And the Silken Girls Bringing Sherbet’

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T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, 1920s

“It often seems to me very bizarre,” T.S. Eliot wrote, at the age of thirty-seven, to his older brother Henry, “that a person of my antecedents should have had a life like a bad Russian novel.” It’s probably Dostoevsky that Eliot had in mind here, about whom he had decidedly mixed feelings. In one of his London Letters for The Dial, written shortly before the publication of The Waste Land in the autumn of 1922, he observed that the Russian novelist had “an infinite capacity for taking no pains” with the technical aspects of fiction; on the other hand, he also conceded that Dostoevsky’s medical and emotional problems were the catalysts for his genius, suggesting that in his novels “epilepsy and hysteria cease to be defects of an individual and become—as a fundamental weakness can, given the ability to face it and study it—the entrance to a genuine and personal universe.”

What Eliot seems to be marveling at in his letter to Henry is the sheer unlikeliness of his journey from his comfortable Unitarian upbringing in St. Louis—with summers spent at the family holiday home in East Gloucester—to the extreme state of mind that found expression in The Waste Land, with its apocalyptic “hooded hordes swarming/Over endless plains,” its Gothic “bats with baby faces,” its horrifying glimpses into atrocity—“White bodies naked on the low damp ground,” its savage depictions of joyless sex, its unsparing portrayal of intolerable marital relations, its kaleidoscopic refractions of dysfunction and despair. These chunky tomes of his correspondence allow us to follow day by day, drop by harrowing drop, Eliot’s “rudely forced” metamorphosis into the poet of hysteria whose sufferings enabled him, like Dostoevsky, to find “the entrance to a genuine and personal universe.”

The word “personal,” however, was far from being a term of praise in Eliot’s critical vocabulary. He of course wanted his poetry to be “genuine,” or “echt,” to borrow the term Ezra Pound made use of to separate out the good bits from the bad bits on the drafts of The Waste Land; but to be personal was not what Eliot meant, not what he meant at all. Indeed, the ideal of the “impersonal” lay deep at the core of the aesthetic—and cultural and political—views that he propounded so magisterially in his criticism, and in many of the letters dispatched to his carefully chosen cadre of contributors to the magazine he edited, The Criterion, launched in October 1922, with financial backing from Lady Rothermere. Eliot summed up his concept of the impersonal most famously in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”; there he observes that

the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is …

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