From the archive
From Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era pp. 440-42 —
But T.S. Eliot was a great joker. After jugged hare at the Club (“Now there is jugged hare. That is a very English dish. Do you want to be English; or do you want to be safe?”); after the jugged hare and the evasions, he addressed his mind to the next theme. “Now; will you have a sweet; or … cheese?” Even one not conversant with his letter to the Times on the declining estate of Stilton would have understood that the countersign was cheese. “Why, cheese,” said his guest; too lightly; one does not crash in upon the mysteries. There was a touch of reproof in his solicitude: “Are you sure? You can have ice cream, you know.” (At the Garrick!)
No, cheese. To which, “Very well. I fancy … a fine Stilton.” And as the waiter left for the Stilton, Eliot imparted the day’s most momentous confidence: “Never commit yourself to a cheese without having first … examined it.”
The Stilton stood encumbered with a swaddling band, girded about with a cincture, scooped out on top like a crater of the moon. It was placed in front of the Critic. (“Analysis and comparison,” he had written some 40 years earlier, “Analysis and comparison, methodically, with sensitiveness, intelligence, curiosity, intensity of passion and infinite knowledge: all these are necessary to the great critic.”) With the side of his knife blade he commenced tapping the circumference of the cheese, rotating it, his head cocked in a listening posture. It is not possible to swear that he was listening. He then tapped the inner walls of the crater. He then dug about with the point of his knife amid the fragments contained by the crater. He then said, “Rather past its prime. I am afraid I cannot recommend it…”
The Stilton vanished. After awing silence the cheese board arrived, an assortment of some half-dozen, a few of them identifiably cheeses only in context. One resembled sponge cake spattered with chocolate sauce. Another, a pockmarked toadstool-yellow, exuded green flecks. Analysis and comparison: he took up again his knife, and each of these candidates he tapped, he prodded, he sounded. At length he segregated a ruddy specimen. “That is a rather fine Red Cheshire … which you might enjoy.” It was accepted; the decision was not enquired into, nor the intonation of you assessed.
His attention was now bent on the toadstool-yellow specimen. This he tapped. This he prodded. This he poked. This he scraped. He then summoned the waiter.
“What is that?”
Apologetic ignorance of the waiter.
“Could we find out?”
Disappearance of the waiter. Two other waiters appear.
He assumed, at this silence, a mask of Holmesian exaltation:
“Aha! An Anonymous Cheese!”
He then took the Anonymous Cheese beneath his left hand, and the knife in his right hand, the thumb along the back of the blade as though to pare an apple. He then achieved with aplomb the impossible feat of peeling off a long slice. He ate this, attentively. He then transferred the Anonymous Cheese to the plate before him, and with no further memorable words proceeded without assistance to consume the entire Anonymous Cheese.
ZS: A less obscure telling of this story appears in Kenner’s 1998 memoirish The Elsewhere Community as well as The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes (not the most confidence-inspiring title). One advantage of the former source is on every occasion Eliot is accompanied by the censure of Wyndham Lewis:
That evening Wyndham Lewis heard the [cheese] story. “Oh, never mind him,” said Lewis. “He’s like that with everybody. But he doesn’t come in here disguised as Westminster Abbey.” Nine years later, both the story and the story of Lewis hearing the story were narrated, in Venice, to the octogenarian Ezra Pound, then almost totally engulfed in the deliberate silence of his final years. And what Pound finally responded to was Lewis’s response, at which the supreme Old Man of Modern Letters threw back his head to refresh the Italian air with peals of hearty laughter.
… At the Garrick, during a lull in the conversation, I asked Eliot whether he had any advice on the procurement of a suit. I had a ready-made in mind, but his response was to offer the name of his tailor: Mr. Cyril Langley, on Albemarle Street. “That’s an expensive street,” was the comment of Wyndham Lewis.
Needless to say, in a modern version the waiters would have had far too many lines, and a sommelier might’ve shown up. But maybe then we’d have Eliot’s august opinion on moustaches.