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This article is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

Eliot’s Scientific ‘Tendencies’
in 1919
Duncan MacKay
AN INTERESTING ARTICLE in PN Review 228 (March–April 2016) by Robert Griffiths presents us with the ‘curiously coincidental’ emergence of modernist poetry alongside the revolution in physics represented by Einstein’s 1905 and 1915 papers on Special and General Relativity. Griffiths suggests ‘the fact [is] that all of this revolutionary poetry and physics (and psychology), as well as a great deal else, was going on in a mutually unrelated way’. Griffiths is right to distinguish 1915 from 1919 as far as Einstein’s notoriety and its wider cultural significance was concerned; Einstein’s work was previously little known outside even a small circle of physicists. However, while influences at any time can be subtle and complex, Griffiths’s general assertion of ‘a mutually unrelated way’ after 1919 is surely not tenable.

Griffiths refers specifically to poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot during their pre-1914–18, and immediate post-war, years. He acknowledges that ‘Pound’s intellectual hinterland was more varied than Eliot’s and included scientific interests’, but considers that Eliot had ‘no especial interest in science and possibly even a slight disdain for it’. Pound would be the first, and indeed was, to caution us against over-simplification when it comes to issues of influence. In an essay of 1911, he wrote: ‘the best of knowledge is in the air’,1 and in a letter of the same year he wrote: ‘Out of the 25 people who [critics say] are variously supposed to have formed my mind, […] I have counted about 9 poets unknown to me [and] 7 whom I had only read “casually”’.2 He continues: ...


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