Eliot at smokefall

Barbara Everett

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” ’.

You are not logged in