In the early 1920s, often in poor health and always suffering with his physically and mentally ill wife Vivien, Eliot worked 5½ days a week at Lloyds bank, and spent Sundays and evenings writing his poems, essays and lectures. He also edited the Criterion from 1922 to 1939 and included writers whom Ezra Pound called “a bunch of dead mushrooms.” Eliot’s life lost considerable liveliness when the bombastic Pound moved to France and Italy. In 1927 Eliot left the salary and security of the bank and joined the new publishing house of Faber & Gwyer, which two years later became Faber & Faber. He built up a superb poetry list, from Auden and Spender to Lowell and Hughes, and became the Pope of Russell Square. During the Second World War he was both a Churchwarden and an Air Raid Warden.
Eliot’s main literary influences were Dante, John Webster and the Jacobean dramatists, John Donne and the Metaphysical poets, Charles Baudelaire and Jules Laforgue. The Waste Land and “The Hollow Men,” where rats’ feet run over broken glass, express total despair: “Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” These poems belong with the dark influential works that portray the evil in modern man: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which supplied the epigraph to “The Hollow Men”) and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The exhausted Eliot confessed “I am worn out, I cannot go on.” Vivien echoed him with “I can’t bear it. I can’t go on.”Both foreshadowed Beckett’s grim The Unnamable (1953): “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
In 1927 Eliot transformed himself and became a British citizen. He also abandoned his ancestral Unitarian background, which denied the doctrine of the Trinity, and converted to the Anglo-Catholic movement of the Church of England, a profound influence on his life and thought. In Eliot After The Waste Land (Jonathan Cape, £25), the second volume of his biography, Robert Crawford notes Eliot’s endless quest for order. In The Waste Land, “with its allusions to the Bible, to ancient fertility ceremonies, to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Sanskrit sacred texts and legends of the Holy Grail, the poem articulates a desperate search for some frame of belief that may order chaos. . . . The Waste Land articulates a ruined self, because no such system seems strong enough to stave off that terrible sense of ruin.” Eliot’s conversion shocked his family. But it strengthened his bond with England, encouraged his celibacy and might even have annulled his marriage. It absolved his sins, gave him peace and imposed an external order.
In later years Eliot was recognised as the greatest poet in the English language. In 1948 he was awarded the Order of Merit and won the Nobel Prize. During his years of fame, two old friends suffered hardships. Pound was confined to a mental asylum in Washington; Wyndham Lewis was impoverished and blind. In One-Way Song he had satirised Eliot’s gloomy religion:
I seem to note a Roman profile bland,
I hear the drone from out of the cactus-land:
That must be the poet of the Hollow Men:
The lips seem bursting with a deep Amen.
Lewis also deflated the grandiose Eliot, hardening into a national monument, by insisting: “He doesn’t come in here disguised as Westminster Abbey.”
Robert Crawford defines his method by stating, “The biographer has to be an editor, a chooser of resonant details, as well as a narrator, companionable guide, critic, historian and assembler of images.” But he does not live up to these roles. His small-print book has vague chapter titles—“Crisis,” “Irrevocable”—that lack the essential dates. He clogs the narrative with trivial and repetitive details. He mentions Vivien’s illnesses, from her starvation weight of only 80 pounds to several suicide attempts, on almost every page until Eliot abandons her and leaves for America in 1933. Crawford does not discuss Eliot’s poems in depth, but emphasises the essays to show the development of his ideas. Disastrously, Eliot followed the rabid French royalist and reactionary, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic Charles Maurras, leader of the Action Française. A traitor during World War II, Maurras was later sentenced to life imprisonment.
To exploit his biographical “discoveries,” Crawford exaggerates the importance of the 1,131 love letters that Eliot sent to Emily Hale, his old American girlfriend and “muse” who supposedly inspired his poetry. She deposited them, against his wishes, in the Princeton library in 1956 and they were finally released in 2020. (Eliot destroyed her letters to him.) But his letters are timid and restrained, rather than passionate and revealing like those of Keats and Lawrence, and suggest a distant and disciplined friendship. The inscriptions in the books he sent her are also formal and impersonal.
Hale was the absolute antithesis of Eliot’s wild and reckless wife Vivien—a rest cure rather than a roller coaster—though both women were arty amateurs. An aspiring actress, Hale never became a professional; Vivien had all her stories rejected. Hale’s father was a Boston Unitarian minister, her mother was confined to a mental asylum. Vivien’s father was an independently wealthy artist. Hale, a pale imitation of Eliot’s mother, was calm, composed and conventional; strait-laced, snobbish, anti-Semitic, boring, prim and painfully plain. She taught speech and drama in several women’s colleges from Boston to Milwaukee and Los Angeles, and wound up teaching in high school.
Hale was safely remote in America. Eliot rarely saw her and never had troubling sexual relations with her, so she seemed infinitely more appealing than the intimate and destructive Vivien. Eliot was in love with the idea of being in love and idealised Hale when she was far away. In 1934, while married to Vivien and unable to divorce her, he told Hale, “I would literally give my eyesight to be able to marry you.” But unlike Oedipus and Gloucester in King Lear, he retained his increasingly clear vision.
In 1963 Eliot confessed “that my love for Emily was the love of a ghost for 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 he had been in 1914.” He gradually realised that “he had been in love with his memory of how he felt towards her when young,” how little they had in common and how he disliked her “insensitiveness and bad taste.”
Despite Eliot’s unrealistic professions of love and promises to marry Hale as soon as he could—the future of an illusion—he did not propose to her when Vivien died in 1947. In a tremendous emotional transformation, he told his sister-in-law that he was even prepared to kill himself if Emily insisted on marriage. She was devastated by his rejection and, like her mother, had a mental breakdown. He’d kept the frustrated spinster waiting in the wings for the elusive leading role for 45 years, from 1912 until his second marriage in 1957.
If we cut through the decades of flattery and cant in his disappointing letters, we find two clear statements. Eliot’s trusted older brother, Henry, authoritatively declared, “Tom has made one mistake, and if he marries Emily he will make another.” Eliot himself definitively exclaimed that he needed to be tortured by Vivien to write poetry. and that marrying Hale would have “killed the poet in me.” Eliot played the timorous Dante to Hale’s matronly Beatrice, and spilled ink, not sperm.
Eliot’s witty self-portrait revealed his puritanical, repressed and hesitant character: How Unpleasant to Know Mr. Eliot!
With his Coat of Clerical Cut,
And his Face so Grim
And his Mouth so Prim
And his Conversation so Nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If & Perhaps and But.
Eliot’s sex life was weird. He was a virgin, and Vivien was not, when he impulsively married her in 1915. He was seduced by the radical socialite Nancy Cunard in 1922. He sadly confessed, “I never slept with a woman I liked, loved, or even felt any admiration for.” Sex in his poetry, especially in the two Sweeney poems, is always furtive and frustrating, squalid and repulsive. He was celibate from the mid-1920s, when he renounced Vivien and all her demonic works, until his second marriage. Discussing celibacy with a friend he flatly declared, “Well, it can be done, as I know.”
Eliot had a significant and sympathetic understanding with the perceptive but always critical Virginia Woolf. The beautiful, wealthy, sophisticated Mary Hutchinson would have been a perfect consort, but she already had a full bed with her husband and her lover Clive Bell (married to Virginia’s sister). Another promising candidate was the religious and idealistic Mary Trevelyan, who unfortunately looked like Hale. She thought she could rescue Eliot from Vivien and twice proposed to him, but he threw up Hale as an insurmountable barrier between them. In 1957, when he was 68 and she was 31, he surprisingly and happily married his secretary Valerie Fletcher. She combined efficiency with adoration, provided an explosive release after 30 years of ascetic denial and even noted in her secret diary the excitement when “his fingers came to rest on the hair between my thighs.”
Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has recently published Alex Colville: The Mystery of the Real (2016) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy (2018), and has just completed a book on his friend James Salter.
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