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 C133.
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. LXXIII, no. 1, (July, 1922) pp. 94-96
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.
The death of Sir Walter Raleigh removes a figure of some dignity from a post of some importance. I use both phrases with responsibility. I have never seen and heard the late Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and have never read a line of his writings. But he occupied the post of some importance, and though he may have left it no more important than he found it, he never, so far as I know, made it ridiculous. As for the post, I know well enough that such positions are not for the absolutely first-rate men, but their importance does not depend upon being held by the absolutely first-rate men; it is perhaps not even desirable that they should be held by the first-rate men. It is only a limited range of originality, like that of Anatole France, that is appropriate to be rewarded by the Académie Française. But the Académie stands for something valuable; and so should the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford. It is not to the interest of English literature that the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford should pass to the servile, the indefinite, or the sluggish. And we may as easily get a less worthy Professor of Poetry than Sir Walter Raleigh, as a less worthy Laureate than Robert Bridges. Dr Bridges is a much more valuable personage, it must be said, than was Raleigh. He is the best living specimen in England of the good academic poet; and the word "academic" is not to be read in a pejorative sense. His Milton's Prosody is a piece of work well done. It I were to nominate his successor, the choice would be, I think, Mr Sturge Moore; also a conscientious, sensitive, and scholarly poet with a respect for the English language. But to find a successor for, Sir Walter Raleigh I should be at a loss.
The requirements are difficult: the good academic mind is as rare in England as the good revolutionary mind; there is an originality about the good academic mind, as essential to it as another originality is to the creative mind. The good critic of poetry cannot be merely an astute specialist, like Sir Sidney Lee, or an able biographer, like Sir Sidney Colvin, or a polite essayist, like Mr Edmund Gosse, or a polite moralist, like Mr Clutton-Brock. All of these gentlemen may be accused of seriousness if one is seeking mirth: but for a Professor of Poetry the choice of anyone of them would be simply frivolous. The simplest way of dealing with the contemporary writers of belles-lettres is to divide them into two classes: the Gentleman in a Library, and the earnest Liberal. Neither is quite what we want.
The Gentleman in a Library is well read, and has a taste for books. In his highest form of development he is a genuine scholar, with considerable acuteness, and a vigorous gusto for literature. His highest manifestation in England is Professor Saintsbury. Mr Saintsbury is a scholar: and he knows a great deal about Port (his Notes for a Cellarbook are inadequate on the side of German wines). His services to literature have been great: had he done nothing but his edition of Caroline Poets in three volumes he would still have earned our perpetual gratitude. What is singular about his criticism is the range of his enjoyment: he enjoys not only the first, but the second, third, and tenth-rate, without confusion or illusions. If there is the smallest mustard seed of pleasure to be found in some forgotten poet or novelist, Mr Saintsbury will extract it. Consequently, Mr Saintsbury is often more entertaining when he writes about authors whom we do not want to read, than when he writes about authors whom we know. Things which we are incapable of enjoying for ourselves we enjoy through Mr Saintsbury.
The second Gentleman in a Library is Mr Charles Whibley. I also prize Mr Whibley because he has read so many things that I have not read, and because he is not a Whig. His great limitation, in contrast to Mr Saintsbury, is his affection for quaintness; he is a disciple of Henley and was a friend of George Wyndham. On the other hand, I do not know who else could write about Bolingbroke.
I think that these are the two best specimens: there are many varieties. As the gentleman becomes the journalist, we get essays in the C. Lamb tradition; as he becomes the theologian, we get, with pomposity and pretence, Mr, or rather the late Mr A. J. and now Earl Balfour. Social ambitions, again, produce the literary chatterbox. The gentleman turned professor produces works of sometimes useful and sometimes useless scholarship. I recognize in Mr A. C. Bradley some of the acuteness of his greater brother, but whereas Appearance and Reality is a fine work of art, Four Plays of Shakespeare strikes me as a needless luxury. Professor Mackail wrote a History of Latin Literature which was the first incentive to at least one boy to read Latin poetry; but Mr Mackail, a belated pre-Raphaelite, shows a tendency towards Liberalism. (Nevertheless, his lecture on Pope is worth reading. )
The Gentleman in a Library has dignity; he lacks, to put it in the crudest way, "punch." This the Liberal endeavours to provide. For the former, Literature is a pleasure for the more cultivated upper classes; for the latter, it is Education for the Million. Mr Clutton-Brock really does, I think, try to improve the Million up to the pleasantness and peace of the William Morris way of life; I believe he is a Christian Socialist. The great weakness of our Liberal Practitioners is that they have abandoned a safe position without having the skill to prepare another. The Liberal is merely a drifting Conservative, and much more obstructive to genuine innovation in the Arts than the firm Conservative, because he persuades the public that he is himself modern, and that anything more original than himself is not modernity but madness.
No. For a Professor of Poetry I believe that I should choose an American, Professor Irving Babbitt. Not that I agree with all of Mr Babbitt's opinions: but partly that there are few writers so well worth disagreeing with. There is no doubt that Mr Babbitt is a far more serious writer than any of the Englishmen I have mentioned. He is more learned--or, to be more precise, better equipped; he has strong convictions; and he has just that valuable and rare academic originality which we seek. In Mr Babbitt's mind the classical culture is active; he is perfectly honest; and he does not forget that Homer, Virgil, and Dante have each certain qualities not so well represented in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare has been a subject of attention lately, owing to two books, Mr Robertson's Shakespeare Canon, and Mr Clutton-Brock's Shakespeare's Hamlet. Both discussions are really due to Mr Robertson; he wrote an essay on Hamlet several years ago which I reviewed, and his essay and my review appear to have provided the impulse to Mr Brock. Mr Brock's argument I have not read; it may be a very good one. It is difficult to tell, from the reviews, what Mr Brock's argument is; for they have seized merely on one or two sentences, of my own or of Mr Robertson's, and neglected discussion of the issue: which is not whether other plays of Shakespeare are "greater" or "better" than Hamlet, but whether that play is a perfect artistic whole, and whether Shakespeare succeeded completely in expressing the content of emotion.
T. S. Eliot