MEMORY AND DESIRE
A new biography of TS Eliot shines an unremitting light on the pain behind the poetry, writes
Of all the great modernists who wrote in English, not one of them — not even the James Joyce of Ulysses, the supreme masterpiece of the period — has been so thoroughly assimilated as TS Eliot, whose poetry has been as familiar as the old school song since long before I was at school.
“A cold coming we had of it, / just the worst time of the year … After such knowledge, what forgiveness? ... April is the cruellest month … I smile, of course, / And go on drinking tea … To Carthage then I came / Burning, burning … Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew … The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes … Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still … Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future … See, now they vanish, / The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them … And the fire and the rose are one.”
Oh yes, and, lest we forget, “I grow old, I grow old. / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
Robert Crawford, the Scottish poet and professor of English at the University of St Andrews, finishes this first volume of his long, fascinating life of the 20th century’s most celebrated and influential poet, which will almost certainly become the standard work, by saying that it’s as if Eliot had never been young.
When I was at university we used to laugh that a man of 30-something could declare of himself, “Why shall the aged eagle stretch its wings?”, but we were in no real doubt about the venerable nature of the poet we venerated. After all, one of the critical masters of the time, William Empson, declared he was never sure how much of his own mind Eliot had invented. FR Leavis, the man who saw the moral power of literature as deriving from the depth of life it contained, was as much a fan.
When there was a critical reaction against Eliot it first took the form of the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye, who thought Eliot, for all his love of Dante and Donne, for all his classicism and Catholicism and his reaction against romanticism, was not to be judged in terms of the tradition he chose but the tradition that chose him (re-enter Tennyson and Shelley and all that swooping lyricism).
It hardly mattered. In 1959 Hugh Kenner wrote his masterly study The Invisible Poet. He noted Eliot’s affinity with Edgar Allan Poe and his invention of a poetry of symboliste effects that were gestural and close to the spirit of nonsense (where words were musical suggestions). He also emphasised Eliot’s deep affinity with the philosopher FH Bradley, that idealist and sceptic who said that the self was a bit of an illusion anyway. But by then Eliot was 20thcentury poetry’s top dog.
Eliot preached a doctrine of impersonality, of the absoluteness of the distinction between the man who suffers and the artist who creates. He said meaning was the bone tossed to the dog of the reader’s expectations so that the poetry could do its work. He said literature was a timeless order but he also made it clear he was on the side of Dante (who wrote when thought was wise and true and beautiful) and Donne (who smelled a rose and followed a philosophical or theological argument with no dissociation of sensibility).
Impersonality, dissociation of sensibility. How Eliot is imprinted on all our yesterdays and all our illusions of enlightened foolery.
Sometime in the 1960s, when New Zealand poet and critic CK Stead published The New Poetic, people started to realise how much dislocation of feeling and unevenness of language there was in Eliot’s poetry. By the time Kenner reconsidered Eliot in The Pound Era in 1971, there was an implicit sense of drowned girls, of desolated elegy, of an Alice in Wonderland world writ darkling, in his account of The Waste Land.
Then we had Harold Bloom, the lone prophet of the evaluative in an age of relativism and theory-driven de-canonisation, opting for the romantics and their heir Wallace Stevens over Eliotic Anglo-Catholicism. And that was more or less contemporary with Peter Ackroyd’s unauthorised biography, which blew the cover on the Tom and Viv story — which now went to the tune of sexual fiasco and “Tom went mad, so
June 20-21, 2015 Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land By Robert Crawford Jonathan Cape, 512pp, $69.99 (HB) they locked Viv up”. It all tallied with the remark of the poet Kenneth Rexroth many years ago that an art of impersonality, like that of Eliot or Paul Valery, led to greater indiscretions than the analyst’s couch.
Meanwhile the second Mrs Eliot, Valerie, his widow, was approaching biographers and critics to write her late husband’s life while making it a condition that they should be sympathetic not only to his poetry and religious beliefs but to his conservative politics (which had issued at one point into dismissive remarks about liberal Jews). Well, now we have Crawford unearthing everything.
Late in the piece he quotes Virginia Woolf saying of Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, “His wife is in a nursing home, not much to our regret”, and wondering, “Will he become ‘Single Tom?’ ” Crawford has no such inhibitions and calls his subject Tom from the outset even though Thomas Stearns Eliot can seem like one of the most forbiddingly formidable figures in all of modern literature.
So how does Old Impersonality come across in the light of this tell-it-all, sometimes garrulous, fascination of a biography? Here he is on the doctrine: “I like to feel that a writer is perfectly cool and detached regarding other peo-
Young Eliot ple’s feelings or his own like a God who has got beyond them; or a person who has dived very deep and comes up holding firmly some hitherto unseen submarine creature.”
This, to his friend Mary Hutchinson, has the gleam and attractiveness of real speech. She also figures right at the end of this volume when Eliot recites for Woolf The Waste Land, the crowning achievement of this part of his life, published in 1922 when he was 34, and the short/long poem that haunted English language poetry like a hoax or a diagnosis, caught somewhere between confessionalism and a critique of civilisation. Woolf’s response: “It has great beauty and force; and tensity … Mary Hutch … interprets it to be Tom’s autobiography — a melancholy one.” So what of the life Crawford unfolds which the poetry refracts and reflects so richly and so strangely?
Eliot was born in 1888 in St Louis, that industrial city of yellow fog which was not properly northern or southern, so nor was he. Eliot said that for all his high and mighty New England relations — he was related to James Russell Lowell, to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville among novelists, to John Adams and John Quincy Adams among politicians — he went to school as a little boy with a deep south accent and so “was never anything anywhere”. As a boy he suffered from a congenital double hernia and had to wear a truss, which may have contributed to his shyness and certainly inhibited his athleticism.
His parents were, he joked, “the Borgias of Unitarianism”, a cultivated, high-minded couple, though young Tom sees that enlightened form of Protestantism having had a Calvinist colouring for the Eliots. Eliot’s own sense of religion may also have been influenced by his nanny, one Annie Dunne from County Cork, who took him for walks that culminated in visits to the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, which may have paved the way for his latter-day High Church theology.
Eliot said he remembered a theological argument about God as first cause being “put to me at the age of six by a devoutly Catholic Irish nursemaid”. He said he grew up in “a strong atmosphere of the most liberal theology” and added: “Unitarianism is a bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity.” Guess the odd one out in that rollcall.
He holidayed in Gloucester, New England, and as a young man was almost lost at sea with a friend amid its Dry Salvages, in fog and gale. He was devoted to the paradisal richness of New England’s bird life and treasured his mother’s leather bound gift of the Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. He liked the idea that the name Eliot was somehow cognate with elephant and had the poet and painter David Jones design him a book plate with the trunked beast’s emblem.
He saw the cyclone that devastated St Louis in 1896, which leads Crawford to declare — just a bit thoughtlessly of a literary universe that contains King Lear — that Eliot “would produce, in the astonishing soundscape of What the Thunder Said, the most famous thunderstorm in world poetry”. Well, he certainly knew what one sounded like.
His brother Henry testifies that Tom was reading Milton’s Samson Agonistes at 10, but Eliot himself says the first discovery was Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which led him “to write a number of very gloomy and atheistical and despairing quatrains in the same style”. From there he went on to Byron and co, “the usual adolescent course”.
He was close to his mother, who said of Tom, “I talk with him as I would with a man, which is perhaps not so good for him as if he had young people around him.” Crawford points out that Eliot praised DH Lawrence’s treatment “of mother love” in Fantasia of the Unconscious as “better than all the psychoanalysts”. And, although Crawford doesn’t say so, this is interesting in terms of Eliot’s critique of Hamlet as lacking an objective correlative for the prince’s feelings about the queen. It was a significant moment when Mrs Eliot, who wrote verses, realised that young Tom was better than she was.
His poetry was enormously kicked on by reading Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature when he was a student at Harvard. “The Symons book is one of those which have affected the course of my life,” he declared. He said he learned from Baudelaire “the poetical possibilities ... of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis”. Though it was Jules Laforgue who was the revelation. “I do feel more grateful to him than anyone else, and I do not think that I have come across any other writer since who has meant so much to me as he did at that particular moment.”
Eliot was a surprisingly slack student during his undergraduate days at Harvard. His visit to Paris in 1911 was transformational. He met Matisse with Alain-Fournier, the author of that masterpiece Le Grand Meaulnes, and heard Henri Bergson, the “real magician” as William James called him, lecture at the Sorbonne. Bergson’s sense of the self as made up of fleeting impressions would influence him.
He met the man who may have been the greatest male friend of his life, Jean Verdenal, to whom he dedicated The Waste Land. He was killed in the war, and Eliot would later talk about “a sentimental sunset, the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later (so far as I could find out) to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli”. There has been talk of a gay relationship, but Crawford finds no evidence. Verdenal was a real charmer who once said, “The will to live is evil ... but beer is not to be despised.” They were fond of each other.
TS Eliot from the
cover of Robert Crawford’s biography