Sage words from a man obviously speaking from experience, but what kind of experience was it that prompted such a statement? Clearly Eliot had issues with his own loyalties-enjoying the freedom of action that his homeland, the USA offered him, but clearly a man struggling to fully express his firm anti pluralistic beliefs through his writing.
On converting to British citizenship was Eliot declaring the intellectual and emotional limitations of his own time in his home country, or was it that he finally threw off the shackles that the Great War had burdened him with? Did he ultimately reconcile the inner conflict that the mass slaughter of the Great War had on his deep Catholic beliefs?
His choice of words intellect and emotional is interesting: for the Great War can safely be described as totally lacking in intellect in all departments: from inception to conduct to finalisation of the conflict in a railway siding. For the war ground both bodies and emotions in the mincing machine that was France and Belgium.
Did Eliot finally learn to escape the present that he still retained from that war? One conclusion is that he found it in the soothing, enveloping rolling countryside of England: in the safety of his writings, the surety of his own faith, meeting the challenge head on that pluralism presented to him.
I was still quite a youngish (immature) schoolboy when he first crossed my path, his poetry only marginally more understandable to me than Francis Thompson, a soul tortured by the pressures of his preferred religion.
Good old T.S. Another English writer so belovedly fast tracked into the Golden Hall of Fame to sit alongside other English greats such as Dylan Thomas: James Joyce: R.L. Stevenson: GB Shaw. The list is endless. If not for English would any of these author’s works ever had seen the light of day? Arguably not. But I thank my preferred choice of Deity for Education, for I could have attained my thirtieth birthday ignorant of the nationalities of all of the aforementioned literary icons but for my English teacher.
Ah! My English teacher. She conveniently failed to mention in her steadfast crusade to impart their greatness to all and sundry ~my classmates: anyone or anything that was stationary long enough to be tiraded at: local newspapers: national newspapers: international newspapers and the local postman who madly fancied her: ~ that far from being English all of the above came from stock that historically regarded the English as sworn, dyed-in-the-wool enemies. Damned for all time. Never to be trusted. Control freaks of the most insidious kind.
Of course, she never actually referred to her heroes as English: but thinking back she never referred to them as anything else. But whenever she said “…in the English language…” we all~ or at least I did~ staring deeply into the green pools of her black-lashed eyes, and no one ever corrected me~ presumed that the baton initially carried by Shakespeare, Bacon, Donne, Dickens and latterly Eliot, had been taken up by more English stalwarts.
Was my English teacher being disingenuous when sharing her love of certain writers with we juveniles? Certainly, when I discovered that Thomas, Joyce, Shaw and Stevenson were not of the same political countenance as I, then I did indeed feel cheated, as I had wholeheartedly embraced their stories~ but not necessarily with full clarity or understanding (have you read the whole of Dubliners in one go?). But if they were countrymen of Shakespeare and my Amazonian tutor, then that was enough for me.
If, knowing that four greatest story tellers in the English language were actually of Celtic origin, would I have read or even approached their outpourings as avidly with a more open (closed?) mind? I’d rather not answer. But the perceived lack of an ‘exoticism’ in their writings had I known of their Celtic roots may have produced a self-imposed mental barrier to my ill formed, clumsy intellect or my hormone driven emotions. Perhaps I embraced the tales (except for Thomas, who I, in my Romantic fervour considered at times to be an unnecessarily cruel writer) much favoured by my English mistress because of my lust for her rather than the literature. Did I imagine that through a faux interest in her love that somehow I could build a bridge from my heart to hers: and thus forge a link from my loins to hers?
The over-riding impression from that time: my time: our time. Mine and her time? Initially of being cheated and misled. Of being led up rather than along a path of which I imagined I knew the beginning and the end. I imagined that we were on the same track, on parallel lines. But no. Miss Smith’s start point was at polar opposites to mine. She said ‘English’ but I heard ‘England’. Close, but no cigar.
Our time? It was a time when the Celtic tenants weren’t exactly seeing eye to eye with their Anglo Saxon landlords. The Irish Republicans were at war with occupying soldiers, civilians and themselves. The well known coal advertising slogan ‘come home to a real fire‘ had taken on a whole new meaning to English owners of second homes in Wales, and the Scottish Nationalists were just getting a foothold in British politics. It was a three pronged attack on England~ but not English~ and therefore a threat to Great Britain as a viable entity.
Would I, as a young, virile, loyal youth have readily embraced the cultural influences of those who would see the end of my nation’s dominance? I’d rather not answer the question. Having consciously welcomed a free spirited coterie of story tellers into my young psyche could I have resisted the natural urge to look deeper into what they represented: what they suffered: their origins: their case? Could I have been influenced? No comment. Didn’t I possess the maturity and equanimity to separate the wheat from the chaff: the good from the bad: the black from the white? See previous answer.
While reading Shaw, Thomas and Stevenson I was learning, but it wouldn’t be until many years later that I actually learned. Learned that they weren’t English. Learned that if printed in their own tongues, their tomes would now be gathering dust in some huge warehouse, awaiting discovery like the fabled treasures of King Tutankhamun: or vainly waiting for someone to find the equivalent of the Rosetta stone before translating the works into the language we now take for granted.
Two days before my sixteenth birthday Miss Smith suddenly had to return to her home town of Newry. Coming as I did twenty ninth out of a class of thirty in Geography, my immediate reaction was ‘it’s not that far to Northumbria, I could follow her there’. But I never again saw her red hair~ shaped boyishly into her pale neck~ nor heard her softly seductive lisping lilt as she read extracts from Travels with a Donkey, while sitting on her desk facing the class, legs crossed, plaid woollen skirt stretched tightly against her athletic thighs~ nor caught the aroma of her cologne as she moved elegantly through the corridors.
Rumours abounded~ as they always will concerning absentee attractive women~ about the sudden (as it seemed to us boys) disappearance of one of our most able tutors-popular with both sexes. It wasn’t until the end of that term that we learned from the Headmaster, at a particularly fraught morning assembly, that Miss Smith had retired a few months prematurely in order to look after a ‘sick relative’. Someone whispered the opinion that that was a euphemism. But for what the teacher never said. I had hoped that the relative wasn’t an estranged husband-or even worse a girlfriend, conscious of the heartbreak that could have caused Miss Smith. But many years later I admitted to myself that mine had been a selfish reaction, based on the fear that someone other than myself was sharing her tender touch.
What had prompted Eliot to make such a charged statement and what was the unasked question that moved him to make such a response? We can only speculate. But Eliot, like myself, illustrated that education has many forms and functions, and that lessons are not always learned in ‘…our own time…’