Burgess and T.S. Eliot
When T.S. Eliot died on 4 January 1965, Anthony Burgess was asked to write a tribute to him for the Listener, a weekly magazine to which he was a regular contributor. In his obituary essay, later reprinted in Urgent Copy (1968) under the title ‘Lament for a Maker’, Burgess reflected on Eliot’s importance to the younger generation of writers, including himself, who had begun publishing their poems in the 1930s. He looked back to his excitement when, as a schoolboy in Manchester, he had read The Waste Land for the first time and was shocked ‘to find past and present co-existing, even fusing.’ He continued:
‘As for literature, the tastes of most of us have been Eliotian for the past forty-five years. He was a maker in a double sense: he made not only his poetry but also the minds that read it. With great patience he schooled us away from shock or bewilderment towards acceptance, eventually love, of his work. Love became a habit. In time, the Eliotian cadences, whether verse or prose, turned into our instinctive music; young poets and critics had to teach themselves to resist the quiet but insistent voice. But there could never be any thoroughgoing reaction. To reject Eliot was to welcome anarchy.’
Summing up Eliot’s achievement, Burgess wrote that ‘it is doubtful if posterity will discard more than a handful of Eliot’s poems – perhaps the Rock choruses, perhaps some of the last of his occasional verses. The Waste Land and Four Quartets are alike great commentaries on eras of crisis and change […] Three of his plays [presumably Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party] will, I think, remain in the repertory, and this in spite of flaws which the author was the first to recognize.’
Modesty prevented Burgess from mentioning that he had directed a production of Murder in the Cathedral at Bamber Bridge Emergency Training College in the late 1940s, with his first wife Lynne (the only woman in the cast) speaking the choruses assigned to the Women of Canterbury. In the early 1950s, when Burgess was teaching at Banbury Grammar School, he directed another production of Sweeney Agonistes for a local drama group.
Burgess’s most sustained engagement with Eliot’s work came through his musical settings of Eliot’s poems and plays. In 1936 he visited London and bought a copy of Eliot’s newly published Collected Poems, which is now part of the book collection at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, along with a number of other volumes of Eliot’s poems. When Burgess was a student at Manchester University, he composed a setting (now lost) of Eliot’s poem ‘Lines for an Old Man’. He also wrote music for the songs in Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot’s unfinished stage play. Recordings of these songs, sung by Burgess to the accompaniment of his own piano music, form part of the Foundation’s audio collection.
Burgess’s most substantial creative response to Eliot took the form of a complete setting of The Waste Land, scored for narrator, flute, oboe, cello, piano and soprano. Burgess’s music develops a number of musical cues to be found in the text of the poem, including references to Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal and popular songs such as ‘That Shakespearian Rag’ ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’, ‘O the Moon Shone Bright on Mrs Porter’ and ‘Let the Great Big World Keep Turning’.
Burgess’s setting of The Waste Land was first performed at Sarah Lawrence College in America in 1978, and revived in 2014 at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, England. Reviewing the 2014 performance, Paul Driver of the (London) Sunday Times wrote: ‘The pub music for “When Lil’s husband got demobbed” made the “closing time” sequence more gripping than I’ve ever experienced it. You really felt you were half-hearing chatter in some cacophonous saloon […] I was enthralled and moved by it all, and by the end felt the hour might even have been described as Burgess’s finest.’
In 1980, two years after Burgess had composed his Waste Land music, he was invited to deliver the annual T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent, in the presence of Valerie Eliot, the poet’s widow. The general title of this lecture series, recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 but never published, was ‘Thoughts on Music and Literature’. Burgess’s four one-hour lectures appear to have been improvised at the piano, and he illustrates his thoughts with musical examples and poetry readings. According to the lecture transcripts now archived at the Burgess Foundation, he opened the first lecture (delivered on 28 April 1980) with an extensive discussion of Eliot’s poetry. But not all of his comments on Eliot were as fawningly laudatory as Valerie Eliot had been expecting:
‘Those of you who know the great play that was first performed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1935, Murder in the Cathedral, will remember that in the first act, when Thomas is confronted by the fourth tempter, there is a patch of dialogue which goes something like this: “What shall be the date? The last from the first. What shall we give for it? Pretence of priestly power.” Like most young pseudo-intellectuals, I knew Eliot long before I knew Conan Doyle, but reading fairly recently one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I think you know which one [‘The Musgrave Ritual’], the one which is concerned with the digging-up of a parchment relating to the presence of the buried crown of Charles I, we get the identical words.’
‘What did Conan Doyle mean to Eliot? He meant obviously enough for him to insert into a highly serious play, at its most serious point, lines almost verbatim, and yet he never dared to make a literary judgement on Conan Doyle. He always threatened, some day, to write a work which should provide an aesthetic for the detective story.’
‘Eliot himself, as we know, in his capacity as Managing Director of Faber and Faber, often wrote the blurbs for detective stories but never dared, it seems to me, to come out and state the nature of the problem we’re all aware of when it comes to dealing with literature of a particular class and literature of another class entirely. With the Sherlock Holmes stories, here was literature of one class, which Eliot was not prepared to submit to an aesthetic formulation.’
Burgess did not realise how much offence he had caused by making such a public criticism of Eliot in a lecture series which had been set up in his memory and funded by his estate. At the end of the lecture, Valerie Eliot left the auditorium in a state of anger, and she did not attend a celebration dinner that evening, at which she and Burgess were supposed to have been the guests of honour. Until the end of her long life, Mrs Eliot refused to allow permission for any further performances of Burgess’s setting of The Waste Land.
Even by Burgess’s standards, this must be counted a spectacular own-goal. But the hostility of the poet’s widow did little to dampen his enthusiasm for Eliot’s poetry. He went on to write a number of later articles about Eliot, some of which are reprinted in Ben Forkner’s edition of his uncollected essays, One Man’s Chorus (1998). And he returned to the subject of Eliot in both volumes of his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God (1987) and You’ve Had Your Time (1990). More recently, his long essay on The Waste Land for Horizon magazine has been reprinted in The Ink Trade, a volume of Burgess’s literary essays published by Carcanet Press in 2018.