What to Make of T. S. Eliot?

In 1914, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was introduced to a student at Harvard University who greatly impressed him, and who would later become quite famous himself. Russell left behind his first impressions of T. S. Eliot in a letter that possibly inaugurated the now-standard fiction of the poet as representing a final, repressed branch of the old Boston Brahmans:
My pupil Eliot was there—the only one who is civilized, and he is ultra-civilized, knows his classics very well, is familiar with all French literature from Villon to Vildrach, and is altogether impeccable in his taste but has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm.
Eliot struck many of his contemporaries as a person not unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, “politic, cautious, and meticulous.” Virginia Woolf mentioned him in a letter to her brother-in-law: “Come to lunch. Eliot will be there in a four-piece suit.” With his fine manners and noble bearing, Eliot was all too restrained by his own sense of decorum and propriety. The novelist Aldous Huxley even called him “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks” after visiting Eliot at his office at Lloyd’s in London, reporting that he “was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.” Many years later, the poet was still fostering this bloodless caricature of himself, preferring to pretend that he was just “a mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.” Not everyone believed the story as presented. As early as 1962, the critic Randall Jarrell saw in it a fundamental misunderstanding, which he singled out for an extraordinary comment in his summary of “Fifty Years of American Poetry”:
During the last thirty or forty years Eliot has been so much the most famous and influential of American poets that it seems almost absurd to write about him, especially when everybody else already has: when all of you can read me your own articles about Eliot, would it have really been worth while to write you mine? Yet actually the attitude of an age toward its Lord Byron—in this case, a sort of combination of Lord Byron and Dr. Johnson—is always surprisingly different from the attitude of the future. Won’t the future say to us in helpless astonishment: “But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytic point of view he was far and away the most interesting poet of your century. But for you, of course, after the first few years, his poetry existed undersea, thousands of feet below the deluge of exegesis, explication, source-listing, scholarship, and criticism that overwhelmed it. And yet how bravely and personally it survived, its eyes neither coral nor mother-of-pearl but plainly human, full of human anguish!”
Today the task before any reader of Eliot’s poetry is to examine the human anguish still buried under the exegesis. That is no easy assignment. For the poet himself very much wanted that anguish, and the sources of it, to remain forever hidden. This concealment was monumentally important to him, and he labored ferociously at it throughout his life.

By 1938, Eliot had already directed his then literary executor John Hayward to “suppress everything suppressible,” and that attitude only hardened as time passed, sinking into absurdity when, in 1984, Eliot’s second wife dubiously claimed the copyright even to the papers of Eliot’s first wife. The poet had left behind a will demanding that no biography be written, ever. His estate did its best to comply and prevented anyone from quoting any copyrighted or unpublished material without exception, while it routinely requested exorbitant sums for his work to be reprinted in anthologies. It is hard to think of another writer in the last hundred years (other than J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon) who went to such extraordinary lengths to frustrate not only biographers and scholars but even ordinary readers.

Thus it has taken fifty years for any evidence to surface that would justify Jarrell’s premonition that Eliot was more like the scandal-plagued Lord Byron than we could possibly imagine. Still, there were signs along the way, odd visual clues, for those who cared to notice. Virginia Woolf, vexed by the poet’s appearance in 1922, noted in her diary: “I am not sure that he does not paint his lips.” Meanwhile, Osbert Sitwell was “amazed to notice on his cheeks a dusting of green powder—pale but distinctly green, the colour of a forced lily-of-the-valley. I was all the more amazed at this discovery, because any deliberate dramatization of his appearance was so plainly out of keeping with his character, and with his desire never to call attention to himself.”

Let us halt for a moment and consider this image: Eliot, the austere banker with a bowler hat, was actually walking around London in the 1920s with his cheeks powdered green and his lips rouged. No wonder that his friends were astonished. Neither Sitwell nor Woolf “could find any way of explaining this extraordinary and fantastical pretence; except on the one basis that the great poet wished to stress his look of strain.” Others came to a different conclusion. Hart Crane was so certain that Eliot was a homosexual like himself that he referred to him, according to Allen Tate, as the “prime ram of our flock.”

None of these stories dented Eliot’s cadaverous image for thirty years. The first blow was struck in 1952, when an article in Essays in Criticism written by the scholar John Peter caused a famous scandal with its reading of “The Waste Land” as a homosexual lament for the poet’s dead friend, Jean Verdenal. Rather than ignore the essay, Eliot had his attorneys inform the journal’s editors that a libel suit was assured if the article appeared again. So seriously was this threat taken that most of the issues were swiftly destroyed; libraries were even told to cut out the article if they had a copy already. Naturally, other scholars were wary of pursuing similar theories until 1977 when James E. Miller Jr. (with the help of an NEH grant) published T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land, and reignited a discussion that had been silenced 25 years before.

Miller’s book suffered a hostile reception, with numerous critics aghast at the author’s impertinence at forwarding such theories. By this time, of course, Eliot was dead, but in his later years he had become a cherished layman of the Church of England and a man of high moral stature. Simply put, Miller’s book was treated as blasphemy, when it wasn’t just ignored or mischaracterized. Expecting such reductive crudity, Miller denounced this tendency to distort his ideas in the early part of his book (“The language ‘homosexual interpretation’ seems deliberately designed to jar the sensibility and provoke negative vibrations”) and at the back of his book (“Such characterizations are not only reductive but destructive, not to say simple-minded”).

In spite of his protestations, Miller’s name became synonymous with this interpretation. As recently as 2006, the poet Mark Ford complained in a review that Miller was like “a McCarthy-inspired gumshoe” who just wanted to “persuade his readers that Eliot was gay.” Yet Miller was not interested in “outing” the poet; he was interested in understanding the verse of “the most subjective and daemonic poet” of the last century. Ultimately, the hostility of his fellow scholars conspired to do a disservice to Miller, and to his 1977 book—which is a neglected classic of criticism, and one of the very few essential works on Eliot’s poetry.

What Miller would have made of all the recently released Eliotica is a bittersweet thought, since he passed away in 2010. Valerie Eliot’s excruciatingly slow “editing” (which was actually deliberate delaying) of her husband’s letters came to an end with her death in 2012, after which three volumes appeared in three consecutive years. A sixth volume, appearing in 2016, gives us the poet’s correspondence through 1933, with a mere 32 years left to cover. That should give the reader a sense of how much Eliot we haven’t read, and how much we still don’t know.

Just consider his critical prose: Ronald Schuchard and his international team of scholars are halfway through publishing almost 7,000 pages of it in an online-only edition, sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press (among many others). Or take the recent publication of the two-volume Poems of T. S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, and weighing in at a combined 2,032 pages. Though Eliot himself issued his first Collected Poems in 1936, and the definitive-sounding Complete Poems and Plays appeared in 1952 (and let’s not forget the “Centenary Edition” published in 1963), it must be said that Ricks and McCue are the first editors who have been allowed to publish all the verse that Eliot left behind. That is to say that, at the fourth attempt, we have all of Eliot’s poetry together at last.

That burden, along with the desire of Ricks and McCue to edit every line a capite ad calcem, has resulted in a table-buster. Volume I of The Poems alone is a massive 1,311 pages—with 877 pages of commentary for 314 pages of poetry. All the verse that Eliot cared to collect in his lifetime, and that generations of poetry lovers have memorized, is finished by page 219. There remain almost 100 pages of uncollected verse for most readers to discover (much of it brought together previously by Ricks in his superb collection of Eliot’s early unpublished work, Inventions of the March Hare).

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