Visions and Revisions: On T.S. Eliot
In retrospect, all of the momentous events in Eliot’s life were determined by a moment of awful daring. In 1933 he left Vivien as abruptly as he had married her, and his decisions to enter the Church of England and, many years later, to marry his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, were similarly nurtured in complete secrecy and subsequently revealed to a world in which even close friends were baffled by Eliot’s behavior, left feeling as if they had never known him. To Eliot’s Unitarian family, a conversion to Anglo-Catholicism seemed as explicable as an initiation into a cult.
“I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you,” wrote Eliot in his fragmentary drama Sweeney Agonistes (1932), painfully aware of the difficulty of exteriorizing the inner life. How is a moment of awful daring to be represented in language, not only in the language of poetry but in the daily language of letters one writes to one’s mother or sisters, to one’s fellow writers or friends? What prevents such moments from seeming merely capricious and shallow, rather than essential and irrevocable? Unlike his contemporary Virginia Woolf, whose letters, diaries, essays and manuscripts have been edited meticulously, Eliot is only beginning to be edited, and the vast majority of his writing remains uncollected in any form. Full-scale editions of his complete poems and prose are under way (the poems are to be edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue; the prose, by Ronald Schuchard), but they have yet to be published. The first volume of Eliot’s letters, edited by his widow, Valerie Eliot, appeared in 1988, twenty-three years after the poet’s death. Now, another twenty-three years later, the letters are being published under the general editorship of John Haffenden, the first volume appearing in an expanded form as The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. 1: 1898–1922, edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, and accompanied by a second volume, which takes more than 800 pages to move the correspondence forward just three years to 1925.
Often these letters are boring to a degree that can hardly be borne. After publishing The Waste Land in 1922, Eliot settled into his work at the bank and at The Criterion, the literary magazine he founded and edited, with an avidity for indecisions and decisions that makes his mother’s affliction with the Eliot Way seem insignificant. “I enclose two more articles for No. 3,” he wrote to Richard Cobden-Sanderson, the magazine’s publisher. “This is nearly everything; there will certainly be one more if not two but not more than two; one possibly from myself. I should like to know the number of words in each contribution as soon as possible.”
Yet these letters are also weirdly gripping because one never knows when one might be stopped dead by a letter of singular importance, a letter in which the Eliot Way is superseded by the awful daring of a moment’s surrender:
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…. 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…. But the dilemma—to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?… Must I kill her or kill myself? I have tried to kill myself—but only to make the machine which kills her…. Does she want to die? Can I save myself and her by recognizing that she is more important than I?
This letter, written to the critic John Middleton Murry in the spring of 1925, has already gained a kind of notoriety since it was published in England in 2009; it seems to confirm handy and longstanding notions about the poet who said in his most famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that poetry “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.” But Eliot was no mere manipulator of masks, and this letter does not represent anything so simple as a dropping of his guard. Like his poems, his letters vacillate between the life-deadening equivocations of the Eliot Way and the life-determining thrill of a moment’s surrender to decisive action; and the latter impulse is rendered powerful by the former, not occluded by it. “Of course,” added Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
Eliot was not literally violent, but psychic life seemed to him essentially violent; he believed that by existing he couldn’t help harming his wife, either by continuing to live with her (the Eliot Way) or by abandoning her for a new life (the awful daring). This dilemma is not confined to one letter but recurs throughout Eliot’s work, most prominently in The Family Reunion (1939), his finest play, in which the protagonist suffers from the horrible, guilt-ridden illusion that he has killed his wife. It also glimmers in the jazzy dialogue of Sweeney Agonistes:
I knew a man once did a girl in
Any man might do a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in
And as far as I know, the dilemma is first dramatized in “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” a curious short story Eliot published in 1917 that remains, like “A Sceptical Patrician,” the essay on Henry Adams, uncollected:
In Gopsum Street a man murders his mistress. The important fact is that for the man the act is eternal, and that for the brief space he has to live, he is already dead. He is already in a different world from ours. He has crossed the frontier. The important fact that something is done which cannot be undone—a possibility which none of us realize until we face it ourselves. For the man’s neighbors the important fact is what the man killed her with? And at precisely what time? And who found the body?… But the medieval world, insisting on the eternity of punishment, expressed something nearer the truth.
This is Eliot’s most articulate account of the moment of awful daring—the irrevocable action, in this case literally violent, that obliterates the Eliot Way. The aftermath of the action, an otherwise unavailable sense of damnation, crystallizes the actor, making him seem horrifying to himself if not to other people, who go on perceiving him through more readily available categories of knowledge. Shortly after writing “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” Eliot went on a walking tour of Southern France with Ezra Pound, and at a castle near Excideuil (as Pound would remember the incident in Canto 29) he suddenly turned to Pound and blurted, “I am afraid of the life after death,” and then, after a pause, “Now, at last, I have shocked him.” Eliot had already crossed the frontier, living publicly in the inane doldrums of the Eliot Way but living privately in a medieval world of sin, guilt and eternal punishment.
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