Visions and Revisions: On T.S. Eliot

Visions and Revisions: On T.S. Eliot

Two volumes of T.S. Eliot’s letters elucidate how the momentous achievements of his art were determined by moments of awful daring.


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.”

* * *

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 
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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

Judging from the evidence of the letters alone, Eliot would seem to have been one of the unhappiest people who has ever lived. But the tensions that had always characterized his sensibility, inflated from Prufrock’s drawing room to an eschatological arena of Dantean proportions, continued to fuel his best work even at the unhappiest times. Almost immediately after completing The Waste Land he confessed that the poem seemed to him “a thing of the past” and that he was “feeling toward a new form and style.” What he wanted was a way to represent in language what could not be represented—the inner life of a person beyond the frontier, a person doomed to be recognizable to other people when in fact he is already dead. In a sense, all of Eliot’s later work, from Four Quartets (1943) to the later plays, grows out of this dilemma, but it was played out most immediately in The Hollow Men, the poetic sequence with which he struggled, trying out a variety of drafts and rearrangements, between 1922 and 1925, when it appeared as the final poem in Poems 1909–1925.

Audible here are the familiar equivocations of the Eliot Way:

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

But in contrast to the earlier poems, Eliot’s language has become severely chastened, more oracular than spoken, as if the poem were attempting to give the impression of being uttered from a space beyond language, the space of the dead, the damned, a space in which the everyday marks of human individuality have fallen away. Inexpiable guilt drives the sequence, nowhere more poignantly than in these lines, which Eliot published in two preliminary versions of The Hollow Men but ultimately cut from the final version:

This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.

Nowhere in The Hollow Men does Eliot make reference to the everyday world in which people drink tea, work at banks, write letters, torture their wives; but the presence of Vivien Eliot, the woman through whom Eliot constructed his life as a poet, hovers over every line. “I am sorry I tortured you and drove you mad,” wrote Vivien from a nursing home in 1925. “I had no notion until yesterday afternoon that I had done it. I have been simply raving mad.”

The Hollow Men remains a confounding performance, at once viscerally immediate and yet strangely abstracted, resistant to commentary in a way that the achievements that precede and follow it, The Waste Land and Four Quartets, are not, whatever their difficulties. Perhaps for this reason, the poem seems to me the most quintessentially Eliotic of all the poet’s performances, at once excessive and curtailed, irresistibly charismatic yet forever elusive, its power immediately apparent yet very difficult to describe. It is the achievement toward which all the letters in Volume 2 point, and yet the poem is scarcely mentioned: careening between turpitude and revelation, the letters lay out the tensions and obsessions of the poem in broader brush strokes, not so much elucidating as embodying its energies.

Future volumes of the letters will perform the same service for Ash-Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets, and, perhaps even more crucially, so will the long-awaited edition of Eliot’s complete prose. “A Sceptical Patrician” and “Eeldrop and Appleplex” are only two of the hundreds of fascinating prose pieces that remain uncollected in any form, and another is Eliot’s introduction to a long historical poem called Savonarola, published around the same time as The Hollow Men. Eliot offers here his most incisive remarks about the relativity of historical interpretation, reaching back to the work he’d abandoned in the Harvard philosophy department; but he nowhere acknowledges that the author of Savonarola is his mother, Charlotte Eliot, who at 83 was publishing her first book of poems:

The role played by interpretation has often been neglected in the theory of knowledge. Even Kant, devoting a lifetime to the pursuit of categories, fixed only those which he believed, rightly or wrongly, to be permanent…. Some years ago, in a paper on The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual, I made an humble attempt to show that in many cases no interpretation of a rite could explain its origin.

While seeming austerely learned, these sentences constitute one of Eliot’s most deeply felt exchanges with his mother. They are a gift to the woman who, when he threw over an academic career in favor of poetry, admitted that “I have absolute faith in his Philosophy but not in the vers libres.”

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