The poems and plays that Eliot published in his lifetime fill a single volume; his prose works are collections of talks and occasional journalism. The project to which he committed most of the latter part of his career, the revival of verse drama, was a failure. He was dismissive of grand theories of poetry, or anything else, and he never held a regular academic appointment. During his most productive years as a writer, from 1917 to 1925, he worked in a bank. His place in the curriculum is established, but he is hardly popular as a subject of teaching or scholarship.
Yet he was a true avant-gardist, and he made a revolution. He changed the way poetry in English is written; he re-set the paradigm for literary criticism; and his work laid down the principles on which the modern English department is built. He is the most important figure in twentieth-century English-language literary culture, a position he achieved with a relatively small amount of writing produced in a relatively brief amount of time and in unpromising circumstances.
He was a foreigner in a society, literary London, that is almost as incestuous and xenophobic as intellectual Paris. The writers he counted as comrades were looked upon by most of the literary establishment with distaste: Ezra Pound, an American; Wyndham Lewis, whose father was an American; and an Irishman, James Joyce. (There was not much love lost on their parts, either.) He was cut off from his family by the war; he was married to an unhealthy, demanding, and unstable woman; and he had troubles all his own. At the height of his creative and critical output, he had a nervous breakdown and diagnosed his condition as aboulie—lack of will. While he was recovering, he wrote “The Waste Land.”
His success is an improbable and amazing story, and the publication, in two volumes, of his correspondence from 1898 to 1925, “The Letters of T. S. Eliot” (Yale; $45 each), lets us watch that story as it was unfolding, day by day, from the inside. The letters (some of which are by Eliot’s correspondents) have been compiled and edited, with generous annotation, by Hugh Haughton and Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife. They take up almost two thousand pages.
The inside view makes the success only a little easier to understand. Eliot was not just inscrutable; he performed inscrutability. He was pleased to adopt Pound’s nickname for him, the Possum, and the too-correctness was a way of suggesting that the umbrella fetish, the cheese-course rituals, the white flower (for York) that he wore on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed, and all the rest of the bowler-hatted persona might be a put-on. He came across as a man who had got trapped inside an elaborate, Chaplinesque joke of his own devising. He was enjoying the joke, but he couldn’t get out. Ivor Richards, a founder of modern literary studies and one of Eliot’s most powerful disciples, recalled “the ghostly flavor of irony which hung about his manner as though he were preparing a parody.”
But what was within? Richards’s wife, Dorothea, described Eliot, on a visit, as “very gaunt & grim—as if he had burnt himself out. His queer coloured, strangely piercing eyes in a pale face are the most striking thing about him. He is pale with special wrinkles which run horizontally across his forehead & his nose is delicately Jewish. He doesn’t understand all I say nor do we him. His questions are surprising—disconcerting because so simple, sometimes also inane.” This was in 1928, a low point in Eliot’s life: he had secretly converted to Anglicanism the year before, and he was preparing to leave his wife. But from the beginning of his time in England the same details turn up in people’s takes on him: the unusual eyes (tawny, like a lion’s), the enervated demeanor, the uninspired conversation.
“Dull, dull, dull,” complained the Bloomsbury-circle hostess Ottoline Morrell in 1916, after Eliot’s first visit to her estate. “He is obviously very ignorant of England and imagines that it is essential to be highly polite and conventional and decorous and meticulous.” Most of the Bloomsbury figures had the same response at first. “Altogether not quite gay enough for my taste,” Lytton Strachey reported. “In an envelope of frozen formality,” Leonard Woolf remembered him. Bertrand Russell thought that Eliot was “lacking in the crude insistent passion that one must have in order to achieve anything.” But Eliot made friends with them all. He also made friends with many of their rivals, like the Old Guard novelists Hugh Walpole and Arnold Bennett. He plugged himself in.
The letters show that he knew what he was doing. He was persistent, and he understood how the game was played. “Don’t think that I find it easy to live over here,” he wrote to his brother, Henry, in 1919, after he had been in England for five years:
It is like being always on dress parade—one can never relax. It is a great strain. And society is in a way much harder, not gentler. People are more aware of you, more critical, and they have no pity for one’s mistakes and stupidities. They are more spontaneous, and also more deliberate. They seek your company because they expect something particular from you, and if they don’t get it, they drop you. They are always intriguing and caballing; one must be very alert. They are sensitive, and easily become enemies. But it is never dull.He saw that, among people so high-strung and self-centered, being an outsider, someone who appeared to have no personal stake in things, could be a source of authority. More important, he held all the English writers in contempt. It was a cool and disinterested contempt; it came from arrogance, not from pettiness or insecurity, and he gave just enough of a hint of it to make people nervous. The only contemporary writers he considered his peers were Pound and Lewis (though he knew their limitations extremely well). The only one he looked up to was Joyce.
That London was the square of the board Eliot landed on was something of an accident. If he had picked a city to expatriate to, it would probably have been Paris, where he spent a very happy year after graduating from Harvard College, in 1910. But he had not intended to emigrate at all. When he arrived in England, in August, 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War, he was on a fellowship from the Harvard philosophy department. He planned to spend a year at Oxford, reading Aristotle and writing his dissertation, and then return to the United States and become a professor.
He liked Aristotle. He disliked Oxford. “I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books, and hideous pictures on the walls,” he wrote to an American friend, the poet Conrad Aiken. “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.” He had met Pound soon after arriving in London—a meeting arranged by Aiken—and he had already written “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pound, who had been in England since 1908 on a self-appointed mission to modernize the natives, read the poem and was stunned. “He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own” was his famous reaction, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe. He encouraged Eliot to make more poems.
In the spring of 1915, at a party hosted by Scofield Thayer, a wealthy Harvard classmate who was also studying at Oxford, Eliot met Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a friend of Thayer’s sister. She was English, and working as a governess. Three months later, without informing their parents, they married. Eliot was twenty-six and, before they met, almost certainly a virgin. She was a party girl, unrefined, vivacious, and self-dramatizing—pretty much everything he was not.
People assumed that Eliot was sexually infatuated, but, considering the entirety of his romantic history (fairly barren), this doesn’t seem the most likely explanation. Eliot’s own version, in an unpublished memoir written near the end of his life, was:
I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or mild affair: I was too shy and unpracticed to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. . . . To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came “The Waste Land.”They did, in the end, have one thing in common. They were both tremendously ambitious for his career.
Read more >>>