The Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper

Julian Bell writes:

‘In T.S. Eliot we find the poet as farmer’: now that truly is revisionist. If the pin-striped modernist with the ‘features of clerical cut’ ever put his hand to a pitchfork, the incident has gone unreported. And yet in Romantic Moderns, her provocative critical survey of English cultural life between 1930 and 1945, Alexandra Harris points to Eliot’s lines in ‘East Coker’ about ‘Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth/Mirth of those long since under earth/Nourishing the corn.’ Harris argues that the poet was thinking about the dead farmworkers of his ancestral village in Somerset because the seasonal round symbolised by their festive dance had become integral to his vision of society. Any culture worthy of the name must build on agriculture, rather than leaning on the insidious mass delusions of advertising and propaganda. ‘The connection with the earth, the “dung and death”, was for [Eliot] the very sign of civilisation,’ writes Harris, who also quotes him urging, in 1938, the necessity ‘that the greater part of the population, of all classes (so long as we have classes), should be settled in the country and dependent on it’.

(LRB 3 February 2011)

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