‘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.
When she heard about Eliot’s second marriage, Emily Hale presented his letters (numbering about a thousand, says Gordon) to Princeton University Library. He had wanted these letters preserved, but Mrs Eliot says he was irritated by Hale’s act, calling it ‘the Aspern Papers in reverse’; and when the Princeton Librarian informed him that they were to be sealed until fifty years after the death of the survivor he got somebody to burn all Hale’s letters to him. There would appear to be an understandable difference in the attitudes of Mrs Eliot and Gordon to the Princeton letters. Gordon is far from wanting to minimise the importance of the triangular relation between the poet, his first wife and Emily Hale: indeed she makes it central to her account of Eliot’s life. It was on Vivien’s death in 1947 that he broke with Hale. It is true that at various times he abandoned other friends with equal abruptness (as, when he remarried, he dropped Mary Trevelyan, who had twice proposed to him), but it seems clear that Hale was not just another friend, and any doubt on the subject is likely to be dispelled by Gordon’s researches. She is able to quote in full a letter of Hale’s, written in 1947, which says she had understood that Eliot had intended to marry her if Vivien should die; during one of his visits to the United States, when they had actually discussed the prospect, he had spoken of a mariage blanc. And Gordon has seen, in another restricted Princeton archive, a copy of her sad last letter to Eliot, written as late as 1963.
Indefatigable and resourceful, Gordon has interviewed many witnesses, and had the cooperation of Maurice Haigh-Wood, Vivien’s brother; she draws on Vivien’s diaries in the Bodleian, the copyright of which, as we learn from the Letters, belongs to Eliot’s widow. And, familiar with virtually all the archives, she has read a great many of the letters. Her acknowledgments make interesting reading. Mrs Eliot, who helped with the earlier book, is absent from the list.
Emily Hale is Gordon’s heroine. Her book has the pattern of a morality: Hale was ‘the higher dream’ and Vivien ‘the sense of sin’. Out of the conflict between these forces come ‘the great works of Eliot’s maturity, as he converts life into meaning’. Vivien, we gather, ‘was Eliot’s muse only so long as he shared her hell’, and Hale as heavenly muse took over the role in Ash Wednesday, ‘a dream of sexual purity to set against Vivien’. The vita nuova referred to in Gordon’s title was announced in a vision inspired by Hale, and it involved a vow of celibacy.
It has long been known that it was with Emily Hale that Eliot visited Burnt Norton, probably in 1934. But Gordon adds much detail about their relationship, and about many other aspects of the long years between the poet’s marriages. Even if we may doubt that Hale was his Urania or his Beatrice it seems clear that they were rather close. But I’m bound to say that there is something disturbing about Gordon’s handling of all this. Her religiose attitude to the facts, a sort of muckraking sublimity, affects her prose as well as her argument, and the whole pseudo-allegorical and hagiographical enterprise is vaguely disgusting, though I ought to add that it might seem just right to readers of different disposition.
Volume One of Mrs Eliot’s edition of the letters takes us up to 1922, when the poet was 34 and had suffered seven years of marriage. It is not, on the whole, an enlivening collection. Quite a lot of it is familiar in one form or another from earlier books, and the depressing events, as well as the successes, of Eliot’s first London decade are fairly well-known to all who have any interest in the subject, so there is sometimes a sense of déjà lu.
Mrs Eliot’s brief and slightly odd Introduction, already mentioned in connection with Emily Hale, explains that she had persuaded Eliot to sanction such a publication. In the nature of the case, a lot of correspondence had been destroyed or lost, especially from the poet’s schooldays; these lacunae are, as it were, filled by the inclusion of letters by other people, including Eliot’s mother and Vivien, whose letters are very nervous and lively: she seems to have been a more vigorous and disconcerting correspondent than her husband. There is also a letter from Alain-Fournier, and a number from Jean Verdenal, the dedicatee of Prufrock and Other Observations, ‘mort aux Dardanelles’. Their relationship wasn’t of the kind improperly suggested, but it was close and involved some elegant youthful posing. Ce n’est pas facile de se faire comprendre, et puis d’ailleurs ce n’est pas mon métier is the kind of remark that would appeal to Eliot, who was fond of Byron’s lines about not understanding his own meaning when he would be very fine: he quotes them in a letter, and again, a decade later, in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. Verdenal also complains about the way small artists form gangs for mutual support and start short-lived movements – a remark that might, at the time, have been less welcome. The mother’s letters are eloquently maternal, calm but worried. Some are to schoolmasters; the boy wasn’t robust and as the editor reminds us had to wear a truss, which can’t have made things easier at school.
Some of the jollier letters are to a Boston cousin, Eleanor Hinkley, through whom he had met Hale. She had an interest in the theatre, and with her Eliot can go in for the sort of joshing he kept up in one way or another throughout his life. More important, though in essence well-known, are the letters to Conrad Aiken, later dismissed by Eliot as stupid, but a principal confidant of the earlier years. The jesting is intermingled with worry about intellectual constipation, ‘nervous sexual attacks’, and fantasies about Saint Sebastian, including a version of the poem already known from Mrs Eliot’s edition of the manuscripts the poet gave to his American patron John Quinn: though rejected, these verses bear his true voiceprint. It was to Aiken that he could speak of fantasies of flagellation and the murder of women. He also speculates, in what at least by hindsight we can call a characteristic manner, on the necessity of pain: ‘what is necessary is a certain kind (could one but catch it) of tranquillity and sometimes pain does buy bring it.’
Aiken was also the recipient of this meditation: ‘The idea of a submarine world of clear green light – one would be attached to a rock and swayed in two directions – would one be happiest or most wretched at the turn of the tide?’ This fancy probably owes something to some strenuous lines in Antony and Cleopatra:
This common body
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide
To rot itself with motion.
This is a good illustration of one of that ‘multitude of other suggestions ... which result in the production of a new object’ without eliminating the personal: if you had to guess which distinguished poet wrote that little reverie you might well think first of Eliot. He also had a way of assimilating some particular line or passage that has provided him with what he calls ‘a bewildering minute’. In The Revenger’s Tragedy that expression refers with excitement and disgust to the sexual act: its transfer to the impact of poetry is presumably not insignificant. In the same way, the Shakespeare passage is the comment of chilly Octavius on the fickleness of a populace which switches support from him to the burnt-out lecher Antony. Lyndall Gordon rightly remarks on the psychological importance of these letters to Aiken, but they have interest, too, for students of poetry.
Mrs Eliot includes a series of letters from the young man to his Harvard professor J.H. Woods, which seem to have eluded Gordon. These have a certain dry interest. Eliot, at 26, was at Oxford, and engaged in the serious professional study of philosophy. He kept in touch with Woods, who had taught him some Indian philosophy at Harvard. At Oxford he was working through Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics with Harold Joachim, reading the Metaphysics in Greek, and at the same time struggling with Husserl, whom he found ‘terribly hard’. He offered to send Woods his notes on the Posterior Analytics, the Ethics and the De Anima. Although his ‘fatal disposition to scepticism’ interfered, he said, with his appreciation of Joachim, he was clearly working very seriously at philosophy. And it might be conjectured that the commentaries written since his thesis on Bradley turned up have not taken enough notice of his Aristotelian studies. They ought at least to be remembered when his famous dictum ‘there is no method except to be very intelligent’ is trotted out, for it occurs in a context extolling Aristotle, and specifically the Posterior Analytics, as a great example of what he means by intelligence.
Much has been written of late concerning Eliot’s views on, and indebtedness to, F.H. Bradley. Richard Wollheim, an authority on Bradley, has argued that the famous quotation from Appearance and Reality in the note on 1.412 of The Waste Land is misleading because out of context. Either Eliot is using it because its decontextualised sense fits his purpose, or because he had simply forgotten the context – in later years he professed not to understand his own book on Bradley. Wollheim detects a progressive loss of interest in philosophy. Eliot more than once spoke of his incapacity for abstruse thought (though this may not be wholly serious – the diligent young birdwatcher, possessor of Chapman’s Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, and closely acquainted with the water-dripping song of the hermit-thrush, tells Eleanor Hinkley that he is not sure whether some birds he sees are sparrows, for he knows nothing about ornithology).
He certainly had to decide between a steady job as an academic philosopher, probably at Harvard, and a rougher career in London, where he would have to support his poetry by lecturing, reviewing, and to the dismay of his mother, school-teaching, which she thought beneath him; in the end, it came to banking and publishing. But the philosophical years must surely have left some traces. It has been suggested that Josiah Royce, another Harvard philosopher, was more important than is usually realised, having a congenial theory of tradition and community; some think Russell, who was very close to Eliot in the early London years, cured him of Bradleyan idealism, so that Bradley’s continuing influence depended finally on Eliot’s admiration for his prose style. Not everybody agrees, and it can still be maintained, as by Lewis Freed in his book The Critic as Philosopher (1979), that Eliot’s critical theories are Bradleyan almost through and through. Now, however, we have Richard Shusterman with a new view of the whole matter. He believes that Eliot is much more interesting as a philosopher than even his supporters think, and that the easy dismissals on the part of such detractors as Terry Eagleton and Christopher Norris are founded on political prejudice and uninformed assumptions. Shusterman emphasises the Aristotelian studies, and the attack on Descartes in the unpublished Clark Lectures of 1926, which deplores that philosopher’s upsetting of Aristotelianism. As to Bradley, he was thoroughly anti-empiricist, whereas Eliot was from the outset expressly not so: indeed he adopted, around 1916, the analytic empiricist realism of Russell, and did not abandon it till his conversion in 1927, when he moved to ‘a non-realist hermeneutical perspective’.
Shusterman’s efforts to map Eliot’s thought onto 20th-century philosophy may be too systematic, or too opportunist – he makes little allowance for accidental resemblances, claiming, for instance, that Eliot anticipated the thought of Gadamer. What Eliot calls ‘the historical sense’ is much the same as Gadamer’s ‘effective historical consciousness’, and he is also said to share some of the later thinker’s idea of aesthetic activity as a form of play. Moreover their ideas about tradition and community look rather alike. More interesting is the idea that his study of Aristotle’s phronesis led the poet back towards a native American pragmatism, recalling William James at Harvard but also providing critical anticipations of Richard Rorty.
The truth is no doubt messier than these formulations suggest – say, that Eliot after a time was content to assimilate rather than extend his philosophical learning, but that the philosophical layer of his mind continued to influence an application to matters not manifestly philosophical. Shusterman’s is an interesting book, but he seems to forget that even very intelligent people may have cluttered minds, and may be incapable of sustaining the kinds of prescient synthesis he discovers in Eliot’s.
The decision to stop doing serious philosophy and take his chance in London was much influenced by Vivien and by Ezra Pound, who almost single-handed launched his protégé into the literary scene. Russell – despite his over-zealous and finally damaging interventions in Eliot’s marriage – was probably the main influence on the social side, so important to Eliot. But the tale of Eliot’s settling down here is long and tortuous. Arriving from Germany at the outbreak of war, he tells Hinkley (September 1914): ‘I feel I don’t understand the English very well ... it’s ever so much easier to know what a Frenchman or an American is thinking about, than an Englishman.’ A neutral in an embattled country, he felt partisanship for neither of the conflicting parties. By October he is saying he doesn’t think he can ever feel at home in England ‘as I do for instance in France’, though he admires the English more ‘in certain ways’. By 1917 he has come to loathe the snobbish English middle class (‘its family life is hideous’) and informs his Harvard professor that the English lack of respect for education is amazing.
However, as the war nears its end he can say that he gets on better with Englishmen than with Americans, who ‘now impress me, almost invariably, as very immature’. Occasionally regretting his loss of contact with ‘Americans and their ways’, and also the ‘spiritual decadence of England’, he nevertheless urges his brother to come here and escape the appalling gregariousness of American life. ‘You are unfortunate in having a consciousness – though not a clear one – of how barbarous life in America is. If you had, like all other Americans, no consciousness at all, you would be happier.’ In London, he tells Henry, he would have to ‘fight very hard, in order to survive’, but that would surely be better than having friends notable only for their ‘immaturity of feeling’. Mrs Eliot rather wickedly prints a letter to the poet from a distinguished and aged kinsman who says he finds it unintelligible that Eliot ‘or any other young American can forego the privilege of living in the genuine American atmosphere – a bright atmosphere of freedom and hope’. It’s a remark the poet might have found somewhat wanting in consciousness.
His dwelling on the rarity of this possession reminds one of the cold put-down in The Family Reunion when Harry fails to be moved by the news that his brother has been concussed in an accident:
A minor trouble like concussion
Cannot make much difference to John.
A brief vacation from the kind of consciousness
That John enjoys, can’t make very much difference
To him or anybody else.
To Eliot most people, and by this time all Americans except his brother, resembled John. He would presumably have excepted members of the social circle he had entered, but they did make life difficult.
It is damned hard work to live with a foreign nation and cope with them – one is always coming up against differences of feeling that make one feel humiliated and lonely. One always remains a foreigner – only the lower classes can assimilate. 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 or stupidities. They are always intriguing or caballing, one must be very alert. They are sensitive, and easily become enemies. But it is never dull
So much for Bloomsbury and Garsington, and it must really have been hard going. Clive Bell found Eliot’s ‘studied primness’ deliciously comic, and Virginia Woolf was a great tease. But this was his chosen milieu, and although Eliot could call himself ‘Metoikos’ (meaning ‘exile’) as late as 1945, he had obviously acquired the censorious Bloomsbury habit. Russell, he discovered, ‘has a sensitive, but hardly a cultivated mind ... in some ways an immature mind’. Lowes Dickinson is ‘very common’. But Americans are of course far worse, witness Aiken and Max Bodenheim, an American Jew who made the mistake of supposing he could pick up a living in London as easily as he had done in America. ‘He received his first blow,’ Eliot contentedly tells his mother, ‘when he found that no one had heard of him. I told him my history here, and left him to consider whether an American Jew, of only common school education and no university degree, with no money, no connections, and no social polish or experience, could make a living in London.’
His pride in his own achievement is understandable. It called for extraordinary industry as well as talent, and at the age of 31 it was with much satisfaction that he told his mother he had been asked to write for the Times Literary Supplement – ‘the highest honour possible in the field of critical literature’. Yet despite such signal distinctions he continued to be poor: Vivien had to darn his worn-out underclothes, and although the family was generous with handouts, he never had enough money to stop worrying about it. At one rather amusing moment, near the end of the war, he says he would be willing to go into the (US) Army ‘if I could have a rank high enough to support me financially’ – an élite stipulation if ever there was one.
These embarrassments did not prevent the metoikos from quite quickly becoming an insider in the London literary world. He was offered the editorship of the Athenaeum but after careful financial consideration, declined. He belonged to the party which scorned Squire’s London Mercury: ‘you must understand that writers here are divided into at least two groups, those who appear regularly in the London Mercury and those who do not. The Mercury has no standing among intelligent people ... It is socially looked down upon.’ It gives one some notion of what he meant by ‘society’ that literary and social scorn should be so commingled. He was at home in that small world, to the extent of having not only confederates but enemies. Gosse, for example, hated him. Yeats, he fancied, disliked him. Katherine Mansfield was a thick-skinned toady. Of Middleton Murry, toward whom he had once felt quite warmly, he says: ‘I think something conclusive must be done about Murry.’ A month later he is thanking Murry for an exceptionally pleasant weekend, but, as we have seen, he was quite soon to do something fairly conclusive by making him the representative of the Inner Voice in ‘The Function of Criticism’. Above all, he was papabile. Herbert Read remarked that ‘by the time he was given the Criterion Eliot was our undisputed leader.’
There is a good account of his complex early relationships with London writers in Erik Svarny’s The Men of 1914. One can hardly miss a certain ruthlessness, even some opportunism, in the Eliot of these years. For all his personal unhappiness he was remarkably successful; he knew how to make alliances and deal with misalliances, and how, amid all the hustle, to sustain his really important literary relationships, which were with Pound (sometimes sharply criticised) and Wyndham Lewis, for whom his admiration seems never to have flagged. He had other friendships – for example, with Brigid Patmore, Mary Hutchinson and Sydney Schiff, people less involved in the literary struggle, and perhaps for that reason recipients of some of his most interesting letters. All in all, he seems to have made himself as much at home as it was in his nature to be.
Yet the letters testify, if we needed reminding, that these were also wretched years, plagued by overwork, illness and marital misery. Eliot himself suffered with his teeth, his chest, with repeated attacks of influenza and the sense of breakdown. Vivien was more or less permanently sick, sometimes quite horribly – ‘lying in the most dreadful agony, with neuritis in every nerve, increasingly – arms, legs, feet, back’, and in such pain that she feared for her sanity. Everything conspired to augment their unhappiness – cold weather, hot weather, his mother’s failure to visit and then her visit, moving house or staying where they were, the ill-fated Bel Esprit plan to help him by the subscriptions of well-wishers, an insult in the Liverpool Daily Post’s report of the matter.
Apart from nursing Vivien, Eliot had to prepare lecture courses and to read, very quickly, writers he had no interest in, such as George Eliot. He knew he was writing too much for literary journals, but needed the money. In September 1922, the nervous collapse associated with The Waste Land only recently past, he told John Quinn that he found himself ‘under the continuous strain of trying to suppress a vague but acutely intense horror and apprehension’. Vivien at least understood what an achievement it was to edit the Criterion when ‘tired out by eight hours in the City’, meanwhile filling hot water bottles and making invalid food for her. He also had a sense of his own guilt to contend with, telling Pound, in 1922, that his mistakes were largely the cause’ of Vivien’s ‘present catastrophic state of health’. And while there was all this to deal with there were also poems needing somehow to be written.
Such a man, in such a plight, could plausibly suppose himself different not only from the Massenmenschen but even from his gently bohemian, quite well-off writer friends: and so, after all, still metoikos, always an exile – not merely in the sense of being physically dépaysé, like Turgenev and James Joyce, but in the more general sense dépaysé anywhere, suffering an exile of the spirit right here in the London that so fascinated him, as the exile of one of his spiritual heroes, Baudelaire, was undergone in his native Paris. How much suffering, and how much guilt, is enough?
For all his social uncertainties and worries about money, Eliot seems to have been remarkably secure in his sense of class and calling. Yet it was still necessary to be separate. There was an apparently instinctive withdrawal from others, shown not only in the abrupt way he sometimes ended relationships, whether male friendships or amitiés amoureuses, but in a coldness which could affect even an obituary notice. He needed isolation, not as a prince d’Aquitaine pose, but because it was entailed both by his idea of poetry and his idea of intelligence. Some social success was obviously necessary, but so was a deep reserve and a deep self-esteem. He found Joyce to be ‘a quiet but rather dogmatic man’ who had ‘(as I am convinced most superior persons have) a sense of his own importance’. And Eliot was certainly a superior person.
It happens that the letters have little to say about Eliot’s early life in St Louis, a city which, if only because of its river, grew increasingly important to the poet in the second half of his life. The scholars have looked into his early background, and although Herbert Howarth wrote well about it in Some Figures behind T.S. Eliot, Robert Crawford has made a substantial addition. His patient Oxford D.Phil. thesis is intended more generally to illustrate Eliot’s preoccupation with the primitive and the city, but its opening chapters are about St Louis and the Mississippi. He illustrates them with gems from the St Louis Globe-Democrat, such as the daily advertisement of a Dr F.L. Sweaney, which promised relief to fatigued brains and bodies. The youthful poet carefully copied the drawing of the bearded doctor’s face, together with the exhortation: ‘When others fail consult ...’ Did the doctor form one of the multitude of suggestions incorporated in Sweeney? Does the young poet’s interest indicate a consciousness or fear of debility? We must make up our own minds. And there may be an additional clue in an early story, printed in the school magazine, in which a man is almost eaten whole by vultures. Eliot, we may conjecture, was closing in on his subject.
Crawford also has a lot to say about Gloucester, Mass., another place of obvious importance to the poet. And as he goes he finds much to say about Eliot’s reading in ethnology, even documenting his loss of interest in it, dated by an admission that he did not bother to read Malinowski. The book is a little dogged in manner, as the genre of dissertation requires, but it provides some hard information as well as many conjectures, which might be useful and can certainly do no harm. Stanley Sultan’s book can be said to do likewise for the period of Ulysses and The Waste Land. Scofield’s is for the most part a modest exercise in reading the poems. All such books, and there are lots of them, with the centenary likely to produce more, are bound to repeat much that is available already, but beginners will not suffer from using them.
Finally, it is curious that we seem to be keener than ever on centenaries. They are part of the Aberglaube of a secularised tradition, taking the place of religious feasts. Of course they are commercialised, but still fairly innocently so, and they serve to affirm, or on rarer occasions to disconfirm, canonical values: which of course makes it all the more apposite that we should celebrate Eliot on 26 September, continuing, if we choose, for the ensuing octave, in the manner prescribed by the best ecclesiastical authorities.
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