“Well, if anyone ever actually teased T.S. Eliot”

March 30, 2009

Or so wonders Alan Jacobs after pointing out a wonderful little anecdote in the history of English letters: Eliot rejected Animal Farm.  But here’s the best part — someone did!  (Well, sort of.  And I apologize for the Wikipedia citation; but I’m fairly certain I’ve read this elsewhere, as well — oh, and my generally favorable opinion of Eliot as poet and thinker should be clear by now, and I’m generally willing to take Leonard Woolf’s word for it on the matter of Eliot and anti-Semitism.)

‘One of the first and most famous protests against Eliot on the subject of anti-Semitism came in the form of a poem from the Anglo-Jewish writer and poet Emanuel Litvinoff,[48] at an inaugural poetry reading for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1951. Only a few years after the Holocaust, Eliot had republished lines originally written in the 1920s about ‘money in furs’ and the ‘protozoic slime’ of Bleistein’s ‘lustreless, protrusive eye’ in his Selected Poemsof 1948, angering Litvinoff. When the poet got up and announced his poem, entitled ‘To T. S. Eliot’, the event’s host, Sir Herbert Read, declared ‘Oh Good, Tom’s just come in’. Litvinoff proceeded in evoking to the packed but silent room his work, which ended with the lines “Let your words/tread lightly on this earth of Europe/lest my people’s bones protest”. Many members of the audience were outraged; Litvinoff said “hell broke loose” and that no one supported him. One listener, the poet Stephen Spender, claiming to be as Jewish as Litvinoff, stood and called the poem an undeserved attack on Eliot.[48]However, Litvinoff says that Eliot was heard to mutter, ‘It’s a good poem’.[49]

The real question, of course, is this: Did anyone ever tell Milton a joke and get him to laugh?  (I mean, come on, Johnny — “sage and serious Spenser”?  It’s a pun a line and sheer ridiculosity throughout!)


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