I just ran into an excellent article by Joseph Pearce in The Imaginative Conservative on the rocky relationship G. K.Chesterton and T. S. Eliot had during their lifetimes. Eliot of course is the modernist English/American (American born, English immigrant) poet of the 20th century, arguably the greatest poet in English of the century. I like to think of him as American, but except for his early poetry, I would say his sensibilities were more English. Wikipedia lists Chesterton as an “English writer, lay theologian, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, literary and art critic, biographer, and Christian apologist.” He wrote on everything under the sun and had the Victorian sensibility of verbosity, that is, every thought that came to mind apparently made it into print. His friend, George Bernard Shaw, a complete opposite in world view to Chesterton, was the same. Joseph Pearce is the contemporary literary biographer, who has specialized in the Catholic English writers. I consider Pearce’s work, The Quest for Shakespeare, a biography detailing Shakespeare’s Catholicism, as one of the best works of literary biography I have ever read. It reshaped my understanding of Shakespeare. One of these days I’m going to re-read it and present it as a blog post.
Now you’ll have to understand that Chesterton and Eliot were a generation apart, and a critical generation, a generation where break in tradition occurred. The Great War (WWI) separated the two writers, and aesthetically it was a profound separation. The Great War altered sensibilities, philosophic outlook, and once that happens aesthetic change is not far behind. Chesterton would not really be known today for his creative writing, except for the charming Father Brown stories. He’s known for his biographies and Christian apologetics. Besides his poetry, Eliot is known for his literary criticism, a deep understanding of literature. However, Eliot was, in my opinion, profoundly biased. If he didn’t feel sympathy toward your work, he disdained it, and with his stature had the ability to bury your work. He intensely disliked D. H. Lawrence (what’s with all these English writers and initials?) and tried to get his work ignored. It didn’t work of course but there was a mean spirited side to the young Eliot. He sort of loosened up with age.
So it didn’t surprise me when Pearce starts off his essay with the Eliot quote, “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas. I see no evidence that it thinks.” That’s a good example of Eliot’s bitter wit toward someone whose work he didn’t care for. Pearce appropriately locates this quote in Eliot’s generational bias.
This was written in 1918, very early in Eliot’s literary career, and should not be seen as Eliot’s final and definitive judgment on Chesterton. There is no doubt, however, that Eliot was initially very antagonistic towards Chesterton, comparing him unfavourably with the new generation of modernist writers, such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Percy Wyndham Lewis… Considering the innovative approach of Pound, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis and of course Eliot himself, it is no surprise that the somewhat archaic literary form chosen by Chesterton for The Ballad of the White Horse should serve as an affront to Eliot’s modernist sensibilities.
As to Chesterton, he held the generational view that modernism was poor art.
For his part, Chesterton held the modernists in disdain. In 1923 he countered Eliot’s rejection of regular rhythm and rhyme with a spirited defence of traditional poetic form: “Song is not only a recurrence, it is a return…It is in this deeper significance of return that we must seek for the peculiar power in the recurrence we call rhyme.” It was, however, not only the modernists’ abandonment of traditional form which irritated Chesterton but also their apparent jaundiced cynicism and the evident absence of the spirited joie de vivre which Chesterton saw as the necessary mark of humanity’s humility in the presence of the goodness and wonder of Creation.
You’ll have to read the rest to find out how the two actually became friends. Pearce locates the change with Eliot’s famous religious experience in the late 1920s that led him to become an Anglo-Catholic. Chesterton, of course, is famous for his Roman Catholic conversion some twenty or so years prior. That led to a basis for a relationship outside their aesthetic differences. Plus I think with time Eliot matured and the modernist aesthetics became less shocking to Chesterton.