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September 2022 Issue [Reviews]

An Hallucinated Man

The battles over T. S. Eliot’s legacy
T. S. Eliot, by Boris Artzybasheff, from the March 6, 1950, cover of Time magazine Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Bequest of the artist

T. S. Eliot, by Boris Artzybasheff, from the March 6, 1950, cover of Time magazine. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Bequest of the artist


An Hallucinated Man

The battles over T. S. Eliot’s legacy

Discussed in this essay:

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, by Robert Crawford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 512 pages. $35.

Eliot After The Waste Land, by Robert Crawford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 624 pages. $40.

In 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned, aged twenty-nine, in a sailing accident off the Italian coast. His cremation on a beach near Viareggio, which Lord Byron attended, later became the stuff of myth. Shelley’s poetry wasn’t widely read in his lifetime. It found a readership in an edition put together by his widow, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, with biographical notes presenting him as a doomed, angelic lyric poet. Mary, who outlived her husband by twenty-nine years, had sound reasons for promoting this view of him. Shelley’s radical politics, his atheism, and his philosophical objections to monogamy weren’t likely to go down well in Victorian Britain. Nor were the details of his first marriage, to Harriet Westbrook, who had drowned herself in a lake in a London park two years after he eloped with Mary. Shelley’s father, a politician and lawyer, didn’t encourage public discussion of these matters. But by the 1840s, hack biographers were circling and Shelley’s friends were writing memoirs.

All this triggered a conflict over Shelley’s life story, and access to his papers, that became a major test case for the way in which dead poets’ privacy would be handled in the nineteenth century. There were forged letters, blackmail attempts, pious manipulations of the evidence by Mary’s daughter-in-law, and angry exchanges in quarterly magazines. As Ian Hamilton wrote in Keepers of the Flame, his history of the fraught relations between biographers and literary estates, speculation about Shelley’s private life

became ridiculously intricate and vehement, with figures like Browning, Swinburne, John Addington Symonds and, of course, Rossetti, swapping clues and leads in the manner of juvenile philatelists. What it all came down to, much of the time, was a rehashing of the old insolubles: does poetic genius excuse or mitigate bad conduct; does/should knowing about the life have a bearing on how we read the work?

It wasn’t until 1886 that Edward Dowden, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, came through with a biography. He finessed the Harriet Westbrook question, in line with the family’s wishes, but appalled critics with disclosures about “irregular relations” (i.e., extramarital sex). Two years later, Henry James published The Aspern Papers, the longest of his many tales of biographical skulduggery. James modeled its setup on the story of Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, who may or may not have had an affair with Shelley, but, either way, guarded a trove of his letters until her death. There was another response to Dowden’s book at Oxford, where, in 1887, a history professor named Edward Freeman alluded to its revelations during a debate about whether the university should offer a degree in English literature. Without a healthy dose of historical linguistics, Freeman said, English studies would fill up with distasteful tittle-tattle. Freeman’s term for this was “mere chatter about Shelley.” His argument carried the day.

A hundred years after Shelley’s cremation, in 1922, Thomas Stearns Eliot, a Missouri-born, London-based man of letters, became the most influential literary figure in the English-speaking world. What got him there was a 434-line poem, The Waste Land. He held on to the position, in spite of a bumpy ride in the Thirties, until his death, at seventy-six, in 1965. The story of the poem’s composition later became the stuff of myth. There was even a memorable scene on a beach: the thirty-three-year-old “bank clerk”—a misleadingly Dickensian job description; Eliot worked for Lloyds Bank’s financial intelligence unit, monitoring German war reparations—scribbling cryptic fragments on the seafront in Kent while recovering from a nervous breakdown:

“On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect*

             la la

Old-guard reviewers, still recovering from Ulysses (published eight months earlier), thought the whole thing was a joke. Eliot’s performances as a critic sealed the deal, though. His gnomic catchphrases—“objective correlative,” “dissociation of sensibility”—weren’t invented with long-term use in mind. Eliot coined them in the handful of dazzlingly assured review-essays with which he conquered literary London after the First World War, and he seemed a bit embarrassed about them later. But young academics snapped them up. Eliot, they saw, took his analogies from science, not wine tasting. He focused on technique instead of history or biography. He used a dispassionate tone to enforce his passionate views. Here was a way to avoid mere chatter about Shelley—a poet for teenagers, with “repellent” notions, Eliot said—without having to make your students learn Old Norse. One of the professors he inspired, I. A. Richards, brought the gospel to the United States, where Eliot’s essays became sacred texts for the New Critics. Another, F. R. Leavis, trained so many future teachers that the effects were still felt in Britain in the Eighties.

A key concept in Eliot’s criticism was “impersonality.” Romantic individualism left him cold, which was one reason he had it in for Shelley. Slathering your emotions across the page while crossing your fingers about the versification was what bad readers expected and what bad poets did. Emotions needed to be bottled up, put under pressure, tested against “tradition”—another key concept. In Eliot’s use, this didn’t mean adherence to past practice, but the total system of verbal models stored in a writer’s memory, which, ideally, would encompass all previously existing literature. Behind the argument’s flashy turns was a simple point: storms of passion count for nothing if you don’t write well, because the only emotion a reader is going to see is “in the poem and not in the history of the poet.”

Eliot’s doctrines weren’t the only source for the prohibitions that became a standard part of midcentury literary education: the “intentional fallacy,” the “biographical fallacy,” and other New Critical guardrails against using inferences about an author to support an interpretive argument. Still, Eliot’s authority underpinned them. And the poetry underpinned the authority. The poems that made his name are nearly all dramatic monologues, or in The Waste Land’s case, chopped up bits of different dramatic monologues. The speakers are characters. There’s no stable subjective center, no lyric “I” that’s meant to be identified with the poet. Even the more defined characters, such as J. Alfred Prufrock, or the speaker in “Portrait of a Lady,” have to “borrow every changing shape / To find expression.” They piece themselves together out of allusions to other poems—allusions that suggest other identities, other lives. “The greater the poet,” Eliot admonished, or boasted, “the more elusive his personality.”

At the same time, most readers were keeping two sets of books. Outside the rules of engagement Eliot laid down, it was hard not to feel that there was, in fact, a fairly distinct personality behind the poems—hard, even, not to wonder about “the history of the poet.” There were lots of repressed, overcivilized characters, for example. There was an obsession with lives not lived or opportunities not taken. Often, the opportunities were sexual. The poems were interested in death too, but sex was more of a problem, associated with predatory women, sterile couplings, the lower orders satisfying their bestial appetites, and so on. There also seemed to be a terrible sadness behind the satire and erudition. Was the poet’s elusiveness a come-on? Was there a figure in his carpet, a beast in his jungle? Eliot’s pronouncements didn’t completely rule it out. “Of course, only those who have personality and emotions,” he wrote in his best-known essay, “know what it means to want to escape from those things.”

People who knew Eliot—Tom, to his friends—faced a similar problem. There was a gap between his self-presentation and the man they thought they knew him to be. The conundrum reached its peak in 1928, when Eliot, who grew up in St. Louis, and was still seen in some quarters as a poetic Bolshevik, announced that his point of view was now “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” Ezra Pound couldn’t believe it, and started calling him “Old Possum” to suggest he was lying low under his Anglican identity. Eliot played along, and often hammed it up, but made himself more English than the English with unsettling single-mindedness. By the Thirties, he resembled “a gentleman in full evening dress and white gloves attempting to put something right with the kitchen plumbing without soiling his attire,” as his own brother put it. “He gives you the creeps a little at first because he is such a completely artificial, or rather, self-invented character,” Edmund Wilson wrote. “But he has done such a perfect job with himself that you end by admiring him.”

Not surprisingly, speculation about Eliot’s personal life became ridiculously intricate and vehement. This was especially the case among the younger poets he published in his magazine, The Criterion, and, later, while he was a director at Faber and Faber. Hart Crane was convinced he was secretly gay. W. H. Auden surmised that his writing “arose out of a few visionary experiences, which probably occurred quite early in life.” A rumor that Eliot had decided to kill himself, then “funked it at the final moment,” raced around the poetry world in 1922. It took until 1962 for another Faber poet, Randall Jarrell, to state in public what was then a heretical position. Jarrell imagined the future saying

But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions?

Most of the salient details about Eliot had already begun to leak out: above all, the connection between The Waste Land and his torturous first marriage, to Vivien Haigh-Wood, who died in a mental hospital fourteen years after he initiated a legal separation. On the whole, it hasn’t been bad for the poem. The Waste Land’s eerie mythic structure is still intact—if taken less seriously than it used to be—and it still resonates hauntingly with the First World War and the cultural crisis that followed. The poem isn’t diminished by learning that Vivien wrote wonderful next to the nervy wife’s dialogue in the manuscript, or that the cockney monologue at the end of the same section was modeled after the speech of the Eliots’ housemaid, Ellen Kellond.

All the same, a feeling that a secret key to Eliot’s life and work must be out there somewhere has been amazingly persistent. And one explanation for its persistence has to do with his estate. In 1957, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, his secretary at Faber, who—so the story goes—had made it her life’s mission to get close to him after an overwhelming encounter with his poetry as a schoolgirl. Valerie, who was thirty-eight years his junior, outlived him by nearly half a century, and she administered the estate in line with his wishes, as far as anyone can tell. Her editions of Eliot’s drafts for The Waste Land, published in 1971, and his early letters, published in 1988, were milestones. But Eliot had been clear: “My own aim is to suppress my own biography.” When Lyndall Gordon and Peter Ackroyd went to work on his life, the estate made them paraphrase any letters they got their hands on.

There was also an unexpected delay. The second volume of letters, promised for “next year” in 1988, didn’t arrive until 2009. Along with the estate’s known hostility to biographers, the wait encouraged more speculation: Was Valerie Eliot hiding something? The Hart Crane theory of Eliot’s sexuality had one or two academic supporters, who pinned their hopes on a juicy letter to or from Jean Verdenal, one of Eliot’s student friends. Another possible sore spot was Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which generations of critics had ignored or explained away, with honorable exceptions, until it set off a big debate in the Nineties. Then there were his letters to Emily Hale, with whom he’d had some sort of relationship in the Thirties. They were outside the estate’s control, and embargoed until 2020. In 1988, though, Valerie revealed that Eliot had been “disagreeably surprised” when he learned that Hale had deposited the letters at Princeton. He had responded with an emotional statement, addressed to posterity, to be opened alongside the letters. In it, he denounced Hale’s action as “The Aspern Papers in reverse.”

A hundred years after The Waste Land, all the Eliot anyone could reasonably want, and then some, is on the table. The publication of his letters kicked into a higher gear in 2009 and hasn’t slowed since. Sheer bulk seems to have been behind the delay. Last year’s installment, volume nine, only brings the story up to 1941. There’s a comparably exhaustive edition of Eliot’s prose, in eight volumes. In Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue’s annotated edition of the poems from 2015—an extraordinary production, in two volumes—you can follow not just every possible verbal echo of everything Eliot might conceivably have read, but his changing pronunciations in the recordings he made. He said “saussages” in 1933 but “sorsages” in 1947, for example.

Eliot After The Waste Land, by Robert Crawford, a Scottish poet and emeritus professor at the University of St. Andrews, is the second half of a biography that began with Young Eliot, published in 2015. It gives Eliot what Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and the other men and women of 1922 have had, in most cases, for many years: a large-scale life that quotes its subject’s words extensively and draws on nearly all the evidence likely to turn up. Lyndall Gordon, the first biographer to piece together the Emily Hale story, in Eliot’s New Life, published in 1988, has her own de-paraphrased version in the works. But Crawford is first across the line with quoted evidence from the Hale letters, and from the full text of Eliot’s accompanying statement, which made for uncanny reading when the embargo ended in January 2020:

I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale . . . I came to see that my love for Emily was the love of a ghost for a ghost, and that the letters I had been writing to her were the letters of an hallucinated man, a man vainly trying to pretend to himself that he was the same man that he had been in 1914.

The Hale story begins at Harvard in 1912. Eliot, who was doing graduate work in philosophy, met her at a cousin’s house and took her out a few times. They had known each other, vaguely, as teenagers, and they both came from old, uptight, Unitarian New England families. Hale’s father forbade her to become an actor on the grounds that it was unladylike; Eliot’s father once reproved him “for using the vulgar phrase ‘O.K.’ ” In 1914, Eliot won a scholarship to Oxford. Before he left, he made an awkward declaration of love. Hale didn’t seem interested.

Eliot met Vivien Haigh-Wood—sometimes spelled “Vivienne”—the next spring, on a trip to London. Impressed by Eliot’s dancing, and rebuffed by a Harvard friend of his, Scofield Thayer, she turned her attention to Eliot. They married within two months. “To explain my sudden marriage,” Eliot says in the statement, which he wrote in the early Sixties, “would probably require a good many words, and yet the explanation would remain unintelligible.” He goes on: “I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair: I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody.” Eliot’s parents were dismayed, and closer acquaintance with Vivien didn’t change their minds. It was not “an eugenic marriage,” his mother remarked. But Pound encouraged the match as a way of keeping the astounding poet he’d discovered in England. Eliot never stopped being grateful to him—and, in spite of everything,
to Vivien—for rescuing him from the life of a Harvard professor.

As everyone now knows, the marriage wasn’t a success. Crawford thinks Vivien had an affair with, or at least slept with, the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He also thinks, on the evidence of the Hale letters, that Eliot strayed, once, in 1922. Eliot later told Hale that he’d tried to have a love affair, “over almost before it was begun,” with “a young society woman.” Crawford suspects that the woman was Nancy Cunard, a writer, heiress, and activist. Russell was an incorrigible sexual opportunist, and there weren’t many modernist culture heroes who didn’t pursue an affair with Cunard at the time, though Eliot’s definition of “adultery”—he seems to have used the word about the episode—might not have been everyone else’s. But the Eliots didn’t need to have affairs to make each other unhappy. They had so many neurotic ways of not addressing their basic incompatibility that Vivien’s deteriorating mental health came to seem routine. By the mid-Twenties, their home life had a Francis Bacon quality.

Hale entered the picture again in 1923, when Eliot ran into her while she was visiting London. A few years later, they started corresponding. As Eliot went through a crisis involving his turn to Christianity, Vivien’s invalidism, and his mother’s death, his letters got more and more intense and confessional. From 1930, he was sending her love letters, which likened her to Dante’s Beatrice, the Virgin Mary, and Emilia, the sexy but unavailable soulmate in Shelley’s poem “Epipsychidion.” Hale—who made a precarious living as a drama teacher at a series of undistinguished New England colleges—wasn’t “sure what to make of these outpourings” at first, but after his separation from Vivien, in 1933, they became a couple. Hale summered in England most years, and Eliot’s friends complained about having to put up with her. Woolf called her Eliot’s “American snob lady,” a “dull impeccable Bostonian.”

There was a catch: Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic beliefs meant he wouldn’t divorce Vivien, and sex was out of the question. Crawford doesn’t think there was anything so dramatic as a vow of celibacy, but the effect was much the same. Sexual sublimation fascinated Eliot—he associated it with the refining fire in his favorite passage from Dante. The situation seemed to suit him. Hale wasn’t so sure, and tried to get him to reconsider his position on divorce. “I can say wholly without overestimating my importance that if I had a divorce it would be the greatest misfortune to the Anglican Church since Newman went over to Rome,” he wrote back. (She had replaced his mother as the person he could boast to.) He began to suspect that she was more interested in his fame than she’d let on, and told her off for taking communion in an Episcopalian church while still a Unitarian—a reproach that’s reiterated in his posthumous statement. Enforced separation during the Second World War seems to have led to a cooling off, too.

Then Vivien died. Eliot sent Hale a long letter in which he likened himself to an Egyptian mummy, preserved “exactly as it was at the moment of embalming,” crumbling to dust when unwrapped. He now felt that he’d been living in a state of emotional arrest all through his marriage: that’s what the statement means by “an hallucinated man.” The upshot was that he didn’t want to marry Emily. When she finally got his drift—it took several letters, and a meeting—she was gracious about it, and stayed on friendly terms with him. Ten years later, she sent congratulations when Eliot married Valerie, then quit her job and had a breakdown. Apart from a cautious exchange about her giving the letters to Princeton, the correspondence ended. She outlived Eliot by four years.

In 1933, Eliot said in a lecture: “The biographical interest which Shelley has always excited makes it difficult to read the poetry without remembering the man: and the man was humourless, pedantic, self-centred, and sometimes almost a blackguard.” Even without the new letters, it would be easy to say the same about Eliot. Crawford tends to give him the benefit of the doubt, and supplies a bit more testimony than some readers might like from people who thought Vivien a demented harpy and Emily a tedious snob. But he doesn’t equivocate when it comes to Eliot’s anti-Semitism, to his politics more generally, and to one or two instances of breathtaking coldness.

It would be easy to make a case for a more appealing Eliot. He was generous to younger poets, kind to children, uncensorious about other people’s sex lives, funny about the “rheumatic pomposity” of his prose. It would also be easy to construct an Eliot whose existence revolved around guilt and suffering. Two years after he won the Nobel Prize, he was still sleeping in a grim bedroom with one bare bulb on a chain and “an ebony crucifix over the single bed,” as a horrified visitor reported. (The same visitor noticed “a Prince Albert hanging by itself” in the wardrobe, but this was presumably a double-breasted frock coat.) His religion wasn’t a comfort. “Little Gidding,” his last significant poem, isn’t optimistic about “the gifts reserved for age,” which include

          the shame

    Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others’ harm

    Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

That wasn’t his only mood, though. At the height of his infatuation, as he was preparing to leave his wife, he urged Emily to keep his letters. He wanted posterity to know about their secret happiness, he said. It was

natural, when one has had to live in a mask all one’s life, to be able to hope that some day people can know the truth, if they want it. I have again and again seen the impression I have made, and have longed to be able to cry “no you are all wrong about me, it isn’t like that at all; the truth is perfectly simple and intelligible, and here it is in a few words.”

The last sentence echoes “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem in which telling the truth about yourself isn’t quite so simple. And Eliot backtracked later on, of course. Still, “it isn’t the intimate and personal things that I would wish to conceal from the curious reader, when we are all gone,” he wrote in 1956. “One is not ashamed of one’s intense and passionate moments.” Perhaps a similar feeling made him preserve the terrible erotic poems about Valerie from his happy old age. But it’s hard to be certain about anything to do with this poet, a bad boyfriend—though he took Valerie out dancing when he was nearly seventy, and once offered to teach Woolf the Chicken Strut—whose personality remains elusive in spite of everything biography has thrown at him. As he wrote to Emily in one of the breakup letters: “I am far from sure that I yet know the truth about myself, but I am sure that no one else can.”

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