Eliot’s New Life
The Letters of T.S. Eliot Vol. I, 18981922
“Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” The voice is that of the author of the “Digression on Madness” in Swift’s Tale of a Tub; the application to literary biographies is all but universal. Writers are veil makers, illusion weavers; the most admiring of biographers cannot help exposing his author’s artifice. A writer’s outside—the face he prepares to face the faces of his public—is almost always more imposing and less nasty than the inside. Thomas Stearns Eliot forbade biographies.
Whether Eliot had anything to hide at all proportionate to the many layers of mystery in which he sought to enfold it is an open question. Certainly the impulse to concealment and impersonation went very deep; he titled his first poetic efforts “Inventions of the March Hare,” a pseudonym that, even as it blocks his real name, identifies him as a self-mocker. In the course of his life he picked up some dozen or so other pseudonyms in addition to the various characters he impersonated in his poems and plays, and the very different personae he assumed in social life. There hardly seems to have been a period when he was not playing possum—cultivating a mask, a façade, a polished and perceptibly alien surface. Some of this addiction to pose may have come from a youthful reading of Jules Laforgue, but he was cultivating a manner (some called it the “Harvard” manner) even before that.
As an American entering English society, he assumed the weighty, deliberate semblance of a polymath. Later, he confessed it was mostly bluff, but over the years it developed into a lofty, impersonal lecturer’s demeanor, as of one delivering cosmic truths from on high. At a time when bohemianism was the order of the day, Eliot exaggerated his bank clerk’s correctness—the bowler hat, the tightly rolled umbrella, the “four-piece suit” (as Virginia Woolf wickedly called it). At the same time, there was a larky side buried under the correct, urbane manner. In his youth he exchanged obscene fantasies with Conrad Aiken, and visited the “vaudeville” houses of Boston—these were obviously burlesque shows. He made common cause with outspoken Ezra Pound, and took a lasting interest in the naughty-nice turns of the London music halls. Then there was his cat personality—not exactly Old Possum, who had many other uses, but a playful, Edward Lear identity—and there was the Good Old Boy of the predominantly Faber group that formed around him and John Hayward at the flat they shared on the Chelsea Embankment. Finally, there is the separate personality of Eliot the semimystical Christian ascetic, the reclusive penitent; was this after all the “real” Eliot, or just another façade? For a long time, that would have been an impertinent question, or worse; now, with the whole life gradually emerging from the shadows, it becomes an appropriate consideration.
Lyndall Gordon’s account of Eliot’s career, the second part of which has just been published eleven years after the first part, is not a proper biography (though it looks very much like one), but an imaginative analysis of Eliot’s mind and its workings. Eliot’s Early Years (1977) concerned itself with the first thirty-four years of Eliot’s development, concluding with an account of the assembly and sifting processes that led in 1922 to the publication of The Waste Land. The second book, Eliot’s New Life, with its not-so-covert allusion to Dante’s narrative of his poetic and spiritual development, devotes its primary attention to the last forty-three years of Eliot’s life. A curious reader will not fail to notice that Eliot’s “new life” begins in middle age, after (rather than before) the creation of his epic or epyllion. He may also wonder who is going to be the Beatrice of this story.
It should be said at once that both volumes are copiously researched, making reference to an impressive selection of unpublished or uncollected materials, including poems, lectures, letters, reviews. There are caches of materials to which Mrs. Gordon did not have access, but nobody else will have access to them until the twenty-first century. In his review of Eliot’s Early Years (The New York Review, February 9, 1978), Professor Irvin Ehrenpreis complained of inaccurate transcriptions; I’ve not been in a position to check more than a few of Mrs. Gordon’s citations, but unless some are much more serious than those Ehrenpreis discovered, the question of accuracy seems to me subordinate to the question of organization. Writing two books on Eliot’s complex and inward mind, at a distance of eleven years from each other, has produced a good deal of churning over the same material. The temporal division between the two books is not sharp, nor was it meant to be; but the repetitions, not only from one book to the other but within each volume, are enough to afflict an attentive reader with mal de mer.
Naturally, the effect is aggravated when the repetitions occur within a few pages of each other (as when the same anecdote occurs on pages 215 and 238 of Eliot’s New Life) or when perceptibly different versions of the same event are presented (e.g., there are differing accounts of the circumstances in which Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, was sent to a mental institution: EEY, p. 80; ENL, pp. 77–78). At best, because organization of the books is half-topical, half-chronological, the reader is called on to do a lot of hopping back and forth in time and space, across decades and oceans. Mrs. Gordon does not always tie up her loose strings neatly. She has much to say about Eliot’s mother and ways in which the themes of her poetry foreshadow the poetry of her son; but after half a sentence on her visit to England in 1921 she effectively disappears without the formality of an obituary or a date. Other major events of Eliot’s life, like his vow of celibacy in 1928, his first wife’s drug addiction, and an abrupt cooling of relations with Bertrand Russell around 1920, are only glancingly referred to.
This is all part of a pattern of casual allusion rather than careful explicit assertion that makes Mrs. Gordon’s account of Eliot more provoking than it need have been. On page 25 of Eliot’s Early Years she illustrates the point that the sexes were segregated in the early nineteenth century by talking of the different rooms for teacups and trophies in Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island house; a reader doesn’t know if Eliot ever saw it, or knew about it, or what the circumstances of this devastating confrontation (if it ever happened) might have been. Again, she tells us that John Hayward did not understand what was meant in “Little Gidding” by the phrase “Zero summer”; but what the phrase actually does mean she does not say. (The matter is not beyond comprehension, and there’s a phrase on page 97 of Eliot’s New Life that may help, also a reference to Helen Gardner’s The Composition of Four Quartets, page 160; but for the reader in his moment of present trouble, there’s nothing.) “Zero summer,” contrasted with the present transitory moment,
—neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation,
seems to imply the obliteration of this life in the moment of flowering into a new one.
These are marginal and even gratuitous irritations on the fringe of what has become, with the publication of Mrs. Gordon’s second volume, an extremely interesting study. Her central argument twines together three main themes. Eliot is shown to have been a strongly, almost preeminently, American poet. This is not a novel insight, but it’s a good one, and Mrs. Gordon brings it out convincingly in connection with certain particular landscapes on which Eliot hung important emotional associations. Cape Ann on the north shore of Massachusetts, Casco Bay in Maine, and the Mississippi River as it flows by St. Louis are among the most important of these landscapes. A second and closely allied theme, of which we have not heard so much, is the poet’s longstanding friendship with Miss Emily Hale. About the basic facts there is not much question. Eliot got to know Miss Hale in 1911, perhaps as early as 1908; she was a friend of his first cousin, Eleanor Hinckley. For a while the acquaintance lay dormant; but about 1927 they began exchanging letters, and about 1930 they began meeting on both sides of the Atlantic—meeting quite openly and almost certainly (in the vulgar formula) platonically.
Mrs. Gordon makes a great deal of the relation with Emily Hale, and indeed there is apparently a great deal to be made; for Emily Hale was doubtless the accompanying female presence in “Burnt Norton,” she may well have provided a model for Celia in The Cocktail Party, and she haunted Eliot’s imagination for many years, until—but that is part of a third story. Her importance to Eliot must have been, for a while, enormous; she must have been the woman with whom—so Eliot confessed, though very discreetly, to another person—he had been in love for years. She surely ties in closely with the idea of an essentially American Eliot. But the fact is that Mrs. Gordon cannot tell us much that is very specific about the relation because all Emily Hale’s letters to Eliot were destroyed at his request, and his letters to her—numbering about a thousand—are sealed in the Princeton Library from public inspection until October 12, 2019. So this theme must be represented largely by Mrs. Gordon’s apparently sensible and perfectly well-mannered speculation. It is just rather hazy stuff.
A third theme runs deeper in Eliot’s life than the other two, is complexly entangled with both of them, and is a good deal harder for this reviewer to discuss or even describe: it is the matter of T.S. Eliot’s religion. This was a formative factor of major importance in his life and thinking, and because it was deeply personal, his experiences can be placed in a particular space and time. It was in June 1910 when Eliot, walking through the slum streets of Boston, experienced an intimation about which he wrote (but did not publish) a poem called “Silence.” Mrs. Gordon, who has seen it, says (Eliot’s Early Years, p. 15) it is in Eliot’s notebook and folder of miscellaneous manuscripts, in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. But she does not describe either its dimensions, its form, or in any close way its content. Though she says “this is a paraphrase,” what she is talking about could be no more than half a dozen words, and how much more there is to the poem a reader must guess for himself. Whatever it was, this brief, intense moment seems to have intimated to the twenty-one-year-old Eliot “that there was an area of experience just outside his grasp, which contemporary images of life could not compass.” In Paris a year or two later, in the hyacinth garden of The Waste Land, and in the rose garden of “Burnt Norton,” he experienced partial adumbrations of the same vision.