“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’s career, the second part of which has just been published eleven years after the first part, is not a proper biography (though it looks very much like one), but an imaginative analysis of Eliot’s mind and its workings. Eliot’s Early Years (1977) concerned itself with the first thirty-four years of Eliot’s development, concluding with an account of the assembly and sifting processes that led in 1922 to the publication of The Waste Land. The second book, Eliot’s New Life, with its not-so-covert allusion to Dante’s narrative of his poetic and spiritual development, devotes its primary attention to the last forty-three years of Eliot’s life. A curious reader will not fail to notice that Eliot’s “new life” begins in middle age, after (rather than before) the creation of his epic or epyllion. He may also wonder who is going to be the Beatrice of this story.

It should be said at once that both volumes are copiously researched, making reference to an impressive selection of unpublished or uncollected materials, including poems, lectures, letters, reviews. There are caches of materials to which Mrs. Gordon did not have access, but nobody else will have access to them until the twenty-first century. In his review of Eliot’s Early Years (The New York Review, February 9, 1978), Professor Irvin Ehrenpreis complained of inaccurate transcriptions; I’ve not been in a position to check more than a few of Mrs. Gordon’s citations, but unless some are much more serious than those Ehrenpreis discovered, the question of accuracy seems to me subordinate to the question of organization. Writing two books on Eliot’s complex and inward mind, at a distance of eleven years from each other, has produced a good deal of churning over the same material. The temporal division between the two books is not sharp, nor was it meant to be; but the repetitions, not only from one book to the other but within each volume, are enough to afflict an attentive reader with mal de mer.


Naturally, the effect is aggravated when the repetitions occur within a few pages of each other (as when the same anecdote occurs on pages 215 and 238 of Eliot’s New Life) or when perceptibly different versions of the same event are presented (e.g., there are differing accounts of the circumstances in which Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, was sent to a mental institution: EEY, p. 80; ENL, pp. 77–78). At best, because organization of the books is half-topical, half-chronological, the reader is called on to do a lot of hopping back and forth in time and space, across decades and oceans. Mrs. Gordon does not always tie up her loose strings neatly. She has much to say about Eliot’s mother and ways in which the themes of her poetry foreshadow the poetry of her son; but after half a sentence on her visit to England in 1921 she effectively disappears without the formality of an obituary or a date. Other major events of Eliot’s life, like his vow of celibacy in 1928, his first wife’s drug addiction, and an abrupt cooling of relations with Bertrand Russell around 1920, are only glancingly referred to.

This is all part of a pattern of casual allusion rather than careful explicit assertion that makes Mrs. Gordon’s account of Eliot more provoking than it need have been. On page 25 of Eliot’s Early Years she illustrates the point that the sexes were segregated in the early nineteenth century by talking of the different rooms for teacups and trophies in Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island house; a reader doesn’t know if Eliot ever saw it, or knew about it, or what the circumstances of this devastating confrontation (if it ever happened) might have been. Again, she tells us that John Hayward did not understand what was meant in “Little Gidding” by the phrase “Zero summer”; but what the phrase actually does mean she does not say. (The matter is not beyond comprehension, and there’s a phrase on page 97 of Eliot’s New Life that may help, also a reference to Helen Gardner’s The Composition of Four Quartets, page 160; but for the reader in his moment of present trouble, there’s nothing.) “Zero summer,” contrasted with the present transitory moment,

—neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation,

seems to imply the obliteration of this life in the moment of flowering into a new one.

These are marginal and even gratuitous irritations on the fringe of what has become, with the publication of Mrs. Gordon’s second volume, an extremely interesting study. Her central argument twines together three main themes. Eliot is shown to have been a strongly, almost preeminently, American poet. This is not a novel insight, but it’s a good one, and Mrs. Gordon brings it out convincingly in connection with certain particular landscapes on which Eliot hung important emotional associations. Cape Ann on the north shore of Massachusetts, Casco Bay in Maine, and the Mississippi River as it flows by St. Louis are among the most important of these landscapes. A second and closely allied theme, of which we have not heard so much, is the poet’s longstanding friendship with Miss Emily Hale. About the basic facts there is not much question. Eliot got to know Miss Hale in 1911, perhaps as early as 1908; she was a friend of his first cousin, Eleanor Hinckley. For a while the acquaintance lay dormant; but about 1927 they began exchanging letters, and about 1930 they began meeting on both sides of the Atlantic—meeting quite openly and almost certainly (in the vulgar formula) platonically.

Mrs. Gordon makes a great deal of the relation with Emily Hale, and indeed there is apparently a great deal to be made; for Emily Hale was doubtless the accompanying female presence in “Burnt Norton,” she may well have provided a model for Celia in The Cocktail Party, and she haunted Eliot’s imagination for many years, until—but that is part of a third story. Her importance to Eliot must have been, for a while, enormous; she must have been the woman with whom—so Eliot confessed, though very discreetly, to another person—he had been in love for years. She surely ties in closely with the idea of an essentially American Eliot. But the fact is that Mrs. Gordon cannot tell us much that is very specific about the relation because all Emily Hale’s letters to Eliot were destroyed at his request, and his letters to her—numbering about a thousand—are sealed in the Princeton Library from public inspection until October 12, 2019. So this theme must be represented largely by Mrs. Gordon’s apparently sensible and perfectly well-mannered speculation. It is just rather hazy stuff.


A third theme runs deeper in Eliot’s life than the other two, is complexly entangled with both of them, and is a good deal harder for this reviewer to discuss or even describe: it is the matter of T.S. Eliot’s religion. This was a formative factor of major importance in his life and thinking, and because it was deeply personal, his experiences can be placed in a particular space and time. It was in June 1910 when Eliot, walking through the slum streets of Boston, experienced an intimation about which he wrote (but did not publish) a poem called “Silence.” Mrs. Gordon, who has seen it, says (Eliot’s Early Years, p. 15) it is in Eliot’s notebook and folder of miscellaneous manuscripts, in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. But she does not describe either its dimensions, its form, or in any close way its content. Though she says “this is a paraphrase,” what she is talking about could be no more than half a dozen words, and how much more there is to the poem a reader must guess for himself. Whatever it was, this brief, intense moment seems to have intimated to the twenty-one-year-old Eliot “that there was an area of experience just outside his grasp, which contemporary images of life could not compass.” In Paris a year or two later, in the hyacinth garden of The Waste Land, and in the rose garden of “Burnt Norton,” he experienced partial adumbrations of the same vision.

Of course it is very hard to think of a topic defined only by the fact that contemporary (this seems to mean “everyday”) images of life cannot compass it. Indescribable experiences are traditionally hard to describe, especially when all one has to go on is a partial paraphrase of a description of what may have been an access of emotion, an auditory experience, or a syncope. Still, we are probably not far wrong in thinking that “Silence” described a moment of surcease from the tumult and anxieties of the everyday world—and these for Eliot manifested themselves primarily in the squalid scrimmage of appetitive impulses characteristic of a commercial, mechanical society; and in the temptations and incitements of sex.

Why Eliot should have taken so harsh a view of the other sex is harder to explain than his antipathy to the world of money making. His father owned and operated the Hydraulic Press Brick Company in St. Louis, but that never struck him as a particularly degrading source of income. More likely he was disturbed by the swarming metropolis of Boston, within which the old, genteel, rather frigid Athens of America was being submerged by waves of uncultured capitalists and hordes of raw immigrants. But the animus against women was something else; he seems to have feared and hated the sex on principle, before he had any particular experience of them. In his later life he depended for support and sympathy on a long series of “exceptional” women whose immense value to him hardly disturbed at all the categorical contempt and dislike he expressed for the sex at large. What he shuddered to contemplate was the combination of physical intimacy with emotional entanglement; as a line canceled from The Waste Land manuscript put it, women are creatures of “unreal emotions and real appetite,” predatory and degrading in both aspects.

His first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he married (in 1915) abruptly, impulsively, and without consulting either family or friends, fulfilled Eliot’s worst nightmares. From the first, he was unable to satisfy her sexually. She suffered from an endless variety of symptoms and some chronic ailments; she was fretful, hysterical, self-pitying, and ferociously outspoken. At the same time, she was intelligent, witty, devoted, and dynamic. Vivienne supplied a great deal of the driving force (which Eliot lacked) that turned him away from an academic and toward a literary career. She harried him, she pushed him. Nobody has had a good word for Vivienne, but Eliot (as long as he could put up with her) profited from her instincts and energies. She made him an utterly miserable man, and, with the help of Ezra Pound, the greatest poet he was ever to be. The agonies she inflicted on him must have been cruelly bitter for Eliot. He suffered what he had long dreaded; he was trapped forever (neither partner could endure the thought of divorce); he never could explain his original impulse; and he had discarded a gentle, adoring woman (Emily Hale) with whom he would shortly be in love.

It is almost inescapable that Eliot’s original deep sex-disgust (“bestial appetite” was his term for it) was at the root of his erotic troubles; and it was from this contamination primarily that the purity of the Silence offered relief. The path it proposed, if not that of sainthood (can one actually fix one’s career goals on becoming a saint?), certainly pointed toward a contemplative, solitary life devoted to the intellectual, and exclusive, love of God. The second adjective is important. For reasons that can only be guessed, Eliot felt from the beginning that love of God did not include—in fact, somehow precluded—love of God’s creatures, such as men and women. It wouldn’t be improper to speak of a Puritan or Calvinist strain in Eliot’s religious constitution, except that Puritanism and Calvinism are not inherited characteristics. The impulse to a monastic existence was always before him; whether as a way to escape one sphere of being or to seek for another must have been—as it still is—inextricably unclear.

What seems certain is that the act of decision, to accept or reject the “temptations of this world,” was almost always painful—abrupt, solitary, and (exceptionally so for this judicious, meditative man) impulsive. He did not notify his family before his first marriage, to a girl whom he had known only briefly; before his second marriage, he did not say a word to intimate friends of long standing. Both decisions apparently lay too deep for discussion, perhaps even for inner debate. And breaking ties was even harder; he did not always behave kindly in discarding people for whom he had no further use.

Though his first marriage must have been effectively over as early as 1928, when he took a vow of celibacy, Eliot allowed it to drag on until 1933, when, writing from America, he had his solicitor break to Vivienne the word of her dismissal. After that, he refused to have anything to do with her, resorting to office subterfuges and secret hideouts to keep out of her way. Then in 1938 he and her brother Maurice signed papers consigning the wretched, impossible woman to a mental institution. Eliot before her commitment and Maurice after it both expressed the view that she was quite sane; but in the asylum she remained, and Eliot never wrote to her or called on her. She made one desperate attempt to escape, but it failed, and she died in 1947, completely alone.

The dissolution of his relation with Emily Hale was more gradual but no less cold in the end. They had been acquainted for more than twenty years, and had been corresponding regularly for seven or eight when in 1934–1935 she abandoned her job teaching drama at Scripps College in California and came to visit in England near Eliot. It seems very likely that they visited Burnt Norton together; it seems almost certain that she was the person he had in mind when he told his confessor that he had found a Beatrice equivalent to lighten his spiritual darkness. While Vivienne lived, there could be no question in view of Eliot’s religious convictions of a formal alliance, though beyond any doubt that was what Miss Hale anticipated. But when after Vivienne’s death Eliot’s sister-in-law Theresa invited to her house both the poet and his intimate lifelong friend (May 1947), Eliot no sooner caught sight of Emily than he left the room in a fury. Was it because his Beatrice suddenly available as a life-partner, now appeared as an obstacle to his spiritual and perhaps his poetic ambitions? Or was it nothing but the old sex-disgust, revulsion against the prospect of intimacy in any form? In either event, he would not be eased into matrimony. He gave Miss Hale to understand exactly where she stood, which was nowhere; and when, ten years later, he married for the second time, he cut off all communication with her, refusing to answer her gentle and very correct business letters as if she were an unclean thing.*

It is well known from the literature that a visionary, seeking to soar into the highest levels of contemplative insight, must cut himself off from the things, and the people, of this everyday sensual world. But Eliot, when he took a turn away from his ascetic and contemplative ideal, did not seem to think he owed a word of thanks or even explanation to those who had devoted years of their own existence to supporting him. His decision to marry a second time brought eight years of gentle contentment at the end of his life; nobody aware of the hell he had passed through from 1915 to 1938 can think of begrudging him those moments of happiness. Yet surely the transition could have been managed with a bit more respect for the feelings of his closest friends, John Hayward and Mary Trevelyan. They had acted as his “Guardians”—appointed by him—for better than a decade. He knew how Mary felt about him; she had twice proposed. He cannot have been unaware of the degree to which Hayward, suffering from a terminal case of muscular dystrophy, depended on his friendship. They had—perhaps only with his tacit consent, but to his immense personal advantage—built a cocoon of comfort, reassurance, and protection around this curiously fearful man. He had used them for years. To disappear, then, without a word said, and communicate only by letter the news of his second marriage—to communicate only when his worried friend was on the point of calling the police to look for him—was not an act incident to a spiritual calling but that of a cold and unfeeling heart.

Lyndall Gordon very charitably steers away from this conclusion. She is glad that Eliot found happiness, if only at the age of sixty-eight; and so must every sympathetic reader be. But where does this conclusion to Eliot’s new life leave the via negativa, the dark night of the soul, the agonizing search for atonement, the abatement of original sin, and all that? For some of us who are stuck in the mud and murk of this world it will seem that Eliot after 1957 had more need to atone for sins against his three friends, Emily, Mary, and John, than for anything he did in the long earlier period of his public penance. Had he decided that the message received from the Silence was a delusion after all? Did he think that with the final revelation so close, there was no need to seek a preliminary revelation in this life? If domestic bliss was the ultimate answer in 1957, why hadn’t it been the answer in 1947? Was the ascetic contemplative Eliot only another mask to be dropped like the rest when no longer convenient? These are horrifying questions, and they will surely receive many different answers. But they are the questions with which this rendering of the life leaves us. Flaying Eliot, which is what a close search for the man behind the masks amounts to, alters his person radically for the worse.

Mrs. Gordon makes much, and properly, of parallels between Eliot’s life and some of Henry James’s late stories: “The Beast in the Jungle” provides one of the most apt analogies. John Marcher, the reader will recall, is under the overpowering impression that he is being kept for a happening rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible. He enlists the company of May Bartram to wait with him for the impending event. Time passes; nothing seems to occur. On her deathbed May tells him that the event has already taken place, but only after she is dead does he realize, in his bleak desolation, what it was. It was his frigid, self-centered failure to recognize or respond to her devotion. The story of T.S. Eliot and Emily Hale can be given that spin; the dismissal of Mary Trevelyan and John Hayward only deepens the darkness.

May Bartram, in James’s story, very likely gets her name from William Bartram, the intrepid Quaker explorer of American jungles; Eliot’s disappointed and sometimes embittered friends clearly felt, and sometimes said, they had never known the man. They had known, to their sorrow, the jungle inside the man, they had faced the glaring beast of selfishness in the depths of the jungle. But that’s a biographer’s conclusion, not a poet’s.

Alongside the second volume of Lyndall Gordon’s memoir (we must not call it a biography) comes the first of a new series of Eliot documents, a collection of letters, the first volume of which extends from 1899 to 1922. Forty-three years of Eliot’s later life remain to be covered by volumes still to come, perhaps as many as four. Valerie Eliot, who did such an admirable job in preparing the facsimile drafts and annotations of The Waste Land, is responsible for this edition of the correspondence—a task in which she has her late husband’s blessing. It will be no small task. According to word from the publisher, Eliot’s correspondence may run to more than three thousand pages (five volumes of about six hundred pages per volume), and yet amount to only a selection—which is a word that sets scholars’ teeth on edge.

For families and literary executors, who take a protective attitude toward the memory of a writer, have in fact been known to expunge unwelcome facets of their subject’s character. I do not imply that Mrs. Eliot has done any such thing; but she does talk about “principles of selection,” in which her husband evidently felt confidence, and she says remarkably little about what those principles are. It isn’t just that one wants to know the last sordid tidbits about Eliot’s life; one wants also to be able to say that they positively aren’t true, if they aren’t. At a Paris pension in 1910–1911 Eliot had a friend named Jean Verdenal; after a brief acquaintance, Eliot went back to America and Verdenal pursued his medical studies until he was killed at the Dardanelles in 1915. Speculation, rising to formal statement in a book (by James E. Miller, Jr., T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land, 1977) has hypothesized a homosexual relation and an expression of grief for Verdenal in the “Phlebas the Phoenician” section of The Waste Land. I’m no more persuaded by the second part of the argument than by the first and the chatty letters from Verdenal to Eliot now published give no support to either one; but if there were letters confirming either part, what assurance can we have that Mrs. Eliot would print them? She has not said explicitly what she would or wouldn’t do.

Editorially, the new series of Eliot letters is being given a handsome treatment, with extensive footnotes, copious illustrations, a succinct biographical commentary containing much factual material not in the letters, and a thoroughly useful index. Where the letters happen not to deal with important events in Eliot’s inner and outer lives, interpolated editorial comments eked out by the biographical commentary help to keep the story reasonably consecutive. Still, it’s a jumpy procedure at best, and it will be an agile, determined, and very imaginative reader who is able to make of the letters a substitute for an insightful, full-length biography. For example, the three themes out of which Lyndall Gordon wove her study of Eliot’s mind hardly ever rise to articulate expression in the correspondence.

To turn to the letters themselves, while it is true that many of them, and not the least interesting, are off limits until the next century, plenty remain; a rough estimate of the present volume, which does not number its letters, is that it contains about 650. Not all are actual Eliot letters; for the sake of making an intelligible text, a good many letters from other people to Eliot are included, along with some between second and third parties with Eliot as the subject of discussion. Very likely the letters of the present volume, covering the years of desperate struggle before recognition arrived, will prove to be the most revealing. Later on, as Eliot became a public figure, there is reason to think he became more guarded and impersonal in his private correspondence, as in his public statements. Even so, it must be confessed that among the present letters a good deal of inert material must be strained out in one’s search for the vivid insight and keen judgment of a poet. Social engagements, money worries, flat rentals, family concerns, and personal gossip are, from a strictly literary point of view, inert material; and there’s a lot of it. As Eliot settled into his double editorial roles at the Criterion and at Faber & Faber, he wrote thousands of marginal comments on manuscripts, notes to printers and authors, and letters to assorted people in the book business. These are by no means negligible documents; Eliot once said that most of his critical work had taken this form. But there’s too much material to reproduce in full, and a lot of it depends on context; Mrs. Eliot will surely have to exclude most of it, and perhaps limit herself to a brief sample.

Reading over the present letters as brute chronology has arranged them, one is impressed by the way Eliot put on different voices when writing to different correspondents. With his older brother Henry he could be downright schoolmasterish; with his mother affectionate and exasperated; with Conrad Aiken jocose and bawdy; with Mary Hutchinson serious and sensitive; he could even respond in kind to Ezra Pound’s “Ole Ez” screeds—buffoonish as they were on the surface, but full of good sense, sharp poetic judgment, and a generosity of spirit for which Pound has only lately started to receive credit. The cut-and-paste process of piecing The Waste Land together from disparate fragments was well documented in Mrs. Eliot’s 1971 facsimile and transcript of those prepublication materials. (Pound was at his absolute best in getting rid of Fresca the literary lady, an extended fishing expedition off the Grand Banks, and some types out of Sweeney Agonistes, while retaining Phlebas in the poem over Eliot’s misgivings.) The present correspondence adds something to the story of that process, but nothing like what the 1971 publication adds to the letters.

Overall, the letters contain rather an oversupply of complaining and bewailing—too much to make agreeable reading. Some of these lamentations were surely justified; Eliot had every reason to feel exhausted when, after working all day in a bank six days a week, he returned home to nurse a perpetually ailing wife, to write reviews for money in his spare time, and to compose what poetry he could in odd minutes. But even when things were not as distressful as that, Eliot often fell into a querulous and plaintive tone. The man who later in life went to hospital for a case of athlete’s foot was not one to underplay the minor discontents of existence.

Among literary letters not written deliberately for publication, the standard is set by those of Byron, which are as fresh and invigorating to read as the first cantos of Don Juan. Eliot doesn’t approach that class, and now we have entered the age of the telephone and the FAX machine it doesn’t seem that we will ever again have letter writers of such a free and spacious expressiveness. But this raises the perhaps ungrateful question whether his correspondence is really the most precious and urgent part of the surviving Eliot legacy. Mrs. Gordon, who seems to have spent much time among the manuscripts, reports several unpublished essays, such as one on the Bible (December 1932), two lectures on the development of Shakespeare’s verse (1937 and 1941), a goodly number of obscure reviews, a radio interview of significance, a Paris lecture, and a 1939 article on the language of poetry—not to mention still unpublished poems like “Silence,” “The Burnt Dancer,” “The Love Song of Saint Sebastian,” and “First Debate Between Body and Soul.” There may be copyright or testamentary problems with this material; but it seems exasperating not to have readily available all the literary work of the major poet-critic of the twentieth century.

Still, it’s no use repining; the correspondence is what we now have and what we’re going to get, and there are revelations in it that anyone who owes a debt to Eliot will treasure. (That includes anyone who’s been interested in the development of English literature over the last seventy-five years.) How gentle he was with Harold Peters, an old sailing companion who turned up in London at a time when Eliot was wild with other business! How human his discovery that his mother, visiting England at age seventy-seven, was not a sedentary old biddy at all, but could run him off his feet! There is a lovely letter describing the spider’s nest of gossip, wounded feelings, backbiting, and preening that made up the London literary coterie involving Virginia Woolf, Mary Hutchinson, Clive Bell, and Ottoline Morrell. These are vignettes, hardly more. The best literary talk in the book is with Pound; reverberations from Eliot’s deeper lives are few. But that, after all, is not what personal letters are for. It’s been said that language was given to man to conceal his thoughts. One might write a curious study of Eliot, starting from there.

This Issue

November 10, 1988