T.S. Eliot is quite the polarizing figure. He was kind of a jerk. He badly mistreated his (admittedly difficult) first wife before abandoning her to an insane asylum; worse, along with his friend Ezra Pound, he traded in the basest, most pernicious anti-Semitic stereotypes. One doesn’t have a sense of him as a warmhearted person.
He was also a bit of a priggish Anglophile. Born and raised in St. Louis, he moved to London, converted to Anglicanism, and took British citizenship at the first opportunity. I’m a bit of an Anglophile myself, but these things ought to have limits.
But was he any good as a poet? I don’t see how you can argue that he wasn’t. He’s certainly among the many literary idols with feet of clay, but the work itself is quite peerless for its milieu.
Because their work is so “difficult,” Eliot and other modernists are often accused of leaving behind middlebrow literary readers (who could warm to a Tennyson far more readily than an H.D., for example) and thereby circumscribing an already-small audience for “serious literature.” I find this a reasonably compelling argument, but I suspect I’ve got fairly middlebrow tastes myself. On the other hand, most contemporary readers don’t find “footnoted” Eliot all that much of a slog compared with Shakespeare or Chaucer; Eliot’s work is at least in a contemporary idiom.
The following poem should not present difficulties to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the Christmas story. I’m all about seasonal appropriateness.
The Journey of the Magi
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T.S. Eliot on Wikipedia
T.S. Eliot on Poets.org
Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (The Centenary Edition) on Amazon