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Mr. Eliot’s Martyrdom

Eliot’s Early Years

by Lyndall Gordon
Oxford University Press, 174 pp., $8.95

T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons

by James E. Miller Jr.
Pennsylvania State University Press, 176 pp., $12.95

T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems

by Derek Traversi
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 238 pp., $3.95 (paper)

The strength of T.S. Eliot’s poetry depends on insights that mediate between morality and psychology. Eliot understood the shifting, paradoxical nature of our deepest emotions and judgments, and tried to embody this quality in his style. “All that concerned my family,” he once said, “was ‘right and wrong,’ what was ‘done and not done.’ ” It became the poet’s discovery that what is wrong when acted may be right when remembered, that today’s gladness justifies yesterday’s grief, and that religious serenity may be the upper side of skepticism.

Most of Eliot’s innovations of poetic technique strive to disorientate the reader. They give one a literary experience that follows the contours of reversible emotions. Reading Eliot’s lines sympathetically, one enters into a drama (often incomplete) of moral judgment imposing itself on a flux of contradictory moods. His ambitious effects are formal equivalents of the process by which insight interrupts experience.

The reason Eliot assigned such importance to ambiguous or paradoxical states is that he required high purpose to live by; and purpose involves choice. The eliciting of true decisions from evasive moods became for him a fundamental occupation. The people he grew up with were addicted to high-minded decisions “between duty and self-indulgence.” The affectionate claims of a talented, frustrated, overattentive mother led him to feel at once unworthy of his great opportunities and zealous to make the best use of them. Humble selfdoubt and immense aspiration were the obverse and reverse of his character.

Eliot came to make grave decisions secretly, and to disclose them suddenly, as if afraid that opposition might change his mind. His parents had no warning of Eliot’s first marriage, which followed his original meeting with the bride by only a couple of months. About the same time, he withdrew abruptly from the PhD course in philosophy at Harvard, although he had almost completed all the requirements for the degree.

When Eliot determined to be baptized into the Church of England, he told only the priest and the men who were to be his godfathers. The ceremony took place in an isolated country church behind locked doors. When he made up his mind to leave his first wife, he did not advise her beforehand. While visiting America by himself, to deliver a series of lectures, he wrote to his solicitor, telling him to draw up a deed of separation and asking him to deliver to Vivienne a letter from Eliot explaining the decision.

Again, when he was to be married a second time, Eliot did not even warn John Hayward, whose apartment he had been sharing for over a decade. Eliot asked his solicitor to arrange a secret ceremony; and the couple were married by special license in an out-of-the-way London church at half-past six in the morning.

Such cautious impulsiveness points to large stores of diffidence. Evidently the poet could not risk exposure to the painful reactions that his choices might produce. He could not be sure of standing up to the anger or grief (or ridicule) of his intimates. This lack of confidence, though derived from humility, was tied up with ambition. For Eliot, no success had much value unless it was hardwon.

When a friend gave superlative praise to his book Poems 1909-1925, the poet replied with a clipping from The Midwives’ Gazette in which the following words were underlined: “Blood, mucus, shreds of mucus, purulent discharge.” The gesture was more than a rude joke. It conveyed Eliot’s poverty of spirit, his honestly diffident view of the poems; and it did so, characteristically, in the words of another person.

We may assume that the attitude sprang from the poet’s sense of not deserving (could anyone deserve?) the measure of love that was bestowed on him. But the feeling persisted throughout his life and darkened his imagination. Ultimately, it blended with religious doctrine, for the creed he clung to (after his fortieth year) rested mysteriously on the gap between God’s love and man’s unworthiness.

So it was easy for Eliot to conceive of discipline rather than freedom as the first need of humanity. “At the bottom of man’s heart,” he said when he was twenty-eight—in a phrase that anticipates a line of “Gerontion”—“there is always the beast, resentful of restraints of civilized society, ready to spring out at the instant this restraint relaxes…. As a matter of fact, the human soul—l’anima semplicetta—is neither good nor bad; but in order to be good, to be human, requires discipline.”

The relation between humility and discipline is obvious enough, and Eliot never lost sight of it. Years later, contrasting totalitarian government with his own idea of a Christian society, he said of the latter, “That prospect involves, at least, discipline, inconvenience and discomfort: but here as hereafter the alternative to hell is purgatory.”

It was naturally on himself that Eliot enjoined the severest renunciations and discipline. When he surrendered the career of professor of philosophy and accepted the vocation of poetry, he imposed extraordinary demands on his genius. I do not think it farfetched to say that as a poet he submitted to rigors that might be labeled self-punishing, though suiting his idea of the way to wisdom.

In traditional literature (especially plays and novels), it is through the education of the affections that the soul achieves moral intelligence: famous examples are Tom Jones and Sophia, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. The pursuit of the beloved offers tests and challenges that dissolve impurities and clarify virtue. But Eliot distrusted the easy parallelism between courtship and illumination unless the lover’s hopes were unsatisfied. In an early “Song” he yearns for significant passion but anticipates deprivation. This poignancy of revelations missed, of love evaded, was to stay with Eliot to the end of his course:

The moonflower opens to the moth, The mist crawls in from the sea;
A great white bird, a snowy owl, Slips from the alder tree.

Whiter the flowers, Love, you hold, Than the white mist on the sea;
Have you no brighter tropic flowers With scarlet life, for me?
(Published 1909)

The economy, meticulous sound patterns, evocative imagery, and exact versification of this Tennysonian lyric all suggest the eagerness for self-denial that the poem expresses. Not only does one recognize the triple motif of humility, sacrifice, and barely attainable love. One also recognizes the poet’s submission to an ascetic conception of art. It is in this spirit that an older Eliot was to say of unrhymed verse, “The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary it imposes a much severer strain upon the language.”

Humility, I think, contributed to his habit of using other men’s words rather than starting afresh with his own. Partly this is an acknowledgment of the older writers’ excellence, a hint of the foolishness of making newborn speech do jobs that inherited language can do better. Often Eliot chose expressions that do not sound archaic or identifiable and yet seem to revive recollection like a half-forgotten proverb:

Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
Capricious monotone….
(“Portrait of a Lady,” I)

The touch of regular pentameter underlines the drum beat; the phrasing and rhyme come from J.R. Lowell’s “Vision of Sir Launfal”—commonly read at school.

But when the echo sounds strong enough to revive the context of the source, the effect becomes subtler. In discussing Eliot’s deliberate allusions, our danger is to take them as referring to concrete persons or situations, particularly to conditions of life or heroic figures of the past, supposed to be offered as preferable to those of our own time. But it is always a poet’s rendering that Eliot retrieves for us, rather than a fact or deed in its nakedness.

So he produces not the murder of Agamemnon but the tragic resonance of that crime for Aeschylus; not the routines of Italian monasteries under Boniface VIII, but Dante’s idea of the contemplative life. Eliot had an ample supply of historical learning, and did not have to be told how much bleaker the circumstances of most men were in remote centuries than in the present. We are not asked to imitate the domestic manners of old heroes and saints but to discover ideal visions that can haunt us like theirs.

So also in finding out images, Eliot strove to be true to himself without celebrating his personality. He wanted images to be authentic, and therefore drawn from his own experience—if possible, from the deepest level of that experience. But they were also to belong to the archetypal sensibility of mankind, or at least be such as evoke strong, lingering associations in most men. He further preferred that they should have appeared in the work of earlier masters. Even for imagery as apparently original as the “Preludes” ‘

Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands

he turned to a passage in a French novel he admired.

Yet again, the images were to suggest the paradoxical nature of moral judgment—that what seems meaningless now may be drenched in meaning later, that what seems like renunciation at dusk may be self-fulfillment at noon. Putting the elements together, one gets highly charged ambiguities in reverberating speech.

So it is that winter may represent both life and death, in words that echo the Victorian James Thomson (Waste Land, I). November may be confused with spring, in an image borrowed from Campion (East Coker, II). Fire may mean lust or purgation or divine love, in terms used by Buddha, St. Augustine, or Dante.

For the poet himself, the authority of his predecessors validated the images and their meaning. For the listener who picks up the reverberations (whether or not he identifies the source), they enrich the force of suggestion. But at the same time, as an expression of humility, such images diminish the personality of the poet. He hovers over the work without manifestly entering it.

Working within these limits, the poet makes himself something of a martyr. In a sense, he exchanges his identity for his poetry. But he wins a substantial reward; and this is the powerful, tenacious quality of verse that stirs us with its right rhythms, its mysterious overtones, and depth of meaning—verse that belongs to us like our early memories.

Yet on the opposite side, ambition constantly affirmed its claims. In his critical prose Eliot exhibited from the start a magisterial self-confidence that barely glanced at opposition. His assurance and assertiveness demolished an old orthodoxy and established a new one. They also served, I believe, to fence off Eliot’s doubts about his poems.

But the style of the prose is not experimental. It was in verse that Eliot resolved to experiment, innovate, change. He wished to join his name to fundamental transformations of the technique of poetry: hence the variety in the small body of his oeuvre. Having mastered one set of devices, Eliot went restlessly on to another, bolder scheme—Prufrock, “Gerontion,” The Waste Land—till he reached the audacities of Ash Wednesday. Then he swerved on himself in a movement of conservation, from “Animula” to the five-part sequence of “Landscapes” (1933-1934). These embody the sense of place and the emotional trajectory of the final masterpiece, the Quartets, which came soon after.

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