Published in The Dial magazine
In 1921 and 1922 T.S. Eliot was the London correspondent to The Dial magazine published in New York by his Milton Academy and Harvard University schoolmate Scofield Thayer. The Dial published eight letters written by Eliot about the cultural scene in England. Although Eliot continued to have articles published in The Dial he no longer had time to keep up the London Letter series as he started editing his own publication, The Criterion, the first issue being printed in October, 1922.
The first four "London Letter" essays (the ones that were published in 1921) are also available in print in the book The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose edited by Lawrence Rainey (see below.) Rainey has added extensive notes on the people, books and events written about by Eliot.
In Donald Gallup's bibliography of Eliot's works this essay appears with the code C127.
For more information about T.S. Eliot and The Dial see the "Notes" section on the Table of Contents page.
The page numbers from the original edition of The Dial have been inserted into the HTML markup of this file. Use your browser's "view source" feature (or equivalent) to view them.
Additionally, information about linking to specific headers or paragraphs in this letter are supplied in the "Hyperlinking" section on the Table of Contents page.
Eliot, T.S. 'London Letter,' The Dial, New York, vol. LXXI, no. 4, (October, 1921) pp. 452-455
Eliot, T.S. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose. Lawrence Rainey, ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2005) ISBN 0-300-09743-3
Gallup, Donald. T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography, A Revised and Extended Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1969)
Having been published in the U.S. prior to 1923, it is my understanding that this work of Eliot's is in the public domain in the U.S. but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.) Be careful about republication.
Looking back upon the past season in London--for no new season has yet begun--it remains certain that Strawinsky was our two months' lion. He has been the greatest success since Picasso. In London all the stars obey their seasons, though these seasons no more conform to the almanac than those which concern the weather. A mysterious law of appearance and disappearance governs everybody--or at least everybody who is wise enough to obey it. Who is Mr Rubenstein? The brilliant pianist. This summer he was everywhere; at every dinner, every party, every week-end; in the evening crisp and curled in a box; sometimes apparently in several boxes at once. He was prominent enough to have several doubles; numbers of men vaguely resembled him. Why this should have happened this year rather than last year, perhaps rather than next year, I for one cannot tell. Even very insignificant people feel the occult influence; one knows, oneself, that there are times when it is desirable to be seen and times when it is felicitous to vanish.
But Strawinsky, Lucifer of the season, brightest in the firmament, took the call many times, small and correctly neat in pince-nez. His advent was well prepared by Mr Eugene Goossens--also rather conspicuous this year--who conducted two Sacre du Printemps concerts, and other Strawinsky concerts were given before his arrival. The music was certainly too new and strange to please very many people; it is true that on the first night it was received with wild applause, and it is to be regretted that only three performances were given. If the ballet was not perfect, the fault does not lie either in the music, or in the choreography--which was admirable, or in the dancing--where Madame Sokolova distinguished herself. To me the music seemed very remarkable --but at all events struck me as possessing a quality of modernity which I missed from the ballet which accompanied it. The effect was like Ulysses with illustrations by the best contemporary illustrator.
Strawinsky, that is to say, had done his job in the music. But music that is to be taken like operatic music, music accompanying and explained by an action, must have a drama which has been put through the same process of development as the music itself. The spirit of the music was modern, and the spirit of the ballet was primitive ceremony. The Vegetation Rite upon which the ballet is founded remained, in spite of the music, a pageant of primitive culture. It was interesting to anyone who had read The Golden Bough and similar works, but hardly more than interesting. In art there should be interpenetration and metamorphosis. Even The Golden Bough can be read in two ways: as a collection of entertaining myths, or as a revelation of that vanished mind of which our mind is a continuation. In everything in the Sacre du Printemps, except in the music, one missed the sense of the present. Whether Strawinsky's music be permanent or ephemeral I do not know; but it did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.
It is not within my province to discuss Back to Methuselah, but the appearance of the book may make some observations on Mr Shaw not impertinent, and it is an advantage for my purpose that the book is as well known in America as it is here. A valedictory tone in this book (already noticed by Mr Seldes) is not inapposite to a successful season of his plays by Mr Macdermott's company. Blanco Posnet is now running at the Court Theatre. The recognition indicated by this success implies perhaps that Mr Shaw has attained, in the most eulogistic sense of his own term, the position of an Ancient.
Seven years ago, in 1914, when Mr Shaw came out with his thoughts about the War, the situation was very different. It might have been predicted that what he said then would not seem subversive or blasphemous now. The public has accepted Mr Shaw, not by recognizing the intelligence of what he said then, but by forgetting it; but we must not forget that at one time Mr Shaw was a very unpopular man. He is no longer the gadfly of the commonwealth; but even if he has never been appreciated, it is something that he should be respected. To-day he is perhaps an important elder man of letters in a sense in which Mr Hardy is not. Hardy represents to us a still earlier generation not by his date of birth but by his type of mind. He is of the day before yesterday, whilst Shaw is of a to-day that is only this evening. Hardy is Victorian, Shaw is Edwardian. Shaw is therefore more interesting to us, for by reflecting on his mind we may form some plausible conjecture about the mind of the next age--about what, in retrospect, the "present" generation will be found to have been. Shaw belongs to a fluid world, he is an insular Diderot, but more serious. I should say--for it is amusing, if unsafe, to prophesy--that we shall demand from our next leaders a purer intellect, more scientific, more logical, more rigorous. Shaw's mind is a free and easy mind: every idea, no matter how irrelevant, is welcome. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, the Preface to Methuselah would have seemed a cogent synthesis of thought instead of a delightful farrago of Mr Shaw's conversation about economics, politics, biology, dramatic and art criticism. It is not merely that Mr Shaw is wilful; it is also that he lacks the interest in, and capacity for continuous reasoning.
Mr Shaw has never cajoled the public; it is no fault of his that he has been taken for a joker, a cleverer Oscar Wilde, when his intention was always austerely serious. It is his seriousness which has made him unpopular, which made Oscar Wilde appear, in comparison, dull enough to be a safe and respectable playwright. But Shaw has perhaps suffered in a more vital way from the public denseness; a more appreciative audience might have prevented him from being satisfied with an epigram instead of a demonstration. On the other hand Mr Shaw himself has hardly understood his own seriousness, or known where it might lead him: he is somehow amazingly innocent. The explanation is that Mr Shaw never was really interested in life. Had he been more curious about the actual and abiding human being, he might have been less clever and less surprising. He was interested in the comparatively transient things, in anything that can or should be changed; but he was not interested in, was rather impatient of, the things which always have been and always will be the same. Now the fact which makes Methuselah impressive is that the nature of the subject, the attempt to expose a panorama of human history "as far as thought can reach" almost compels Mr Shaw to face ultimate questions. His creative evolution proceeds so far that the process ceases to be progress, and progress ceases to have any meaning. Even the author appears to be conscious of the question whether the beginning and the end are not the same, and whether, as Mr Bradley says, "whatever you know, it is all one." (Certainly, the way of life of the younger generation, in his glimpse of life in the most remote future, is unpleasantly like a Raymond Duncan or Margaret-Morris school of dancing in the present.)
There is evidence that Mr Shaw has many thoughts by the way; as a rule he welcomes them and seldom dismisses them as irrelevant. The pessimism of the conclusion of his last book is a thought which he has neither welcomed nor dismissed; and it is pessimism only because he has not realized that at the end he has only approached a beginning, that his end is only the starting point towards the knowledge of life.
The book may for a moment be taken as the last word of a century, perhaps of two centuries. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the ages of logical science: not in the sense that this science actually made more progress than the others, but in the sense that it was biology that influenced the imagination of non-scientific people. Darwin is the representative of those years, as Newton of the seventeenth, and Einstein perhaps of ours. Creative evolution is a phrase that has lost both its stimulant and sedative virtues. It is possible that an exasperated generation may find comfort in admiring, even if without understanding, mathematics, may suspect that precision and profundity are not incompatible, may find maturity as interesting as adolescence, and permanence more interesting than change. It must at all events be either much more demoralized intellectually than the last age, or very much more disciplined.
T. S. Eliot