Picturing Paradise: T. S. Eliot, John Milton, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Update added May 3, 2023

Ticket to a 1947 lecture at The Frick Collection by T. S. Eliot on John Milton
Ticket to poet T. S. Eliot’s lecture on John Milton, held at The Frick Collection on May 3, 1947. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives (text transcribed at bottom of post)

On Saturday, May 3, 1947, the American-born poet T. S. Eliot delivered a lecture at The Frick Collection at the invitation of Director Frederick Mortimer Clapp, a poet himself. The London-based Eliot—whose highly influential poem The Waste Land was published one hundred years ago this fall—had come to the United States to visit his ailing brother and received an honorarium of $400 for his talk. In attendance at the Frick that day were, among others, the poet E. E. Cummings and the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

The subject of Eliot’s lecture was John Milton, a seventeenth-century poet best known for Paradise Lost, his ten-thousand-line epic on original sin, the Devil’s wiles, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Proclaiming as recently as 1936 that Milton’s poetry “could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever,” Eliot astonished his audience at the Frick by absolving the famed poet of his literary sins. As a writer for Time magazine summarized Eliot’s thesis: “Milton is O.K.”

Photograph of a seated man wearing a suit, holding papers and looking out at the viewer
T. S. Eliot, January 1948. Photo by Walter Stoneman. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG x32377

Some in the audience were incensed by the pageantry of Eliot’s reversal of opinion. The poet Marianne Moore, for instance, wrote of the gawking crowd, “Barnum [of the Barnum & Bailey Circus] would have been envious.” The lecture provoked the ire of William York Tindall, a professor at Columbia University, who published an article mocking the poet’s “well-worn suit” and the slavish devotion of Eliot’s acolytes. He wrote, “T. S. Eliot said that it is all right to read Milton. Some, hushed and excited...marveling at what appeared a critical, philosophical and poetic revolution, reopened the Four Quartets [a series of four long poems by Eliot]. Others closed their Donnes and opened their Miltons.” Despite his apparent disdain for Eliot’s recantation, the fact that Tindall felt compelled to satirize Eliot’s lecture speaks to the significance of the event and to the poet’s clout as an arbiter of English verse.

It is notable, given the museum setting, that Eliot described at length the pictorial qualities of Milton’s work. In particular, he proposed that Milton’s “weakness of visual observation”—his inability to capture the particular characteristics of a theme, person, or setting—was in fact “a positive virtue” when describing an otherworldly subject such as the Garden of Eden. As Eliot explained:

A more vivid picture of the earthly Paradise would have been less paradisiacal. For a greater definiteness, a more detailed account of flora and fauna, could only have assimilated Eden to the landscapes of earth with which we are familiar.

Eliot’s own writing reveals his interest in Old Master pictures as well as his propensity to poke fun at them. Decades before visiting the museum, he experimented with ekphrasis—the practice of describing an artwork in detail—in poems such as “Embarquement pour Cythère” (1910), which lampoons the courtly pleasure-seekers embarking for the island of Venus’s birth in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s 1717 painting of the same name.

Though Eliot repudiated the bourgeois fetishization of the Old Masters, he was highly literate in the Western canon. As a student at Harvard University, he took a class on Florentine painting with Edward Waldo Forbes, then director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, and was enamored of the Venetian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, writing to a friend that “there is [no painter] who appeals to me more strongly.” In 1911, during a sojourn in London, he visited the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Wallace Collection. One may be certain that he saw the Wallace’s most renowned picture—Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Swing (ca. 1767–68)—because he made a tick in his Baedeker guidebook next to room XIX, where the painting was installed.

Oil painting of a man surprising two women seated on marble steps amid a lush green forest
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806), The Progress of Love: The Pursuit, 1771–72. Oil on canvas, 125 1/8 x 84 7/8 in. (317.8 x 215.6 cm). The Frick Collection, New York

Eliot’s familiarity with the Old Masters is reflected in his most famous work, The Waste Land. In the second section of the poem, he writes of an opulent interior with shy cherubim and forking candelabra multiplied in mirrors:

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Hugh sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carvéd dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced...

This passage evokes the sort of visual riches Eliot would have encountered at the museum, namely the “fruited vines” of an eighteenth-century French commode by Jean-Henri Riesener and the “carvéd dolphin” surmounted by winged cupids in Fragonard’s Progress of Love: The Pursuit (above).

Eliot’s notes on The Waste Land reveal a surprising connection between the poem and the subject of his lecture at the Frick, Milton’s Paradise Lost. As he explains, the phrase “sylvan scene,” in the excerpt above, is borrowed from Milton’s description of paradise as a lush forest:

...and over head up grew
Insuperable highth of loftiest shade,
Cedar, and Pine, and Firr, and branching Palm,
A Silvan Scene...

If Eliot visited the Frick’s galleries before delivering his lecture, he might well have remarked on the affinities between Fragonard’s nameless forest (seen in The Lover Crowned, below) and Milton’s trees of “insuperable highth of loftiest shade.” Just as Fragonard’s forest—invented to suit French aristocratic tastes—has no equivalent in reality, Milton’s Edenic verse cannot be mapped onto “the landscapes of earth with which we are familiar.”

Oil painting of a woman crowning a man with a flower crown while an artist sketches them in a lush green forest
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806), The Progress of Love: The Lover Crowned, 1771–72. Oil on canvas, 125 1/8 x 95 3/4 in. (317.8 x 243.2 cm). The Frick Collection, New York

In truth, we will never know what Eliot thought of Fragonard’s Lover Crowned or if it reminded him of Milton’s Garden of Eden. There is no mention of the Frick in Eliot’s published correspondence, and all that remains of his visit are a handful of news stories and some archival materials concerning the logistics of the lecture. However, as we approach the centennial of The Waste Land, it is fascinating to imagine the drama of Eliot’s speech and the heated dialogue, across time and medium, about how best to picture paradise.

Whatever his intention in presenting his lecture at the Frick in 1947, Eliot had fulfilled the vision of its founder, Henry Clay Frick, who wrote in his will that he intended for the museum to be not just a picture gallery, but a forum for cultural exchange in the spirit of “advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects.”

Update (May 3, 2023)

After the above post was published, a cache of 1,131 letters sent by T. S. Eliot to his longtime correspondent Emily Hale was transcribed and made available online. The Frick Collection is mentioned only twice: in a letter dated April 6, 1947, in which Eliot lists his speaking engagements that spring, and in a letter of October 23, 1947, in which he rebukes Tindall:

I imagination [sic] that my supposed ‘recantation’ refers to my lecture on Milton (which only recants on a few minor details, otherwise the title is merely sensationalism)...The text is only known from reports of my delivering it at the Frick Gallery in New York. Those days, when Henry was slowly sinking, were a nightmare.

This letter, cited here for the first time, is significant insofar as it speaks to Eliot’s private agony at the time of his Frick lecture. His brother, Henry Ware Eliot Jr., died of leukemia on May 5—only two days later. Unfortunately, the Eliot–Hale letters do not mention the Frick’s holdings, and the question of if and how Eliot engaged with the museum’s pictures remains unanswered.

Further reading

Capogna, Frank. “Ekphrasis, Cultural Capital, and the Cultivation of Detachment in T. S. Eliot’s Early Poetry.” Journal of Modern Literature 41, no. 3 (spring 2018), 147–65.

Eliot, T. S. “Milton.” Proceedings of the British Academy 33 (1947), 61–79.

Salomon, Xavier F., and Alan Hollinghurst. Fragonard’s Progress of Love. New York, 2022.

Tindall, William York. “The Recantation of T. S. Eliot.” The American Scholar 16, no. 4 (autumn 1947), 431–37.

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