Eliot's Early Years
T.S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons
T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems
The strength of T.S. Eliot’s poetry depends on insights that mediate between morality and psychology. Eliot understood the shifting, paradoxical nature of our deepest emotions and judgments, and tried to embody this quality in his style. “All that concerned my family,” he once said, “was ‘right and wrong,’ what was ‘done and not done.’ ” It became the poet’s discovery that what is wrong when acted may be right when remembered, that today’s gladness justifies yesterday’s grief, and that religious serenity may be the upper side of skepticism.
Most of Eliot’s innovations of poetic technique strive to disorientate the reader. They give one a literary experience that follows the contours of reversible emotions. Reading Eliot’s lines sympathetically, one enters into a drama (often incomplete) of moral judgment imposing itself on a flux of contradictory moods. His ambitious effects are formal equivalents of the process by which insight interrupts experience.
The reason Eliot assigned such importance to ambiguous or paradoxical states is that he required high purpose to live by; and purpose involves choice. The eliciting of true decisions from evasive moods became for him a fundamental occupation. The people he grew up with were addicted to high-minded decisions “between duty and self-indulgence.” The affectionate claims of a talented, frustrated, overattentive mother led him to feel at once unworthy of his great opportunities and zealous to make the best use of them. Humble selfdoubt and immense aspiration were the obverse and reverse of his character.
Eliot came to make grave decisions secretly, and to disclose them suddenly, as if afraid that opposition might change his mind. His parents had no warning of Eliot’s first marriage, which followed his original meeting with the bride by only a couple of months. About the same time, he withdrew abruptly from the PhD course in philosophy at Harvard, although he had almost completed all the requirements for the degree.
When Eliot determined to be baptized into the Church of England, he told only the priest and the men who were to be his godfathers. The ceremony took place in an isolated country church behind locked doors. When he made up his mind to leave his first wife, he did not advise her beforehand. While visiting America by himself, to deliver a series of lectures, he wrote to his solicitor, telling him to draw up a deed of separation and asking him to deliver to Vivienne a letter from Eliot explaining the decision.
Again, when he was to be married a second time, Eliot did not even warn John Hayward, whose apartment he had been sharing for over a decade. Eliot asked his solicitor to arrange a secret ceremony; and the couple were married by special license in an out-of-the-way London church at half-past six in the morning.
Such cautious impulsiveness points to large stores of diffidence. Evidently the poet could not risk exposure to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.