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T.S. Eliot: an excerpt

In the New York Times Art Section today Michiko Kakutani writes about British poet Craig Raine‘s new book, T.S. Eliot, calling Raine’s description a “new, more accessible T. S. Eliot, an Eliot he describes as a virtuosic fox in terms of style, and a single-minded hedgehog when it came to themes.” Indeed, Eliot was both forbiddingly learned and maddeningly enigmatic, but he was also incessantly troubled by the fear of emotional failure. We thought you might want to learn more about this excellent book and of course T.S. Eliot himself, so we have excerpted the Preface below.

T.S Eliot was bron in St. Louis, EliotMissouri, on 26 September 1888. He died in London aged seventy-seven. By then, he was the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and, in the same year, the recipient of the Order of Merit, England’s most distinguished honour, in the personal gift of the reigning monarch. He was the most influential and authoritative literary arbiter of the twentieth century and a publisher of great distinction at Faber and Faber, where he published W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. As the editor of the influential magazine The Criterion, from 1922 until 1939, he published Proust, Gide and Thomas Mann—an indication of his cultural pan-Europeanism as well as his access to the literary firmament.

He was a world figure. Late in his career, he was a surprisingly successful poetic dramatist. He was the century’s most famous poet—oddly, because his prestige was founded on poetry notorious for its difficulty. In 6 March 1950, he was on the cover of Time magazine. On 30 April 1956, Eliot lectured to fourteen thousand people at the baseball stadium in Minneapolis on ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’. In Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye (1953), when Amos, the African-American chauffeur of Mrs. Loring, refuses a dollar tip, Philip Marlowe mildly twits his fastidiousness by offering to buy him the poems of T. S. Eliot; ‘He said he already had them.’ A hundred pages on, Marlowe and Amos have a plausible discussion—Amos is a graduate of Howard University— about ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. (They agree ‘that the guy didn’t know very much about women’.)

Eliot’s detractors often insinuate that this eminence was achieved by feline caution, literary politicking, calculation, a shrewd assessment of the literary marketplace, a quiet but inexorable campaign of ruthless self-advancement. I think it is a matter of literary merit rather than manipulation of opinion. In fact, Imagination of the Heart, Theresa Whistler’s biography of Walter de la Mare, demonstrates that 1922, the agreed date for the conclusive advent of modernism—with the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium—seemed much less conclusive to de la Mare, J. C. Squire, and other tenacious neo-Georgians, ‘also-rans’ who had their own platforms including The London Mercury and the Weekly Westminster, to which the young Graham Greene contributed. It wasn’t a question of capturing the sole radio station. The strategic battles were still being ‘fought’ in the 1950s. Walter de la Mare thought the selection of Eliot as the only twentieth-century English poet at the Festival of Britain in 1953 was invidious—and wrote to Eliot asking him to withdraw.

Despite this latter-day celebrity, for much of his life, Eliot’s fame was restricted to literature. He was a private person. In his newspaper column, Gilbert Harding, a once famous, now forgotten, British broadcasting celebrity, recounted his embarrassment at being pointed out on the London underground while Eliot, ‘the greatest poet of the century’, was ignored, unrecognised in the corner of the same compartment.

Eliot’s life, like the lives of many writers who spend their time at their desks, was apparently uneventful compared to, say, Ernest Hemingway’s blood-boltered, flashbulb tormented exploits. In ‘To Criticise the Critic’ (1961), he described himself as ‘the mildmannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter’. And it is a theme of this study that the Buried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived, is the central, animating idea of Eliot’s poetry.

However, Eliot’s own life is full of quiet drama, even of recklessness.

On the one hand, there is the assiduous man of letters, indefatigably reviewing, editing, and giving lectures. On the other hand, there is the poet who renounced a promising career as a philosopher in American academe for an uncertain literary life in a foreign country, the poet who married, within weeks of meeting her, Vivien Haigh-Wood. Though initially Vivien was a valued, even essential literary confrere and a loved wife ‘I have felt happier, these few days, than ever in my life’, Eliot writes to Bertrand Russell on 14 January 1916—the marriage was not a success. On 10 January 1916, Eliot writes to Conrad Aiken that financial worries and concern over Vivien’s poor health had stopped him writing: Yet, ‘I am having a wonderful time nevertheless. I have lived through material for a score of long poems in the last six months. An entirely different life from that I looked forward to two years ago. Cambridge [Mass.] seems to me a dull nightmare now . . . ’. Vivien committed adultery with Bertrand Russell, Eliot’s ex-teacher and mentor. Eliot was legally separated from her in 1933. Gradually, she went mad and in 1938 was committed by her brother Maurice. She died in a private mental hospital in Finsbury Park, London, on 23 January 1947.

In June 1927, Eliot was received into the Church of England, and in November became a naturalised British citizen. Virginia Woolf writes of Eliot ‘in his four piece suit’ repressed, reserved, buttoned-up. If we concentrate too much on the Lloyds banker in his pin-striped trousers, the London publisher with his bowler hat and rolled umbrella, and Eliot’s own ironic self-portrait as the circumspect pedant—‘Restricted to What Precisely / And If and Perhaps and But’—we are likely to overlook the man whose religious conversion first announced itself in the Vatican when Eliot fell to his knees in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà to the amazement of his brother Henry Ware Eliot. Eliot isn’t the dry stick of his self-caricature. This is Robert Lowell describing Eliot dancing with Valerie, his new bride and second wife, forty years younger than himself, and married in secret at the age of sixty-nine: ‘they danced so dashingly at the Charles River boatclub brawl that he was called “Elbows Eliot”.’

Given that the main events of Eliot’s life are so sensational, even lurid, it may seem odd that the central focus of his oeuvre should concentrate on the life not fully lived, ‘buried’, avoided, sidestepped. It is conceivable, though, that these dramatic decisions in Eliot’s life were provoked by the very fear of not living fully—of opting for insurance rather than risk. The theme itself comes from literature, not ‘life’—from Henry James in the first instance, but fed by the main current of nineteenth-century literature. We writers frequently inherit our themes from our most admired predecessors. It is they who set the agenda. It is we who continue it, who develop it. It is important to realize that, for writers, the fully lived life also means the interior life, the mental life. Grey matter acting on reading matter is a matter of passion, too.

This contradiction—between the risks Eliot took in his own life and his dominant theme of debilitating caution—makes it difficult to equate biographical events with the poetry. Unlike Sylvia Plath—whose poetry cannot be understood without the prior knowledge that her marriage to Ted Hughes failed and that she was a suicide risk—Eliot’s poetry is committed to impersonality. The life hardly helps us at all as readers. In ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1961), Eliot lays out this position:

For myself, I can only say that a knowledge of the springs that released a poem is not necessarily a help towards understanding the poem: too much information about the origins of the poem may even break my contact with it. I feel no need for any light upon [Wordsworth’s] Lucy poems beyond the radiance shed by the poems themselves.

It is possible to see this as evasive. Many recent commentators have done so. They prefer a guilty poet trying to deny responsibility for a mad wife; a bisexual philanderer; an ambitious, reptilian anti-Semite who was prepared to pimp his wife to other men in order to advance his literary career. There is no evidence that Eliot was either a fornicator or a homosexual. These are the flimsy insinuations of the unscrupulous and unscholarly biographer. Eliot never repudiated his first wife. Until she was committed by her brother, Eliot made sure she was watched over by mutual friends. He could not live with her, however. In the light of her extraordinary behavior, his decision is reasonable—route marches through London in full Fascist uniform looking for him, well-and-widely- attested paranoia, pushing chocolate through the Faber letter-box. The idea that Eliot pimped Vivien to Russell is pure malicious supposition. If anything, the evidence suggests that Eliot, like many another cuckold, found out much later. Nor is his alleged anti-Semitism a simple matter of record—as I hope to show.

The usual links between the life and the art are problematic in Eliot’s case because he held a theory about the impersonality of great art—outlined in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). I discuss this in chapter 6, but let me anticipate a little here. Essentially, the author of Ash-Wednesday (‘Because I do not hope . . .’) can hardly have meant to rule out the personal. Eliot’s ‘impersonality’ addresses and describes the artistic process, the artistic treatment of the personal.

Eliot’s essay was classicist, an aesthetic whose thrust was essentially negative, defined in opposition to romanticism. The romantic position values strong emotions, makes them central to the achievement of art. It was a mistake Eliot was determined to overturn: in art, he wrote, ‘it is not the “greatness”, the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.’ Instead, he argued for the impersonality of great art. By ‘impersonality’ Eliot meant objectivity, impartiality, disinterestedness, distance—the control of accidentals, of subjectivity, of mere contingencies. Hence the idea of the objective correlative and its implied contract between writer and reader—that the impenetrably private is inadmissible as art.

But this does not mean, could not mean, that art should be purged of anything personal as many have wrongly believed. On the contrary, Eliot maintains the emotions are what we make art from. Look at that quotation again: ‘it is not the “greatness”, the intensity, of the emotions, the components [my italics] . . .’ The emotions are ‘the components’, but they have to be made into something. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ is, though, a denunciation of unreconstructed subjectivity in art. Strong feelings cannot make you a poet. Otherwise, every sentimental drunk, every football fan, every religious bigot would qualify. Creativity means creating something.

Nevertheless, aesthetic distance means that it is dangerous and difficult to translate the poetry, to ‘money-change’ the poetry, back into personal experience. For instance, I was once asked on a television film if Eliot was Prufrock in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. I explained that Eliot was cultured, whereas Prufrock was intimidated by the idea of talking about Michelangelo; that Eliot came from good family and was unlikely to be thrown socially by the presence of a footman. I argued that, whereas Eliot was the palpably passionate author of the line ‘blood shaking my heart / The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’, the character Prufrock was as ‘uptight as a rolled umbrella’—a sound bite which was followed in the film’s final edit by a photograph of Eliot outside the doors of Faber and Gwyer, leaning on a rolled umbrella. Rhetorical editing of perverse genius that was a thousand miles from my intention—or the truth about Eliot, who married Vivien without first telling his parents.

There aren’t any easy equations. Gerontion is a character in a dramatic monologue, not a transparent disguise for the poet.

In the end, we are left with the poetry. It speaks to any attentive reader. An accountant I know read The Waste Land and picked out two words from the passage in which the neurotic woman brushes her hair: ‘her hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words, then would be savagely still [my italics]’. The unusual, counterintuitive combination of savagery and stillness impressed him. He was right to be impressed, to feel a frisson of repressed rage in the tense paradox. It is for these verbal gifts that we read Eliot’s poetry. This is the light, the radiance cast by the poetry itself.

Recent Comments

  1. tina rathore

    Craig Raine’s book is a long awaited version of T.S.Eliot’s life. Eliot’s poetry is read against his impersonal theory of poetry. He is always taken as an Impersonal poet, a poet whom we have been reading sans the knowledge of his life, a poet who is looked upon as a anti-romantic for whom poetry is “not an overflow of emotion…collected in tranquility’ …but an ‘escape from personality’ , without ever giving a critical thought to his idea of Impersonality of poetry.
    Raine, very subtly gives a new dimension to Eliot’s Impersonality theory, at times coming clear of the ambiguity which Eliot himself faced while describing the term, first in 1919 and then revising it in 1940 leaving it ambigous for the posterity to delve upon.

  2. khalil mesrour

    t s eliot’s impersonal theory cannot be underestimated.Nevertheless, micheal Schmidt says in an article that eliot’s poetry is the most personal. Though he didn’t give some clear evidence about his claim, this can be deduced from the personal pronouns (i)found in almost all his poems. In other words, the poet is present there in every line since ‘poetry is an expression of a poem’s emotions, attitudes and experiences’.So, it’s more or less impossible to imply the theory of ‘psychic distance’ on poetry.

  3. khalil mesrour

    i have just finished my research which concerns eliot’s impersonal theory of poetry and my thesis measured to what extent he lives up to his claims about impersonality in his poetic work especially the waste land-my target in the project. i finished stating that he failed to commit to his theory in the waste land and whomever wishes to have an online copy of my research,he can just ask! [email protected] bye

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