The Vassar Encyclopedia’s entry on Muriel Rukeyser contains part of a poem, originally published anonymously in the November 1933 issue of Con Spirito. Highly critical of T.S. Eliot, “Lecture by Mr. Eliot” was identified as Rukeyser’s by Mary McCarthy, musing over the publication in her memoir, How I Grew: “The Scottsboro Boys. Yes, that sounds like Muriel and the reference would be to a reading by Eliot in Avery [Hall] during our senior year, when he gave us one of the early Possum poems” (260). This remembrance might seem like slim evidence, without available confirmation from any of the magazine’s other founders (Elizabeth Bishop, Frani Blough, Eleanor and Eunice Clark, and Margaret Miller) (Hicok 84). However, recent discoveries of archival materials add to the case for authorship and clarify Rukeyser’s ultimately more expansive and nuanced assessment of the older poet.
We know from Rukeyser’s diary that 1933 was a time of heightened interest in Eliot. As Elisabeth Däumer explains, he had just returned to the U.S. that year for “an ambitious tour of lectures — among them the Norton lectures at Harvard University, later published as The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, and his infamous Page-Balfour lectures at the University of Virginia, published as After Strange Gods, in which he articulated an explicitly conservative Christian literary and cultural criticism, speculating about the corrosive influence of large groups of ‘free-thinking Jews'” (1181-2). Hallie Flanagan, hired to develop experimental theatre at Vassar and, later, director of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project, was staging the first ever production of Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, and had invited the poet. He came to see the performance on May 6th, and the next day read his poems.
According to James Loucks, Eliot gave several talks in New York before that date, and we know from her diary that Rukeyser attended his lectures at the New School for Social Research and Columbia on April 20th and 21st, where he discussed Milton, Dante and Shakespeare (27). Rukeyser had just returned from covering one of the Scottsboro Nine trials in Decatur, Alabama for the Student Review, the publication of the National Student League. There she was arrested for talking with black reporters and then jailed after it was discovered that she had posters in her suitcase advertising an April conference on “Negro Student Problems” at Columbia (Franz Boas Papers, American Philosophical Society). Unfortunately, she also contracted typhoid. Though it has been generally supposed that she missed seeing the play at Vassar but did attend Eliot’s lecture there, a letter from her good friend Ruth Lehman queries, “Why weren’t you at Eliot?” The letter from Lehman has no date on it, but in the archive’s folder, there is an envelope that seems to accompany it dated April 28, 1933. According to Loucks, Eliot also spoke on the 27th at the New School (which is where Rukeyser heard him on the 20th) (27). Rukeyser’s diary for the 26th says, “Sick all day.” The 27th has no mention of Eliot but does mention “fever.” Subsequent entries from the 28th on also mention fever, pain, and fatigue. Then, in an entry for May 1st, Muriel wrote, “Passed out. Uptown” and on May 2nd, there is a note “Hospital/Typhoid” with a downward arrow drawn towards the date “June 1” which reads, “Resumed.” Entries after that continue to mention her fatigue, so one can assume it took some time to recuperate. Thus, it seems clear that she completely missed Eliot’s visit to Vassar.
In February, just months before the visit, Con Spirito, an alternative literary magazine, had been launched as a counter to the Vassar Review, which, as Eunice Clark explained, felt conservative and traditional. “We were a tiny part of a worldwide literary revolution stretching, in variegated forms, from Walt Whitman to Finnegans Wake, and we were feeling our oats to a point where the official literary magazine, The Vassar Review, looked to us like the Bastille. They didn’t print our avant-garde contributions and they altered our sentences to sound more like Matthew Arnold” (Jessup 17). A vehicle for ambitious young writers, Con Spirito “attempt[ed] to create a space of freedom for the imagination,” directly countered male-dominated literary tradition, and re-imagined modernism (Hicok 85).
By this time, however, Rukeyser had left the Vassar campus for both financial and personal reasons. The Depression was beginning to affect even wealthier students (Cohn 15), and, as a letter from President Henry Noble MacCracken to her father on June 10, 1932 explains, Rukeyser was experiencing a kind of restless dissatisfaction. MacCracken recommended a year off. She spent part of that summer with the Clark sisters and Denise Dryden, launching the literary magazine Housatonic (Jessup 17), which came out with four issues. This experience must have informed the Clark sisters’ work with Con Spirito, and though Rukeyser was not on campus during the spring of 1933 when the plans for Con Spirito began (Jessup 17), a letter from Eleanor Clark solicits Rukeyser’s involvement of another sort. On September 15, 1933, Clark wrote, “Dear Muriel, Please subscribe to Con Spirito. It’s going to be as good as ever we hope, which is much too good for college and so has to be supported from outside . . . Also SEND STUFF, [sic] as soon as possible. We are going to use outside stuff because there is no other way of keeping up previous standards and nothing lower is worth bothering. with. [sic] It will be anonymous for an issue, maybe two; anyway until we can decide on definite policy. But you wont mind that will you? [sic] Get us anything else you can that you think we might use. I know that s difficult [sic], all things considered, but there might be some things in search of market that we could have without money.” 1
A later undated letter from Eleanor Clark, written on Vassar stationery, confirms Rukeyser’s authorship. She writes, “Dear Muriel, We have printed best lot of your poems. They look very nice. Do you want the copy back? We didn’t print St. Thomas : criticism — not ‘synthesized’ enough – wordy perhaps. They are good words but the good places should have been allowed to stand more on their own – not so much reinforcement. Everybody liked woman + bird + Sunday – also Mr. Eliot, though I think that might have fitted the subject more sardonically (good word) if it had been chosen 2 too.”
The published poem depicts a collective loss of purpose at a moment of crisis: we “dither and amble and twitter at the brink of time.” As depicted here, Eliot lacks vision to create new possibilities from the resources of tradition: “whispering fragments of a century/ sliding among a thousand ghosts of meaning,” later “collapsing in attempts to make an end / to his idea’s beginning.” Similar images later reappear in “Citation for Horace Gregory” (1935) where Eliot, “led us to the precipice / subtly and perfectly ; there striking an attitude / rigid and aging on the penultimate step, . . . ” (62). But the criticism sharpens. Däumer elucidates how the poem, in labeling Eliot a “grinning Panfilo” connects his poetic ideals and politics with “the Spanish conquistador Panfilo’s known brutality in conquering Florida.” Initially, she explains, “This ironic comparison might seem strained unless we consider Eliot’s identification with precisely the conservative ideals of order, underwritten by Catholicism, that Rukeyser, a young radical, linked to the rise of fascism in Europe: ‘the rubber heels of statesmen . . . mirrored on a tiling'” (1182).
However, the poem’s target is not just the poet but his audience, including the speaker herself, indulging in elite solipsistic concerns: “The audience crumbles in cerebral whoredom, / devoted lustfully to a conceit’s expansion, / to an obscure line’s scansion.” The target of the next line is unclear, though the sentiment is the same: “These Fantastics bow and nod, / homage to prosody as God.” It’s unclear who the Fantastics might be, and they reappear at the end of the poem, but an essay on “The Cultural Economy of Modernism” by Lawrence Rainey highlights the way early modernists like Ezra Pound appealed to elite patrons, by presenting “literary culture [as] a privatized medium of symbolic exchange for an exiguous aristocracy of sensibility, a court of intellect” (37). At a private talk in March 1907 on the Provencal poet Daniel Arnaut, Pound described the poems as “good art as the high mass is good art,” and noted that they must be “approached as ritual” so that they could “make their revelations” (37). In contrast, F.T. Marinetti, expounding on Futurism at this same time, rejected Pound’s sequestration of poetry, proclaiming, “Art is not a religion, not something to be worshipped with joined hands” and received great coverage in the press. Subsequently, Rainey explains how in resisting the popularization and commodification of art, Pound, Eliot and Joyce, as well as others, developed a new artistic economy that depended on investment in limited editions of literary texts, which clarifies why Rukeyser would critique this social and economic positioning of art.
Following up on the implications of these practices, the last section of the poem incorporates images from Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (“sand swarming on these bodies, songs forgotten”) and possibly Whitman (“the long sea shouting derisive in our ears”) to consider how we, the poet and audience, will be judged by future generations, how we make use of our experiences and our art, if “the secrets of the dead / their minds’ encumbrances all gone to mould” will continue to appeal to us with the same type of poems that “undid / the purse-strings of kings’ bounty, beauty-pandered.” The poem’s ending invokes an alternative vision of poetry’s purpose — “Find for us these, our spirits from these sands arisen — physical work, united hands”; yet the closing lines mock this desire, traditional agendas constricting poetry’s potential for connection and action: “The Fantastics still converse and smirk / and finger in their pockets our prison keys.” By the time of Eliot’s reading, modernism’s system of patronage and investment had unraveled due to the Depression, which led to reliance on universities (Eliot’s tour was proof of that) and an “assen[t] [to modernism’s] canonization, so guaranteeing a new market of pliant students” (Rainey 62). Rukeyser’s fellow students were that captive audience, soon to be inculcated into New Criticism.
Though this particular poem excoriates Eliot, in fact, Rukeyser’s overall attitude toward the older poet, as Däumer explains in her essay, was more ambivalent. Other work that Rukeyser had published one year earlier exhibits a more complex attitude, and indeed, Alan Wald’s research indicates that many on the left were attracted to the work of T.S. Eliot in particular (193 -195), seeing potential in his defamiliarizing juxtaposition of high and low culture, among other things. Yet as was common with others on the Left in the 1930s, Rukeyser felt that Eliot’s inclination toward the past and his despair about contemporary issues, informed by his social and political conservatism, made him a problematic “ancestor” (Ellison 185). In an ambitious article, “Modern Trends: American Poetry” written for the Vassar Miscellany News on May 21, 1932, she praises the work of Archibald MacLeish for his “bravery of comprehension” (2) and claims that Eliot’s early work was equally groundbreaking but constraining as well: “Prufrock, parts of The Waste Land, and Gerontion, with some of the shorter pieces, are summaries in exquisite and exact poetry of the pale inability of a frustrate season to feel adequacy in anything” (4). While she deplores Eliot’s politics, she voices hope for evolution of his vision and testifies to the significance of his artistic influence: “. . . [G]iven release from the loyalties which sterilize him, there may be more poetry of the breed of his broader and greater work. He has had a reaching power over the younger poets – in attitude as well as in form: and his ‘school of thought’ will probably leave an incisive print on our poetry” (4).
In addition to her critiques of Eliot’s politics and pessimism, we might also understand Rukeyser’s critiques of Eliot to be critiques of her own social class. In a letter she wrote to New Masses, “You Will Not Use: A Bourgeois Document,” (1931), which is in the archives at the Berg Collection but seems not to have been sent, she explicitly expresses her own search for an ethical artistic position in terms of social class: “I am speaking of the bourgeoisie, and especially of near-bourgeois youth, into which I was born. These people are a confused and rejected class. They are the youngsters who paint street-workers, because they are enchanted by the rhythm of a hammer-stroke – who write limping verses about ‘dawn’ and ‘the city’ and ‘the suffering multitudes.’” 3 We see this multi-targeted critique in one early poem, “Sheridan Square.” Not much discussed, it examines Eliot to wrestle with the issue of how to incorporate class concerns and literary modernism. It is part of a longer series called “Place Poems,” written, as Kate Daniels explains, “in 1930 while [Rukeyser] was a student at Vassar,” published in the school’s literary magazine in 1932, and in Poetry in 1933 (27-28). “Sheridan Square,” mocking in tone, has a complex target, critiquing Eliot, Rukeyser’s own milieu, and proletarian orthodoxy (the sing-song dismissal of Eliot suggests a too-simplistic view of his work, and Sheridan Square was an area known for speakers on soapboxes exhorting crowds).
Mr. T.S. Eliot knows the potency of music, Mr. T.S. Eliot knows the impact of bright words – He has forgotten the caked hands, the muscle-banded shoulders, In loving sounds swift birds. (Collected Poems, 580-81).
The contrast between aesthetic work and physical labor echoes the putdown of “bourgeois” intellectual work in the writings of workerist critics who, like Mike Gold, promoted a romanticized virile image of a worker. But the poem then turns to critique those who, like the writers mentioned in Rukeyser’s letter to New Masses, feel superior to, yet clumsily objectify the working class:
A bricklayer stands, and plunges into the subway. “Shall we use him as symbol? No, Let us be done with symbols, we who talk Over the healthy wood of the tables here, . . . (580)
The poem’s end links both Eliot and Rukeyser’s upper-class generation in critique, resolving in favor of increased life-experience: “Mr. T.S. Eliot (whom we consider) would forget the desert, / Might forget his fears / Carrying a hod beside this man” (581). In other words, if Eliot took on working class experience of building the city, he might feel a greater sense of accomplishment than in writing poems about the city as a wasteland. But the critique also extends to Rukeyser’s generation of poets and critics:
We might do better Than sit here mouthing opinions, by carrying a hod, Raising a made thing high instead of a sentence, Worshipping with this offering our literate god. (581)
This counterpart to Rukeyser’s letter mocks intellectual pretension not grounded in life experience. Though it sounds like a common anti-intellectual critique, I’d argue that it expresses her frustration with her own limitations at this moment, attempting to reconcile her valuation of lived experience and desire for a usable art, with an equally deep concern for poetic craft, complexity, and intellectual growth.4 The tone, used infrequently after her first collection of poetry, links this poem with others critiquing her own social class.
By 1935 with “Poem Out of Childhood,” and 1938 with Book of the Dead, Rukeyser’s wrestling with Eliot’s influence and his inspiration takes on a different tone. Though still critical, in these poems, Rukeyser’s work engages his themes, musical phrasing, and techniques of “allusiveness, fragmentation, and mythic substructure” (Däumer 1182). As Däumer notes, later comments by Rukeyser on Eliot, “sugges[t] not rejection, but the high expectations of a fellow poet alive to Eliot’s prodigious accomplishments” (1182). In fact, both writers exhibit mutual “interest in poetry’s communicative power and the novel ways in which modern poetics call for the mental, emotional, and physiological participation of readers” (Däumer 1187). However, the early poems illuminate Rukeyser’s own developmental journey, the nature of the disagreements, and how Rukeyser came to her expansive literary sympathies.
Cohn, Robert. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass StudentMovement,1929-1941. Oxford UP, 1993.
Clark, Eleanor. Letter to Muriel Rukeyser. September 15, 1933. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. Accessed June 23, 2019.
—. Letter to Muriel Rukeyser. N.d. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. Accessed June 23, 2019.
Daniels, Kate. “A Note on the Place Poems.” Poetry East vol. 16-17, Summer 1985, pp. 27-28.
Däumer, Elisabeth. “‘Wanting More From Mr. Eliot’: Muriel Rukeyser, T.S. Eliot, and The Uses of Poetry.” Textual Practice, vol. 32, no. 7, 2018, pp. 1181-1203.
Ellison, Ralph. “The World and the Jug.” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan. Modern Library, 1995, pp. 155-188.
Jessup, Eunice. “Memoirs of Literatae and Socialists 1929-33,” Vassar Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 2, Winter 1979, pp. 16-17.
Hikok, Bethany. Degrees of Freedom: American Women Poets and the Women’s College, 1905-1955. Bucknell UP, 2008.
Lehman, Ruth. Letter to Muriel Rukeyser. April 28, 1933. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. Accessed June 23, 2019.
Loucks, James. “The Exile’s Return: Fragments of a T.S. Eliot Chronology.” ANQ, vol. 9, no. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 16-39.
MacCracken, Henry Noble. Letter to Louis Rukeyser. 10, June 1932. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The New York Public Library. Accessed June 23, 2019.
McCarthy, Mary. How I Grew. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.
Rainey, Lawrence. “The Cultural Economy of Modernism.” The Cambridge Companion to Modernism edited by Michael Levenson. Cambridge UP, 1999, pp. 33-69.
Rukeyser, Muriel. Diary. Box 1, Folder 1. Muriel Rukeyser Papers, 1844-1986. Manuscript. Library of Congress. Washington D. C. Accessed November 15, 2015.
—. Letter publicizing conference at Columbia on “Negro Student Problems.” March 20, 1933. Franz Boas Papers. American Philosophical Society. https://diglib.amphilsoc.org/islandora/object/text%3A104885#page/1/mode/1up Boas Papers. American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia, PA.
—. Letter: “You Will Not Use: A Bourgeois Document.” N.d. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. Accessed June 23, 2019.
Wald, Alan. Exiles From A Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: U of NC P, 2002.
Witonsky, Trudi. “‘Something Like Bringing the Entire Life’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Personal, Poetic and Social Development in the 1930s,” Women’s Studies, vol. 50, no. 4, June 2021.
To cite this article in MLA, 8th edition: Trudi Witonsky. “‘Lecture by T. S. Eliot: Some Context.” Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive, http://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/2022/07/11/trudi-witonsky-lecture-by-mr-eliot-some-context/.
Bio: Trudi Witonsky is Associate Professor of English in the Literature and Languages Department at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where she teaches courses in 20th-Century American Literature, African American literature, and First Year English. She has recently published an essay on Rukeyser’s early poetic development: “‘Something Like Bringing the Entire Life’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Personal, Poetic and Social Development in the 1930s,” Women’s Studies, vol. 50, no. 4, June 2021.