Art, Life, and T. S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style

by Ronald Bush
Oxford University Press, 287 pp., $25.00

Among T.S. Eliot’s friendships, the longest-lived attachment to a woman was his connection with Emily Hale (daughter of a Bostonian architect who was also a minister), which began when he was a student at Harvard. Miss Hale (1891–1969) became a teacher of speech and drama, and the pair met during the 1930s in America and England. For decades, Eliot wrote to the lady often and regularly; but the correspondence ended in the late 1950s, when he married Valerie Fletcher. Miss Hale gave her friend’s letters to Princeton University, stipulating that they remain sealed until the year 2020.

In a new account of Eliot’s career as a poet, Ronald Bush offers some piquant reflections on the correspondence:

[These letters] were undoubtedly full of pointed silences. The letters, however, also must have resonated with that special kind of indulgent tenderness that two people assume when they can be attentive without deception. Yet that kind of tenderness has its dangers. For someone suffering the pains of a marriage like Eliot’s, the mannered intimacy of such letters can come to acquire the allure of a fantom that seems to need only a little extra attention to make it come alive. That feeling or something like it seems to have impressed itself on Eliot after he broke with Vivien in America. [P. 185]

Bush says that Emily Hale’s meetings with Eliot during the years 1932–1935 forced him to “confront one of his most firmly repressed wishes…. [She] beckoned him to start over again, and the thought intoxicated him” (pp. 185–186). Bush reminds us that the couple visited Burnt Norton together; and he then examines the poem “Burnt Norton” as a meditation on the longings aroused in the poet by the moments in the deserted garden.

Obviously, that garden seemed to Eliot a poignant symbol of the life he had missed; the title asks us to make the bridge. For those who have learned about the presence of Emily Hale in the scene, it is hard to exclude her from the story of the making of the poem. But nowhere in the verses do we meet the least allusion to the lady or the least need to think of her.

Bush’s opinions are not a contribution to the biography of the poet and not an illumination of the poem. They excite an interest in Eliot’s emotional development like that excited by the play Tom and Viv, which has been darkening the London stage. Yet Bush follows his suggestive introduction to “Burnt Norton” with a twenty-page analysis of the poem in which Emily Hale never appears.

The effect is a ubiquitous feature of literary biography. By demonstrating a mastery of the data of an artist’s life, by first stimulating and then satisfying our natural curiosity, the scholar seems to validate his authority to interpret and appraise the accomplishment of genius.Nevertheless, it is one mark of genius that the work transcends the circumstances of the life. The most detailed familiarity with a poet as son,…

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