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.’

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