925 note from Eliot to Robert Graves about a proposed anthology of modern poetry. Eliot agrees with Graves’s choices, but suggests the addition of Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy (in the work of both of whom he clearly sees a merit that is not obvious to me). Also the Americans Wallace Stevens, W.C.Williams and Vachel Lindsay. He then adds ‘I should not like to omit T.E.Hulme’ and finishes by asking: ‘What about Wilfred Owen?’

The editors of the letters add the note: ‘This is a rare mention of Owen by TSE.’ and indeed it is. He was allergic to war poetry in general, though managed some faint praise for his friend Herbert Read in an article in (I think) The Athaneum. It’s certainly interesting that he singles out Owen here.  Maybe it’s even more interesting that Owen had not already been included in Graves’s original list.

The publication of the Collected Letters is progressing at the speed of a somewhat slow glacier (the 800-odd pages of Vol. 2 cover only 1923-5) so it will probably be a while before we see letters that show Eliot’s reaction to the War Books boom of 1929-30. This was certainly a subject that interested him. The second edition of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was, I think, the first publication of Faber and Faber (as opposed to Faber and Gwyer), and it was Eliot’s friend A.W.Wheen who translated All Quiet on the Western Front into English.

In The Criterion, Herbert Read repeated his praise of All Quiet, and the Criterion Miscellany series of pamphlets included three relevant titles. One was a reprint of A.W.Wheen’s 1924 story Two Masters, and another reprinted Read’s In Retreat. Both of these fit easily with the late-twenties mood of war-scepticism, but the third publication was Douglas Jerrold’s The Lie About the War, a thoroughgoing attack on the ‘disillusioned’ school of war writing. It was not unusual for Eliot to use The Criterion to publish arguments on both sides of a case and leave it to readers to come to a conclusion.  The Miscellany, for example, published as a pair D.H.Lawrence’s Pornography and Obscenity together with a tract on the necessity for censorship by the puritanical Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks.

I can’t think of any other Eliot references to Owen, though, and would be glad to hear from anyone who knows of some.

2 Comments

  1. Roger
    Posted January 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    “Eliot agrees with Graves’s choices, but suggests the addition of Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy (in the work of both of whom he clearly sees a merit that is not obvious to me). ”

    Perhaps Eliot was suggesting their inclusion as representatives of particular kinds of poetry rather than for their own merits. One of the problems with anthologies is whether poems should be chosen for their representativeness or for their worth.

  2. Posted January 18, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I think Eliot did actually admire Stein. He printed her work in The Criterion, and in a letter told her: ‘I am immensely interested in anything you write.’
    Stein is maybe one of those writers who at the time they are writing seem to offer exciting possibilities, but later hindsight makes them look like dead ends.
    Having said which, there are still, I gather, academics who rate Stein, though I’ve never been able to work out why.


Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: