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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.

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