The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2018

REFERENCE DESK
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Criterion, The
Robert Royal - 08/15/11

T. S. Eliot founded the quarterly Criterion in 1922 with the aim of “bringing together the best new thinking and new writing in its time, from all the countries of Europe that had anything to contribute to the common good.” The first issue carried Eliot’s famous poem “The Waste Land”; works by major figures like Pound, Auden, Yeats, Forster, Lawrence, Huxley, Chesterton, Dawson, and Allen Tate appeared in subsequent volumes. The Criterion also brought translations of Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, Paul Valéry, Luigi Pirandello, Cavafy, and other modern European writers to new audiences. Eliot maintained close contacts with and reported on kindred European magazines: Nouvelle Revue Française, Neue Rundschau, Revista de Occidente, and Il Convegno. During its first few years, the Criterion exerted a powerful influence on literature and culture in England and the United States. Later, it became more occupied with politics and theology. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Eliot halted publication because of “a depression of spirits.”

Like Eliot himself, the Criterion was concerned with the crisis of modern European culture and, broadly speaking, sought to spread among educated persons a renewed respect for classicism in several senses of the word. For Eliot, classicism meant first a recognition of the ancient bases of civilization: “all European civilizations are equally dependent upon Greece and Rome—so far as they are civilizations at all. . . . Neglect of Greek means for Europe a relapse into unconsciousness.” Recovering full consciousness would mean not merely retrieving the past but its use to help elaborate a comprehensive discipline of character and a clarification of reason.

Though Eliot had long affirmed that literature must be pursued and judged on its own terms, the Criterion took as its scope a wide-ranging scrutiny of every dimension of society, politics, and culture. After the first year of publication, Eliot contended that those who affirm an antinomy between “literature,” meaning any literature that can appeal only to a small and fastidious public, and “life,” are not only flattering the complacency of the half-educated, but asserting a principle of disorder.

Yet Eliot never imposed a strict editorial line on literary contributions or social commentary, preferring to encourage a “tendency” toward classicism. Throughout the 1930s, he published the work of the then-communist W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice. He seemed to think Marxism a worthy adversary and even opined that “in times like ours we need ideas, not only our own, but antagonistic ideas against which our ideas may keep themselves sharp.”

At the same time, the journal was often accused of nostalgia toward aristocracy and religion and even of a sympathy for fascism. The truth, more probably, is that Eliot, like many intellectuals in the decade before the war, felt that “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” could not be corrected by liberal democracy. He therefore groped for solutions elsewhere.

In America, the Criterion was an influence before what John Crowe Ransom was to call the New Criticism. Southern writers in particular had felt the attraction of close reading of texts, as opposed to philological, biographical, and political approaches. Sympathy for traditional social arrangements—rather than the rationalized structures of modernity—seemed to flow from the same orientation. The Fugitives, particularly Allen Tate, sought to promote in the United States some of the same values Eliot was championing in Britain. Though Eliot had earlier rejected some of his poetry, Tate persisted in sending him his work, became a regular contributor, and later called the Criterion a “model” for the modern literary magazine. Eliot returned the admiration, calling Tate as promising as anyone in his generation in America.

Eliot’s quarterly was clearly in Tate’s and many others’ minds when the Sewanee Review was founded. Edmund Wilson, displaying some jealousy about Eliot’s influence, warned Tate by letter not to follow Eliot’s example of not publishing his own poetry: “The result was that people bought the Criterion because it was Eliot’s magazine and then found very little in it except tiresome articles by young men who were hanging around Eliot and whom he didn’t have the energy to brush off.” Wilson’s view was common in the forties, when the Nazi horror had underscored the ultimate failure of the Criterion to establish the pan-European classicism it initially sought; it is a view that has been echoed by other critics ever since. But many of the questions addressed by the magazine, and no small number of the articles themselves, retain interest.

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