T. S. Eliot and Germany

Ernst Robert Curtius T. S. Eliot and Germany pi' $£ In the summer of 1922,when I wasa professor^ at Marburg University, the Rhineland was occupie...
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Ernst Robert Curtius

T. S. Eliot and Germany


In the summer of 1922,when I wasa professor^ at Marburg

University, the Rhineland was occupied by English, Canadian, French and American troops. Marburg itself was outside the occupation zone, and one could breathe more freely there. Onemorning aletterfrom T. S.Eliotturnedupout ofthe blue. . I knew nothingwhatever abouthim. Heproposedthat I should contribute to The Criterion; for Hermann Hesse, apparently, had mentioned my name to him, very likely because I had i"SJ>.

recently published.something about certain contemporary French writers. At that time France seemed to me - as it did

before1914- the mostimportantcountrybeyondthe frontiers ofGermany. I thoughtof France andGermanyasthe twovital centresof theWest. In thosedayswe believedin a new Europe.

I myselfbelieved in a new European France. For me the most important representative of France was Andre Gide, whose books I hadknownsince 1910.1became acquainted with Gide himself in 1921 in Colpach. This is a hamlet consisting of a few houseswhich is situated in a smallcountry between Ger many and France. There was a beautiful country house in Colpach standing in a large park. Under the ancient trees of the park there werebronze figures by Bourdel, Maillol, Despiaux andKolbe. It was a friendly and hospitable house. One

PI could meet Walter Rathenau there, and Jacques Riviere,

Hi Annette Kolb or Jean Schlumberger. The park adjoined the N »**!&'

lonely forests of the Ardennes. It was a fabulous oasis in our disintegrated Europe, a Frospero island in the middle of the Ardennes mountains. From Colpach I had to go to Pontigny. This town in the nineteen-twenties was one of the spiritual

centres of Europe. One ran into Oxford students there who Imported Donne andEliot. Back in Paris I met Jane Harrison,

:|EU)ger Fry, and James Joyce. Inthe bookshop ofShakespeare ||nd Co., in theRue de l'Odeon, it was possible to find acopy 119


of T. S.Eliot's Poems (New York 1920), as well as The Waste

Land, published by the Hogarth Press. This poem made a more powerful impression on me than anything I had read I

since Paul Valery's LeSerpent. Even to-day I consider those first four lines as the most superb musical opening ofanypoem of Eliot's. 'To please me,' said Coleridge once, 'a poem must have either sense or music' I did not always find it very easy

to follow the meaning of The Waste Land, but its music carried me over its obscurities. I studied this work ju*t as I

had formerly studied Dante. In the process of translating it and trying to reproduce as nearly as possible the metre of the original, I succeeded in assimilating it. This translation ap peared in the Neue Schweizer Rundschau in 1927 together with an essay on the poet. Not more than five or six readers took anyinterest in eitherofthese efforts. My attempt tomake

a place for T. S. Eliot inGerman literature was so quickly and completely forgotten that he had to be entirely rediscovered twenty years later. Some time after this I made one more attempt to focus attention onEliot (in Die Literatur, October 1929), but this had the same result.

In the notes appended .to TheWaste Land there occur some

phrases from Hermann Hesse's Blick ins Chaos. This medley oflanguages in the poem isone ofthe stylistic devices that can often be found in the literature of late antiquity. It exactly resembles the manner of Ausonius:

Nobiscum invenies cnewv 7roAi>/xop^a ttXtjBvv In Dante this technique is given a true poetic value. He decorates his cantos with Latin and Provencal verses and also

with resounding Hebraic rhymes. Eliot's poetry is made up of

such polyglot elements; French, Italian, Provencal. Also German. The openinglines of The Waste Land contain frag ments of a poime conversation in the manner of Apollinaire. Bingar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch

The speaker continues: Inthe mountains, there youfeelfree This reminds one of earlier verses:

En AUemagne, philosophe Surexcitipar Emporheben Au grand air de Bergsteigleben. 120

Eliot is apoet who had studied philobgy. One aspect ofhis T. S. Eliot and

poetry has an Alexandrian flavour. For this reason itis possible



tointerpret it in a philological sense. Thereisaparallel passage in The Sacred Woodto 'En Allemagne, philosophe': No one who had not witnessed the event could imagine the

conviction in the tone of Professor Euchen as he pounded the table and exclaimed1Was ist Geist? Geistist.. .*

It seemed therefore that Eliot was once upon a time in Jena andalso in Munich('Went onin sunlightintothe Hofgarten'). When I madehis acquaintance andwe hadbreakfast together in Soho, our conversation was of other matters. But in 19451 came oncemore upon 'Emporheben', in EastCohen Erhebungwithoutmotion.


Writing poetry is a kind of alchemy of transmutations. Eliot appears in his youth to have hadsome fleeting contacts with Germany. Among the Aristophanic protagonists of his earlier poems there are certain German sounding names such as Prufrock and Bleistein. But these are 'Chicago Semite Viennese,' just asthe heroof Joyce's Ulysses.

For a young American coming to Europe in 1910, England and France were the natural avenues of approach. Blooms.?*

bury, Soho, and the Latin Quarter formed a resort for in tellectuals, a modern Arcady touched by the charm of decadence. Its inhabitants, 'florentes aetatibus? were Et cantare pares et respondere parati.

The Luxembourg Gardens formed a pastoral setting which was haunted nightlyby the ghost of Rexny de Gourmont. In Paris, Mot absorbed the Gallic spirit in all its variety from Petroniu8 to Baudelaire and his successors. Ezra Pound dis coveredthese on the banks of the Arno-kArcadesambo.* Seen w '0'

from Anglo-America the Latin Spirit was in fact Europe. To Europeanise Kpgl»"d meant injecting into it the Latin spirit. And Eliot proclaimed that England was a Latin country. In this kind of Europe there was no place for Germany. I

shall always remember with amusement a sixteen year old French girl, who told me many years ago: 'En Allemagne, vou8 avezla musique: pour le reste, c'estcreux.' It strikes me as importantthat after 1944 Eliot excludes Goethe from the 121



classical literature of Europe. He demanded a universal quality of classic writers, andcontinues: 'We may for instance

speak justly enough of the. poetry of Goethe as constituting a classic, because of the place which it occupies in its own

language and literature. Yet, because ofits partiality, ofthe impermanence of some of its content, and the Germanism of

the sensitivity; because Goethe appears, to a foreign eye, limitedby hisage,,by hislanguage andby hisculture, so that he is unrepresentative of the whole European tradition and, like ourown nineteenth century authors,'a little provincial, we cannot call him a universal 0188810.' This was said on the

sixteenth of October 1944 in the course of a lecture given to the London Virgil society. The date of The Sacred Wood is

1920. After a quarter of a century Eliot's opinion of Goethe undergoes a transformation. It involves the formal exclusion

of Goethe from Europe; but also the exclusion of Germany, herlanguage and herculture. In 1920 as in 1944 Eliot speaks like a legislator of Parnassus. His judgmentshows that criti cism can also be an expression of politics. It is possible that Eliot would have modified it, if he had found time to read more of Goethe. In 1944, it is true, there was still war. But

when, during the first world war,French propaganda triedto discredit the German spirit, Gide wrote: 'Comment ne comprenez-vous pas, vous qui voulez rejeter tout de 1'Alle magne, qu'en rejetant tout de l'Allemagne vous travaillez a son unite?Quoil nous avions un Goethe en otage, et vous le

leur rendez!... Goethe et Nietzsche sontnosotages. Jetiens que la depreciation des otages est une des plus grandes maladresse8 a quoi excelle notre pays.' When a critic of standing speaks aboutthe European tradi tion, it involves taking up an attitude towards Goethe. Thus, in speaking about the literary tradition Saint-Beuve in 1855 characterized Goethe in a few words: 'H est toutes les traditions

reunies.' The European spirit acquires definition in Goethe's work. Perhaps that is more obvious in 1948 than it was in 1944.

When Eliot gave a talk in 1946 over the British radio net work in Germany, he somewhat modified his judgment of 122

Goethe. He spoke ofthe unityof European culture. A part of T- s« Eliot and

Germany had become aBritish occupation zone, and therefore Germany the perspectives had shifted somewhat. As a contrast to Goethe, Eliot now chooses Wordsworth. This leads to an

ambiguous comparison, a synkresis, as the Greeks would have put it: 1 do not know of any standard by which one could gauge the relative greatness of Goethe and Wordsworth as

poets, but the complete work of Goethe has a scope which makes him a greaterman.' Is it really impossible to compare Goethe and Wordsworth as poets? I consider that an open question. But even if we do not attempt to answer it, it strikes me that the coupling of these two names is questionable. Its solemotification is the fact of their contemporaneousness. One can no more judge the greatness of Goethe by measuring him against one of his contemporaries than one can Shakespeare. His greatness is of a kind which excludescomparisons, that is to say, it has the representative character of the unity of its epoch. This is not in any way an irresponsible view. It canbe proved by an historical factor, namely, his influence.Words worth is a poetwhoseinfluencehasnever reached beyondthe English-speaking world, just as little as Pope, Dryden, Tennyson and many others. And this suggests a very inter esting questionto a European critic: how farcanthe influence of an Englishauthorin any case be of world-wide importance, in the sensethat Dante,Montaigne,Cervantes, and Racine are

important? Such questions are nothing more thanintellectual experiments, but a concrete situation can therebybe illumi nated. The actual situation to-day is that England's frontiers are on the Rhine and she is therefore compelled to play a

European role. She has the militarymeans to do so, but what a of the spiritual means? These are imponderables, but stillthey have a great importance. Ever since 1945 many Germans have been busy trying to master the difficulties of Eliot's work. The Four Quartets are the focus of these studies, but as yet it is impossible to give much information as to their results. The Four Quartetspre

sent great difficulties. After Holderlin's later hymns and Rilke's Duinese Elegies our present-day youth is ready for -


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anything. But the obscurity of this poet is rooted in mythical and philosophical materials. This is precisely what recom mends itself to our young critics. They feel themselves at home in this atmosphere. But there are entirely different grounds for the difficulties of the Quartets. Their obscurityis related to their very great precision. We are not accustomed to that. And there is somethingelse. Eliot's poetryis full of all sorts of allusions. It is necessaryto have read a great deal in orderto understandand enjoy this subtle web of allusion. The method of alluding to previous literary works is one of the most important artistic devices of Greek and Roman litera

ture. Dantetooemploys it when he introduces echoes of Virgil into his verse. The German reader, however, is not prepared

for this. He searches for what is. truly modern, and doesn't understand that Virgil and Dante have alwaysbeen modern. Stefan George hasborrowed the levique malvaof an Horatian

Odefor a poemon LeoXIII. He also introduced anoldFrench line which he had found in the Chanson de Roland into a

German poem. This practice therefore occurs also in our literature, but onlyoccasionally. With Eliot it is fundamental. Topurify thedialect ofthetribe - this is an echo from Mallarme, therefore a comparatively simple case. But very few are as simple as this. The German readerlikes to find a philosophy in the works of a poet. But unfortunately one always finds only that for

which one has been looking. It issomewhat astounding all the samewhen suddenlyone comes upon somethingentirely un suspected, namely Christian theology. That, too,is something to which we are unused except in the work of professional

theologians. Andwe now discover Lancelot Andrewes and St. John of the Cross. Should one not attempt to interpret all this

metaphysically? For allI knowsuch attempts have been made. The ontological antinomies, which in Eliot have the formal character of rhetorical antitheses,would seem to demand such

aninterpretation. Allthe same such attempts atinterpretation must necessarily fail, and for many a German reader of Eliot this failure would become a via purgationis.

The Waste Landand the Quartets arepoems, the material 124

for which has to agreat extent been derived from myths and T. S. Eliot and various philosophies and religions. Perhaps there is no .other Germany material more capable ofgiving meaning, weight and struc ture to a poem. Butthe value and, I might also add, the in terest, ofapoem are not dependent on this. These depend on thehandling ofthe language. The greatness of the Divine Comedy depends on the terza

rima, on the controlled tension between rhyme and meaning,

on newand daring images, on askilful interplay ofsound and aDusivenes8.

One can read Eliot's poetry in many different ways. A philosophical, historical and theological commentary might be of use for those who feel need for such a manner of inter

pretation. It seems to me, however, that this could only be a preliminary to full understanding. In order to value Eliot's art properly, one would have tomake aphilological study ofit. One would have to trace certain images of actual things in their kaleidoscopic transformation throughoutthewhole work. Let us suppose that to-morrow one could buy all Eliot's works in everyGerman bookshop. This certainly would be a miracle, not in the precise theological sense, for there would not be anything supernatural about such a situation, but simplyin the sense of its beinga fairy tale.What wouldbe the

consequences? Thousands of students would buy the book, that is to say, the complete works in onevolume. Dozens of critics would immediately get to workonit. It would become

a subject for lectures and study groups. Allyoung people in terested in poetry would be reading it, discussing it and learning it by heart. Eliot would lead them back to the European tradition and reveal to them the meaning oflitera ture and culture. How wonderful and how productive that would be! I recommend these aims to allwhomitmayconcern.

Translated by RichardMarch m


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