Dec/Jan 2012

He Grew Old

How the sensitive young poet became a disciplined man of letters

Marjorie Perloff


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T. S. Eliot in Cambridge, MA, 1956.

Volume 1 of The Letters of T. S. Eliot, which takes us from the poet’s childhood in St. Louis through The Waste Land, appeared in 1988, the year of Eliot’s centenary; the revised edition, meticulously edited by the poet’s widow, Valerie Eliot, this time with the help of Hugh Haughton, adds some two hundred additional letters, many of them negligible but some containing real revelations, as do the amended notes. Volume 2, more than twenty years in the making, covers only the years 1923–25. Given that Eliot was to live for another forty years, and that these first two volumes run to more than 1,800 pages, one wonders when and even whether this multivolume edition will reach conclusion.

Never mind: The story these volumes tell is so fascinating that I could not put them down. The young Tom Eliot, who graduated from Harvard in 1910 and set out for a year of study in Paris, is a figure straight out of a Henry James novel—a self-conscious, aesthetically inclined innocent abroad in an age when Puritan norms still ruled the American scene. “I do not approve of public instruction in Sexual relations,” the poet’s father, Henry Ware Eliot (the president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis), wrote his brother Bob in 1914. “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.” Eliot’s mother (herself an intellectual and poet) was not at all happy about her son’s plan to spend a year in France. “I cannot bear to think of your being alone in Paris,” she wrote him, “the very words give me a chill. English speaking countries seem so different from foreign. I do not admire the French nation, and have less confidence in individuals of that race than in English.” But it was precisely “that race” to which young Tom was drawn. In Left Bank Paris he came into his own: At his pensione, for one thing, he befriended a medical student named Jean Verdenal, from whom six chatty and warm letters in French are included (the letters to Verdenal were evidently lost). Back at Cambridge, Eliot began work on a doctorate in philosophy, but Europe—and especially Paris—kept beckoning. In 1914, preparing for a fellowship year at Oxford, he chose to spend the summer in Marburg so as to improve his German. Less than a month after he had settled in this “charming . . . wonderfully civilised little place,” war was declared, and Eliot fled to London. Here he soon made friends with another young American poet, Ezra Pound, who promised to publish “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry magazine. “The devil of it is,” Eliot complained to his old Harvard friend Conrad Aiken in September 1914, shortly before taking up residence at Merton College, “that I have done nothing good since J. A[lfred] P[rufrock] and writhe in impotence. . . . Sometimes I think—if I could only get back to Paris. But I know I never will, for long. I must learn to talk English. . . . I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry—three years ago.”

Worry about what? By December, Eliot confides to Aiken, “In Oxford I have the feeling that I am not quite alive—that my body is walking about with a bit of my brain inside it, and nothing else. As you know, I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books, and hideous pictures on the walls.” It wasn’t just university towns that were oppressive. In London, “one walks about the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches. . . . I have been going through one of those nervous sexual attacks which I suffer from when alone in a city. . . . I should be better off, I sometimes think, if I had disposed of my virginity and shyness several years ago.”

Paris had somehow been different. In a revealing letter newly included (December 12, 1921), the poet’s brother, Henry, writes to their mother, “The strain of going out among people who after all are foreigners . . . has, I think, been to him pretty heavy. I remember a year or more ago, in a letter to me, he spoke of always having to be keyed up, alert to the importance of appearances, always wearing a mask among people. To me he seemed like a man playing a part.” What makes the letters so distinctive is that here Eliot—the poet Pound would later christen “The Possum”—sometimes lets down his guard. And when he does, we can see that despite Eliot’s famous claim that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1919), the poems from “Prufrock”and “Portrait of a Lady” to The Waste Land are nothing if not autobiographical.

On May 2, 1915, Eliot received the terrible news that Jean Verdenal had been killed in action in the Dardanelles. Prufrock and Other Observations, published in 1917, was dedicated to Verdenal; many years later, in a 1934 editorial for The Criterion, Eliot was to recall, “I am willing to admit that my own retrospect is touched by a sentimental sunset, the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later . . . to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli.” We can only speculate what Eliot must have felt at the time, especially since he couldn’t really talk about his feelings to anyone. Less than two months later, at any rate, the twenty-six-year-old poet finally “disposed of [his] virginity” by suddenly marrying a young Englishwoman exactly his age named Vivien Haigh-Wood, whom he had met at a party in Scofield Thayer’s rooms at Oxford. “I am much less suppressed, and more confident, than I have ever been,” Eliot wrote his brother soon after the wedding, and to his father, “She has everything to give that I want, and she gives it.” But within a month, with Eliot briefly back in the US, to consult on his future with his Harvard professors and family, Vivien was writing flirtatiously, in a newly included letter, to Thayer (August 2, 1915):

Tom has gone to America without me. . . . Rather unwise perhaps to leave so attractive a wife alone and to her own devices! However—I did not at all want to go—I am frightened of the voyage and the submarines—and preferred to remain and play my own little games alone. . . . It is very nice being Mrs Stearns-Eliot (notice the hyphen). I am very popular with Tom’s friends—and who do you think in particular? No less a person than Bertrand Russell!!! He is all over me, is Bertie, and I simply love him. I am dining with him next week.

Russell turned out to be the evil genius of the Eliot household: While offering young Eliot his flat, his country house, and various opportunities for employment, he was, on the side, “entertaining” Vivien. “She says she married [TSE] to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it,” Russell wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell. In later years, Eliot refused to have anything to do with him.

Had war not broken out in 1914, Eliot might have lived a very different life and—more important—become a very different poet. As it was, he was now forced to recognize that his future was in England. Vivien’s endless neurasthenic illnesses, his now-dimmed prospects for a university position in the US, and the difficulty of earning any sort of living made his life nearly unbearable, although, with the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations, he was beginning to make his name. The letters of the war years, in any case, make for painful reading, with Eliot trying hard to convince his family that he had not “made a mess of [his] life, as they are inclined to believe.” Then suddenly, on January 7, 1919, the poet’s father died of a heart attack. A few days earlier Henry Ware Eliot had written to his brother, “My Tom is getting along now and has been advanced at the bank [Lloyds of London] so that he is independent of me. Wish I liked his wife, but I don’t.” Now the father was never to know of his son’s literary success. It was a devastating blow. Eliot compensated by planning for his mother and sister Marion to visit him. The correspondence detailing the descent on London of these well-meaning but overbearing ladies again has a Jamesian cast, the adoring son counting the days till they left. For by this time, Eliot was fiendishly busy, his Poems (1919) and critical essays in The Sacred Wood having generated dozens of commissions for reviews and articles. He was working hard at Lloyds and beginning an active London social life, all the while caring for an increasingly ill and demanding Vivien. By the end of 1921, Eliot had a complete nervous breakdown and was sent to Lausanne to recover. On the way back via Paris, he showed Pound his drafts for The Waste Land. The story of Pound’s cuts, transpositions, and omissions, almost all of them accepted graciously and even submissively by Eliot, is well known (see Valerie Eliot’s facsimile edition of The Waste Land), but read in the context of the letters, Eliot’s decision to do just about everything Pound suggested is even more remarkable. The later, more confident Eliot would not be so deferential.

Volume 2 picks up the story after Eliot has become famous as the author of The Waste Land and has become editor of a new quarterly called The Criterion. The new Eliot—and we can register the change toward the end of volume 1, even before The Waste Land is published and wins the Dial award—has deliberately become a different person. Gone is the sensitive and sympathetic young poet, confiding his doubts and fears to his brother, Henry. In his place we have the brisk and efficient Man of Letters who has learned all too well “to prepare a face to meet the faces that one meets.” This new self-consciously English TSE is busy courting the Establishment: Grand Old Men like George Saintsbury (Eliot addresses him as “the most eminent English critic of our time”), French luminaries from Paul Valéry to Jean Cocteau, and German writers from Hermann Hesse to the scholar Ernst Curtius. He is eager to publish Proust because of the latter’s renown but tells a friend that “I am . . . of the opinion that he is not a ‘classical’ writer.” There is even an unctuous letter to “His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Sweden” (January 30, 1924) asking for a short story or other piece of writing, only to have a secretary respond that Eliot must mean HRH Prince Wilhelm of Sweden since the crown prince “has never written anything that has been published.”

Eliot’s attitude toward his fellow Americans is very different. Even as he flatters—not always sincerely—Virginia Woolf (about whom he can also be very catty), he ignores American poets like Hart Crane, and when William Carlos Williams submits an essay on Marianne Moore, Eliot responds politely that “we are absolutely full for the next six months.” The treatment of Moore (and indeed women poets in general) is especially harsh. When, in her capacity as editor of The Dial, Moore politely rejects one of Vivien Eliot’s short stories, Eliot is livid:

I have hitherto praised your work both in America and here, without reserve, especially here: where the literary public sees in it no merit whatever. I have championed you in the face of derision and indifference, and I had the right to expect better treatment from you. . . . I do not intend to endure this manoeuvre, and I propose to put all the readers of the Dial whom I know—and I know a good many—in possession of the facts.

In later years, Eliot and Moore made up, but this and many similarly cruel and sarcastic letters leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Increasingly, in his capacity as editor, Eliot oscillates between deferentiality and condescension, with the result that The Criterion soon becomes a staid and unexciting journal.

One writer who regularly rebuked Eliot on his choices was his old friend Ezra Pound. “But for yr. connection with the review,” Pound complained of the eighth issue, “I couldn’t go on appearing with this bunch of dead mushrooms.” And again: “I can stand your conservatism, and scholarship, but not the Bloomsbury mush that seems to get between yr. chinks. . . .You CANT possibly think 3/4th of the stuff in this years Crit. has been in se worth printing.” Eliot defensively responds, “I ask you to cite one writer of first merit whom I have not tried to get?” But by “first merit” he increasingly means the tried and true, the established, the eminent. No avant-garde wanted here, and no risk-taking. Surprisingly, it is Pound who emerges as the good guy in this volume—the authentic poet who won’t sell out and is always ready to assist Eliot when he is down or help Vivien when she is having one of her crises—and Eliot who makes anti-Semitic remarks one instinctively associates with Pound. Annoyed at not receiving the promised Waste Land royalties from his New York publisher Horace Liveright, Eliot grumbles to his patron John Quinn, “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers. . . . I wish I could find a decent Christian publisher in New York who could be trusted not to slip and slide at every opportunity.”

Irritating as this later Eliot is, I found myself sympathizing with the busy correspondent who never has enough money, who has to jump through endless hoops so as to secure, finally, a position on the board of Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber) that makes it possible for him to resign at last from Lloyds Bank. And throughout, Eliot is undergoing his day-to-day nightmare with Vivien (they did not separate until 1933). “In the last ten years,” he tells 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—but it has killed V[ivien]. . . . 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.”

Was the “killing of the senses” equivalent to the killing of the poetic instinct? In 1925 it seemed that way, both to Eliot and to his readers. But the story is hardly over: Eliot’s next incarnation, that of British citizen, self-declared “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion,” and the author of Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets, is yet to come. In the meantime, volume 2 gives a beautifully detailed and painful picture of Eliot’s difficult conquest of a London still shadowed by the cataclysm of the most meaningless and devastating of wars, a London in which all of Eliot’s London correspondents, even the very affluent or aristocratic ones, seem to suffer from repeated bouts of influenza, upset stomach, bad nutrition, and inadequate central heating. Everyone is always leaving town for warmer climates or at least for the English countryside. Vivien is often ill for weeks at a time, and both Eliots are constantly consulting different medical specialists. Servants, de rigueur before the war, are harder and harder to come by. In this climate, Eliot has temporarily put poetry aside. “As for verse,” he writes to the editor Harold Monro, “I swear to you that I have not produced the slightest scrap for a year.” This comment is made on February 2, 1923, the same day Eliot writes letters soliciting manuscripts from the following: Herbert Read, Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, Ford Madox Ford, Charles Whibley, and Charles Caffrey, and, in French, from Julien Benda and Jacques Rivière. Presumably, these letters were written in the evening: The poet is still working full-time for Lloyds Bank.

Eliot’s self-discipline is remarkable, his adaptation to London complete. “As to Paris,” he advises his friend Wyndham Lewis in April 1921, “I can’t feel that there is a great deal of hope in your going there permanently. Painting being so much more important in Paris, there are a great many more clever second-rate men there . . . to distinguish oneself from. Then you know what ruthless and indefatigable sharpers Frenchmen are.” The Eliot who, seven years earlier, was daydreaming about getting back to Paris—“the awful daring of a moment’s surrender,” as The Waste Land refers to it—has attained the “age of prudence.”

Marjorie Perloff is the author of Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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