Visions and Revisions: On T.S. Eliot
By the time T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis on September 26, 1888, he had been preceded in this world by a brother and four sisters, the eldest of whom was nineteen years his senior. Inevitably, great care was lavished on the youngest Eliot; he had five mothers. Or perhaps six. Next door to the Eliot house on Locust Street lived Abigail Adams Eliot, Eliot’s grandmother, who had grown up in Washington, DC, and could recall clearly her great-uncle, the second president of the United States, after whose wife she had been named.
Great things were expected of the youngest Eliot, and a crucial part of his genius was to have achieved greatness in forms that no one in his family was fully equipped to countenance. Simultaneously, he fulfilled and decimated their expectations, constructing a life that allowed his family to admire his achievement only inasmuch as they were also bewildered, incapable of helping themselves to the side dish of self-congratulation that usually accompanies the main course of familial pride. The author of The Waste Land and Four Quartets secured the loyalty of his admirers (as well as the unshakable attention of his detractors) in precisely the same way.
“As a scholar his rank is high,” wrote Charlotte Eliot of her 16-year-old son to the headmaster of Milton Academy, “but he has been growing rapidly, and for the sake of his physical well being we have felt that it might be better for him to wait a year before entering on his college career.” Eliot had already been accepted at Harvard, but his mother preferred that he endure another year of preparatory school. At Milton he was infantilized because of his frailty, the only boy forbidden to play football or swim in a nearby quarry pond. But at the same time he was expected to reflect his family’s ambitions with achievements of immense precocity. Only a few years later, when Eliot began to buck the family’s notions of what constituted achievement, declining to defend his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, his mother would show that she understood the newly professionalized world of higher education as well as she understood the benefits of fresh pajamas: “The Ph.D. is becoming in America, and presumably also in England, almost an essential for an Academic position and promotion therein. The male teachers in our secondary schools, are as a rule inferior to the women teachers, and they have little social position or distinction.” Eliot, who by this time was living in England, did not return to Harvard to receive his degree, despite having written a dissertation that the philosopher Josiah Royce declared the work of an expert, despite the Harvard philosophy department having made it clear that a position in its ranks awaited him.
Instead, in 1915, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood, only two months after having met her at a punting expedition in Oxford, and he embarked on a precarious career as a poet and journalist. Vivien was at this point everything her husband was not—vivacious, performative, unpredictable—but her high-strung energy disguised a neediness that drained the marriage emotionally and financially. Eliot supplemented his literary work first with teaching at High Wycombe Grammar School and later with a full-time position in the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyds Bank, where he would help settle the financial fate of Europe in the aftermath of World War I. In 1920 he published The Sacred Wood, a work of literary criticism so influential in England and the United States (where it became the foundation of the New Criticism) that Eliot created the taste by which he himself was judged for the next fifty years. Then, in 1922, he published a long poem on which he had been working for some years, at first intermittently and finally, after a breakdown in 1921, with great fervor. “To her the marriage brought no happiness,” remembered Eliot of his first wife. “To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”
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The marriage was crucial to Eliot’s life and work, but not precisely in the way this theatrically grim comment suggests. Both Eliots were chronically ill, often despondent, and their hypochondria was mutually reinforcing; the letters are brimming with long rehearsals of their physical complaints, and as one might expect, most of the complaints were aimed at Eliot’s mother, whom Eliot entreated repeatedly to visit: “If I were dangerously ill, I believe you would come no matter how inconvenient.” But Charlotte Eliot alternately ignored or parried her son’s entreaties, so much so that Eliot was driven to examine her behavior with the intensity that distinguishes all his writing. “It is almost impossible for any of our family to make up their minds,” he confessed to his brother. If their mother could “look ahead and not see, in the Eliot way, only the immediate difficulties and details, she would make up her mind at once and come this summer.”
The Eliot Way—a stultifying compulsion to weigh the details of everything from pajamas to the PhD—was something Eliot himself knew all too well. In an uncollected essay about Henry Adams, to whom Eliot was distantly related (Adams having been the great-grandson of the second president), he referred to the Eliot Way more generally as the Boston Doubt, “a scepticism which is difficult to explain to those who are not born to it.” Eliot’s ancestor Andrew Eliot had settled in Massachusetts around 1670, and there the family remained until William Greenleaf Eliot, Eliot’s grandfather, moved to St. Louis to establish the first Unitarian church west of the Mississippi. “This scepticism,” Eliot went on, “is a product, or a cause, or a concomitant, of Unitarianism.” Wherever someone infected with the Eliot Way stepped, “the ground did not simply give way, it flew into particles.” Such people “want to do something great,” said Eliot, but “they are predestined failures.”
Eliot’s first great artistic success grew from an effort to distance himself from the threat of such failure by dramatizing it. Not only the voice but the very linguistic texture of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” embodies the typically Eliotic stalemate between fortitude and inertia (“There will be time…yet for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of a toast and tea”), the sonorous, incantatory rhyming of the words “indecisions,” “visions” and “revisions” upbraided by the fussily alliterative monosyllables of “toast” and “tea.” Subsequently, the condition of being paralyzed by a multiplicity of possible feelings became the emotional core of The Waste Land, the long poem in which the Eliot Way repeatedly thwarts erotic promise:
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was â¨neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.
But however arresting in themselves, passages such as these do not represent the whole of Eliot’s sensibility, for throughout The Waste Land as throughout the life, the Eliot Way is countermanded by a willed decisiveness, a determination to act that is nurtured so privately that to anyone else it appears irrational: “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender/Which an age of prudence can never retract.”
Eliot’s marriage to Vivien was the result of such a moment. The only way he could release himself from the clutches of six mothers—from his own clutches—was to do something utterly unprecedented and irrevocable. The mere decision to pursue a literary life in England would not have lasted; any such decision could have been reconsidered, modified, delayed. But to link his life inexorably to Vivien’s was to pre-empt all subsequent visions and revisions, allowing the boy from St. Louis to become the author of The Sacred Wood and The Waste Land. The marriage was torture, but I suspect that for Eliot it relieved him from what he already knew would be worse: a life shaped merely by the Eliot Way. “The present year has been, in some respects, the most awful nightmare of anxiety that the mind of man could conceive,” he wrote to his brother in 1916, “but at least it is not dull.”
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