Feast of St Thomas

Frank Kermode

  • Eliot’s New Life by Lyndall Gordon
    Oxford, 356 pp, £15.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 19 811727 2
  • The Letters of T.S. Eliot edited by Valerie Eliot
    Faber, 618 pp, £25.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 13621 4
  • The Poetics of Impersonality by Maud Ellmann
    Harvester, 207 pp, £32.50, January 1988, ISBN 0 7108 0463 6
  • T.S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism by Richard Shusterman
    Duckworth, 236 pp, £19.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 7156 2187 4
  • ‘The Men of 1914’: T.S. Eliot and Early Modernism by Erik Svarny
    Open University, 268 pp, £30.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 335 09019 2
  • Eliot, Joyce and Company by Stanley Sultan
    Oxford, 326 pp, £25.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 19 504880 6
  • The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot by Robert Crawford
    Oxford, 251 pp, £25.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 19 812869 X
  • T.S. Eliot: The Poems by Martin Scofield
    Cambridge, 264 pp, £25.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 521 30147 5

‘The idea that Eliot’s poetry was rooted in private aspects of his life has now been accepted,’ says Lyndall Gordon in the Foreword to her second volume of biographical rooting among these aspects. This acceptance, which she evidently approves, has undoubtedly occurred, as a root through the enormous heap of books about the poet, now augmented by the centenary of his birth, will quickly demonstrate.

By the time of his death in 1965 people had long been curious about this very famous man. Collections such as the one made by Richard Marsh and Tambimuttu for his 60th birthday in 1948 contained much pleasant anecdote, and there were respectful reminiscences in Allen Tate’s memorial volume of 1966. Meanwhile, off the page, there was some gossip about such matters as a putatively vast pornographic poem, and about Eliot’s first marriage. I once heard J.B. Priestley explaining that the Eumenides in The Family Reunion were a direct representation of Vivien(ne), which I couldn’t understand since in the play only Harry sees them (‘You don’t see them, but I see them,’ he claims), whereas Priestley’s point was that Vivien would storm unexpectedly and embarrassingly into parties where everybody could see her. As for the poem, it seems to have been a fitful series of mildly obscene verses included in letters to such friends as Conrad Aiken. Gossips are not on oath.

While these oral versions of biography paid tribute to the celebrity of the poet, the poetry was usually treated as quite impersonal. It had come, in the post-war years, under heavy academic protection: this was a time when potent professors wanted to exclude biography from the institutional study of literature. Eliot’s own doctrine of poetic impersonality had contributed to the formation of this austere doctrine, and though quite often subjected to more severe scrutiny than literary journalism normally attracts, the early essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ remained influential, and suited the New Criticism well.

As Gordon suggests, we have moved on from there, not just because we like gossip better than professorial personality purges, but because many people have come to think that the impersonality business was nonsense anyway. This is roughly the position of Maud Ellmann’s brisk first book. Eliot called Pound’s Cantos ‘a reticent biography’, and she thinks we should apply the same description to Eliot’s work. According to her, early Modernism, despite the contrary pretence, was always individualistic, and steeped in Bergson. Now Eliot certainly went to Bergson’s lectures, and was for a time much affected by his very fashionable philosophy: but he soon changed his mind, as is clear from the satirical assault on Middleton Murry, a Bergsonian surrogate, in ‘The Function of Criticism’ (1923). And of course he was well aware that impersonal poetry was produced by persons: but this doesn’t make the impersonality argument bogus, as Ellmann supposes, or entitle us to think that it has sinister ideological implications – that Eliot ‘inveighs against personality for much the same reasons that he ostracises the Jews from his Anglo-Catholic utopia’.

Eliot notoriously remarked that ‘only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things,’ which implies a claim to poetic or spiritual election, and this is no doubt what gives rise to the notion that poetic impersonality has, in the long run, some nasty political implications. But one ought to reflect that among the poet’s preferred models are Aristotle and Dante, Pascal and Baudelaire; impersonality and intelligence, as he understood them, are the achievement of heroic personalities, and it is hard to see that they necessarily imply political wickedness. What Eliot himself says about the topic in ‘The Perfect Critic’ still seems innocuous: ‘In an artist ... suggestions made by a work of art, which are purely personal, become fused with a multitude of other suggestions from multitudinous experience, and result in the production of a new object, which is no longer purely personal.’ Many artists – Milton and Picasso, to name two at random – might have subscribed to some form of this statement, without suspecting that to do so might, on such evidence alone, get them called fascists, or even Anglo-Catholic utopians.

Even in the years when the impersonality approach generally prevailed there were many books about the more polite and discussable aspects of Eliot as a person who had, for example, thought a bit and read a bit. Some writers tried, as Eliot himself never did, to work his critical observations up into a coherent theory; others, like Grover Smith, read what he had read, so far as this could be ascertained, and examined his sources with what looked like, but cannot quite have been, exhaustive care: for recently there has been a boom in such research. A procession of students combs the archives in New York, Cambridge and elsewhere. The poet’s early philosophical studies and his work on F.H. Bradley have been very carefully examined; and those early slogans, Impersonality, Tradition, Dissociation of Sensibility, Objective Correlative, have been dissected again and again. One might even say that no other English critic except possibly Coleridge has had his ideas and his reading more intensely studied. The reason for all this activity isn’t merely that there are so many more aspirants looking for something interesting to investigate, though that is not wholly irrelevant. It may be true that too much has been written and published about him, but it is also true that there is a lot to write about.

At the same time, however, the poet’s life, and especially the first half of it, has been examined with a persistence that is beginning to seem prurient: it certainly goes well beyond what Eliot, or any other private and reserved person, would have thought tolerable. The Letters offer several instances of his rage at intrusions into his privacy, and one remembers him forcing the withdrawal of John Peter’s article from Essays in Criticism because it suggested a homosexual element in his relationship with Jean Verdenal. Lyndall Gordon reports a conversation with Mary Trevelyan which makes him seem mildly amused about this imputation, but his first reaction was quick and indignant. After his death the sanction of his disapproval no longer worked, and almost anything goes.[*]

Now that so much has been said it seems impossible not to say more, and even Valerie Eliot is obliged to take part. The sufferings of both partners in the poet’s first marriage have been amply described, sometimes, as by Peter Ackroyd, with reasonable delicacy, but research continues to discover more painful details. What will not be fully uncovered until 20l9 (Gordon’s date; Mrs Eliot says 2020) are the letters Eliot wrote to Emily Hale. He had known her since 1912, but most of the letters were written between 1927 (Gordon’s date; 1932 according to Valerie Eliot) and 1947. We learn from Mrs Eliot that in the Sixties the poet, ‘in a private paper’ whose privacy has now gone the way of all privacy, said he had discovered, a year after his marriage to Vivien, that he was still in love with Miss Hale, though ‘it may merely have been my reaction against my misery with Vivienne’ – we are told that he gave her name the two extra letters when exasperated – ‘and desire to revert to an earlier situation.’ He attributes the muddle to his timidity and immaturity, and to his worries about a choice of profession – for academic philosophy was still a possibility.

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[*] Frederick Tomlin, in his memoir of a long, respectful and predominantly churchy acquaintance with the poet, describes his reaction to Peter (T.S. Eliot: A Friendship, Routledge, 288 pp., £19.95, 22 September, 0 415 025125 5).