Like all the rest of us, T. S. Eliot was born in blood, sweat, and tears; unlike most of us, he was born in St. Louis. This is the first open secret about him, the first well-known but almost forgotten fact of his life: that he was born and brought up (but in a special way, peculiar to his family traditions) a Midwestern American.
The year 1905 marked the end of his life in St. Louis. In June he finished his schooling at Smith Academy in fairly high style: he won the Latin prize and as Class Poet wrote and recited a lengthy ode of fourteen stanzas, unexceptionably “poetic,” stuffed with the wide-eyed clichés of adolescence, sentimental, echolaliac. His mother was proud of him: this was just the kind of poetry she herself tried to write.
Young Tom was being sent East to school for good and sufficient worldly reasons. At the age of not quite seventeen (his birthday did not come till September) he was considered too young for Harvard; and it would have been a handicap for him to enter the freshman class direct from a St. Louis day school, whereas the stamp of Milton Academy, traditionally a training school for Harvard, would give him a good start, socially and academically. The fact that Milton would accept him for so short a time as one year seems to indicate the pressure of Eliot influence.
In the ten months they were together, Milton Academy and T. S. Eliot apparently left no marks on each other. We do know of two friends he made there: Howard Morris, his roommate later at Harvard, and Schofield Thayer, afterwards publisher of The Dial
In late June, 1906, he successfully passed his entrance examinations for Harvard: French, Greek,
Elementary Physics, History, and English. Of his interior life we have no record; but we know it existed and suspect that it was his home address. And it must be remembered that he was an adolescent.
Sex and sin were the same thing: that much he learned at an early age, and never altogether shook off this puritanical reductio ad absurdum. Did he masturbate? Of course. And was he ashamed of it? Unspeakably. For an adolescent boy of his sort, as for a monk, “purity” had one overriding sense: refraining from masturbation. The relief of a wet dream, although a sin, was by far the lesser sin. He had one other equivocal recourse, partly pornographic, partly purgative: he could write about it.
T.S. Eliot, aged seven, and his governess, Annie Dunne.
With slippery white belly held tight in his own fingers,
Writhing in his own clutch, his ancient beauty
Caught fast in the pink tips of his new beauty.
But why, surrounded by women as he was, should his feelings about them have been so fainthearted? Because his mother and his sisters were ladylike women, terrified of sex and disgusted by it, and ashamed of their female bodies. By precept and example, they encouraged his own shame. In the male society of Harvard he began to shake off some of his preoccupation with his own guilt, and in his bawdy verses (never published) about King Bolo and his big black queen, “whose bum was as big as a soup tureen,” to assert a new confidence and carelessness. But the foundations were flimsy: they covered but could not stifle his deep horror of women. He was fascinated by women and preoccupied by sex, yet in all his poetry Eliot never once managed to convey what Yeats did a hundred times: the feeling of desire for a woman, the sense that a woman is desirable. Eliot’s Grishkin may be nice and pneumatic, but she smells.
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.
Smells haunted Eliot: some (only a few) pleasantly nostalgic,
. . . the smell of hyacinths across the garden . . .
some merely neutral,
That smells of dust and eau de Cologne . . .
more of them strongly unpleasant:
La sueur aestivale, et une forte odeur de chienne.
Appropriately, Tom Eliot’s nose was his most prominent feature: large, slightly hooked, with flaring nostrils. As the Irish say, “he had a good handle to his face.” His ears, also somewhat outsize, jutted out from the side of his head. In spite of these asymmetrical features and his thin and gangling body, he was a good-looking boy, whose face beamed with intelligence. He was indeed almost too good-looking. His Harvard friend Conrad Aiken remembered him as “fabulously beautiful and sibylline,” with a mind that was “best of all.” He had read so much more and so much more widely than other boys of his age that he could (and did) correct their misquotations and tell them what they meant to say.
But he was neither an aesthete nor a bookish prig: he was a conservative conformist. He was careful to dress correctly, according to the canons of his social class, and to obey the conservative conventions of his school and college set. He parted his hair in the middle. His suits, waistcoats, ties, and shirts were inconspicuous, neutral, and moderate. He carried two handkerchiefs, a “shower” and a “blower,” a corner of the “shower” peeping modestly from the breast pocket of his jacket. To all outward appearance he was no sort of bohemian or rebel. His rooms in freshman year were at 52 Mt. Auburn Street, on “the Gold Coast,” an enclave too expensive and too exclusive for the common run of university students. In his second year, at 22 Russell Hall, he roomed with Howard Morris, his schoolmate from Milton Academy, a large, heavy, pleasure-loving boy who was a complete Philistine. (After leaving college, Morris became a Wall Street broker, with a summer house at East Hampton. When he married, he took a copy of The Waste Land on his honeymoon, tried to read it, pronounced it “junk,” and threw it out of the train window. He and Eliot kept in touch until shortly before Morris’ death in 1954. Eliot’s letters to him exhibit the forced joviality of a man talking down to someone of whom he is fond but whose divergent path has taken him almost out of earshot.)
Their room was a perfect model of the collegiate room of 1910. It was well lighted: in the middle of the ceiling hung a chandelier, fitted for both gas and electricity; two wall brackets, each with gas and electric fixtures; on a small table by the fireplace a “student lamp,” with green glass art nouveau shade. On the table, cluttered with tobacco tins and a small pile of books, was a copy of the Saturday Evening Post (that would be Morris’); on the other side of the fireplace a small bookcase, shaped like a truncated pyramid, filled with an encyclopedia and a set of “the classics” (that would be Eliot’s). A sizable Oriental rug covered most of the floor. A chafing dish stood on top of the bookcase; a tea set was on another small table. The space under two of the three bay windows was filled by a divan, spread with pillows and rugs. There were two Morris chairs, with flat wooden arms and frame and leather-covered cushions; a third chair, uncompromisingly hard.
Over the fireplace and above the mantelpiece a large rectangular crimson banner, bearing the legend HARVARD 1910, was tacked to the wall; the 1910 was partly obscured by two photographs of football teams. Between the photographs stood a beer stein; on the second mantelshelf were four more, flanked by two silver-plated trophy cups (Morris’). In the center of the shelf were a dozen books (common property). Just over the fireplace hung a pipe rack, a line of trolls’ heads in plaster; at the side, a German peasant’s pipe depended from a hook. The andirons in the fireplace were piled with short birch logs. The framed pictures that covered the walls were mostly photographs: family groups, classical buildings and statues, a framed diploma.
Such were the physical surroundings, the integument of this seedling poet, this larva writer, who only ten years from now would turn the world of poetry upside down. No one of his instructors, contemporaries, friends, or family had the remotest suspicion that this shy, reticent, watchful, conformist undergraduate was headed in that direction.
Tom’s brother Henry, who had preceded him at Harvard, had been a great diner-out and party goer in Boston. Tom did his social duty, but no more than the necessary. He paid his respects to Mrs. Jack Gardner, the Boston monument; he called on Adeline Mofi’at (and pinned her to the wall in “Portrait of a Lady”); he took tea with “Cousin Nancy Ellicott” and “Cousin Harriet,” and dined with his rich aunt, “Miss Helen Slingsby” (such were the pseudonyms he gave them in his early poems). But these were older women. What about
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.
How close did he get to her? Not within touching distance. Or did he, almost—once? Why “stained with sand"? Had he seen her, or even been with her one evening, on Revere Beach? His occasional nights out took him sometimes to cocktails at Locke-Ober’s—a heady variety known as a “Ward 8”—dinner at the Hotel Thorndike (now defunct), with much bawdy wit and spur-of-the-minute dirty limericks, then on to a burlesque show at the Old Howard or a melodrama at the Grand Opera House. But that was as far as his libertinism went.
If Tom Eliot’s undergraduate pleasures were mainly cerebral, that is not to say that they were exclusively highbrow, but only that gross and fleshly adventures were not among them. He enjoyed playing poker at the Southern Club; he accepted election to the Digamma, the Stylus Club, and the Signet Society. These last two clubs contained most of the editors and the aspirants to the editorial board of the Advocate, Harvard’s literary magazine, and among these Eliot made his closest college acquaintances. Like his mother, he had no intimate friends, then or later. Conrad Aiken came as dose as any, but only by dint of dogged and devoted pertinacity: he was a fidus Achates whom Eliot patronized, mocked, sometimes treated brutally.
As Eliot began to develop he did not expand; he contracted. Sometime during his second year at Harvard he decided to finish his undergraduate course in three years and take a master’s degree. This was not an uncommon thing to do, but it required concentration and hard work; and it left him no time for anything else.
At the end of his third year Eliot had qualified for his A.B. degree, with an overall average of 2.70 (four A’s, three B’s, one D). In the fall of 1909 he started his first year in graduate school, with these courses: Studies in the History of Allegory, Chaucer, Drama in England, Poets of the Romantic Period, Literary Criticism in France, Philosophy of History. His academic average for this year dropped to 3.75.
There were famous teachers at Eliot’s Harvard, and he had his share of them: LeBaron Briggs, Barrett Wendell, George Lyman Kittredge, George Pierce Baker, George Santayana, Charles Townsend Copeland, William James, Josiah Royce, Ralph Barton Perry, Irving Babbitt, Bertrand Russell—but only the last two, whom he did not meet until he was a graduate student, really impressed and influenced him. Of Russell, Eliot said that his mind would have been considered first-rate even in the thirteenth century, a compliment which he afterwards balanced by writing that “it is a public misfortune that Mr. Bertrand Russell did not have a classical education.” But Eliot despised the ultrapopular “Copey” (Professor Copeland), who taught English composition, for admiring and teaching his pupils to admire the second-rate. Eliot was not alone in disliking Copeland, but he was emphatically in the minority. One of Copeland’s idols was Kipling. For this very reason, when Eliot took his course, in his third year, he wrote a paper attacking Kipling. In his criticism of the paper, Copey gave as good as he got: on the “theme” signed Thomas Eliot he wrote, “You must now be on your guard against becoming pompous, orotund, and voluminous.” There was no love lost between them, and no common ground. Eliot said afterwards: “I could not learn to write English according to the methods by which Copeland taught it.”
He objected to Copeland because he felt that Copeland was wasting his time and interfering with his education. Though Eliot could not yet formulate his wants, he sensed what they were. When he was sixteen he was infatuated with Byron; by the time he was an undergraduate the poets of his own day and those of the 1890s had nothing to say to him, and the lightning flash from France had not yet lit up his sky. Cheerfulness, optimism, and hopefulness, the Browning quality of the nineteenth century, he hated, but as yet he had nothing to put in its place. Then he discovered Dante, and learned by reading him that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” He puzzled out The Divine Comedy by himself, from an edition with an English prose translation alongside the Italian, memorizing his favorite passages and reciting them to himself when he was lying in bed or on a railway journey. “Heaven knows what it would have sounded like, had I recited it aloud; but it was by this means that I steeped myself in Dante’s poetry.”
The teacher who most influenced Eliot at Harvard was a professor of French Literature named Irving Babbitt. Babbitt was a fiercely energeticman who had sold newspapers in New York, worked on a farm in Ohio, as a cowboy in Wyoming—where (according to Herbert Howarth) he had pulled a rattlesnake out of a hole by its tail and been scarred by an eagle whose nest he was rifling. Paul Elmer More had been a fellow student at Harvard, and became his friend. By the time Eliot came to the university, Babbitt had been a professor in the French department for twelve years.
Babbitt called himself a humanist. So did More, but More got religion and Babbitt never did. Both were upholders of something they called classicism and savage critics of something they called romanticism. Babbitt himself was an appealingly romantic figure who liked to take solitary walks, shouting poetry as he strode. His tone, in his lectures and published essays, was assured, authoritarian, flatfootedly omniscient: a series of declarative statements which came thumping out like a schoolmaster’s ferule, rapping the knuckles of the balky or inattentive student. Here are some samples that obviously impressed a pupil named Eliot:
A writer is great, not only by what he says, but by what he omits saying.
It is well to open one’s mind, but only as a preliminary to closing it, only as a preparation, in short, for the supreme act of judgment and selection.
[In Rousseau’s notion] the generations of man can no more link with one another than the flies of summer. They are disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality.
The purpose of the college ... must be in a quantitative age to produce men of quality.
The notion that wisdom resides in a popular majority at any particular moment should be the most completely exploded of all fallacies.
It may be said some day of us that, as the result of a series of outbursts of idealism, we changed from a federal republic to a highly centralized and bureaucratic empire.
Eliot pondered all these things in his heart, and in due time echoed many of them in his own manner. Babbitt certainly put more than one bee in his bonnet.
One day in the Harvard Union library, Eliot came across a small book by Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, published in London less than ten years before. Eliot found it absorbing. It was full of lucid, tantalizing sentences like this:
There are certain natures (great or small, Shakespeare or Rimbaud, it makes no difference) to whom the work is nothing, the act of working, everything.
[Verlaine] knows that words are suspicious, not without their malice, and that they resist mere force with the impalpable resistance of fire or water. They are to be caught only with guile or with trust. Verlaine has both, and words become Ariel to him.
No long poem was ever written; the finest long poem in the world being but a series of short poems linked together by prose.
Only very young people want to be happy. What we all want is to be quite sure that there is something which makes it worth while to go on living, in what seems to us our best way, at our finest intensity.
It was Arthur Symons who led him to Jules Laforgue. Laforgue had died at the age of twentyseven, the year before Eliot was born. Eliot was tremendously taken not only by his verse but by everything he could learn about the man himself: his reticence, his protective disguise of a clergyman’s sad-colored costume, his umbrella, his pose of aloof politeness. Laforgue had written only three volumes; Eliot ordered them all. As far as he knew, he was the first American to own them, and the first to read them. He tried writing verse in Laforgue’s manner, imitating—not very well—his dry tone of voice and sardonic matter-of-factness.
But Laforgue was only the half of it; the Elizabethan playwrights (but not Shakespeare) were the other half. Sixty years later Eliot said: “The form in which I began to write, in 1908 or 1909, was directly drawn from the study of Laforgue together with the later Elizabethan drama; and I do not know anyone who started from exactly that point.”
Do any two people (but he had in mind “poets”) start from exactly the same point? What Eliot meant was that he was an original, and knew it. But the fact that he knew where he started from did not mean that he knew where he was going. As yet he had as little idea, or as many ideas, about what he might do as undergraduates of his age usually have.
After his first year of graduate work he was still pointing in several directions. Philosophy was one, French literature was another. Poetry was only a secret possibility. The four poems he published in the Advocate that fall and winter were practice canters in the hoofprints of Laforgue, and gave nothing away about his serious intentions. In the spring of 1910 he wrote to order two poems of occasion: one for the annual dinner of his “final" club, Fox; the other, the Class Ode. Neither showed the slightest sign of originality or was worth preserving.
In June, 1910, Eliot was supposed to take his master’s degree when most of his class were taking their bachelor’s, but he came down with scarlet fever, and had to proceed M.A. in absentia. He had already decided to spend his next academic year in Paris. This dismayed his mother, who disliked and distrusted the French. His father did not cotton to the idea either, but finally agreed. So Tom Eliot had the most romantic year of his life, “on the old man’s money,” in Paris.
The cloud of odoriferous impressions in which Paris first presented itself to a young American of Eliot’s day was a mingling of smells and colors, caporals and garlic, grayness and grisettes, haunted by the ceaseless awareness of femininity. This was a lure, in Eliot’s case as in others of his sort, that led him not to bed but to a book. The book, by Charles-Louis Philippe, was Bubu de Montparnasse— a tough-guy story about tough bohemians. Twentytwo years later Eliot wrote the preface to an English translation of it, confessing that the book had always been for him a symbol of the Paris he first saw in 1910, and adding a breast-beat that only an Eliot—or a Calvinist with a Catholic turn of mind—could have struck himself with: “Even the most virtuous, in reading it, may feel: I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed.”
The romanticness of his romantic year was general, not particular. Eliot was too thoroughly inhibited to be bewitched by a model or rescued by a golden-hearted tart; of Baudelaire’s drugs, suffering was the only one he shared; it was Paris itself that bowled him over, its smells and sounds, its evenings, mornings, afternoons, its bookstalls and its books. And, that first summer, he had college friends with him to share his fervors and to spur them on: Conrad Aiken and Frederic Schenk. Talk was their stimulant. Champagne or strong drink was more than they desired or could afford: all they wanted were pâtisseries and syrupy soda water. Eliot lived in a Left Bank pension, rue St. Jacques, went to hear Bergson lecture at the Collège de France (an experience which, according to his mother, made him decide to change his Harvard doctorate in literature to a doctorate in philosophy), and had the good luck to have AlainFournier1 as his friend and tutor in French. AlainFournier got him to read Paul Claudel, André Gide, and Dostoevsky, and introduced him to his brother-in-law, Jacques Rivière, who wrote for the Nouvelle Revue Françhise and whose generous enthusiasm had a warming effect on Eliot’s inherent coolness.
Another friendship that Eliot made in Paris was with a French medical student, Jean Verdenal, who lived in the same pension. All we know about Jean Verdenal is that he and Eliot once met in the Luxembourg Gardens, and that Verdenal was waving a branch of lilac; that he died (we don’t know how and neither did Eliot) at the Dardanelles in 1915; and that Eliot dedicated to him his first published book, Prufrock and Other Observations, adding an epigraph from Dante’s Purgatory: “Now can you understand the quantity of love that warms me towards you, so that I forget our vanity, and treat the shadows like the solid thing.” What are we to make of these facts? Not much—beyond inferring that a friendship between young men can be warm and may stir the blood without firing it; and that there may well have been some exaggeration in Eliot’s melancholy remembrance of this foreign friend.
It was a cold winter in Paris that year, and a late spring. Eliot was tempted to stay on there, scraping a living somehow, and gradually learning to write in French—as his compatriot, the novelist Julian Green, did a few years later. Luckily for him and for us, he resisted the temptation and returned to Harvard after his romantic year to study philosophy. As a gesture partly of youthful defiance, partly from that instinct for protective disguise which was already well developed in him, he sported a malacca cane, “exotic Left Bank clothing” (his friend Conrad Aiken reported this, without going into details), and his hair parted behind. It gave his Harvard acquaintances something to talk about. His three years as a graduate student were far more exhilarating and productive than his undergraduate three. For one thing, he encountered the two professors whose minds and opinions he could respect: Irving Babbitt and Bertrand Russell. With Babbitt this respect developed into something close to friendship, and with Russell (after they met again in England) into an intense father-and-son relationship; both these friendships cooled off eventually into near hostility. Babbitt felt that Eliot had betrayed him; and Eliot must have felt (though he never gave a hint of it) that Russell had betrayed him.
In Harvard days when they first met, however, it was the perfectly balanced give-and-take of the first-rate teacher, avid to impart, and the first-rate student, hungry to learn. The precise statement of ideas fascinated Eliot, but the thought that drew him even more was the possibility of expressing the inexpressible:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
It was not Russell’s mathematical logic nor Babbitt’s French classics that nourished this tendency, but two years’ study of Sanskrit. That nearly made a Buddhist of him; it left him in “a state of enlightened mystification”; it gave him the red rock and the thunder of The Waste Land. And in the Sutras of Patanjali he discovered that only essential words are necessary and that a complete sentence structure is not always needed.
One of Eliot’s fellow students was a Greek, Raphael Demos. Both Eliot and Demos were members of the postgraduate class of twelve who met for tea every week at Russell’s apartment on Craigie Street. Eliot stuck in Russell’s memory because he was “extraordinarily silent and only once made a remark which struck me. I was praising Heraclitus, and he observed: ‘Yes, he always reminds me of Villon.’ I thought this remark so good that I always wished he would make another.”
One day one of them asked Russell whom he considered the greatest living philosopher. Russell said that reminded him of the story of the Athenian generals, assembled to elect a commander-inchief on the eve of the battle of Marathon. Each general voted for himself but all agreed on Miltiades as second choice. Then whom would Russell vote for as second? F. H. Bradley, of Oxford. Demos regarded Eliot, who was then president of the Harvard Philosophical Club, as “the best philosopher among us.” Later he was shocked by Eliot’s poetry, which he regarded as an aberration; and his private epitaph on Eliot was: “It is a pity that he abandoned philosophy. He would have been a good philosopher.” He was at any rate a good student. His record for three years of graduate work at Harvard: one B, all the rest A’s.
He was learning, and on several levels at once. But it was to take years of patient practice before his protective camouflage fitted him without a wrinkle, like a second skin. At this stage he still showed an occasional waspishness (that was the word his friend Aiken used). “Shelley was a tool!" he would say; or, dismissing Chekhov: “I prefer my Ibsen straight.” In Josiah Royce’s seminar in philosophy, Eliot wrote a paper on the interpretation of primitive religions. Full of his reading in F. H. Bradley, he said that no simple statement was absolutely true. Someone interrupted to ask if he thought that last statement true? The argument grew, warm words were exchanged; at last Eliot said, “You can’t understand me. To understand my point of view, you have to believe it first.”
Was it about this time that Eliot met Sweeney, his famous anti-hero? In South Boston he frequented a gymnasium, smelling of arnica and stale sweat, where he took boxing lessons from an Irish ex-prizefighter, and learned “how to swarm with passion up a rope.” He once returned from his lesson with a beautiful black eye, having thus been reproved for the mistake of inadvertently hitting his instructor a little too hard.
The level on which he was living most intensely was hidden: he was writing poetry in secret. In two years, 1910 to 1912, he had written the four poems that were to make his reputation five years later. Conrad Aiken had read them; perhaps one or two others.
When Aiken went to London in the summer of 1913, he took with him copies of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (title from Kipling, “hero’s” name from a St. Louis sign, epigraph from Dante) and “La Figlia Che Piange” to try to sell them to some London editor: nothing doing. So there they were, in his desk drawer, waiting, with “Portrait of a Lady.” “Preludes,” and “Rhapsody on a Winter Night.” In another drawer, well hidden, was the unfinished, never-to-be-finished bawdy ballad, “King Bolo and His Big Black Queen,”
who led the dance on Golders Green
with Cardinal Bessarion.
In July, 1914, with only a year or so left before he would start writing the dissertation for his Ph.D. degree, Eliot was given a traveling fellowship by Harvard and set off for Germany to do his final year’s reading at the University of Marburg. It was not a good year to be in Europe, as he soon discovered. On August 1 the First World War began; three weeks later he managed to get to England and to be accepted for a year’s residence at Merton College, Oxford. On September 22. a few weeks before the Oxford term started, he went to London and called on Ezra Pound. Conrad Aiken was the go-between.
Pound was an American poet and literary missionary of stupendous energy and tactlessness. He had then been in England for almost three years— long enough to annoy or alienate everyone in the British literary establishment except such heretics or nonmembers as Ford Madox Hueffer, Wyndham Lewis, and Harriet Weaver, the saintly, longsuffering literary nanny who kept James Joyce in the bankrupt affluence to which he was accustomed, and who would support the first tentative steps of the young T. S. Eliot.
It might be too much to say that Eliot and Pound took to each other on sight. Pound, at any rate, took to Eliot, even before seeing anything he had written. When Eliot sent him “Prufrock,” Pound snapped it up and dispatched it to Harriet Monroe, editor of the Chicago magazine Poetry (whose agent in England he was), announcing it as “the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American, PRAY GOD IT BE NOT A SINGLE AND UNIQUE SUCCESS.” He described Eliot as “the only American I know of who has made what I can call adequate preparation for writing. He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.”
Merton was the Oxford college where Eliot’s admired F. H. Bradley was a fellow. but Eliot apparently made no attempt to get Bradley as his tutor and there is no record of their ever meetingwhich may have been just as well: according to Raphael Demos, who came to Oxford a few years after Eliot, Bradley “was a difficult person" and “could not stand the sight of a student.” Eliot made Bradley’s philosophy the subject of his dissertation: “Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley.”
At this point Eliot was far from being an Anglophile, and Oxford particularly left him cold. People who could actually like the disgusting food the British ate could not be called civilized. He wrote to his friend Conrad Aiken: “Come, let us desert our wives and fly to a land where there are no Medici prints, nothing but concubinage and conversation. Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.”
Nevertheless he worked hard: he read, marked, and learned like the conscientious student he was; he took a gingerly part in the wartime-diminished life of Oxford, winning a pewter mug for stroking a college four “at a time when the real oarsmen were fighting for England and France.” But when the philosophy department at Harvard offered him another year at Oxford, he declined. He told Aiken that he would prefer London to Oxford, with its archaic notions about poetry, its frozen traditions of discomfort and academic high life, its pregnant wives and untidy children. He supposed he could work at the British Museum, even though he thought he would never get to like England. But if Oxford did not enthrall him. he dreaded returning to Harvard and the college bell and all the people who would be against everything he believed in but who would manage to waste his time for their own ends.
It was in this dissatisfied and vulnerable state of mind that Eliot met the girl who was to plow up. harrow, and strip his life to the bone.
Her name was Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and she was born in 1888. four months before her future husband, into a family whose place in the English social order would then have been described as middle-class. Her father, Charles Haigh Haigh-Wood, was a portrait painter who became fashionably well-known but who stopped painting when he inherited enough money to bring him a comfortable income. Vivienne was small, dark, and lively, with dark brown hair and bluegray eyes, mercurial, flirtatious, moody, given to outbursts of anger or despair. Less than a year before she met Tom Eliot she had gone through an intense, off-again on-again affair in London with a young man she called “B.” in her diary. The affair had ended with a whimpery kind of bang when “B.”was called up in September, 1914, and went off to war. A butterfly of a girl, you might say: but a butterfly who could stamp, and also sting. She was attractive to boys and had many beaux. One man whom she refused to marry was so cut up that he walked all night, from one end of London to another.
We do not know, as yet, exactly when the first meeting between Vivienne and Eliot took place. Sacheverell Sitwell, who saw a good deal of Eliot when he first came to England, says that Eliot met Vivienne on the river (presumably at Oxford); and that she was playing a phonograph in a punt alongside his. We do know that they met at Oxford, in Schofield Thayer’s rooms at Magdalen College—whether or not that was their first sight of one another. Thayer’s cousin Lucy was a close friend of Vivienne’s.
During the spring of 1915 there were other meetings between Vivienne and Tom Eliot, sometimes at parties, sometimes only the two of them. And then—the news must have come like a thunderclap to the Eliots in America—on June 26, in the Hampstead Registry Office, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Bachelor, twenty-six, and Vivienne Haigh Haigh-Wood, Spinster, just twenty-seven, were married. No other member of either family was present; the witnesses were Lucy Thayer and Lillia Symes. Apparently the Haigh-Woods were soon reconciled to the marriage; obviously the Eliots were not. Mrs. Eliot did not meet her daughter-inlaw until five years later; Mr. Eliot died without ever setting eyes on her.
In June, 1915, the month he and Vivienne were married, T. S. Eliot’s first paid poem was published: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at last appeared in Poetry. Harriet Monroe had been reluctant to accept this odd poem and was apprehensive about printing it, but Pound kept beating at her until she did. She paid Eliot eight guineas. The annual Poetry prize of two hundred dollars went to Vachel Lindsay for “The Chinese Nightingale.”
Shortly after the wedding, Tom Eliot was summoned home to give an account of himself and his sudden marriage. He went alone; Vivienne absolutely refused, then and later, to brave the submarine-infested Atlantic. What took place at the meeting between T om Eliot and his parents we can only surmise. The scene, presumably, was the family summer home at Eastern Point. In accordance with the family motto, no voices would be raised and no long speeches would be made, though some almost surreptitious tears might be shed. An agreement would be arrived at: one of its terms being that lorn should finish his dissertation on Bradley and submit it to the Harvard philosophy department (a proviso which would seem to show a parental hope that all was not yet lost, that he might still be recalled to his senses and return to the academic life at Cambridge): another, that his father would continue Tom’s small but vital allowance. When Henry Eliot died, four years later, this subsidy died with him.
The family conclave over, Tom returned to the foster-country he had not yet adopted and which he still half-disliked, to the alien bride of whom he was uncertain, and to his doubtful future.
But if he did not like the country or the people or even the food they ate, what was it that drew Eliot so powerfully to England, estranging him from his native land and straining the ties that bound him to his family?
The attraction which England had for him was in large part Vivienne herself. Englishmen who do not share the American romantic feeling about women find such a thing hard to credit. Cyril Connolly, for example, throwing “a small grenade.” has said that Logan Pearsall Smith told him that Eliot’s sudden and almost clandestine marriage could be explained only by Eliot’s New England conscience: “Eliot had compromised Miss HaighWood (a schoolteacher from Southampton.2 according to Leonard Woolf) and then felt obliged as an American gentleman, the New England code being stricter than ours, to propose to her. This would account for the furtive nature of the ceremony. and for his subsequent recoiling from his conjugal privileges.”
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.
The whole affair with Vivienne was a mistake, almost instantly recognized and repented? Is that how it was? A seduction in which Eliot played the part of “the young man carbuncular" of The Waste Land, and Vivienne the indifferent typist? If we consider Eliot’s nature and upbringing (not to speak of Vivienne’s), this will be difficult, if not impossible, to credit.
Connolly had in mind, perhaps, the evidence of Eliot’s poem. “Ode.”which appeared in his 1920 book of verse. Ara Vos Prec, and was then suppressed. (Edmund Wilson said that when Eliot was asked why he omitted “Ode” from all further collections. he replied, “An oversight"; obviously untrue. said Wilson.)
Professor Donald Gallup, the authority on Eliot’s bibliography, if not on Eliot’s psychology, says that the typescript of “Ode" is headed “Ode on Independence Day. July 4th 1918.” so that the poem, written three years after the wedding, cannot possibly refer to their wedding night. Wilson was just as positive that it did. Strong emotions can surely be recollected after a lapse of three years, or even longer. In spite of its elaborate obscurity. “Ode" does indeed appear to be based on personal experience of an excruciating kind. From these few lines the reader may judge for himself:
When the bridegroom smoothed his hair
There was blood upon the bed.
Morning was already late.
Children singing in the orchard (lo Hymen, Hymenaee)
Succuba eviscerate. . . ,
The epigraph to the poem is ambiguous, as Eliot’s epigraphs are often intended to be. it is a quotation, or a partial misquotation, of two lines from Coriolanus (act IV, scene 5), Eliot’s favorite Shakespeare play. The original line read: “To thee particularly, and to all the Volscii . . .”Eliot has changed them to read
Great hurt and mischief.
He has also converted “thee" to “you.”and “Volscii" to “Volscians,”presumably to give the fragment a more contemporary flavor. Quoted thus, out of context, the two lines have an ominous, almost a comminatory ring, but those who are familiar with the play (or who look up the lines) will know that the speaker, Coriolanus, is frankly disclosing himself to his great enemy, the commander of the Volscians. Coriolanus is confessing who he is, surrendering himself, and turning traitor all in one. Guilt, and the acknowledgment of guilt, is the note. But as Eliot uses the words, the deep, soft undertone is a curse.
Was there resentment as well as guilt on Eliot’s side—and did the resentment add to his sense of guilt? Was it partly that he did not fully return her love—or wholly that he did not really love her at all? Did he feel that he had sacrificed another human being and jeopardized both their lives by “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” a surrender which he soon regretted? Whatever the situation may have been, it was certainly not a simple one. The Eliots’ marriage was unhappy, as everyone within miles of it was aware. But how to define the unhappiness of this particular unhappymarriage? The least—and perhaps the most—we can do is to tell, as far as we know, some of the things that happened.
Eliot’s first job was schoolteaching; it lasted one term (thirteen weeks) at Wycombe Grammar School in the dreary town of High Wycombe, where in the autumn of 1915 he taught small boys French, mathematics, history, drawing, and swimming. He was paid at the rate of £140 a year, with free dinner. At Christmas he found a better berth at the Highgate Junior School, near Hampstead, where he got £160 a year, with dinner and tea.
For some months the Eliots lived with Vivienne’s parents in Hampstead. Then Bertrand Russell, who at Harvard had wished Eliot would speak up more, and was grinned at. with an admiring grin, as “Mr. Apollinax,” encountered his well-remembered pupil one day in Oxford Street. Renewed acquaintance warmed to cordiality, and led to introductions: to Lady Ottoline Morrell (Russell’s mistress at the time) and all the Comus crew that battened on her at Garsington Manor for well-fed weekends — Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Middleton Murry, Aldous and Maria Huxley, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, and lesser lights. It led also to a ménage a trois.
Bertrand Russell had a first-rate mind, humane aspirations, and the sexual morals of an alley cat. Although he strongly resembled Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter, he was apparently attractive to some women; and many women helplessly attracted him. He now invited the impoverished Tom Eliots to come live with him in his small London flat. Only a very innocent or a very sophisticated couple would have accepted the offer. The Eliots were not sophisticated.
Russell had first met Vivienne only a few weeks after she married Tom, and wrote about her to Lady Ottoline Morrell:
Friday evening I dined with my Harvard pupil. Eliot, and his bride. I expected her to be terrible, from his mysteriousness, but she was not so bad. She is light, a little vulgar,3 adventurous, full of life: an artist, I think he said, but I should have thought her an actress. He is exquisite and listless. She says she married him to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it. Obviously, he married in order to be stimulated. I think she will soon be tired of him. She refuses to go to America to see his people, for fear of submarines, He is ashamed of his marriage, and very grateful if one is kind to her.
Four months later Russell wrote to Lady Ottoline:
it is quite funny how I have come to love him. as if he were my son. He is becoming much more of a man. He has a profound and quite unselfish devotion to his wife, and she is really very fond of him, but has impulses of cruelty from time to time. It is a Dostoievsky kind of cruelty. not a straightforward, everyday kind. I am every day getting things more right between them, but I can’t let them alone at present, and of course I, myself, get very much interested. She is a person who lives on a knife edge, and will end as a criminal or a saint; I don’t know which yet. She has a perfect capacity for both.
Russell was indeed “very much interested.” In January, 1916, Eliot wrote him an effusively grateful letter:
Dear Bertie. This is wonderfully kind of you; really the last straw, so to speak, of generosity. I am very sorry you have to come back, and Vivienne says you have been an angel to her. ... I am sure you have done everything possible, and handled her in the very best way: better than I. I often wonder how things would have turned out but for you. I believe we shall owe her life to you. even.
Russell explains this letter, or partly explains it, in a deadpan footnote that may or may not reveal more than he intends: “Mrs. Eliot was ill and needed a holiday. Eliot, at first, could not leave London, so I went first with her to Torquay, and Eliot replaced me after a few days.” Did Russell seduce Vivienne; and was Eliot, at least for a time, unaware of the fact? The probable answer to both questions, in the light of the circumstantial evidence and of the characters concerned, is yes. How could Vivienne, married only a few months and supposedly much in love with her husband, have taken part in so cruel an adultery? One possible answer is: she was a flirt, and flirts sometimes go too far, sometimes get themselves into situations they can’t get out of; sometimes a determined seducer is one too many for them.
Bertie’s angelic handling of Vivienne was not the only reason for Eliot’s gratitude. Russell’s conscience. which was sleepy only in sexual affairs, troubled him about some debentures he held, with a face value of £3000, in an engineering firm that was making munitions: Russell was a pacifist at the time, so he handed over the debentures to Eliot. The small but steady income from them was a great help. (Eliot kept the debentures for some years and finally returned them.)
The year 1916, halfway through the First World War. though it was neither so terrible nor so rewarding for Eliot as other years would be. set the pattern for those to come. Two ever-present problems dominated that time, as they would continue to dominate his life for the next sixteen years: earning a living and Vivienne’s ill health. Of these two desperate problems, the first proved to be soluble; the second was not.
From the start of their life together (and before that) Vivienne suffered from blinding, excruciatingly painful migraine and from some internal ailment to which the doctors of that day gave the name of intestinal catarrh. She had always been painfully sensitive to noise: her nerves were too close to the surface, as they say, and often bad. ("My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.”) She was under frequent and eventually constant medical treatment. The treatment included drugs; this fact, added to her uncertain and occasionally violent behavior, gave rise to the rumor that she “took drugs,” and, more specifically. that she was “an ether-drinker.” Vivienne’s brother Maurice calls these rumors malicious nonsense: he says she took the drugs that were prescribed for her by her doctors but never became addicted to them.
When visitors came, Vivienne would sometimes be indisposed and in bed. They would stay too long, and talk too much, and the sound would drive her into a sick rage. Eliot sometimes went on weekends without her. Some of his friends thought her alarming and alarmed. Hope Mirrlees said of her:
She gave the impression of absolute terror, of a person who’s seen a hideous ghost, a goblin ghost, and who was always seeing a goblin in front of her. Her face was all drawn and white, with wild, frightened, angry eyes. An over-intensity over nothing, you see. Supposing you would say to her. “Oh, will you have some more cake?" she’d say: “What’s that? What do you mean? What do you say that for?" She was terrifying. At the end of an hour I was absolutely exhausted, sucked dry. And I said to myself: Poor Tom, this is enough! But she was his muse all the same.
For long periods, sometimes for months, she stayed by herself in a country cottage, where the air and the quiet were thought to be more salubrious than London, but where Tom could join her only for weekends. Her constant and increasing ill health not only sickened their marriage, but was also a heavy drain on Eliot’s pocket.
They were poor, and ailing, but they were young, and they had each other. Besides being utterly miserable, were they ever happy? It is not a word that lives comfortably with either of them, but at this point in their marriage they must have had days, hours, or moments of happiness, or how could Tom write to his old friend Conrad Aiken as he did in January, 1917: that Vivienne has been very ill, that his friend Jean Verdenal has been killed at the Dardanelles, that the Catholic Anthology (not a religious book but a collection edited by Ezra Pound and published in New York the previous November), in which five of Eliot’s poems appeared, has not been a success, in spite of Yeats’s presence in it; that he is worried about money and about Vivienne; and that he has written nothing lately—“but I am having a wonderful time nevertheless. I have lived through material for a score of long poems in the last six months.” They were the first six months of his married life.
The only ways he knew of making money were writing and teaching, and he found teaching the more onerous of the two. By December he had had enough of schoolteaching. At Christmas he resigned from his job at the Highgate School, and until the following March he tried to support Vivienne and himself by free-lance literary journalism, mainly book-reviewing. The pay then for reviewing fiction was 2/6d a novel; the sale of the review copy brought another l/6d, making a total of 4/ a book. Eliot figured that if he could review six a day he could make a living from reviewing novels. Trv as he might, he could manage no more than four.
The first two months of 1917 were a nightmare of ends not meeting. Then the Haigh-Woods came to the rescue. They had a friend high in the banking world, Mr. L. E. Thomas, chief general manager of the National Provincial Bank. This gentleman was kind enough to give Tom Eliot an introduction to the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyds Bank, at 20 King William Street, in the heart of the City of London. There, on March 17. Eliot was given a job, at two pounds ten shillings a week, tabulating the balance sheets of foreign banks. He liked this job, which he found less fatiguing than teaching; furthermore, at five o’clock each afternoon he was free to go home to his own work.
The bank manager was impressed by Eliot’s knowledge of languages. His Italian had indeed been fluent, but. as he told Stravinsky many years later; “It was Dante’s Italian, not the most suitable instrument for modern business phraseology. I had a smattering of Romanian and modern Greek too, and this for some reason convinced the manager of the bank that I also knew Polish; in fact he was incredulous when I said I did not, as if it were downright illogical not to know Polish when one knew Romanian and Greek.”
Eliot got a bit of help on his modern Greek from Raphael Demos, his old friend in the Harvard Graduate School, who had followed him to Merton and came up to London frequently. Once Demos and his wife had dinner with Eliot at I. A. Richards’ flat. Mrs. Demos asked Eliot a question about modern poetry. His answer: “You know, I don’t read contemporary poetry enough to say. If the poet is doing more or less what I am doing, it iser confusing. If he is doing something quite different, it is— er—er—irrelevant.”
Others besides the Haigh-Woods had an anxiously benign eye on him. One was Ezra Pound, who now introduced Eliot to Harriet Shaw Weaver, that extraordinary woman who resembled a straitlaced governess but who, by a series of accidents, as editor of the fortnightly Egoist found herself marshaling the extreme advance guard of modern English writers, and became one of the lonely saints of literature. When Richard Aldington, her assistant editor, joined the British army in June, Pound saw to it that Eliot got his job, which carried with it a salary of £36 a year more than half of it secretly contributed by Pound.
Eliot earned his pay. He carried out his editorial duties conscientiously and wrote brilliant criticism for the paper; at year’s end. when contributions were skimpy and an issue threatened to run short, he filled the breach by writing five undetectably deadpan letters to the editor. Here is a sample:
. . . The philosophical articles interest me enormously; though they make me reflect that much water has flowed under many bridges since the days of my dear old Oxford tutor, Thomas I Hill Green. And I am accustomed to more documentation; I like to know where writers get their ideas from.
Charles Augustus Conybeare
The Carlton Club, Liverpool.
No one guessed how much this sedulous aping cost him, nor why he did it. Some of it. like these imitation-suburbanite letters, was pure fun and games; but the whole thing was deadly serious. He had dedicated himself to “the intolerable wrestle with words.” The kind of English he wanted to write must be purified, classical, combed free of Americanisms, of fashionable, perishable, quickdecaying phrases or idioms. And it was a struggle. After living in England for three years he could still write such stilted American as this: “Dear Mrs. Woolf, Please pardon me for not having responded to your note immediately.” A far cry from the rhymed letters he would soon be inditing her, mannered but more pleasantly so, and a nation easier. “The Woolves” took him up, had him (and sometimes Vivienne) for weekends at Rodmell, and in 1919 published his Poems.
Virginia, who succeeded in feeling superior to most people, tried to laugh at him but found it harder and harder. It was she who called him, behind his back, “Great Tom.” She used to tease him about his religious beliefs and try to make him talk about them; “but from such assaults,” says her nephew, Quentin Bell, “he would retire, smiling, unruffled but unwilling to engage.”She also (according to Elizabeth Bowen) said to him once, “‘It’s such a pity, Tom. that you started being a poet instead of remaining in a bank. By now you might have been the Manager of the Bank of England.’ He looked rather taken aback, but on the whole pleased. He purred like a very serious cat.” And what did he think of them? He never said, in public; but he took none of them very seriously and was wary of them all.4 Conrad Aiken remembered his warning from those days: “that he should never, under any circumstances, in English literary society, discuss his ‘first-rate’ ideas, lest they be stolen, and rushed into print at once, by those jackdaws, those magpies: one should restrict oneself to one’s ‘second-rate’ ideas, as the loss of these wouldn’t so much matter.”
Vivienne, in her staggering-butterfly way. tried to help the family finances: without Tom’s knowledge and against his wishes, she applied for a job in a government office, and was much surprised to learn that because she was married to an American citizen she was disqualified. She meant to be a model wife, but her bad health and her temperament combined to prevent her. She was determined to keep tabs on every penny they spent, and for a time her account books were a model; then somehow she got in a muddle, and Tom had to step in and straighten things out. Tom was always having to step in. These rescue jobs, added to other domestic chores which he had to take over in an emergency, with the time he had to give to his literary journalism, after office hours, built up to a working day with no time off. With this strain piled on top of the worry and stresses of his life with Vivienne, some sort of crack-up was inevitable. Aldous Huxley described him at the time as “haggard and ill-looking as usual.”
But in these early days when Vivienne still enjoyed bouts of good health and high spirits, they could occasionally afford to take an evening off, or a Sunday afternoon: they rolled up the rug, put a record on the gramophone, and danced. Tom was not a natural dancer, as she was, but under her intense tutelage he became “adequate.” Ten years later, when Eliot was guest of honor at a literary society dinner in Cambridge, he was heard explaining to the high table that because of the Negro influence in American music, no American could waltz properly and no Englishman could really fox-trot.
On a Sunday afternoon they sometimes went to a dance hall in Queensway with Brigit Patmore—a pretty girl-about-Parnassus who thought Tom’s “slow way of speaking in a slightly booming monotone, without emphasis, was quite beguiling.” and who later went off with Richard Aldington
(she might have preferred to go off with Tom Eliot). Now and then Vivienne would leave Tom at home and go dancing with someone else. Brigit Patmore tells of Vivienne, Eliot, and herself coming away from a dance hall and stopping at a chemist’s shop for aspirin:
Vivienne was talking about a ballet and said. “I think I can do what Karsavina does at that moment, And she held on to the counter with one hand, rose on her toes and held out the other hand which Tom took in his right hand, watching Vivienne’s feet with ardent interest whilst he supported her with real tenderness . . . most husbands would have said. “Not here, for Heaven’s sake!”
When Miss Harriet Weaver thought it necessary, the Egoist became a publishing house. In June the Egoist Press published five hundred copies of the most arresting of Eliot’s early poems, which has since been called “the best-known English poem since the Rubaiyat”; “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As G. S. Fraser says:
Nearly every important innovation in the English verse of the last thirty years is implicit in this poem. . . . Prufroek is a beginner’s poem, and it has lessons for all of us in the art of how to begin.
. . . Poets must share the general admiration of the public tor enormous talent, for enormous learning, and for a steady, sad and noble vision of the world . . . they have also . . . this special gratitude to him, as a craftsman who has provided them with new, sharp tools.
In certain quarters—and they were quarters that counted—the impact of “Prufrock” was immediate and sensational. At a weekend at Lady Ottoline’s at Garsington, with the flower of Bloomsbury strewn amid the trees, Clive Bell excitedly passed around a dozen copies, and Katherine Mansfield read the poem aloud. Would T. S. Eliot have picked that audience and chosen that reader? The Bloomsbury circle and many of his first admirers praised him ignorantly, and for the wrong reasons. The day would come when they would repudiate him, saying that he had turned his back on them and on his early self—two quite separate things which they found easy to confuse.
Clive Bell, the complacent ninny who was the husband of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa, implied that he had launched Eliot (by distributing those copies of “Prufrock” at Garsington!), and later he undertook to lecture him on the error of his ways in an article in The Nation. Eliot, who despised Bell, thought the article “disgusting and filthy,” but said nothing.
He was well away in his clamber up the Acropolis of English letters; nothing could stop him now nor divert him from reaching the top. At the time, as Hugh Kenner describes him in The Invisible Poet, Eliot was “a virtually anonymous foreigner aged about 30.” □
- Alain-Fournier (pseudonym of Henri-Alban Fournier), who wrote one magical book, Le Grand Meautnes (translated into English under the title of The Wanderer), before he was killed in action in 1914.↩
- She was not.↩
- Aldous Huxley used the same word in describing her: “I rather like her; she is such a genuine person, vulgar, but with no attempt to conceal her vulgarity, with no snobbery of the kind that makes people say they like things, such as Bach or Cézanne, when they don’t.” Sacheverell Sitwell did not agree that she was vulgar.↩
- The popular idols Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, being in his opinion fossils, were of no interest to him.↩