The Beast in the Jungle

Eliot’s New Life

by Lyndall Gordon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pp., $19.95

The Letters of T.S. Eliot Vol. I, 1898–1922

edited by Valerie Eliot
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 639 pp., $29.95

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 …

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Letters

The Motives of T.S. Eliot December 22, 1988