The Ideal Husband

T.S. Eliot: A Life

by Peter Ackroyd
Simon and Schuster, 400 pp., $24.95

The private life of a dead poet, T.S. Eliot wrote in 1956, is not sacred ground; indeed, “any critic seriously concerned with a man’s work should be expected to know something about the man’s life.” “Nor is there any reason why biographies of poets should not be written. Furthermore, the biographer of an author should possess some critical ability; he should be a man of taste and judgment, appreciative of the work of the man whose biography he undertakes.” In this biography Peter Ackroyd admirably fulfills that criterion; time and again, with the lightest possible touch, he illuminates Eliot’s poetry and criticism more acutely than many a ponderous academic volume. Though he is debarred from the correspondence, he makes absorbing reading out of Eliot’s rather quiet life; and at the same time provides brief asides on the work that are themselves a skeleton framework for assessing the entire corpus (an excellent title for a detective story, Eliot once said).

In the same essay, though, Eliot goes on to warn against overestimating psychology, taking as examples two critiques of Wordsworth that successively made his love affair in France and his feeling for his sister the “explanation” of the poetry’s rise and decline. Either may well be true, Eliot argues, and are relevant if we only want to understand the man; but for understanding the poetry, too much knowledge may be withering—and irrelevant. In all great poetry, he continues, there is something that remains unaccountable despite all biographical information, and this is probably what is most important about it:

When the poem has been made, something new has happened, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before. That, I believe, is what we mean by “creation.”

This is very clearly shown by Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot. Ackroyd does not shy away from modest psychological interpretation. (Eliot’s paper was written nearly thirty years ago, and all biography is to some extent psychobiography now.) The picture of Eliot himself makes clear sense; time and again he is described in the same sort of terms by people who met him. And certainly there is what might be called an Eliotic mood or stance which is recognizable both in the life and the poetry. All the same—“something new happened,” in Eliot’s words. Somehow this stiff, sad, inhibited man—“poor Tom,” as he was so patronizingly called by the Bloomsbury set—lit a fuse with his early poetry that blew a dead tradition apart. As Pound wrote in a letter, Eliot “actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” He wrote that the task of poetry was to make the unpoetic poetic—and for his time, at the tail end of romanticism, it was true. Paradoxically, though he so hated and distrusted the modern world, the virtue of the poetry was to milk beauty out of modern desolation. But just how this came about eludes biography; the gap between the man and the work remains satisfactorily mysterious.

As a person Eliot was always described in terms as far from the revolutionary and the poetic as could be. Ackroyd has a sheaf of contemporary impressions and they are broadly similar. “Impeccable in his tastes but has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm,” wrote Bertrand Russell to Ottoline Morrell; she herself nicknamed Eliot “the undertaker,” and her first impression had been “dull, dull, dull…I think he has lost all spontaneity and can only break through his conventionality by stimulants or violent emotion.” Siegfried Sassoon referred to his “cold-storaged humanity,” while Ezra Pound’s more affectionate “Old Possum” implied a habit of lying low and shamming dead. Conrad Aiken, an old friend, believed that Eliot had built “splendid ramparts…and behind them he had become all but invisible.” Edmund Wilson, later in Eliot’s life, gave a rather similar description—“He gives you the creeps a little at first because he is such a completely artificial, or, rather, self-invented character…but he has done such a perfect job with himself that you end up admiring him.” The poets F.T. Prince and Lawrence Durrell have both recalled the deadening effect of some of his remarks as a publisher: “Not everything you write is very interesting” is a notable example.

He Do the Police in Different Voices” (from Our Mutual Friend) was the original title of The Waste Land. Eliot “did” the undertaker pretty thoroughly. It was both a facade and also deep in the structure of his character. He said that he was always unhappy except in childhood and in his late second marriage; and his second wife said he felt he had paid too dearly for being a poet (though might not he, rather than his first wife, have been the one to end in a mental hospital, without his poetry?). The suffering and repression were certainly real, one proof being that he ailed all his life with vague psychosomatic complaints. Nevertheless there was a kind of ironic perfectionism about getting the performance right, as Edmund Wilson noticed. “I daren’t take cake, and jam’s too much trouble,” thoughtfully enunciated at a tea party, was a well-judged contribution to the Eliot persona. And it mustn’t be forgotten that there was the Eliot who loved music hall, cats (but didn’t own one?), boxing, sharp dressing, Edward Lear, and dancing, and wrote a protracted epic of pornographic verse (mentioned by Peter Ackroyd but as yet unpublished). These were inconveniences to the undertaker persona, and were not generally on show.

If in childhood Eliot was happy, and at the same time was undergoing—as it seems he must have been—some permanent repression of feeling, we know little about it (biography never does know enough about childhood, that passionate quarter-of-a-century). Photographs show a beautiful, composed child with exactly the same enigmatic half-smile that appears in the later pictures. New England puritanism molded his temperament—although he grew up in St. Louis, youngest child of middle-aged parents and sib to a bunch of older sisters; his mother was the kind of clever woman defeated by circumstance who fosters an ambitious child. She wrote poetry and did good works and for Christmas her son gave her a work of philosophy by Bergson. By fourteen he was writing poetry himself; his family expected great things of him. He was priggish, coddled, happy. Yet something in those first twenty years at home impressed him with what it is to “live and partly live,” to be unreal, deadened, isolate. His preoccupation was to be with the shift between the dead state and the glimpse of meaning and brightness.

At Harvard he read Dante and Baudelaire, joined the appropriate clubs, was considered a good fellow. Then he discovered Laforgue; and later told Robert Sencourt, who quotes it in his memoir, that this changed him “utterly.” He had always been a ventriloquist-poet, copying the style of one newly discovered writer after another; now when he headed a notebook “Complete Poems of T.S. Eliot” it was only to include the poems written after his discovery of Laforgue. In 1910, against family opposition, he went to Paris and, among other fragments still unpublished, completed there “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady.” He did nothing about publication, however. Back at Harvard there were four more years of work—Sanskrit (with a particular interest in Buddhism) and then philosophy. He made a final break from his ever-protective family in 1914 by going to Oxford to finish a thesis on Bradley. These years of metaphysics permeate the poetry, especially the Quartets.

During the years 1914 and 1915, in Oxford and London, Eliot at last found himself among the other modernists who had enrolled in a literary revolution; he met Pound and Wyndham Lewis, and when “J. Alfred Prufrock” was published it was entirely owing to Pound’s generous enthusiasm. Other poems appeared in Blast and in an anthology of Pound’s, and now at twenty-seven Eliot was well launched. He launched himself, too, on his first, rather celebrated, rather dreadful, first marriage. It was to last for eighteen years.

Peter Ackroyd devotes a good deal of space to the marriage; it influenced Eliot’s life for so long, it was presumably responsible for his famous unhappiness, and indirectly must have influenced the tone and subjects of his writing. And yet it remains strangely mysterious and hard to understand. It is very difficult, in view of the tragic downward course of Vivien Eliot’s life, not to take sides and feel indignant on her behalf, even though the full facts are never available for posterity. She was the one who became ugly and ailing and hysterical, and attracted disapproving comments that remain on the record; but what sort of marriage can it have been that changed her from a lively girl to a “restless, shivering, painted shadow”—as the murdered wife is described in The Family Reunion?

You would never suppose anyone could sink so quickly.
I had always supposed, wherever I went
That she would be with me; what- ever I did
That she was unkillable. It was not like that.

Ackroyd dismisses it as rather too facile to point out that after Eliot had separated himself from Vivien Eliot he wrote a play about a man haunted by the murder of his wife; but the facile connection may be the perfectly true one.

Bertrand Russell described Vivien Eliot at the beginning of the marriage as “light, a little vulgar, adventurous, full of life—an artist I think he said, but I should have thought her an actress. He is exquisite and listless; she says she married him to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it. Obviously he married in order to be stimulated.” No doubt he was right in guessing that it was one of those marriages where one partner looks in the other for what he misses in himself; Eliot so plagued by numbness, so “partly living,” being drawn to someone “full of life.” It was not a wise plan. Her liveliness evidently wearied him, while she herself beat against his reserve in vain. It was Eliot who retained his own particular kind of stamina on into old age, while her vitality and sanity nearly wore itself out. During her honeymoon she was already writing a desperate letter to Russell to say it was being a “ghastly failure.” They had no children, and what it was that was particularly “ghastly” about their sexual life we can’t know; Eliot wore a truss (for hernia), Vivien had menorrhagia and had to compulsively wash her sheets (but why, in the twentieth century, didn’t they have the appropriate operations for these unattractive problems?).

Ackroyd suggests that in the early years there was a fair amount of affection and companionship in the marriage. But over the years the defensiveness on his side and hysteria on hers seem to have snow-balled. Eliot was sought after and was busy running several jobs at once, while his wife had absolutely nothing to do. Did she want a career? Did she expect children? As the chronicle goes on we hear more and more of her ill health, which is as mysterious in its actual nature as other aspects of the story. Eliot’s treatment for this was to leave her on her own in the country while he lived and worked in town. So many times we hear of his visiting someone, traveling somewhere, without taking her with him.

In 1915, at any rate, Eliot was newly committed to the marriage and to abandoning family ties and Harvard academia for life in Britain. For a time he tried schoolmastering and freelance journalism, but by 1917 he had joined Lloyd’s Bank, where he was to stay for nine years. Much is made of the oddness of the poet/bank clerk, but it seems a reasonable way to assure a nine-to-five income and Ackroyd thinks that Eliot rather enjoyed it. In spite of an ongoing hypochondria contest between husband and wife, Eliot got through an enormous amount of work; outside the bank job he was editing, lecturing, and continuing with his poetry; a small collection came out in 1919 and The Sacred Wood in 1920. The work took its toll, and in 1921 he was so exhausted that he was granted three months’ absence from the bank; alone, he stayed in foggy Lausanne taking the “Vittoz treatment,” and in a state of unusual calm he finished The Waste Land.

He sent it to Pound on his return and got a Poundian acknowledgement—“Complimenti, you bitch. I am wracked by the seven jealousies.” It is curious that, with the very private kind of character Eliot had, he was so willing to let Pound cut and shape it for him—though Ackroyd in his sympathetic exposition of the poem approves Pound’s changes. Pound reduced the pasticheur element, the “police in different voices,” in favor of a rhythm which he found to underlie and hold the work together. Ackroyd sees it as a work which uses its message of futility—Conrad’s “The horror! The horror!”—as a kind of platform for wit and drama. But, as he points out, its hard surface has allowed it—and Eliot’s later work—to be invested with all sorts of profundities that do not belong to it. “A thin wash of ‘great truths’ has been placed over The Waste Land and over Eliot’s succeeding work.” It must be added, though, that Eliot became prone to enunciating “great truths”—or cracker-barrel saws, if you see it that way—and very often saves himself only by a hair’s breadth of irony or imagery from being bathetic.

When The Waste Land was published in 1922 it was a particular success with the eager young. A Waste land cult developed; in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the aesthete Anthony Blanche recites it from the window of his Oxford room. It became so fashionable that when editors saw the words “stone” or “dry” or “dust” in contributions they reached for the wastepaper basket. The poet Stephen Spender has described what the work meant for his generation. For them it belonged to the real, chill world they knew—“a landscape across which armies and refugees moved”; they responded to its incantatory rhythms; and they gloried in the fact that Eliot was the antithesis of everything the Georgians meant by a poet—long hair, shaggy tweeds, country walks, beer and bread and cheese (actually, Eliot had a passion for cheese). They found him very accessible; “Religiously, poetically, and intellectually, this very private man kept open house. And all the rooms, and the garden, made clear sense.”

The tragedies of the Eliot marriage dragged on, and by 1925 Eliot was already discussing separation with Bertrand Russell: “The fact that living with me has done her so much damage does not help me to come to any decision…. I find her still perpetually baffling and deceptive” (quoted in Russell’s autobiography). Twice Vivien Eliot fell seriously ill, though again it remains unclear quite what the trouble was. But Eliot’s work situation was much improved when he left the bank for the publishers Faber and Faber. And then in 1927—he was thirty-nine—he was received with great secrecy into the Church of England. When the news came out in the following year there was puzzlement among those who associated Eliot particularly with the cynicism and “modernism” of The Waste Land, but the step was very much in line with his previous development and preoccupations. His second faith remained poetry; to describe the relation between Eliot’s two religions Peter Ackroyd uses a memorable phrase: “Within Eliot’s own work, the structure of orthodox faith and the language of devotion are broken apart in order to make room for something much stranger and more tenuous, like the sound of someone crying in an empty church.”

Nineteen thirty-three was the year when the Eliot marriage was finally broken. However much Eliot had to suffer during its course, his method of ending it was surely rather brutal. While he was lecturing in the United States—on his own, of course—he had a letter taken to his wife by his solicitors. Possessions were removed from their flat and a deed of separation was offered her to sign. When Eliot returned he kept his address secret. For two years Vivien Eliot haunted places where he might be met, and frequently went to his office to be turned away by secretaries. Presumably Eliot felt he could not face a personal confrontation and discussion that would help her accept the situation. May there not, also, have been a sadistic streak in him? His early unpublished poems concerned themselves with themes like the torments of the martyrs, and there was the fate he chose for his heroine in The Cocktail Party—being eaten alive by ants. He was fascinated by murders, and once went to a fancy-dress party dressed as Dr. Crippen. Violence and brusquerie were implied by his opposite tendency to numbness. However it may have been, five years after the break Vivien Eliot was committed for life to a mental hospital. Again, there are unanswered questions: was she actually such a full-blown psychotic that she had to remain there? Was she visited? Was there never a question of releasing her?

After the break Eliot lived for many years in bleak lodgings in an Anglican presbytery. He was no longer the iconoclastic young man but had become accepted, for his magisterial criticism as much as his poetry, and for his important position as arbiter of modern poetry at Faber’s. He became even more of a public figure when he began to write for the stage, as he had long wanted to, with his interest in the music hall and ballet, his writings on the English dramatists, the dramatic structure of his verse. Murder in the Cathedral was a fair success; The Family Reunion did not do well just before World War II, but made a considerable impact when it was revived after the war.

Eliot was fifty-one when war broke out, grossly unfit with bronchitic trouble and the beginnings of emphysema, and there was nothing spectacular he could do for his adopted country. He spent the nights of the London blitz partly in airraid shelters and partly with friends outside town. The Quartets were written during these years, The Cocktail Party just after the war. Then in 1948 came both the Nobel Prize and, from Britain, the Order of Merit. His fame was such that a New Yorker cartoon showed a sailor in a tattooing parlor saying “I have in mind a couple of lines by T. S. Eliot.” The story of the last seventeen years of his life is one of fame and ill health—the former, he said, meaning nothing to him until his happy marriage to his secretary in 1957 (he had turned down marriage proposals from two longstanding women friends). “Happy at Last” is the simple and suitable heading of Ackroyd’s last chapter.

The curious paradoxes about Eliot’s work that Ackroyd points out seem central to its power. He stood for impersonality in poetry, yet imprinted his own personality indelibly on his work; argued the need for a tradition, yet was an innovator; urged order and coherence, yet had a central vision of void, death-in-life; his voice is unmistakable, yet he put it together from the voices of others. And, says Ackroyd, he was a “strange, private and often bewildered man,” who was nevertheless made a cultural guru. The guru’s mantle has been passed on to others now, but Eliot’s work, standing firmly on its own, is all the better for it.