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And the Silken Girls Bringing Sherbet’

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Snark/Art Resource
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 not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

While the whole Tradition versus Individual or Classical versus Romantic debate that this essay played a significant part in kick-starting has now come to seem as spectral as Eliot’s unreal commuters flowing over London Bridge, the concept of “escape” is likely to loom insistently in the thoughts of anyone working their way through these volumes: letter after letter reveals Eliot suffering from overwork, exhaustion, aboulie (want of will), emotional derangement, influenza, severe toothache, and impending nervous breakdown. Periodically he reports doctors ordering him to the country, or abroad, to take a complete rest as the only means of staving off some unimaginably dire collapse. Impossibly demanding commitments loom on all sides. “If there were the sound of water only,” one keeps thinking, “Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/But there is no water.” Occasionally a howl of despair escapes him: “In the last ten years,” he writes to John Middleton Murry in April 1925,

gradually, but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel….

And yet Eliot’s multifarious ailments and anxieties pale into insignificance when compared with those of his wife Vivien, whose relentless ill health and emotional and mental instability provide the dominant motif to swathes of his correspondence. If Eliot, like Dostoevsky, or his own Tiresias in The Waste Land, gained entry to his particular rhetorical world through weakness and hysteria, this portal was provided, in no small measure, by the woman whom he married after a courtship of not much more than two months, in June 1915. The match severely displeased his parents, his father in particular, though it delighted his new friend Ezra Pound. Pound was so eager to keep his prime discovery based in London that he urged the desirability of the union on both parties, and even wrote a long letter, included here, to Eliot’s father explaining the ins and outs of literary London, and the economic prosperity his protégé would soon be enjoying there.

Eliot aficionados have been kept waiting a long time for these letters, for reasons that have never been clearly explained. As his widow Valerie acknowledges in her introduction to Volume 1 (first issued in 1988, but since expanded with an extra two hundred newly discovered letters), although Eliot was on the whole inclined not to want his correspondence published, in his mellow old age he conceded that if Valerie herself would undertake the task, it wouldn’t be in defiance of his wishes.

The over-twenty-year delay between the first version of Volume 1 and these subsequent volumes rather encouraged the notion that a “smoking gun” lurked somewhere, and that the estate was suppressing it. Part of the fascination of Eliot’s poetry has always derived from its ability to suggest that, as in detective novels, of which he was an avid consumer, somewhere, inside or outside the poem, there lay buried a vital but elusive clue that, once discovered, would at last reveal all. No such revelation has emerged, though on occasions Eliot’s self-analysis does deploy terms that send a chill down the spine. The letter quoted above to Murry continues:

but it has killed V. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine—but yet I am frightened—because I don’t know what it will do to me—and to V.—should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses—I have deliberately died—in order to go on with the outward form of living—This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? “I am I” but with what feelings, with what results to others—Have I the right to be I—But the dilemma—to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?

A footnote alerts us to Sweeney’s haunting speech in Sweeney Agonistes, the unfinished play with which Eliot was struggling in these years, about the man who once “did a girl in,” and then kept her “with a gallon of lysol in a bath.” Like The Waste Land, this dramatic fragment was clearly a way for Eliot to model his peculiar marital situation:

He didn’t know if he was alive and the girl was dead
He didn’t know if the girl was alive and he was dead
He didn’t know if they both were alive or both were dead

It is striking that Sweeney delivers himself of such thoughts not only to the play’s two flighty London flapper types, Dusty and Doris, but also to a group of visiting Americans, who explain to their hosts that while London is “a fine place to come on a visit,” they couldn’t live there: “London’s a little too gay for us/Yes I’ll say a little too gay.” One catches in the lines something of Eliot’s sense of the unbridgeable gap that had opened up between the reassuring, if “ungay,” America of his family (he embarked on the play a couple of years after a visit from his mother, his sister Marian, and his brother Henry), and the “bad Russian novel” into which his decision to marry Vivien and attempt to forge a literary career in London had plunged him.

The comprehensive—perhaps, one can occasionally feel, rather too comprehensive—policy underlying this edition means we get a full sense of Eliot’s antecedents. Volume 1’s opening pages are mainly occupied by a string of letters from his mother Charlotte to the headmaster of Milton Academy negotiating entrance for the academic year 1905–1906 for the sixteen-year-old Tom, as an alternative to starting immediately at Harvard. Mr. Cobb is informed of young Eliot’s “congenital rupture,” which required him to wear a truss from an early age, and of her purchase of a “low steamer trunk” in which she wants his clothes to be kept so that they’ll remain free of dust.

A request from Tom for permission to swim in a quarry near the academy elicits a wary demand for more information, since she has seen “quarry ponds surrounded by steep rock that looked dangerous,” while her husband Henry is worried lest Tom catch typhoid. “One must be so careful these days,” as Madame Sosostris would later put it. Eliot Senior’s attitude toward the changes afoot in society is neatly captured in a letter of March 7, 1914, to his brother, Thomas Lamb Eliot:

I do not approve of public instruction in Sexual relations. When I teach my children to avoid the Devil I don’t begin by giving them a letter of introduction to him and his crowd. I hope that a cure for Syphilis will never be discovered. It is God’s punishment for nastiness. Take it away and there will be more nastiness, and it will be necessary to emasculate our children to keep them clean.

It is often suggested that some kind of sexual ambivalence or repression lay at the heart of Eliot’s difficulties, and certainly his poetry dramatizes contrasting extremes of male sexuality, swinging from the virginal self-consciousness of J. Alfred Prufrock to the primitive vigor of Sweeney, or the hero of his long-running smutty epic, the black King Bolo, whose priapic antics were outlined in cringe-making letters to chums such as Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Bonamy Dobrée. In 1927, in the last of these volumes, we find Eliot committing himself to a forbidding program of sanctity, chastity, humility, and austerity, yet at around the same period celebrating, in letters to Dobrée, King Bolo’s fecund powers in doggerel that would shame a hormonal schoolboy.

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