Art, Life, and T. S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style

by Ronald Bush
Oxford University Press, 287 pp., $25.00

Among T.S. Eliot’s friendships, the longest-lived attachment to a woman was his connection with Emily Hale (daughter of a Bostonian architect who was also a minister), which began when he was a student at Harvard. Miss Hale (1891–1969) became a teacher of speech and drama, and the pair met during the 1930s in America and England. For decades, Eliot wrote to the lady often and regularly; but the correspondence ended in the late 1950s, when he married Valerie Fletcher. Miss Hale gave her friend’s letters to Princeton University, stipulating that they remain sealed until the year 2020.

In a new account of Eliot’s career as a poet, Ronald Bush offers some piquant reflections on the correspondence:

[These letters] were undoubtedly full of pointed silences. The letters, however, also must have resonated with that special kind of indulgent tenderness that two people assume when they can be attentive without deception. Yet that kind of tenderness has its dangers. For someone suffering the pains of a marriage like Eliot’s, the mannered intimacy of such letters can come to acquire the allure of a fantom that seems to need only a little extra attention to make it come alive. That feeling or something like it seems to have impressed itself on Eliot after he broke with Vivien in America. [P. 185]

Bush says that Emily Hale’s meetings with Eliot during the years 1932–1935 forced him to “confront one of his most firmly repressed wishes…. [She] beckoned him to start over again, and the thought intoxicated him” (pp. 185–186). Bush reminds us that the couple visited Burnt Norton together; and he then examines the poem “Burnt Norton” as a meditation on the longings aroused in the poet by the moments in the deserted garden.

Obviously, that garden seemed to Eliot a poignant symbol of the life he had missed; the title asks us to make the bridge. For those who have learned about the presence of Emily Hale in the scene, it is hard to exclude her from the story of the making of the poem. But nowhere in the verses do we meet the least allusion to the lady or the least need to think of her.

Bush’s opinions are not a contribution to the biography of the poet and not an illumination of the poem. They excite an interest in Eliot’s emotional development like that excited by the play Tom and Viv, which has been darkening the London stage. Yet Bush follows his suggestive introduction to “Burnt Norton” with a twenty-page analysis of the poem in which Emily Hale never appears.

The effect is a ubiquitous feature of literary biography. By demonstrating a mastery of the data of an artist’s life, by first stimulating and then satisfying our natural curiosity, the scholar seems to validate his authority to interpret and appraise the accomplishment of genius.Nevertheless, it is one mark of genius that the work transcends the circumstances of the life. The most detailed familiarity with a poet as son, husband, and father need not equip one to judge his poems—too many widows’ memoirs tell us as much. Data do not speak until they are spoken to; and if one asks the wrong questions, one hears pointless replies.

Biography can indeed eliminate certain mistakes—particularly those which depend on false chronology. It can establish links and make certain influences probable. It can trace the stages of composition of a poem and teach us which texts are authentic. However, it will positively elucidate the works of an artist only to the extent that they invite one to incorporate biographical allusions into their meaning.

The poet himself is simply one more reader when he tries to establish the merits of his work; and any explanations he may offer must be tested by independent study. Eliot has sometimes been proved wrong when he tried to correct the errors of his readers, and the tales he tells of his own development can rarely be accepted without emendation.

In offering this doctrine, I do not underestimate Bush’s admirable research. He succeeds a number of careful scholars who have drawn more and more fully on Eliot’s unpublished letters, lectures, and drafts of poems. F.O. Matthiessen, Elizabeth Schneider, Helen Gardner, and A. D. Moody are among those who have commented scrupulously on the poems with the advantage of fresh information about their composition. Nobody has been more energetic than Bush.

Although he sensibly quotes many passages that his predecessors have used, he has mastered a corpus that most critics barely touch. Bush has gone through all the published material, including quantities of early reviews and miscellaneous essays that have never been collected. One example of his thoroughness is an unsigned, brief notice published in The Criterion (1936), which bears the marks of Eliot’s style and was certainly passed by him as editor. Bush quotes it in relation to the moral claims of the poet in “Little Gidding.”

The writer of the short review deprecates a book that carefully documents the treatment of German Jews by the Nazis. He calls it “an attempt to rouse moral indignation by means of sensationalism.” He complains that while the jacket of the book speaks of the “extermination” of the Jews, the title page refers only to their “persecution.” He declares that “as the title-page is to the jacket, so are the contents to the title-page, especially in the chapter devoted to the ill-treatment of Jews in German concentration camps” (Bush, p. 226). I agree with Bush’s attribution of the review to Eliot, and I agree that it is a frightening sign of what Christian charity meant to the author of Four Quartets.

Instead of reviewing familiar judgments and accepting standard biographical matter, Bush has won access to unpublished letters and lectures. He has analyzed drafts of well-known and unknown poems that must be searched out in the special collections of great research libraries. He seems at home in French literature to a degree that lets him examine the influence of authors like Valéry and St.-John Perse upon the style of Eliot.

However, the application of so much learning raises issues that the scholar never resolves. When a poet endures a troubled life, is his talent part of the illness, or is it his spring of health? Reaching, for themes and images, into his most intense and profound experience, does the poet reflect the sufferings that he peculiarly endures, or does he give body to intuitions shared by all suffering men? If a poet is a critic and his doctrine reflects the development of his poems, may we simply use them to illustrate his doctrine? Or shall we say that criticism is a literary genre too; and when a poet speaks as a critic, he does not expose the peculiar features of his own work but deals with those questions which criticism sets before its practitioners?

Many of Bush’s pronouncements on Eliot’s character are obtrusive, unnecessary, and fashionable. He divides the poet’s identity between the life of spontaneous feeling which—we are assured—Eliot yearned for, and the “intellectual and puritanical rationalism” which Eliot allegedly linked to the New England tradition of his upbringing (pp. 8–9). Then Bush says that the sarcasm of Eliot’s first wife used to strike at “Eliot’s New England self and not its emotional antagonist,” with the consequence that “her disapproval was soon compounded with his mother’s, threatening both parts of Eliot’s delicate equilibrium” (p. 54).

This sort of easy Freudian psychology is the language of our time. But to make it precise and demonstrable would call for evidence that Eliot himself could not provide. If the poet does reveal a division between conscience and feeling, we can surely rest in the fact and not justify it with an explanation derived from psycho-analytic commonplaces. Does one gain an insight by attributing to Eliot an Oedipal conflict that one takes to be every man’s burden?

Excellent poets have been learned scholars—Milton and Johnson, for example. Some have been great critics as well—Goethe and Schiller (and Johnson again), for example. But the final challenge for such a writer is not to produce a work that glistens with erudition and is, as Gray said, “vocal to the intelligent alone.” It is to make something like an “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which seems to rise from the abyss of the human soul and speak to the universal condition of men. Such poetry rests on the words and ideas of earlier authors—is indeed validated by them—but does not luxuriously display its origins.

Eliot, as Bush makes clear, had such ambitions. He was even more aspiring than Housman or Browning; for he hoped to draw on depths of unconscious feelings or intuitions that normally resist the creative imagination. Like Freud, he was willing to experiment on himself. He tried to feel his way back to his most dangerous emotions and to secure from them the energy that, concentrated in language subtly echoing earlier masters, would call up new, profound responses from the reader.

For an acutely self-conscious critic, at home in several national literatures and learned in philosophy, to grope his way below these difficult accomplishments and bring up essences that had hardly been recognized by psychologists, then to embody these in unforgettable speech, is a triumph enjoyed by no more than two or three poets in a century. Bush demonstrates that when Eliot called for impersonal poetry, he meant poetry that should express the common, deepest nature of men rather than the peculiar experiences of the author as a troubled son or lover.

I take seriously Eliot’s distinction between the man who suffers and the mind that creates (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” II). I am willing to go a good deal of the way with Nietzschean esthetics, and to say that when Eliot explored his deepest sensations for the images and sounds of his most powerful verse, he was not examining the self apart—the ego that goes to the dentist or that gives instructions to a secretary. Rather, I think he tried to reach for a self, or a level of self, that shares the definitive experiences of mankind. From this healthy, creative depth he tried to bring up figures, metaphors, that would seem, to responsive readers, to evoke their own inner life. Failure was a chronic danger. But success would be unforgettable.

The theory Eliot worked on may have been unsound. However, if I am correct, it involved a contract with the reader such that the powerful images would not invite an inspection of the poet’s domestic or social relations but of the reader’s archetypal world. The critic who violates this contract may indeed match the verse motifs to elements of the poet’s observable life, but only by reducing Eliot to his noncreative, dental-chair self.

Bush’s use of biography is a risky procedure. We know a bit too much and far too little about what went on, hideously, between Eliot and his first wife, Vivien. But I cannot think the guilt-ridden poet simply picked out speeches and gestures from those painful relations and fitted them into measured words. Whoever connects a motif of Eliot’s poems with an aspect of Vivien must remember how many aspects he is ignorant of, and must wonder how the connections would look if he had more aspects to choose from.

It is a disaster to encourage readers to search for the specific private histories behind the published works, as if Eliot were Pope or Byron. We are told reliably that in the years 1934–1936, Eliot’s secretary at Faber and Faber had instructions (from other secretaries) to let her employer know when his wife was in the waiting room. The girl would do so by the office telephone, and Eliot would thank her. She would then go down to Mrs. Eliot and explain that her husband could not see her but that he was well. Meanwhile, the poet would leave the building.

The secretary reports, “She was a slight, pathetic, worried figure, badly dressed and very unhappy, her hands screwing up her handkerchief as she wept. It was a sad contrast from her busy, interested husband…. When I thought he had had enough time to get out, depending on what he was doing, I would try to bring the interview with Mrs. Eliot to an end. For the rest of the day Eliot would be on edge, talking even more slowly and hesitantly than usual, and we would keep our mutual contacts to a minimum.”1

This disheartening glimpse of Vivien Eliot corroborates the account given by Robert Sencourt,2 and it could be linked to several passages from Four Quartets, such as the lines on the permanence of moments of agony:

We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
(“The Dry Salvages,” II. 108–114)

If an elderly friend of mine reads the poem and remembers hearing her child shriek under the pain of an illness the mother could not relieve, shall I tell her to think of Mrs. Eliot?

In his continual appeals to literary allusion, Bush follows another risky procedure. Learned critics, during the last fifty years, have shared the regrettable habit of imposing coherent meaning on a writer’s work by discovering a common doctrine in various uses of the same image. When Wallace Stevens presents a guitarist in a series of poems, or Jane Austen presents a woman playing a piano in a series of novels, the critic assumes that the guitar or the piano has a stable implication. Yet the author may deliberately or playfully vary the significance of the image. I believe that Eliot strove to make the whole body of his work cohere by drawing on the same images in different poems while altering the implications as Yeats altered those of Byzantium.

Bush takes the standard analytical approach for granted. We meet mysterious presences, “they,” in “Burnt Norton”; and we meet others, also “they,” in The Family Reunion. Yet in the play, “they” are the Eumenides, who frighten Harry; but in the poem “they” are welcome “guests, accepted and accepting” (l. 30). So also there are “footfalls” in “Burnt Norton,” as in other works by Eliot; but to give them “ominous associations” because of the use of “footfalls” in “Gerontion” or The Family Reunion is to simplify Eliot’s genius (Bush, p. 193).

With learned allusions the habit of simplified interpretation is commonplace. Innocent critics keep assuming that when a poet incorporates lines by another author into his own text, he must also invoke the teachings of that author, recommending or (often) ironically opposing them. Readers of “East Coker” meet verses on the midsummer dancing of villagers centuries ago:

The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
(II. 28–30)

The spelling reminds us that such ceremonies join our sense of harmonious community with that of our ancestors; for the words are taken from those of an early Tudor writer on education, the humanist Sir Thomas Elyot.

A.D. Moody objected to the ordinary view that the tone of T.S. Eliot’s lines is sympathetic.3 Moody says the dance here is a dance of death, and he observes that the rhythm of the whole passage (over twenty lines) eventually turns leaden:

The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
(II. 44–46)

Moody points out that in Sir Thomas’s full exposition of the value of dancing, the Tudor humanist describes the nature of men and women in terms that T.S. Eliot must have rejected. Moody quotes from the poet’s essay on Dante to show that for the author of “East Coker” the love of man and woman is only made reasonable by a higher love, that of God; or else it is “simply the coupling of animals” (Moody, pp. 208–211; Eliot, Selected Essays (Harcourt, Brace, 1932], p. 235).

Bush treats Moody’s case as valid. He adds to the echoes of Sir Thomas Elyot the echoes of a German story about a town accursed. He also invokes the “mood of Ecclesiastes” (Bush, pp. 212–213).

Alas, the numberless critics who perform in this style are following the practice of numberless mentors. Yet one might challenge the principle that allusions point to meanings. The lines actually employed by Eliot state that the ceremonial dancing of men and women together symbolizes the sacrament of marriage—hardly a dangerous proposition. The poet never calls on us to identify the echoes of Sir Thomas or to trace them to their source—let alone their context—but only to notice that the words are old. The poem nowhere directs us to Gerstärker’s tale of Germelshausen; and the Book of Ecclesiastes (echoed earlier in “East Coker,” II. 9–11) has many meanings.

Eliot’s change in tone from the lines on dancing to the lines on death suggests an enlargement of the rhythms of a human ceremony into those of life in general and then (as the day begins) into those of the whole universe. The change suggests a rueful reflection that harmonious communities must submit to the same earthly doom as other living bodies; and one may infer that under the aspect of eternity, the poet recommends a higher, spiritual order, the order of grace.

I linger over this example because it stands for thousands of exercises by less erudite, less thoughtful scholars than Bush. Eliot characteristically presents first an impression or a sentiment, next stands back from it with a distancing commentary, and then reflects on the commentary. The movement is a seductive imitation of a universal process: immediate sensation (unthinking, transcending selfhood), followed by conscious perception placing the experience in the context of individual personality, followed by a response to the perception, a pondering of the response, and so forth. Eliot’s poems typically leave us unsure who is speaking to whom and where the poet stands. It is the degrees and shifts of intuition, perception, consciousness, and self-consciousness that fascinate the poet.

Critics who interpret an earlier stage of the process by a later one are reducing the living process to a flat exposition of a stable point of view. If dancers who symbolize the sacrament of marriage must finally turn to earth, are we to make the sacrament itself equivalent to defecation? When Eliot rhymes “mirth” with “earth,” are we to ignore Ecclesiastes 8:15, “Then I commended mirth”? Are we to ignore “There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works” (Ecclesiastes 3:22)?

No allusion can explain a passage unless the passage urges us to recall it. Even then, when we collect allusions, we still have the job of interpreting them in turn, and at last of reconciling them. A critic who invokes an essay on a Roman Catholic Italian to illuminate verses by a Protestant American expatriate has enough to do without further adducing texts from German fiction and the Hebrew Old Testament.

Unfortunately, when Bush falls back on his independent powers of interpretation, he is often unpersuasive. Sometimes he subscribes to the genetic fallacy and explains a line in terms of a cancelled reading. Sometimes he ignores the tone of a passage while searching out parallels with other works. As an example of the difficulties which he repeatedly makes for the reader, I shall take one of the shorter, widely admired poems, “Marina.”

Here Eliot openly alludes to Shakespeare’s Pericles and recalls the wondering joy of the father on finally recognizing the daughter he had thought was lost forever. The poem opens and closes with images of seas, islands, shores, along with the sound of a woodthrush. The stunned father thinks of a rotting boat that seems to stand for his decaying self, now apparently redeemed by the daughter’s grace. In eight parallel lines he produces contrasting images to suggest vices that (I assume) no longer endanger the father.

Bush characteristically attributes to the poem meanings seldom indicated by earlier critics; he supports them with the evidence of allusions and echoes, but then turns his analysis in surprising directions that seem to weaken any coherence his interpretation might have. (One could make similar remarks about his treatment of The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday, and other major works.)

For example, Bush disagrees with the view that the poem is “simply” a moment of serenity and transfiguration. Rather, he says, it “presents the feeling of a man in the process of dying to one life and unable to be born into another” (p. 167). The images repeated at the end of the poem—the islands, woodthrush, etc.—suggest, according to Bush, “an ominous premonition of what the submission [i.e., the resignation of the old life for the new] will cost him.” Here he agrees with A. D. Moody’s impression that the images of the final lines carry “a sense of menace” (Moody, p. 156).

In the poem, the speaker says that certain figures (those for the temptations that his daughter has escaped and that the speaker can at last transcend) are now “unsubstantial… / By this grace dissolved in place.” Bush has another view. He says that the speaker’s recognition of his daughter “corresponds to a sudden assurance of the solidity of the world outside himself.” The speaker’s “diseased self-consciousness’ is dissolved.

Yet Bush also finds that Eliot here “invests the experience of rebirth with poetic authority”; the poet, he says, “finds a way to fuse eros and agape” (p. 168). I suppose these various attitudes to the poem can be reconciled. But I do not easily reconcile them.

The tone of the poem seems less wavering to me. Of itself the particularized boat appears a frail but fortunate vessel. It might suggest the ferry that plies between life and death. Since the speaker says wonderingly, “I made this,” and closely mingles references to the daughter (not particularized) and to the boat, his words might suggest creativity as the common feature. One’s rescue may come through what one has created or procreated. The child can save the parent who made and lost her. For a poet, the dwindling resources of his art, like a decaying boat, may suffice to carry him into a haven: out of the anxieties of a broken life he may build a redeeming poem.

Without pressing such hints, I only worry that the data Bush has so imaginatively assembled may have turned his attention away from matters near at hand. If one wants allusions, one could observe that in “Marina” the eight lines on vices are rich in words from Pericles. “Sty” is the word that Shakespeare’s Marina uses for the brothel from which she escapes unharmed (IV. vi.90). Eliot’s line deprecating those who “sharpen the tooth of the dog” (l. 6) is associated by Bush with “diseased self-consciousness”; yet in Shakespeare’s play, “So sharp are hunger’s teeth” refers to the famine that followed gluttony in Tharsus, and to parents eating children (I.iv.44–45). There is also of course the tag from Lear on filial ingratitude (I.iv.310), here ironically appropriate.

It would be tedious to go any further with analyses that can never be demonstrations. But if biography seems livelier than such an inquiry, one must realize that it too remains controversial. Bush quotes Bertrand Russell’s impression of Vivien Eliot shortly after her marriage (p. 54), and does not offer to qualify it. Yet we now know that Russell ended up making love to Vivien; and we also know Lady Ottoline Morrell thought Russell was “obviously interested” in Vivien the first time she saw them together.4 Since Lady Ottoline had been Russell’s mistress, her own judgment was not impartial. Bush too often relies on such witnesses and too seldom questions them. Ultimately, therefore, his whole account of Eliot depends on facts that need a more skeptical examination than he has given them.

  1. 1

    From a memoir by Brigid O’Donovan, published in Confrontation, ed. Martin Tucker (Long Island University Press), Fall/Winter 1975; quoted in the Times Literary Supplement, March 30, 1984, p. 345.

  2. 2

    T.S. Eliot: A Memoir (Delta, 1973, p. 173.

  3. 3

    Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

  4. 4

    Robert H. Bell, “Bertrand Russell and the Eliots,” The American Scholar, Summer 1983, pp. 315–317.