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Issue 12 – Assumption 2022

Arts and Letters

More Wisdom!

On the prose of T.S. Eliot.


The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot
Ronald Schuchard (general editor)
Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 7148, $700.00

One of T.S. Eliot’s cleverest attempts at a demolition job was his essay “Goethe as the Sage,” which he delivered as an address at the University of Hamburg on the occasion of receiving the Hanseatic Goethe Prize for 1954. In the course of the twenty-page discourse, he tells us that he has come to appreciate Goethe while giving almost no example of a work by Goethe which he actually admired. Eliot had been obliged to overcome “antipathy” both to Goethe’s view of life and to his behavior. He acknowledged that for someone such as himself, “who combines a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinistic inheritance, and a Puritanical temperament,” Goethe, the pantheistic practitioner of free love, caused problems. Eliot recognized him as a “great European” on the level of Dante and Shakespeare; but, he quotes his own words, penned in 1933, “Of Goethe it is truer to say that he dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either.” Although the rhetorical cast of the piece implies that Eliot was retracting this point of view, he never exactly does so, falling back on the attempt to draw a distinction between the philosophy of a poet and his “wisdom.” In conclusion, he wrote, “The best evidence of the wisdom of a great writer is the testimony of those who can say, after long acquaintance with his works, ‘I feel a wiser man because of the time I have spent with him.’”

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About the author

A. N. Wilson

A. N. Wilson is the author, most recently, of The King and the Christmas Tree (Manilla Press, 2021). This essay appeared in the Assumption 2022 issue of The Lamp.