The Music of Suffering

The Composition of Four Quartets

by Helen Gardner
Oxford University Press, 239 pp., $32.50

Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions

by Donald Hall
Harper & Row, 253 pp., $10.00

At the end of the year 1914, when T.S. Eliot was twenty-six and living in England, he wrote to a friend about the unpleasantness of meeting sexual opportunities in the street and feeling his own refinement rise up to obstruct them. Eliot thought he might be better off if he had lost his virginity some years earlier, and he contemplated disposing of it before marriage. At the same time, he thanked the friend for executing a commission. Writing from England, he had wanted roses delivered to Emily Hale, to celebrate her appearance in a play produced by the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Social Dramatic Club. In his next letter, Eliot wondered whether or not he should get married and sacrifice his independence for the sake of his children. We may conjecture that the poet was meditating marriage and had even begun considering a choice of spouse.

But an unpublished poem which he wrote about this time implies that virginity no longer troubled him. In the first stanza the poet describes himself as standing happily in the corner of a bedroom while a woman lies in bed. In a second and closing stanza, it is morning, the woman is asleep, and the poet leaves by the window. The scene may be fantasy, and the date is not certain; but the poet speaks historically in the first person; the joyous mood and the details of the situation imply a quite satisfactory sexual encounter. Since Eliot met Vivien Haigh, his first wife, early in 1915 and married her (with no advance notice to his family) in June, we may speculate that the encounter altered his marital plans. The marriage was of course the disaster of his life.

Dame Helen Gardner, in her new, immensely rewarding book on Four Quartets, suggests that when Eliot visited New Hampshire in the spring of 1933, Emily Hale was with him. Dame Helen also reports that when Eliot went to Burnt Norton (Gloucestershire, England) in 1935, his companion was Emily Hale. The language and imagery of the poems “New Hampshire” and Burnt Norton make the link: springtime, a bird, children’s voices in an orchard. “Twenty years and the spring is over,” the poet says in “New Hampshire”—taking us back from 1933 to the last academic year he spent as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We know that in February 1913, when Eliot acted in a variety show at the Cambridge home of his cousin Eleanor, one of the other performers was Emily Hale.

The theme of Burnt Norton is the difference between the possible and the actual. Speaking in his mind to a nameless listener, the poet says,

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

The images evoke courtship, a romance that was unfulfilled.

In Part Four of Burnt Norton the poet asks, “Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis / Stray down, bend to us?” Dame Helen reports that …

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