The Braver Thing

Christopher Ricks

  • T.S. Eliot by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 241 11349 0
  • Recollections Mainly of Artists and Writers by Geoffrey Grigson
    Chatto, 195 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2791 0

Peter Ackroyd has written a benign life of T.S. Eliot. Given the malignity visited on Eliot, this is a good deal. Fair-minded, broad-minded and assiduous, here is a thoroughly decent book. It has none of the sleazy sanctimony of Robert Sencourt’s biography, or the vanity of T.S. Matthews’. That it is a feat to be without spite is coincidentally manifested by the appearance of Geoffrey Grigson’s Recollections. Grigson’s jacket proffers, as a representative gnome: ‘I never heard T.S. Eliot laugh.’ Back in the book this stands on its lordly own in a section of ‘Items’. Some have never heard Geoffrey Grigson do anything but sneer. His Recollections are happy to rebuke everybody for sneering, especially at Eliot: ‘Eliot in those Thirties was still a name to earn a sneer’; Auden’s work ‘allowed for sneering much as Eliot’s The Waste Land only eight years before had allowed for the inimical sneering, which still had not died away’. Perhaps Grigson never heard Eliot laugh because Grigson’s company was inimical to laughter. Elsewhere Grigson likes to offer himself as better acquainted with Eliot than are those who wrongly suppose him a glum man. How gracefully the names are floated: ‘Braque might be there, or Jean Hélion, from Paris, or Eliot gayer than his reputation, actually singing “Frankie and Johnny”.’

Frankie and Johnny, or Tom and Viv? He was her man, but he done her wrong? The marketers of Ackroyd’s book have done both him and Eliot wrong in sensationalising it. The new Vanity Fair, which unlike the old one is not a magazine for which a T.S. Eliot would write, announced its excerpts as ‘The First Mrs E., No Mermaid She’. Ackroyd is entirely without such fishy vulgarity. Plainly it is the Tom and Viv bits which we are all likely to home in on; what can be said is that Ackroyd treats these painful and touchy matters of marital misery with dignity and delicacy. He shows for how long the marriage was not as black as the lugubrious relishers liked to paint it (both Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf were impure witnesses for the prosecution), and he shows too that there was often a sportive collusion, easily misconstrued, between Eliot and his first wife. The happiness of Eliot’s second marriage necessarily looms less large. Partly this is because loom isn’t what happiness does. Literary biography these days (Lowell, Berryman) is bad news that stays news. Anyway, for reasons of honourable privacy, we are not to know much about how it was that Eliot and his second wife, Valerie Eliot, made each other so touchingly happy. Hereabouts there is little news, and for the biographer no news is bad news. Ackroyd, a good man, does not repine at this. He simply devotes to these last eight years of Eliot’s life only 15 pages: ‘Happy at Last’.

The lines of Eliot’s life are well-known, and Ackroyd does not effect, or seek to effect, any radical re-limning of them. His strength is local detail, patience, circumstantiality, respect. He denies that there lurks any secret which would unlock an enigmatic Eliot, though he argues that Eliot compacts even more paradoxes than the rest of us. He eschews psychobiographical plunges, and this makes the book at once more satisfactory to the hungry and less satisfying to the greedy. But who are we, to seek, as if in some duel with Eliot, satisfaction? Ackroyd does not bring himself to quote Eliot’s styptic comments on a biography in 1927: ‘The chief interest of this early biography of Spinoza by a mediocrity who knew him, but who could hardly have appreciated him, is that it shows that Spinoza had already become at his death a symbolical figure, without being in any way a myth.’ (Ackroyd need not wince: he is not a mediocrity except in the sense that we all are, in comparison with such a genius as Eliot.) One of the sadnesses of Eliot’s story is that at his death, nearly forty years after he wrote these words, he had indeed become a symbolical figure but had not managed to stave off becoming a myth. There is a poignancy of premonition in these words of 1927, the year in which Eliot became a Christian and an Englishman. You can hear it in the unenvious longing for composure in this man who was by no means merely discomposed but who did shudder at such a possibility: ‘Here and there is an anecdote, but all anecdotes of Spinoza are essentially the same, in that they all illustrate the same attitude of that composed mind.’ Ackroyd shows, as in a different way did Ronald Bush in his recent book,[*] that there is integrity even in Eliot’s disintegrative impulses, yearning for the stable repetition of ‘the same ... the same’. More simply heartening, Ackroyd’s book is a witness, oddly for a biography, to Eliot’s having achieved what he so admired in Spinoza: ‘He was a man of the greatest reticence, but with nothing to conceal; a man of intensely “private life”, but wholly transparent.’

Ackroyd’s telling of the facts deserves nothing but praise, and a good many of the facts are new. His interpretation of Eliot’s nature, though, deserves to be contended with, since it is properly contentious. In one continuingly important respect it distorts Eliot, though it does so with Eliot’s complicity, Eliot sometimes choosing – for reasons of modesty and pride and prudence – to present himself as being other than his doings. For Eliot is to Ackroyd a person of lifelong caution and even timorousness, whereas to me he is rather a person of diverse principled temerity. Being J. Alfred Prufrock would actually ask more courage than is usually supposed; writing ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was an act of great courage. Ackroyd will say of Eliot in 1920 that his pride and self-preservation ‘did lead Eliot to a most extraordinary caution in both private and public affairs’. Ackroyd speaks of Eliot as ‘a timid man’; he quotes with concurrence Virginia Woolf’s wishing in 1923 that Eliot had more ‘spunk’ in him, and refers to ‘his tentativeness and indecision’. And this vein, of insisting on Eliot’s thin-bloodedness, runs right through to the end of Eliot’s life, where it is said of his efforts on behalf of the incarcerated Pound that ‘in this case at least his native caution was justified,’ and where it is equably reported that Pound and Wyndham Lewis ‘hoped that the Nobel Prize would free him of that cautiousness which had smoothed his ascent.’

Now it would be wrong to imply that Ackroyd nowhere speaks of Eliot’s resolve or willpower, but the prevailing impression is of the essential Eliot as quintessentially cautious. But this misreading, as it seems to me, can be plausible only if you positively disattend to what the man did. Caution was what Eliot sufficiently possessed to be able – with a discreet air, of course – to throw it to the winds. What after all are the great choices of life that a man might make? He might choose to leave his native land, and to take another nationality. He might choose to leave the secure prospects of a profession to which he had been trained, and to launch himself not even upon a boat but upon a raft. He might choose to marry a strange woman whom he suddenly and unexpectedly loved, against the manifest and unrelenting wishes of his family. He might later choose, against all his own hopes and his own sense of marriage as a sacrament and against his family’s codes, to admit that he had no choice but to leave this wife, despite his anguish at her anguished madness and despite his knowing how exposed to malignancy this decision would leave him. He might choose to become a Christian, a faith not held by his family (Unitarians were not, for Eliot, Christians) or by his most urgent admirers or by many of his truest friends. He might choose, again despite all the prurient gossip which it might excite, to marry at the age of 68 a woman 38 years his younger, a woman who had been his secretary. He might choose to write scarcely a poem for the last twenty years of his life. He might choose to embark upon a career as a popular playwright, when thought by most of his intimates to be old enough to know better. And, over and far above all this, he might, throughout a lifetime of his wrung poetry, choose always the braver thing, choose always to be profoundly inaugurative and never to repeat not only others but himself. If Pound and Wyndham Lewis thought that the publication of Four Quartets demonstrated a poet’s ‘cautiousness’, they should have thought again.

The point is not whether all of Eliot’s choices of life were wise, but whether they were deeply decisive. His life seems to me an awe-inspiring succession of great decisions. Ackroyd necessarily speaks of particular decisions, often humanely, but the atmosphere of his book tacitly disparages them. When he says that ‘Eliot’s life was governed by such choices,’ I want to say: no, Eliot’s life was the government of such choices. Since Eliot was not a buffoon or a pair of ragged claws, he indubitably had to steel himself. But the trouble with speaking, as Ackroyd does, of ‘his native caution’ is that this then becomes central or ruling, whereas for every ounce of native caution Eliot had at least an ounce of native boldness. Ottoline Morrell’s gibe at Eliot – ‘the undertaker’ – misfires, given that he truly undertook great things.

If this is so, Ackroyd underrates how sheerly unusual was Eliot’s course of life. Eliot may speak of his pusillanimity, but it may be pusillanimously self-gratifying of us to concur. Yet at the same time Ackroyd does the opposite: he finds Eliot more unusual, in my judgment, than is warranted by Ackroyd’s own adducings. Ackroyd repeatedly finds ‘odd’ or ‘peculiar’ or ‘curious’ or ‘extraordinary’ actions or reactions in Eliot which are not patently any such thing. To say this, is to agree restively with Donald Davie, who has praised Ackroyd’s book for demonstrating Eliot’s essential commonplaceness. To Davie, though, this makes the book valuable as the exposure of something lamentable, whereas others of us may judge it to be – both in Eliot’s life and in his art – a testimony to Eliot’s commonalty.

Ackroyd regularly registers with an air of mild surprise things in Eliot which are quite properly ordinary. It should not be cause for even one raised eyebrow that when Eliot’s friends sought to inflict charity on him in order to release him from working in Lloyds Bank, Eliot ‘seemed shy and awkward, covered with embarrassment when money was mentioned’. The episode is indeed worth recounting, but for a different reason: that Eliot was an honourable and decent and in this happy respect an ordinary man, and that honourable, decent ordinary men are embarrassed by such charity, not least when they simply don’t want it. A newspaper then printed a lying account of Eliot’s having pocketed the charity money while nevertheless staying on at the bank, and it referred to Eliot’s ‘nervous breakdown’. Ackroyd says: ‘not only was his nervous collapse trumpeted to the public – which for such a proud and reticent man was an intolerable intrusion – but he also believed his position in the bank to be jeopardised by this account of his supposed double-dealing.’ True, but the sympathy isn’t perfectly judged: Eliot was indeed ‘a proud and reticent man’, but even if he hadn’t been, this would still have been ‘an intolerable intrusion’. Ackroyd’s manner too much invites us to consider Eliot a special case in ways which minister to the condescensions of unneeded kindliness.

Again, there is Bertrand Russell’s going to bed with Vivien Eliot. Since Russell may have been as much a liar as he was a lecher, the facts are uncertain, and it is uncertain whether Eliot knew anything. Ackroyd says: ‘It was a situation with which he was not yet used to dealing, and no doubt, given his own reticent and defensive temperament, he would have found it peculiarly difficult to respond in an active or decisive manner.’ But ‘peculiarly’ is too slippery there: it is peculiarly difficult even for the very unpeculiar to deal with such situations. There are, and were, very few husbands simply and equably ‘used to dealing’ with such a situation, and a man would not have at all to be of a reticent and defensive temperament to find it peculiarly difficult to respond in an active or decisive manner. Naturally one knows what Ackroyd means, and he is well-intentioned, but the cumulative effect of these ways of putting it is to alienate Eliot from the central and ordinary human responses, as who should say: ‘For Eliot this was no joke.’ Vivien Eliot made lacerating scenes at parties and suchlike. Ackroyd’s solicitude for Eliot here seems to me punctilious and, though not misplaced, misvoiced: ‘For a man who was peculiarly attentive to manners and to the formal courtesies of “society”, the behaviour of a deranged wife would inevitably lead to anxiety and a sense of shame not far from panic.’ Well, yes, but again a man wouldn’t have to be peculiarly attentive to manners to find that the behaviour in public of a deranged wife would lead to anxiety. Exactly the wrong sort of specialness is being attributed to Eliot by this way of couching it. Davie’s attribution of commonplaceness would be nearer the mark, though without the perversity of simply scorning the commonplace.

The other question about Ackroyd’s very capable and capacious book may be as much a question for the Eliot estate as for Ackroyd. As everyone knows, this is not an official or authorised biography. Eliot wished there not to be one. True, everyone suspects that in the end Mrs Eliot will prefer there to be an unwished substantiated biography instead of unwished unsubstantiated ones. When the play Tom and Viv was exciting passions, the correspondence columns were full of the clang of claims against and by the Eliot estate. All this has now re-surfaced – cries of censorship, of obstruction, and so on. One is reluctant to add to the nagging, and clearly Mrs Eliot has more important things to do in her viduity than endlessly to set the record straight. The snag is that it really isn’t clear from Ackroyd’s biography exactly what the constraints now are. His acknowledgements pages end with an anti-acknowledgement: ‘I am forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context, or to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence.’ But unfortunately neither part of this is quite clear, and this matters because there are a great many occasions when, in simple fairness, one wants to know whether Ackroyd is paraphrasing because he is forbidden to quote. He is not a first-rate paraphraser, and when he is dealing with things in the public realm (where a reader or a reviewer can test the matter), he is inclined to be, not inaccurate exactly, but approximate. Thus Eliot did not ‘define’ wit as ‘the recognition, “implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible” ’. Eliot said of wit, ‘It involves, probably, a recognition ... ’, which is not the same as a definition. No doubt, though, Ackroyd is largely to be trusted. But when he hobbles, is it because his legs are tied? Forbidden ‘to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context’: did this book have to accept a retrenchment such as was inflicted on Ronald Bush’s book? The proof-copy of Bush had many more lines of Eliot’s poetry than survived; he and the publishers were made to quote less, not from unpublished or uncollected or private materials, but from the poems themselves.

In 1917 Eliot wrote with prophetic exactness about Turgenev, expatriate in Paris: ‘A position which for a smaller man may be merely a compromise, or a means of disappearance, was for Turgenev (who knew how to maintain the role of foreigner with integrity) a source of authority, in addressing either Russian or European; authority but also isolation.’ Eliot published this but did not collect it. Did Ackroyd choose, mistakenly, to paraphrase it rather than to quote it? ‘In the same period he had written of Turgenev’s exile in Paris that the Russian knew how to make use of his transplantation – how, by maintaining his role as a foreigner, he could acquire authority.’ This, not surprisingly, is immeasurably weaker and less precise than Eliot’s words: it loses all the wit and penetration of the parenthesis – ‘(who knew how to maintain the role of foreigner with integrity)’ – a parenthesis itself exiled and authoritative and stamped with integrity whereas most parentheses are compromises or means of disappearance. If Ackroyd chose only to paraphrase, I think he chose wrongly, a false economy. All these choices have their relevance to Eliot’s life of choices.

Added to which, there is the ambiguity of ‘forbidden to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence’. For it is not entirely clear whether ‘unpublished’ governs ‘correspondence’ too. From Eliot’s unpublished work or from his correspondence? From Eliot’s unpublished work or from his unpublished correspondence? If this biographer had any choice in the matter, it would be culpable (or rather the culpability would be his, since there exists a culpability in any case) that the book at some places constitutes a regression. Ackroyd has worked well and hard, and it is painful that the state of explicit and exact knowledge of Eliot is in some ways less advanced here than in, say, the collection which Allen Tate edited and which Ackroyd draws on, T.S. Eliot: The Man and His Work (1967). For the contributors to that volume, among them Stephen Spender, Herbert Read and Bonamy Dobrée, were all allowed to quote from Eliot’s correspondence. Compare Ackroyd with what Ackroyd was presumably not allowed to publish although it had previously been published (this being what I mean by regression):

To what territory or tradition he did belong is another question, and one which he himself found it difficult to resolve: in a letter to Herbert Read he described how he could not consider himself to be a Northerner in the United States because of his Missouri origins, and how because of his Northern ancestry he could not claim to be a Southerner. He did not believe himself to be an American at all.

Some day I want to write an essay about the point of view of an American who wasn’t an American, because he was born in the South and went to school in New England as a small boy with a nigger drawl, but who wasn’t a southerner in the South because his people were northerners in a border state and looked down on all southerners and Virginians, and who so was never anything anywhere and who therefore felt himself to be more a Frenchman than an American and more an Englishman than a Frenchman and yet felt that the USA up to a hundred years ago was a family extension. It is almost too difficult even for H.J. who for that matter wasn’t an American at all, in that sense.

The letter, made public nearly twenty years ago, is so much more illuminating and exact than Ackroyd’s approximation. It isn’t just that the words ‘an American at all’ were said by Eliot of Henry James, not of himself, but that the letter has comedy, pathos, resilience, and – because of the rueful third-person and the movement of it all (no pause after ‘and who so was never anything anywhere’) – an entire absence of self-pity. Ackroyd catches none of that, and it is very bad (differently bad) if this is because they pinioned his arms.

John Ruskin wrote to Charles Eliot Norton: ‘So, I know perfectly well that you would work for five years, to write a nice life of me; but I don’t care about having my life written, and I know that no one can write a nice life of me, for my life has not been nice, and can never be satisfactory.’ Eliot, who has his affinities with Ruskin, might have said much the same. Still, Ackroyd has written a nice life of Eliot. If this is more a matter of valuable niceness than of invaluable nicety, he could probably retort that because of the Eliot estate no one (yet?) can write a nice life of Eliot.

[*] T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style by Ronald Bush. Oxford, 299 pp., £17.50, 17 May, 0 19 503376 0.