Eliot at smokefall
Two events of the last year have attracted a lot of notice. One is the production of Michael Hastings’s play, Tom and Viv, and the other the publication of Peter Ackroyd’s biography, T.S. Eliot. They of course share a subject, the poet himself. But this choice of subject, the life of the writer with perhaps the biggest public image of any in our time, suggests something else they have in common. These two works are in one way more alike than might be expected from the ‘creative’ or ‘fictional’ mode of the one, and the ‘critical’ or ‘factual’ mode of the other; and what brings them together, apart from some confusion of these categories, is their similar capacity to throw light on what is wrong with the present public image of the literary.
The problems of Tom and Viv are more obvious, and may be dealt with more rapidly. They start from the fact that drama is an art of embodiment, and always highlights any errors of thinking by objectifying them. One such was revealed the moment Hastings’s curtain went up on a tea-party in the garden of Viv’s middle-class family, with the backcloth portraying a mansion considerably larger than Blenheim Palace. This social slip, entailed by Hastings’s theory that Tom married Viv as a step in his social climbing, only epitomised all the more serious things that went wrong with the play. A strength of Hastings’s other work is its social compassion, its commitment to those seen as deprived. Since his theme here is a writer’s destruction of his private self by the hunt for status, the dramatist has to take the self-evidently less successful partner, the poet’s wife, as the feeling centre of the play (the result reverses, that is, such images as we meet in Henry James’s stories of artists with ruthless and worldly wives). And to act out his theme Hastings has chosen a figure of public note in a curiously simple and literal sense, an actual near-contemporary of his own. This actuality is important. Tom and Viv were played with a vraisemblance at moments startling, and the production was widely advertised by a poster blown-up from a striking snapshot of the Twenties or Thirties, showing Eliot blocked off by a towering Virginia Woolf from a cowering Vivien. The trouble with this insistence on actuality is that in practice the source-materials continually resisted the interpretation imposed on them. The play’s numb hero could never have written a line, and the action finds nothing to do with his blankness that even approaches the interest of Eliot’s real creative life. The pervasive contradiction of the play by matters of fact works in small details like the following. Hastings makes his warm-hearted heroine guiltless of her husband’s involvement in fascistic politics as well as free of his social snobbery (she forms a tender relationship with a working-class woman): Vivien Eliot’s journals reveal little feeling beyond her possessive attachment to her husband, and an at least formal membership of the Fascist Party, which Eliot himself never joined. These facts, which may suggest some connection with the portrayal of women in The Waste Land, written little more than a decade earlier, also point to the discrepancy of Hastings’s virtuous Viv. In general, the trouble with Tom and Viv was not the question of its being ‘mean to Eliot’ (discussion of the play in correspondence columns strikingly lacked the assumption that literature might have to do with truth, rather than merely the socially agreeable). The real problem was its failure in that dramatic function of truth, credibility. Depending for most of its interest on the public and historic actuality of its persons, the play found it hard to handle this interest or to contribute to it.
Difficulties confront any dramatist who chooses a poet as a central character: the creative life of an artist isn’t something that can be convincingly translated into dramatic action, with its crises and climaxes. This problem was intensified by the public and external mode of Tom and Viv, which worked – where it did work – with the vigour of a political cartoon or caricature. As a result, Tom lacked all three of the leading characteristics that made Eliot a writer, intelligence, irony and imagination: all of them essentially ‘contained’ or inward powers. What is thought-provoking is that Ackroyd’s entirely non-dramatic study should elicit some of the same objections. His T.S. Eliot is of course not, like Hastings’s play, a work of ‘faction’, that new art in which fiction gets its appeal from its appearance of factuality. Yet in terms of information, this Life hasn’t much that is new to any reader familiar both with Eliot’s immediate milieu and with some of the literary journals and letters of the last seventy or eighty years: the biography’s quality is a matter of what might be called aesthetic charm and efficiency, not of scholarly discovery. If, however, Ackroyd’s book groups itself with Hastings’s play, the main reason is not this literary character that makes it coherent and persuasive, but rather the nature of what appears to be his interest in Eliot: a focus, as marked as the dramatist’s, on the public or external existence of the man – indeed, Ackroyd’s identification of the poet with that public or external existence. It is a curious fact that he actually uses the word ‘fiction’ while defining his craft in peculiarly public terms: ‘Biography is ... a convenient fiction, since no one can probe, without the risk of farcical failure, those hidden perceptions or experiences which run alongside the observable life but may not necessarily touch it ... Just as the events themselves can be known but not the experiences which they provoked, so we cannot hope to understand Eliot as he knelt in that chapel or in the presence of his God ... We cannot reach into the mystery of his solitude.’
The closing sentence has to be one of two things. It may be merely exalted cliché: it may mean something so true of everyone as to be scarcely worth saying. If it isn’t mere cliché, but is trying to make a real point about the poet, then it is decidedly odd: for its pronouncement is evidently less true of poets than of most other people, since poets almost by definition have the unusual gift of being able through language to communicate their inward experience to other human beings. This simple fact is proved by the rest of Ackroyd’s paragraph. The phrase ‘that chapel’ alludes to the church at Little Gidding: the subject is Eliot’s visit there in 1936, and to East Coker in 1937. Although Little Gidding has some historical interest in its own right, that is not in general why we are reading about it here; and the places interest us now because Eliot wrote poems, and somewhat difficult inward poems, that happen to bear the names of these places. That the biographer should argue that ‘we cannot hope to understand Eliot as he knelt in that chapel’ must bring some surprise not merely to the poet’s co-religionists but to any ordinary reader of his verse. And, in fact, to any human being who lives in the belief that sympathy and imagination may open people to each other. All in all, Ackroyd’s concept of biography can only be true insofar as it is false, a kind of fiction (as he says himself) based on fact – a ‘faction’: one acceptable only as a very personal art, its premises (as peculiar as those of the ‘factional’ dramatist) requiring a disbelief in the possibility of understanding one’s more communicative fellow human beings.
As such, Ackroyd’s thesis has its own attractiveness, its own elegant extremity. But its limitations will be obvious in dealing with a poet most of whose work is at least as much involved with ‘hidden perceptions and experiences’ as it is with the ‘observable life’ (it is Ackroyd himself, as we shall see, who speaks of ‘Burnt Norton’ as containing something ‘concealed’). The crux of the matter is that Eliot becomes eligible for biographical treatment by virtue of poems which are themselves a form of ‘event’, a form of life requiring to be properly ‘observed’: which is to say read. The primary requirement for any biographer of a poet is the capacity to read the work that distinguishes him. Nor is this an ‘academic’ contention in the narrow sense. The idea that we have no means of understanding the inward life of a writer would strike strangely all good writers who have assumed and stated the opposite. Borges, for instance, the poet and fabulist: ‘A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.’ When, in a well-known essay, ‘Borges and I’, the writer starts to attempt the distinction between ‘the man’ and ‘his work’, he finds them so fused, and that fusion so evidently accessible to his readers, as to make him end with the simple sentence: ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’ Eliot is better-known for his insistence on the need to separate, as Borges at first tries to do, the self that lives and the self that writes, but Eliot also made his own later fusion of the two: ‘The experience of a poem is the experience both of a moment and of a lifetime. It is very much like our intenser experiences of other human beings.’
Ackroyd seems to come closer to this position in quoting as his biography’s closing sentence Eliot’s own ‘We also understand the poetry better when we know more about the man.’ The trouble is that there is room for some difference of opinion as to what ‘understanding the poetry’ amounts to, or ‘knowing more about the man’; and it is not always clear in the course of this Life (and the same is true of many other good modern literary biographies) that the biographer means the same by them as does Eliot and at least some of the poet’s readers. It seems as true of Ackroyd’s Life as of Hastings’s play that their image of Eliot’s poetry depends on their image of the poet, and that their image of the poet is of the public and social man; and it is unlikely that Eliot meant quite that. Ackroyd’s portrait of Eliot is of a man we can’t understand – it is the image of a person taken essentially from the outside. That at the same time he deals almost too fully with the troubles of Eliot’s first marriage (compared, say, with William Empson’s very different, idiosyncratic but suggestive analysis of the filial Eliot at the period of The Waste Land) in no way affects this position. Hastings, too, takes as his subject the private life and yet gives us, as both condition and diagnosis, a man without ‘inside’, and hence a man who could never have written poetry. The tone and stance of Ackroyd’s book is more genial and sympathetic to Eliot. Yet he, too, makes of the poet what the title of one of his book’s most appreciative reviews, John Carey’s, called ‘The Hollow Man’. Moreover this is not, in Ackroyd’s case, a mere technicality, an unfortunate function of the concept of biography as necessarily external. His Life firmly presents Eliot as characterised by an essential emptiness at the centre. It portrays a habit of life abnormally withdrawn from other people, and governed by what Ackroyd describes as ‘this lack of connection, or of what is called “empathy” ... a detachment which indeed suggested something “missing” ’.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 7 No. 5 · 21 March 1985
SIR: Peter Ackroyd’s Eliot appears to have profoundly upset Barbara Everett. Her essay (LRB, 24 January) accuses the biographer of bringing two incompatible systems into conflict, the poet’s and the biographer’s, of eviscerating the poems by dredging them for biographical detail, and of imposing a socialised image of the poet on the poems. It is an intelligent attack, but misconceived. To make it, Ms Everett forces an antithesis between the life without the poems and what she calls the life of the poems. Biography should subserve the poems and make them more available, whereas Ackroyd lessens their availability. Nowhere does Ms Everett mention that Ackroyd (who could, I believe, have gone further than he did in terms of ‘fair dealing’) felt legally constrained to quote no more than a snatch here and there of Eliot’s work. In that sense the poems are relatively unavailable. But the pity is that Ackroyd is well aware that the relation between the life and the work must be a major theme. Other biographers – James R. Mellow on the Fitzgeralds, for example – may go overboard from the corpus into the supporting element, the life, but Ackroyd’s sensitivity to this as to other issues is what distinguishes his book, and makes it so signal a contribution to Eliot studies.
There are many points at which one wishes to take issue with Ms Everett, and no doubt Peter Ackroyd has a reply to make. But let me take two. Ms Everett, who has grandly dismissed the biography as ‘not scholarly’, snipes en passant at Ackroyd’s ‘going wrong’ over the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’. However, Ms Everett’s reference to the ‘heavy-genteel London village behind Harrods where Eliot lived during the later Thirties’ is well wide of the mark. Eliot’s London addresses at the time were at Gloucester Road, two stops down the line from Knightsbridge and from Harrods. As for the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’, Ms Everett might as well be shelling her own position. She slates Ackroyd for wrongly attributing the lines to a draft speech of the Second Tempter’s in Murder in the Cathedral. What Ackroyd in fact states is that the lines ‘had been spoken by the Second Priest after the departure of the Second Tempter’. Ackroyd, not Everett, is right here. But whether Everett scores in the original attribution of the phrase ‘old Tom, gay Tom’ can only be established from the typescript now at the library of the University of Maryland, which, incidentally, Ackroyd shows (page 356, note 14) he has consulted. Of course all this is, in the Pauline phrase, to speak as a fool. The main issue is the one Eliot himself took up, about life and work, personality and poetry, biography and criticism. Barbara Everett has joined a dated fray which derives from the preoccupations of the early Eliot. In later years his attitude changed. The phrase, ‘we understand the poetry better when we know more about the man,’ was á propos of Muir in 1959. In a lecture seven years previously (‘Charybde & Scylla’) Eliot had in effect restated his impersonality principle in terms of universality of reference, stressing the importance of ‘the deep level of experience which is the seedbed of poetry’.
A final thought. Should not the smokefall in the draughty church be that of incense? That would be far more regular as the indicator of a time of day than Ms Everett’s bonfires.
Barbara Everett writes: My essay may well be full of errors and misconceptions. But Roger Kojecky hasn’t yet mentioned any.
1. ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’. Ackroyd writes (page 230): ‘The lines excised from Murder in the Cathedral … had been spoken by the Second Priest, after the departure of the Second Tempter who had suggested that Becket might return to the days of “Old Tom, gay Tom”.’ It is widely known that the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’ take their source from a (finally unincluded) draft speech by the play’s Second Priest. Ackroyd attempts to use this bibliographical fact to argue Eliot’s sensual feelings at the time, by giving ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’ to the Second Tempter, who immediately precedes the Second Priest; and it is plain that he (Ackroyd) is urged to do this by his belief in Emily Hale’s importance to ‘Burnt Norton’. Unfortunately the Second Tempter neither uses the words ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’, nor suggests a return to a younger, more sensual self, but offers worldly power and the Chancellorship (‘Power obtained grows to glory’). It is the First Tempter who proffers sensual pleasure, and who speaks the words ‘Old Tom, gay Tom’ in his first speech. The two scenes and the two characters are quite different. Any reader with a copy of Murder in the Cathedral can check these facts.
2. ‘Behind Harrods’. Mr Kojecky would seem to be a Middlesex man, and I myself passed much of my first three decades a few miles down the line from Eliot’s Kensington. But LRB readers are hardly confined to Londoners like Mr Kojecky and myself, but include many more familiar with (say) Newcastle, not to mention Arizona or New South Wales. The phrase ‘heavy-genteel London village behind Harrods’ was an attempt, perhaps even echoing Eliot’s own ‘behind the pig-sty’ for Little Gidding, to render in half a dozen words the character of a place as specific as Kensington still is, for farflung readers many of whom (in my experience) are more acquainted with Harrods than with any other spot in contemporary London. Certainly the job could be done better, but Mr Kojecky’s ‘at Gloucester Road’ doesn’t seem much of an improvement.
3. ‘Smokefall’. The uncertainty, or very lack of regularity, in Eliot’s times and locations was the theme of my essay. There can hardly be any objection, therefore, to Mr Kojecky’s reading of incense into smokefall if he so wishes. Mr Craig Raine has already (privately) mentioned to me his impression of incense; it is clearly a reading that has validity as well as adherents. But if the church is ‘draughty’ winds outside are hinted at; the syntactic echo of ‘where the rain beat’ predisposes the mind to a natural and outdoor context; and bonfires occur potently elsewhere in the Quartets, as incense does not. One fourth reservation about ‘incense’ must be added. Mr Robert Burchfield, whom I have now consulted (and who has himself in the past read the line as including incense), kindly allows me to quote him as saying that the Fourth Volume of the OED Supplement, to be published next year, defines Eliot’s nonce-word smokefall (with a definition derived, it seems, from a communication by Dame Helen Gardner) as ‘the moment when the wind drops and smoke that has ascended, descends’. My own feeling about ‘smokefall’ is that it is just a coinage analogous with ‘nightfall’, but with the ‘night’ replaced by ‘evening’, or rather by the ‘Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose … /With the smoke coming down above the housetops’ – because the coming on of evening actually is more moving than the coming on of night. But a person might well be disposed to turn his thoughts to the darkening air outside by the clouds of incense in a church. The whole debate only seems to support my argument that Eliot, who has often been treated as so clear and authoritative a writer, is in most ways private and inward: not at all an easy subject for a biographer.
4. ‘Profoundly upset’. Johnson once remarked that where there is room for fiction there is little grief. People who are ‘profoundly upset’ surely don’t write nine-thousand-word essays on Eliot and Biography. The upset is inread by Mr Kojecky, who accuses me of ‘accusing’, and who describes me as accusing Ackroyd of ‘eviscerating’. I accused Ackroyd of nothing, and I don’t believe that poems, which are made of words, have bowels (or can be ‘dredged’, either). I do believe that there is something that should provoke thought in the fact that a writer like Eliot can cease to be a positive literary presence among us, while coming to be a central biographical topic. The thought it may provoke is that though biographies (often) provide a lot of pleasure and information, they may not have much to do with what the writer is actually up to. This is what writers seem to think, and one ought perhaps to give it a sympathetic hearing. My point was also that what a person writes may in some sense that matters give a truer sense of him/her than any context of social talk about him/her, and that this makes reading more important than whatever ‘biographing’ means. Mr Kojecky has as it happens made my point for me by quoting Eliot’s own ‘deep level of experience which is the seedbed of poetry’. Peter Ackroyd’s well-informed, thoroughly interesting and readable life failed, to my mind, to give any convincing sense of that capacity for ‘deep level’ existence in Eliot, unless it is confusable with what Ackroyd called ‘something missing’ in the writer. It is possible that even the very best modern biography is bound to fail in this way. But if this is so, the fact needs to be stated, and its consequences measured.
Vol. 7 No. 7 · 18 April 1985
SIR: Barbara Everett is being a shade disingenuous when she attributes her phrase ‘behind Harrods’ to Eliot’s ‘behind the pig-sty’ (Letters, 21 March). She also seems to have a rum command of London’s social geography. In Angus Wilson’s short story, ‘More Friend than Lodger’, a Belgravia hostess explains exactly where ‘behind Harrods’ is between Knightsbridge, Pont Street and Belgrave Square. ‘The house which we live in is mine; and it was left to me by my Aunt Agnes and it’s rather a big house, situated in that vague area known as behind Harrods’s. But it isn’t, in fact, Pont Street Dutch …’ Unless Ms Everett is in the habit of visiting Harrods via the warehousemen’s and staff entrances, Gloucester Road is in front of Harrods and far away to its left. The quarter where Eliot lived was definitely a bit off the map, at least as defined by the snobberies of those Belgravians who still talk about ‘living behind Harrods’, with no sneaking reference to Little Gidding intended.
Vol. 7 No. 8 · 2 May 1985
SIR: I’m interested to learn from Jonathan Raban’s letter (Letters, 18 April) what I didn’t know before, that ‘behind Harrods’ can have a specialised, even snobbish meaning. Why we should all pretend to be Belgravian dealers in ‘social geography’ is less clear. If you look south-westwards from the City, not an unnatural procedure since London itself developed that way, Harrods faces you with its main entrance looking north-east, and behind it at some half-mile’s distance to the southwest runs the Gloucester Road. Plainly it matters a lot where you stand. Where Mr Raban stands is interesting too: he turns geography into ‘social geography’, and finds his locus for that in literature. In talking about Eliot and Biography (rather than Harrods) my argument was similarly centred on the literary. Biography, being a written art, does what Eliot himself did in the Quartets, and what – as it happens – Raban is doing here: it transforms the notionally objective subjects like ‘geography’ into areas where it particularly matters where you stand. It therefore seems that biography ought to be fully conscious of what it is doing, even to the point of giving credit where credit is due: especially if its subject is a writer who has happened to map out most of the mental territory we all seem to be moving in here (the place that is, as Raban quotes, ‘a bit off the map’). One way of giving such credit is not to put ‘truth’ into inverted commas as Peter Ackroyd does when talking about Eliot’s poetry. He also says of ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘We look down for a recognisable landscape, but find it concealed.’ I think he is here unconsciously quoting what Eliot had already made his Chorus say in The Family Reunion: ‘We do not like to look out of the same window, and see quite a different landscape.’ For Ackroyd to make Eliot’s own poetry condemn itself for its supposed ‘concealment’ seems to me illogical. I find illogical, too, Jonathan Raban’s assumption that any reference to ‘Little Gidding’ must be ‘sneaking’, and that what you don’t know makes you ‘disingenuous’.
Somerville College, Oxford
Vol. 7 No. 10 · 6 June 1985
SIR: Neither ‘social geography’ nor any other kind will get the main entrance of Harrods ‘looking north-east’, as Barbara Everett avers (Letters, 2 May): it faces almost exactly north-west. And while Gloucester Road does run from about due west to nearly south-west of the Brompton Road store, it is nearly a mile away at its closest, not ‘some half-mile’s distance’.
At the risk that what I don’t know will make me disingenuous, I feel bound to ask whether I ought to buy a second-hand poetry reading from someone who plainly can’t read a map?
Vol. 7 No. 12 · 4 July 1985
SIR: Since this correspondence started off from Peter Ackroyd’s complaint that Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ is not on any map, Charles Plouviez’s complaint that I can’t read a map has a certain almost pleasing familiarity. Closed circles by definition are hard to break out of; Mr Plouviez may not be convinced by having his mistake proved to him. It does, however, need to be got out of the way. If he cares to visit Harrods – an establishment that seems to have the power to obsess in too theoretical a form – the Press Office there will assure him that while Harrods has 11 entries and no single front door, the entry by which ‘of course’ most customers make their way in, and which offers fullest directions to all departments, is that FACING NORTH-EAST on Hans Crescent: it attracts the largest entry simply because it does so look towards central London, and serves most closely the bus and Tube routes.
Few people do their shopping at Harrods by map. Yet even maps, insofar as they involve human situations, can be trickier to read than Mr Plouviez assumes. Their symbols have to be interpreted in the light of human knowledge and experience. In this as in all reading a useful piece of knowledge is that one can always be mistaken.
This is why Mr Plouviez is wrong to reduce the discussion of ideas and of literature, as he does, to ‘second-hand … reading’. Presumably this means that he shares that antipathy to literary criticism which Peter Ackroyd himself stated in print not long ago. Literary criticism isn’t my own favourite medium, even when (as Ackroyd does) I write it myself, but it sometimes seems better than the arguments of its opponents. The phrase ‘second-hand reading’ constitutes just such an argument. Whether any reading is ‘first-’ or ‘second-hand’ of course depends wholly and only on the reader reading. Mr Plouviez’s remarkable definition suggests that he prefers not to entertain any ideas originating from anybody else. This refusal, which debars him from the reading of literature itself, surely requires to be called, in Woodville’s own personal language, second-class thinking. The great distinction of Eliot’s Quartets is that they struggle against this second-class thinking or closed circling of the mind which is a regressive instinct in any reader, or for that matter in any writer.
Somerville College, Oxford
Vol. 10 No. 21 · 24 November 1988
The reviews of Peter Ackroyd’s T.S. Eliot (‘The Braver Thing’, by Christopher Ricks, LRB, 1 November 1984, and ‘Eliot at Smokefall’ by Barbara Everett, LRB, 24 January 1985) raise questions that deserve comment, as does their failure to address other questions no less pertinent – a failure symptomatic of the approach of the ‘empirical’ English to the philosophical side of Eliot’s writing.
Ackroyd begins his book by remarking, in the ‘Prelude’, that Eliot ‘once confessed’, in an unpublished letter, that the best of his poetry ‘had cost him dearly in experience’, and he goes on: ‘the connection between the life and the work is here explicitly made, and it will be the purpose of this book to elucidate the mystery of this connection.’ And he concludes his book by quoting Eliot to the effect that ‘we also understand the poetry better when we know more about the man.’ Ackroyd is pretending, in these passages, to give Eliot’s views on the relation between life and work, but in fact he quite ignores what Eliot has to say. And what Eliot has to say, early and late, so far from sanctioning Ackroyd’s stated purpose, is a criticism of it.
Ricks, in his review, is concerned only with one side of the relation – the man apart from the work; and he offers an interpretation of the character of the man at variance with Ackroyd’s (‘For Eliot is to Ackroyd a person of lifelong caution and even timorousness, whereas to me he is rather a person of diverse principled temerity’). Though Ricks commends Ackroyd for eschewing ‘psychobiographical plunges’, and observes that Ackroyd ‘does not bring himself’ to quote Eliot’s styptic comments on a biography of Spinoza, he has nothing to say about Eliot’s views on the relation between life and work – the biographical relation. His other concern is with Ackroyd’s handling of his material. Forbidden to quote from the unpublished work or correspondence, Ackroyd reports on this material by paraphrasing it. Since the use of this material is the chief novelty of the book, the paraphrasing is a very real concern. Ricks, examining Ackroyd’s procedures in dealing with things in the public realm (where they can be tested), finds that Ackroyd is inclined to be ‘not exactly inaccurate but approximate’, though ‘no doubt … largely to be trusted’.
Consider, for example, the passage quoted above, the quotation from Eliot which, together with the paraphrase of a letter in the ‘Prelude’, serves as a framework for the book. In a BBC broadcast on Edwin Muir, Eliot says: ‘The work and the man are one: his autobiography, and the lecture on Orcadian folk poetry … help us to understand the poetry better when we know more about the man.’ That is presented as a quotation, but it is, apparently, a paraphrase. But the important point is that Ackroyd has made no effort to understand what Eliot is saying here (or elsewhere) about the man and the work.
As for the paraphrase of the unpublished letter in which what Eliot is said to have ‘once confessed’ is construed as making explicit the connection between the life and the work, one cannot help wondering about the ‘confession’. Is it supposed that Eliot had denied a relationship between life and work and is now confessing to such a relationship? ‘I do not say,’ Eliot wrote, ‘that poetry is not’ “autobiographical”: but this autobiography is written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue, which can never be translated.’ The locution ‘written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue’ is taken from F.H. Bradley’s treatise on history. Similarly, in the world of a great poet, ‘the creator is everywhere present, and everywhere hidden.’ Again, if you attempt to explain a poem by tracing it back to its origins, you get ‘further and further away from the poem without arriving at any other destination.’ Ackroyd does not (to borrow Ricks’s phrase) bring himself to quote these, and similar, remarks, and it must be said that the two passages Ackroyd uses as a framework for his book are spurious reports of Eliot’s views.
Everett, in her review, is, unlike Ricks, much concerned with the question of the biographical relation. She accepts, in principle, the relation between the life and the work, but objects to Ackroyd’s account of the terms. He focuses, she writes, on the public or external existence of the man, and identifies the poet with this existence, whereas it is the inward life that gets into the poetry, and this life plays no part in Ackroyd’s account of the man or his work, the result being that both terms of the relation are distorted and falsified.
Thus, according to Ackroyd, biography is a ‘conventional fiction’, for one can report only the ‘observable life’, not its ‘hidden perceptions and experiences’. But, Everett says, poets almost by definition have the gift of being able through language’ to communicate their inward experiences to other human beings’. Indeed, the idea that ‘we have no means of understanding the inward life of a writer,’ she says, is contrary to what ‘all good writers … have assumed and stated’ – and here she appeals, not to Eliot, but to Borges.
Everett is hardly less attentive to Eliot’s views than is Ackroyd, whom she is criticising for his notion that biography can deal only with the outer, not the inner life. If what she is advancing is a ‘communication theory’ of poetry, such a theory, according to Eliot, ‘will explain nothing’. For one thing, it confuses the ‘poet’s feelings’ with the ‘poetry’. For another, the experience in the poem may be so different from the original experience ‘as to be hardly recognisable’. And though communication may take place, what is communicated ‘was not in existence before the poem was completed’.
The difference between Ackroyd and Everett is merely one of emphasis, not of principle or premise; and neither can be said to represent Eliot’s views – or to show any sign of recognising them.
To begin with, Ackroyd’s notion of biography as a ‘conventional fiction’, though he does not say so, may owe something to Eliot’s remarks, in this connection, about ‘external facts’ and ‘psychological conjectures about inner experience’, including ‘the putative antecedents in the mind of the poet’ – his remarks, not his meaning. Ackroyd’s distinction between the ‘observable life’ and its ‘hidden perceptions and experiences’ assumes the division of experience into inner and outer (mental and extra-mental, ideal and real): in short, separate private worlds and a common external world. But this division – the starting-point of dualistic realisms, and the common assumption of discussions in morality, history, biography and literature – is the object of detailed criticism by Eliot, so that it can hardly represent Eliot’s position. For Eliot, there are no inner experiences of the sort studied by traditional psychology (no special class of mental objects or independent psychological context), nor is there any such thing as introspection or internal perception. On the other hand, we can, according to Eliot, make an object of everything we experience, so that, in this sense, there are no ‘hidden perceptions and experiences’: all are, or can be made, public – all objects are public. Thus, for instance: ‘To say that one part of the mind suffers and another part reflects upon the suffering is perhaps to talk in fictions. But we know that those highly-organised beings who are able to objectify their passions, and as passive spectators to contemplate their joys and torments, are also those who suffer and enjoy the most keenly.’
This Prufrockian attitude is not an exercise in introspection – the ‘talk in fictions’. Nor are the objectified passions those of popular psychology, for the prejudice is, as Eliot says, that ‘feeling is something subjective and private’. But with Eliot the objectified passions are ‘real objects’ in the world of objects. Furthermore, the objectified passions constitute the special province of art (aesthetic objects). Thus, in one Dante essay, ‘no emotion is contemplated by Dante in and by itself,’ and, in another Dante essay, there is ‘the objective poetic emotion’. Elsewhere, it is ‘the impersonal emotion of art’, or ‘a presentation of feeling’ (not in the psychological sense: for the presentation is the object, not a part cut off as the mental aspect, the real object being something else).
The I, the subject, the self of popular psychology is an abstraction from a whole of experience, an abstraction treated as an independent reality; the object side, too, is an abstraction regarded as an independent reality, subject and object, self and world, being externally related. (The experiencing subject, in this division, is arbitrarily neglected: you abstract the mind from the world, and abstract the world with it, and double the world to get your world, which is not the world of the experiencing subject.) This abstracted subject – this unreal abstraction – is the subject of Ackroyd’s biography, and of Everett’s comments on the biography (in this sense, Ackroyd and Everett are, with few exceptions, any commentator on Eliot you care to mention). Further, the division of experience into inner and outer, which produces the self of popular psychology, also produces the popular theory of thought and expression. Words are signs of the inner life (thought and feeling), which is prior to, and independent of, the words in which it finds expression and through which it is communicated to other minds; and ‘ideas’ are signs of external things, which are independent of the ‘ideas’, and real because independent. (The division of experience into inner and outer sets up a system of terms and external relations which, though it has a certain provisional status in practice, is metaphysically indefensible.) The ‘ideas’ in this representational theory of knowledge are ideas in Locke’s sense of the term (still the basis of popular psychology). Again, the Lockian ‘plain historical method’ also accounts for the popular theory of explanation by origins or causal explanation: explanation of the work in terms of the life – as though the life were an indubitable datum, and not itself, like the work, an intellectual construction: an interpretation, and as such essentially unverifiable. These are the theories assumed by ‘Ackroyd’ and ‘Everett’, theories criticised and repudiated by Eliot. The theories have, of course, been repudiated by more recent philosophical criticism – which attests to the persistent popularity of the theories.
There are, then, two contexts: the ‘real world’ of popular thought (psychology and epistemology), and the reality of metaphysics. Eliot’s terminology takes its meaning from the metaphysical context, and outside that context is meaningless. (It is no good saying that, after all, Eliot and his commentators are talking about the same thing. There is no same thing – independent of context, and the thing varies with the context.) The difficulty is, as Eliot says, having to use the same words for different things. And the difficulty is compounded because Eliot, in his critical prose, suppresses the context from which his terms take their meaning. The result is a prose that is virtually intractable (not unlike the poetry in the sense that it cannot be paraphrased but only elucidated). Eliot’s uncritical readers appear to be satisfied with merely a grammatical meaning. His critical readers, for whom either Eliot does not mean what he says or what he says does not mean anything – although these readers, given their assumptions, are not wrong, they are mistaken: for what Eliot says has a definite meaning in the context of his philosophy – has in this sense a ‘literal’ meaning – though the meaning is unstatable.
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