At the end of June 1915, T.S. Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood, both 27 years old, were married in a London register office. They had been introduced less than three months earlier by mutual friends in Oxford, where Eliot had been spending the year reading in the Bodleian and working on his Harvard doctoral dissertation in philosophy. At the time, Vivienne was a governess in Cambridge. Her family lived prosperously in London, largely off her mother’s properties in Ireland. Her father, of whom she was especially fond, was a painter and member of the Royal Academy, and her younger brother, Maurice, later to become a trusted friend of Eliot, was an officer in the British Army preparing to serve on the Western Front.
The marriage ceremony was a hastily arranged and secretive affair, with only a few friends of hers in attendance. To have informed either set of parents would probably have meant an intervention to delay or prevent it. Six months earlier, Vivienne’s mother had cancelled her daughter’s engagement to a young man who had already been approved by her husband, and there was a good chance she would intervene again. She had reason to feel that marriage, and the possibility of offspring, were not advisable in her daughter’s case, given her history of recurrent illnesses, starting at the age of 11 with tuberculosis of the arm, and followed up by episodes of headaches, backaches, stomachaches, prolonged exhaustion, nervous collapse and excitability, all requiring medication with drugs, some of them morphine-based, that had become habit-forming. Eliot knew nothing of this before the marriage. Nor had he yet discovered that she was subject to over-frequent and excessive menstrual periods. These could be so embarrassing to her that when, as a married couple, they stayed overnight with friends, she would, to Eliot’s shame, stealthily take the sheets home to be washed and mailed back.
Eliot’s parents, too, would probably have objected to their son’s marriage, especially to an Englishwoman who wanted to stay in England. Over the previous few months, while Harvard waited for him to accept the renewal of his fellowship, and with a European war in progress, they had begun to insist that he return home to complete his dissertation and begin an academic career, ideally in the Harvard philosophy department. To Eliot this was a thoroughly disheartening prospect. Bored by what he had seen of academic life both at Oxford and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was determined never to return to the kind of social ambiance which he had already portrayed in some of his as yet unpublished poems, in ‘Preludes’, for example, or ‘Portrait of a Lady’, ‘First Caprice in North Cambridge’, and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
He had decided he must stay in London, there to launch his career as a poet. This was the course recommended by his new friend and admirer Ezra Pound, to whom he had shown some of his work. Europe, Pound could testify, was the best, the only place for any American aspirant to literary or artistic preferment. If you can make it there, he insisted, you can make it anywhere, especially back home in a cultural dependency like America. The most conspicuous instance was Eliot’s hero (and Boston’s own) Henry James, followed by Pound himself, Gertrude Stein, and just recently, that robustly American figure Robert Frost who, with his wife and children, had in 1913 taken up residence outside London, and from there, with Pound’s assistance and to considerable public acclaim, published A Boy’s Will, his first book of poems.
According to Valerie Eliot, it was Pound who encouraged Vivienne to marry: she would, he said, provide Eliot with a compelling argument for staying in England, and thereby perform an essential service not only to a future great poet, but to poetry itself. For the rest of her life, whether living with Eliot or separated from him, she held to the conviction announced in October 1915 to Eliot’s brother Henry: ‘I look upon Eliot’s poetry as real genius.’
They lived together for only 18 of the 32 years that elapsed between their wedding in 1915 and Vivienne’s death in 1947. For the remaining 14 years, they were legally separated – Eliot arranged it – and during the last nine years of her life she was confined to a private mental hospital, on her brother’s initiative. She tried now and then in the early years of their separation to convince herself that Eliot was being prevented by others from seeing her, that he was ill or kidnapped or had been done away with. She tried repeatedly to waylay him, but succeeded only once, in November 1935. Clutching their dog Polly and wearing the black shirt of the British Union of Fascists – which she may have joined to please her husband, who had on one occasion expressed some admiration for Mussolini – she managed to get close enough to him after one of his public lectures to ask when he would be coming home. ‘How do you do, I cannot talk to you now,’ he replied. In her diary, which she mostly neglected during the years of their marriage, she reported that he did ‘not look well or robust or rumbustious at all. No sign of a woman’s care about him. No cosy evenings with dogs and gramophones, I should say.’
Occasionally, he heard reports of Vivienne’s condition from her brother Maurice or Ottoline Morrell, one of the few of Eliot’s friends who for a while remained close to her. She tried to get his phone number or address, as he moved from one friend’s house to another. If she went to his office at Faber and Faber, he would duck into the lavatory. Hoping to catch sight of him, she frequented performances of his plays. At the back of one theatre she was spotted carrying a sign that said: ‘I am the wife he abandoned.’ The Times refused to publish her appeal that he ‘return to his home’. Gradually she despaired of ever seeing him again. When he heard that the asylum had rung to say that she had unexpectedly died during the night, he is said to have buried his face in his hands and cried out: ‘Oh God, oh God.’
The accounts of the Eliots’ married life found in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot or Lyndall Gordon’s or, now, in Carole Seymour-Jones’s book may disagree about the primary cause of the failure of the marriage or the degree of Tom and Vivienne’s responsibility for it, but all of them repeat the same litanies of complaint, distress and need that fill Vivienne and Tom’s letters to members of the Eliot family in the first years of the marriage, and the same conversations with close friends, who were privileged to hear about the array of illnesses visited on one or the other of them, which were then recorded in their own letters and diaries and subsequently in the biographies of Eliot’s London friends and associates. From Ray Monk’s Life of Bertrand Russell, or Hermione Lee’s of Virginia Woolf, or Miranda Seymour’s of Ottoline Morrell, there comes an abundance and, in its repetitiveness, an overabundance of testimony about Vivienne’s or Tom’s nervous as well as physical collapses, about financial desperation, overwork, housing problems, neglect, irritability, bickering (some of their intimates would resolve never again to spend an evening together with the two of them), about Vivienne carrying with her into a room the odour of the drugs, such as opium or ether, to which her treatments had habituated her, about Eliot drinking himself into sullenness and nausea, about his or her appeals for sympathy and advice from Leonard and Virginia Woolf or Ottoline Morrell, or one or another of the Sitwells or Geoffrey Faber and his wife.
Anyone who reads even a portion of this material is bound to wonder how the Eliots managed to stay together as long as they did, and how they remained loyal enough never, so far as is known, to have said anything to anyone, except possibly to Russell, about what is surely the most important problem of all: their sexual life together. The duplication of the material is saved from tedium only because many of the key witnesses were writers whose accounts of the Eliots could at times be brilliantly evocative as well as funny, the more so for referring very often, and without their knowing it, as much to their own as to the couple’s peculiarities.
Perhaps for that reason their stories about time spent with Tom and Viv – the title of Michael Hastings’s uninspired play, first performed in 1984 and then made into a movie – have proved in some instances to be irresistibly quotable. In the end, however, very little of consequence is in fact disclosed about the Eliots or the marriage, only further confirmation that it was often miserable to a perilous degree. In most cases, such analysis as is then offered reveals next to nothing about the reasons for the marriage’s failure. Symptoms are made a substitute for causes. No one, for example, can forgo the opportunity to quote an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary for November 1930:
But oh – Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began! – to bear her on one’s shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity, reading his letters, thrusting herself on us, coming in wavering, trembling – Does your dog do that to frighten me? Have you visitors? Yes we have moved again. Tell me, Mrs Woolf, why do we move so often? Is it accident? That’s what I want to know (all of this suspiciously, cryptically, taking hidden meanings) . . . And so on, until worn out with an hour of it, we gladly see them go. This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.
Beginning with that exultantly derisive ‘But oh – Vivienne,’ the writing expresses a sense of triumph over demons in herself that appal her seen in grotesquely visible form in someone else. When Woolf first met the Eliots in 1918, their marriage was already in its third year; but the Woolfs had only recently, and as it turned out temporarily, put behind them the nearly disastrous misfortunes of the first three years of their own marriage. The first year was beset by arguments, extended periods of alienation, and a recurrence of the illnesses which, like Vivienne’s, had beset Woolf since childhood. In the second year, 1913, she attempted suicide during a severe attack of manic depression. Eliot quite often consulted Leonard about how best to cope with a sometimes mentally disturbed partner. Was it helpful, for instance, to give the wife daily writing assignments? Virginia Woolf, disturbed already by possible similarities between her condition and Vivienne’s, and not convinced that Eliot sufficiently recognised her achievements, couldn’t have appreciated the suggestion that she and Eliot’s wife resembled one another in still another respect: both of them could write.
Russell was the only one of their London friends who had known Eliot previously, when Eliot had been a student in one of his seminars at Harvard. He alone was on hand to give us an impression of the couple in the first crucial weeks after their honeymoon, which, having been planned to last two weeks, ended after only six days. And it was Russell who, when Eliot returned to London from a three-week visit to his parents in America and then left with his wife for a so-called second honeymoon in Eastbourne, received a letter from Vivienne, two days after their departure, that he characterised as desperate and suicidal.
There is almost nowhere else to look for clues as to what happened in the early stages of the marriage. There are inferences to be drawn from Eliot’s poetry, a few of his letters, and, for the first years of the marriage, the correspondence between Russell and two other women to whom he tries to account for his relationship with Vivienne. That relationship began immediately after he was introduced to her. A sexual affair ensued which ended, as did their friendship, some thirty months later. There is no evidence that she slept with anyone other than Russell outside her marriage; no evidence, either, that Eliot, until his second marriage, to Valerie Fletcher in 1957, when he was 68 and she 30, ever in his life had sexual relations with anyone other than Vivienne. Seymour-Jones wants desperately to prove that Eliot was homosexual before the marriage and that in large part the marriage failed because of his persistent homosexual activities during it. No one can prove that he wasn’t homosexual, but Seymour-Jones never comes close to proving that he was, and her increasingly frantic contrivances of evidence discredited her case even before her many reviewers got round to it.
From the start, it was apparent to Russell, and, so he thought, to the Eliots, that their marriage was a misadventure. This and his subsequent impressions of Vivienne can be found most notably in his correspondence with Ottoline Morrell, and, later, with Constance Malleson, sometimes known by her stage name, Colette O’Niel. As one might expect, what Russell says about Vivienne in his letters to these two women is at times misleading or partial, designed as much to hide as to disclose the extent of his developing involvement. Taking that into account, his comments on the matter, besides being the single substantial source of information available, prove him to be uncommonly astute about Vivienne’s plight but also surprisingly self-doubting. As for his correspondence with Vivienne herself, he is believed to have destroyed all but a few of her letters while the affair was going on; and very few of his letters to her have been found or made available – there are no self-incriminating letters of his to Eliot. In his three-volume Autobiography he frequently alludes to the Eliots but gives no indication of the affair. Apparently it was a source of shame and embarrassment for everyone involved.
The first sign that Russell had taken an active interest in Eliot’s wife can be found in a letter to Morrell describing a dinner with the couple on 9 July 1915, scarcely two weeks after the wedding and a few days after their return from what he perceives to have been the failed honeymoon:
Friday evg. I dined with my Harvard pupil Eliot & his bride. I expected her to be terrible, from his mysteriousness, but she was not so bad. She is light, a little vulgar, full of life . . . He is exquisite & listless; she says she married him to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it. Obviously he married in order to be stimulated. I think she will soon tire of him. She refuses to go to America for fear of submarines. He is ashamed of his marriage, & very grateful if one is kind to her.
It’s hard to believe that on first meeting one of Eliot’s most celebrated friends, and with her husband present, Vivienne would have spoken in so uninhibited and sexually suggestive a way. It’s more likely that this is both what Russell intuited and, at the same time, what he would want Ottoline to believe: in 1915 she was phasing him out of her life as a sexual partner and it may well have been important to him that she should think it was Vivienne, and not he, who immediately initiated a more than expected degree of intimacy. He also means to suggest that he was being invited to intervene, to help the couple out in some way, and with Eliot’s tacit assent. Most probably this was the case and I imagine that Russell grasps the situation correctly when he concludes that Eliot would be ‘very grateful if one is kind to her’.
He proceeded to give his young friend much to be grateful for, especially at a time when his own financial resources were limited and his responsibilities to the anti-war movement increasingly demanding and perilous. When, after scarcely a month of married life, Eliot was required to be absent for what turned out to be a three-week visit to his parents, he asked Russell to look after his wife. During that time, enough intimacy developed between Vivienne and Russell for them to agree, without consulting Eliot, that on his return, and while the couple were looking for a place of their own, they would live with Russell in his London flat. For nearly three months the newlyweds had to sleep separately, one in the hall, the other in a pantry; Russell, when he was in town, occupied the one bedroom.
Eliot assured the supposedly anxious Russell that he should have no hesitation about remaining in the flat alone with Vivienne on the increasingly frequent occasions when Eliot had to stay overnight in High Wycombe, where he was then teaching at the local grammar school: ‘Such a concession to conventions never entered my head; it seems to me not only totally unnecessary, but would also destroy for me all the pleasure we take in the informality of the arrangement.’ To help the Eliots with living expenses, Russell gave them debentures worth £3000, a not inconsiderable sum in those days. At one point, he took an ailing Vivienne alone on holiday to Torquay and then, called back to London after five days, paid Eliot’s train fare and hotel expenses so that she wouldn’t want for company. And while Russell was still in Torquay, he received yet another letter of gratitude from Eliot: ‘I am sure you have done everything possible and handled her in the very best way – better than I – I often wonder how things would have turned out but for you – I believe we shall owe her life to you, even.’
Vivienne accepted gifts of cash, the occasional piece of family jewellery, dancing lessons and expensive clothing, including, according to Ottoline, silk underwear. Being a skilled typist, she helped in the preparation of several of Russell’s manuscripts, which provided further occasions for them to be alone together. Russell contributed to the rent of cottages outside London, where Vivienne could rest and recuperate, again with Russell in attendance. Meanwhile, Eliot was often content to busy himself in London, making a living but also relishing the time alone when he could concentrate on his writing. At least he was not dependent on Russell for the growing success of his literary career, even if his increasing prominence owed something to his having been introduced by Russell to the editors of important and remunerative journals such as the Nation, and to influential figures such as Morrell or Clive Bell who, in turn, assured his introduction to nearly everyone of consequence in literary-intellectual London.
As Russell describes her, Vivienne had despaired of the marriage from the very start, and a bit later on, in another letter to Ottoline, he would express concern that in her disappointment she was
punishing my poor friend for having tricked her imagination. I want to give her some other outlet than destroying him. I shan’t fall in love with her, nor give her any more show of affection than seems necessary to rehabilitate her. But she really has some value in herself, all twisted and battered by life, lack of discipline, lack of purpose, & lack of religion.
Morrell immediately recognised the self-deception at work in Russell’s scenario, but that doesn’t mean he recognised it himself. Eliot, meanwhile, was more worried about his career as a poet than about his marriage, which had been undertaken mostly in the interests of that career. If he hadn’t fully grasped his wife’s apparent disappointment in their relationship, it was because he was so preoccupied by the thought that his parents might decide to withhold their financial support, which he needed now more than ever, given his wife’s expensive tastes and her even more expensive medical requirements. Such vocational problems could legitimately be made a concern of his former teacher, and it is doubtless for that reason, and scarcely to allow his wife an opportunity to vent her marital disappointments or to seduce his guest, that he had arranged the first evening with Russell.
Eliot supposed rightly that, if asked, Russell would write a letter to his parents attesting to their son’s prospects in London, perhaps adding a good word or two about their new daughter-in-law. Only a few weeks earlier, Eliot had persuaded Pound to make a similar intervention. Accordingly, only a few days after the wedding, Pound had dispatched a letter to Eliot’s father, rather impertinently worded for that gentleman’s taste, insisting that Tom was destined to be an important poet, even though he had yet to publish a book of poems, but that, for any assured success, he must pursue his career in London. To do this, he deserved continued financial support from his parents, even though they had been paying his bills ever since his graduation from Harvard. Assuming, as he had no reason to do, that his own achievements could not fail to be of interest to Eliot’s parents, he mentioned that he was now earning more than he could ever hope to have done had he stayed in America and in academic life.
Russell’s more tactfully phrased letter was addressed to Eliot’s mother and contrived to suggest that even were her son to remain in London in pursuit of a literary career, he could at the same time finish his dissertation for Harvard, which is in fact what he eventually succeeded in doing. Eliot, he wrote, ‘has considerable literary gifts’. And the letter ends with the reassurance that ‘I have taken some pains to know his wife, who seems to me thoroughly nice.’
What induced Russell to get so deeply involved in the situation? He confessed early on that it gave him a chance to restore his sense of his own worth and of his capacity to succeed, while helping two young people for whom he professed an ever increasing affection and admiration. The degree to which he sexually exploited the opportunity and transformed it into a physical relationship that was eventually to make him react, by his own account, with horror and disgust at himself, suggests that he was guilty of too little rather than too much premeditation. If he exploited the Eliots and allowed them to exploit him, it was in the hope that he might thereby repair the losses and emotional damages that had resulted not only from Morrell’s defection but from the loss of two others with whom he had forged an intense intellectual as well as emotional bond: Wittgenstein, who had repudiated Russell’s work in philosophy, and D.H. Lawrence, who had become contemptuous both of his writing and of his character.
In helping the Eliots, Russell needed to believe in his purity of purpose. He wanted especially to believe that he was in this case acting in a manner uncontaminated by public ambition or sexual possessiveness. In less than a year he would come to recognise not only the emotional shallowness of his effort but the moral-intellectual failure that had blinded him to his own motives. Simply to restore the demands of an ego weakened by his sense of failure in relationships that were far more meaningful to him, he had betrayed his former student while professing to love him, seduced his psychologically distressed and emotionally needy wife, and debased his sexual dignity by succumbing to an opportunity which, as it turned out, he didn’t even much want. He had written to Morrell ten weeks after meeting Vivienne that ‘she does not attract me much physically,’ and, a month later, ‘the affection I have for her is what one would have for a daughter.’ In yet another letter to Morrell just after Eliot’s return from America, he asserts that ‘she has a great deal of mental passion & no physical passion, a universal vanity, that makes her desire every man’s devotion, & a fastidiousness that makes any expression of their passion disgusting to her.’ Just how he was able to reach such absolute conclusions about Vivienne’s sexuality while professing not to be having an affair with her is puzzling, unless he had come to these conclusions thanks to what she might have told him about her sexual relationship with her husband, brief and intermittent though it would have been up to that point.
Monk, who offers the most intelligent and informative account of Russell’s affair with Eliot’s wife, says that it began in the summer of 1915 and lasted till the beginning of 1918. But as early as September 1916 there are clear indications from Russell that he had got all he wanted from it. ‘It is odd how one finds out what one really wants,’ he wrote to Morrell,
& how very selfish it always is. What I want permanently – not consciously, but deep down – is stimulus, the sort of thing that keeps my brain active and exuberant. I suppose that is what makes me a vampire. I get a stimulus most from the instinctive feeling of success. Failure makes me collapse. I had a sense of success with Mrs E. because I achieved what I meant to achieve (which was not so very difficult) . . . Instinctively, I turn to things in which success is possible, just for stimulus.
Six weeks later, in a letter to Constance Malleson, he describes a recent night in bed with Vivienne during which he became overwhelmed by a sense of his own ‘loathsomeness’ in the whole affair.
When it became apparent to Vivienne that Russell had lost interest in her, she wrote to him briefly and calmly to say that she no longer wanted to see him. Nonetheless, she must by then have felt the pain of successive humiliations. After having had her first engagement cancelled by her mother, she had then entered into a marriage that immediately floundered and had been designed, as she was told beforehand, because her fiancé was in need of an excuse to stay in England. Almost immediately thereafter she found herself having an affair with a purported friend of her husband’s, a notorious womaniser, who at the time was in desperate need of another trophy, and who had now turned to other conquests. She didn’t live to discover that in addition her husband would later ascribe to her the credit, if it can be called that, for creating in him the state of mind that produced The Waste Land, a poem famous for its portrayal of the moral, cultural and sexual decadence of modern life.
In what Valerie Eliot calls a ‘private paper’, written in the 1960s and printed in part at the end of her introduction to the first volume of his letters, Eliot tells us that
To explain my sudden marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood would require a good many words, and yet the explanation would probably remain unintelligible . . . I came to persuade myself that I was in love with [Vivienne] simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her the marriage brought no happiness . . . to me it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.
There are good reasons for thinking that the last remark is misleading and prejudicial, in the sense that it attributes to Vivienne and to what she brought to their marriage a determining responsibility for the Waste Land vision, when that vision was already in evidence in poems written before he and Vivienne met. It had long been gestating in him, particularly insofar as it relates to his feelings about sex: its significance or, perhaps, its meaninglessness. What he did discover for his poetry during the first several years of his marriage was not a ‘state of mind’. It was, rather, a form and a style expansive and flexible enough to permit a fuller realisation of that state of mind.
Without question he wrote nearly all his most accomplished work during their years together, 1915-33. But in much of the poetry written before that, between 1910 and 1914, the Waste Land ethos is so manifestly in evidence that some of it would be incorporated into the manuscript version of the poem and, in a number of instances, carried over into the version published in 1922. A number of possible reasons for the failure of the marriage can already be seen in these early poems, with their repeated emphasis on male inadequacy in the physical presence of women, on feelings of revulsion at the sight or odour of the female body. It seems as if there can be only physical horror and hazard, never physical pleasure as an expected consequence of sexual intercourse. In other words, his lifelong sexual preoccupations and obsessions with the consequences of the sexual act did not emerge from the marriage but were only greatly intensified by it. And it is this intensification, felt in the rhythms, the visionary grandeur and abruptions in his poetry, that went on to make him one of most culturally challenging and controversial figures in the history of Anglo-American letters.
Especially in his early poems, before his work became increasingly preoccupied with the necessity of spiritual discipline, Eliot is what might be called a melodramatist of sex, where melodrama is conceived as an ersatz spirituality, an effort to manufacture the merely circumstantial conditions of religious experience. In the portrayal of sex, melodrama provides an extra-physical dimension in the form of horror or shock or spookiness. Thus, in ‘First Debate between Body and Soul’ (1910), he speaks of the ‘emphatic mud of physical sense’, in the context of a refrain slightly varied on each of its appearances, ‘Imaginations/Masturbations/The withered leaves of our sensations’. And in ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1911), the lovers are said to be ‘Nourished in earth and stimulated by manure’, a foreshadowing of the lines in ‘East Coker’ (1942) where he associates ‘the coupling of man and woman’ with ‘Dung and death’. In ‘The Love Song of St Sebastian’ (1914), the young man in the first stanza pictures himself as a ‘neophyte’ preparing to join his lover, but must first whip himself till he bleeds, and only then, after ‘hour and hour of prayer/And torture and delight’, is he ready to ascend to her room, where she would ‘take me in/Because I was hideous to our sight/You would take me in without shame/Because I would be dead/And when the morning came/Between your breasts should lie my head.’ In the second stanza it’s the woman’s turn to be done in: ‘You would have loved me because I should have strangled you/And because of my infamy;/ And I should love you the more because I had mangled you.’
Sex as bloody mess, this time a streak of menstrual blood left on the sheets by the newlyweds, is to be found in a poem entitled ‘Ode’, written three years into the marriage, published in 1920 but then excluded from Collected Poems. In the middle stanza,
When the bridegroom smoothed his hair
There was blood upon the bed
Morning was already late.
Children already singing in the orchard
(Io Hymen, Hymenaee)
In the immediate aftermath of his wedding night, the young man tries to ignore the evidence of disarray and his wife’s menstruation by a bit of tonsorial tidying up. He is acting in the spirit, it could be said, of the young man at the end of The Waste Land who wonders ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order?’ As the bridegroom hears the children singing, he realises that he has married a demon or strumpet, capable of depriving him, as eviscerates are wont to do, of certain of his sexual organs. In the Eliot lexicon, as it has developed up to this point, the finicky reaction of the bridegroom can be taken as the intended focus of the poem. The young man here is little different from those portrayed in some of the very best poems written before the marriage, notably ‘Portrait of a Lady’ (1910-11) and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1911). In all these premarital poems, a young man tries to disguise his insecurities, sexual fears and disgust when in close contact with a woman by a kind of refinement which deprives him of whatever sexual force he might possess and, with it, any assurance that might protect him from the sexual embarrassments that inevitably lie in wait for him.
Eliot himself, I take it, suspects that this young man, some version of himself, isn’t in fact looking for sex, and is trying to find a good reason why he shouldn’t be. Shyness, over-refinement, physical fear and revulsion: this, he seems to understand, is the repertoire of an all-round loser, denying him the compensatory feeling of heroic virtue or a conviction that he is fighting to save his soul. He is at this point without any clear notion of why he denies himself the very objects and practices that obsess him. His conduct is deprived not only of satisfaction but of meaning, so that he can neither hope nor truly despair. ‘The only hope or else despair/Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –/To be redeemed from fire by fire,’ he would write in ‘Little Gidding’ in 1942.
There are intimations even in his earliest poetry that he hoped one day to be in a position to use a poetic vocabulary as powerful as this. In a poem written, it is thought, as early as 1909 and called simply ‘Opera’, he writes derisively about Wagnerian theatrical practices which resemble his own self-dramatisations. According to Stravinsky, when Eliot, by then in his sixties, spoke to him about having seen a performance of Tristan and Isolde when he was a student at Harvard, he gave the impression that it had been ‘one of the most passionate experiences of his life’. In 1909, however, he spoke in a way that probably expresses his displeasure not with Wagner but with himself and his own poetic practices at the time:
Tristan and Isolde
And the fatalistic horns
The passionate violins
And ominous clarinet;
And love torturing itself
To emotion for all there is in it,
Writhing in and out
Contorted in paroxysms,
Flinging itself at the last
Limits of expression.
We have the tragic? oh no!
Life departs with a feeble smile
Into the indifferent.
These emotional experiences
Do not hold good at all,
And I feel like the ghost of youth
At the undertakers’ ball.
Already here, at the age of 21, he is finding his way towards the criteria he will state more succinctly, and with direct reference to poetic language, in his Clark Lectures in 1926. Writing about Donne’s Satires, he complains that Donne’s ‘deliberate over-stimulation, exploitation of the nerves – for such it is – has in it, for me, something unscrupulous’. The term ‘nerves’ is equivalent here to imaginings. But if the ‘exploitation of the nerves’ is unscrupulous, so, in Eliot’s scheme of things, would be efforts to control or suppress such imaginings – sexual imaginings in particular – merely out of rectitude or religious emotions, as distinct from religious belief. He was to begin to embrace such discriminations fully in his poetry in the 1920s, most tellingly in the concluding section of The Waste Land: ‘My friend, blood shaking my heart/The awful daring of a moment’s surrender/Which an age of prudence can never retract.’
Whatever Eliot’s sexual experiences before his marriage, it is clear from the early poems that his sexual fantasies were altogether more sensational than any experiences he might have had. In fact, it’s doubtful whether his desire for actual sexual intercourse was ever particularly strong. In a letter to Conrad Aiken late in December 1914, he complains that he is still a virgin, less than four months before his introduction to Vivienne. ‘I am very dependent,’ he writes, ‘upon women.’ However, he is careful to add, in a parenthesis, lest Aiken assume that he means dependent sexually: ‘I mean female society.’ The dependency is limited to such gratifications as he finds in their public visibility. For this, he says, the streets of London offer more voyeuristic opportunities than do the streets of Oxford. But nowhere in his descriptions of his London walks is there an indication that he attempts to get physically close to women. Even where the opportunity for contact exists, he declines to act on it. ‘One walks the streets with one’s desires,’ he remarks near the end of his letter, ‘and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.’ A dependency so exclusively visual anticipates the visionary idealised and dehumanised presence of the female figures evoked in parts of The Waste Land, and more decisively in ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the Quartets. The central problem for Eliot comes down, I think, to this: how to give form to what for him is most resistant to it – female sexuality.
‘La Figlia che Piange’, written in 1911, when Eliot was 23, is a dramatisation of the difficult and, for him, emotionally costly effort he was preparing himself to make. The drama of the poem is the drama of its composition. It sets out to create a female form which will be physically lovely and sexually alive, even while he proposes that she remain, after the poem, as an abiding presence in his imagination, freed of the limitations of time and space.
The poem is a precursor of those poems and parts of poems, from The Waste Land through to ‘Burnt Norton’, in which successive versions of a figure called ‘the hyacinth girl’ will appear – and gradually be divested of mortality, and of mortal shape altogether. She will become a wholly divine object of veneration. ‘La Figlia’ is the most important and most beautiful of his early poems, one of the best short poems he was ever to write:
O quam te memorem virgo . . .
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair –
Lean on a garden urn –
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair –
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise –
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.
This is work of amazing maturity both in its structural execution and in its exploration of the possibility that poetic composition may in itself offer a way to bring order to the anarchy of Eliot’s feelings about women, sex and the possible attainment of immortality through art. It is a unique example of his faith, at this moment in his young career, in the redemptive power of artistic creation, a power he has yet to surrender to religious belief. Only sometime later, after The Waste Land, does he arrive at a point where he can assert, as he will in ‘East Coker’, that ‘the poetry does not matter.’
There is an intensity of self-monitoring in this altogether extraordinary poem, to which Eliot will never again quite so critically expose himself. What it offers is a dramatisation of his compulsion to imagine the figure of a woman whose visionary radiance transcends the human, but which does not, at the same time, entirely divest her of the appealing physical evidence that she is human nonetheless. She will carry these complications with her into two different scenes in The Waste Land. But now she will have begun to be transformed into a more decidedly visionary radiance. And by the time of ‘Ash Wednesday’, in 1930, she will belong altogether to some transcendent realm of being: she will be ‘the Rose’ in ‘the Garden/ Where all loves end/Terminate torment/Of love unsatisfied/The greater torment/Of love satisfied.’
In The Waste Land, written for the most part a decade after ‘La Figlia’, and six years into his marriage, the ‘hyacinth girl’ returns. The first of her two appearances in the poem comes near the beginning, in ‘The Burial of the Dead’:
‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
– Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
She appears suddenly, without introduction, rather jauntily calling for attention – remember me? By giving her hyacinths, it appears that he also gave her, without intending to, a public, even gregarious identity: ‘they called me the hyacinth girl.’ For him she was and is exclusively a figure in his imagination, and his response now to her assertions of historical reality is not to respond at all. He is silently absorbed in his memory of the original encounter, a recollection spectacularly different from hers. The event as he remembers it was from the outset a supernatural one that both blinded him and rendered him speechless. But it is crucial to notice that along the way he does credit her with having once had some of the remnants of human actuality, of a sociable being living in time (‘we came back, late’) and subject to the weather (‘and your hair wet’). He recalls having been transported, for the duration of a moment only, into ‘the heart of light’, to a condition outside time altogether.
Eliot was preparing himself to turn away from the possibility of an existence in which human love can maintain a link to divine love. He is at a point in this transition where it might be said of him, as he will say of Baudelaire, that his ‘notion of beatitude certainly tended to be wishy-washy’. But this would be too simple a reading of the passage. He isn’t the schematic poet he is sometimes taken to be, holding to an opinion and then expressing it. The difficulty of his poetry is that it dramatises the activity of a powerful and embattled mind debating with itself, finding its way through moments of transition as it moves among alternative possibilities.
This is notably true before the emergence in his poetry of the dogmatising tones that mar some of the poems that follow The Waste Land. The second epitaph to Sweeney Agonistes, published in 1926, is a quotation from St John of the Cross: ‘Thus the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union until it has divested itself of the love of created beings.’ This conviction is reaffirmed not only in the poetry up to and through Four Quartets, but in his letters to friends like Bonamy Dobrée, who had written to say that he was ‘revolted’ by the epigraph and disappointed that Eliot could endorse such a position. Eliot’s endorsements will soon be evident enough in his essays of the early 1930s on Dante as well as in the essay on Baudelaire, where he remarks that ‘in much romantic poetry’ by Baudelaire’s contemporaries, ‘the sadness is due to the exploitation of the fact that no human relations are adequate to human desires, but also to the disbelief in any further object for human desires than that which, being human, fails to satisfy them.’
The obsession with sex and sin in his poetry – he proves to be a far more personal poet than he wanted anyone to think he was – and in a great many of his literary essays, along with his profound expressions of guilt and of the need for expiation, may seem peculiarly at odds with the stark impoverishment and extraordinary infrequency of sexual contact in his life. In a letter written in April 1928, and quoted to good effect by Seymour-Jones, he wrote to his confessor, the Rev. William Force Stead, that he was in need of ‘the most severe . . . the most Latin kind of discipline, Ignatian or other. It is a question of compensation. I feel that nothing could be too ascetic, too violent for my own needs.’ This was written at the time of his conversion and of the vow of chastity that soon followed. The passion and conviction about sex, sin and damnation in Eliot’s life and in his writing cannot adequately be appreciated unless its seeming contradictions are recognised as not at all eccentric or special to him. In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud describes the human tendency to equate what may only be bad intentions with bad actions, from which ‘comes a sense of guilt and a need for punishment’. ‘Conscience,’ Freud writes, ‘(or more correctly, the anxiety which later becomes conscience) is indeed the cause of instinctual renunciation to begin with, but later . . . that relationship is reversed. Every renunciation of instinct now becomes a dynamic source of conscience and every fresh renunciation increases the latter’s severity and intolerance.’
Some measure of Eliot’s tortured suspension between what he experienced as the inadequacies of human love and such brief intimations of divine love as are allowed any living creature is to be found in ‘A Game of Chess’, the second section of The Waste Land. In the manuscript copy, that section was called ‘In the Cage’, which more aptly describes its focus on the torture of a domestic routine from which all possibility of meaningful dialogue between a husband and wife has disappeared. The woman is condemned to a repetitive round of complaints; the husband has chosen to insulate himself in silence. His replies are never voiced, and as they occur in his mind are alternately contemptuous and of no relevance to what she may just have said; often they are comprehensible only to himself. The passage has usually been read as a transcription of domestic and marital futility, but it is far more than that. Of quite extraordinary interest is the fact that in the manuscript copy the word ‘wonderful’ appears three times in Vivienne’s handwriting along the margin of the entire passage. While he was writing the poem, Eliot told a number of friends that he counted on her to read most parts of it as he finished them, and that he valued and in fact depended on her reactions.
Nowhere in the manuscript are those reactions as evident as they are in this instance. (I am quoting from the version of the passage as it appears in the manuscript copy, adding a bracket around the reference to ‘the hyacinth garden’ which Eliot deleted after Vivienne’s reading.)
‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.’
I think we met first in rats’ alley,
Where the dead men lost their bones.
‘What is that noise?’
The wind under the door.
‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing.’
Away the little light dead people.
‘Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
[The hyacinth garden.] Those are pearls that were his eyes, yes!
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’
O O O O that Shakespearean Rag –
It’s so elegant –
So intelligent –
‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?
‘I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
‘With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
‘What shall we ever do?’
There are a number of ways of accounting for the fact that Vivienne singled out this passage for approbation. Perhaps she recognised an approximation of her own voice in the woman’s voice; perhaps she heard in the dialogue an approximation of her frustrated attempts at conversation with Eliot during evenings spent at home. Indeed she frequently complained to others that when they were alone together Eliot could be maddeningly unresponsive, preoccupied and sullen. And of course it may be that, convinced as she was of his greatness, she welcomed the prospect of his leaving behind such clear and lively evidence of her unintimidated intimacy and openness with him.
It would be nice to think that another of her reasons for liking this passage, and a reason Eliot so discernibly took pleasure in the writing of it, is that it indicates how surprisingly open they could be with one another about at least some of the troubled conditions that beset their marriage. Both of them had pronounced theatrical temperaments, and fully appreciated, even in their misery, the performative opportunities their recurrent moments of tension and open antagonism offered. It was something about which they had become fairly open, and they may have found in it a degree of freedom and exhilaration which they could share, when there were so many others things that were more private and immensely more complicated which they couldn’t share. These included whatever the sexual problems were that apparently emerged at the very outset, well before they had time to develop the routines for dramatising the merely symptomatic problems of their now enforced intimacy. In that sense it is understandable that Eliot should have decided that the scene was not an appropriate context for ‘the hyacinth garden’. The significance of that garden belonged to the most private and murky recesses of his life and feeling, which he understood inadequately himself, except to be fully persuaded that while he gloried in them they also alienated him not only from his wife but from those many others he had condemned to populate and to define the Waste Land.
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