When I was at school T.S. Eliot was a bewildering modern poet, all up to the minute angst and doubt. I never really got him. But the fact is T.S. Eliot was not a modern writer in the sense that Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence were, reading Darwin and writing from a new perspective on the world. To Eliot traditional religion was very important. His view of the world was not as a place to discover new things, but as a place that constantly reveals the same unchanging truth. In many ways this is an artistic vision, which allows the work of artists to remain admired as sources of wisdom long after their time has passed. This contrasts with a scientific vision where one generation tends to move on from wisdom that came before. Both outlooks have their value, even in seeming so different. It is the tension between old and new that I came to feel really makes T.S. Eliot's poetry.
Thomas Stearnes Eliot was born on 26th September 1888 in St Louis, Missouri, son of a New England school teacher and a businessman. Young Thomas was brought up to value self denial. His family was descended from early puritan settlers of New England, and although Eliot's religious beliefs were too undefined to be called puritan, he certainly had what you might call a severe, self denying puritanical streak about him. Eliot lived in an unfashionable part of St Louis, not far from the saloons and brothels of Chestnut and Market Streets. But the life he led was a world away from most people's experience in these areas. In 1906 Eliot moved east to Boston, to attend Harvard University. Here the study of science was fashionable, with the arts considered frivolous and unmanly. Nevertheless Eliot came through an early period when he'd generally achieve a grade known as "the gentleman's C", and started to become a better known figure. He was already writing poetry. The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock dates from this time. He would wander about Boston's deprived areas hoping the experience would help his poetry.
In 1910 Eliot lived in Paris, which he thought would be a good idea, because he liked French poets. Then in April 1911 there was a brief visit to London, a city that was to be so important to him in the future. After going to Burlington Arcade and buying the most expensive suit he could find, he ignored normal tourist spots and instead visited Cricklewood, a suburb in north London. "Why Cricklewood?" he was asked. "There is no reason" was the reply. Eliot's journey wasn't going to take him to the usual places. He wanted to go somewhere unusual, and seemed to realise that the most ordinary and ignored of places can actually be the most unexpected destinations. Eliot was an unashamed elitist, but there was something else in him, a wider view that came out much more in his poetry than in his daily life. D.H. Lawrence's advice that we trust the work and not the author is very relevant with Eliot, who by the way, detested D.H. Lawrence.
Merton College Oxford
Eliot then returned to Harvard, read Dante, fell in love with a young woman called Emily Hale, who he kept at a distance being the highly strung uptight young poet that he was. In 1914 he travelled back to England where he spent the final year of his studies at Merton College, Oxford. He was now something of an academic star and was being groomed for a career in academia back at Harvard. But at Oxford Ezra Pound persuaded Tom Eliot that he could be T.S. Eliot the poet. Pound was a strange, flawed, highly energetic character. He believed in Eliot as a poet, but he also seemed to bring out the worst in the young man. There were unfortunate rants about women lowering the tone of artistic gatherings. Eliot's anti-Semitism also became more apparent.
Finishing at Oxford in 1915 Eliot abandoned any thoughts of an academic career, and decided to become a poet, basing his decision on the shaky foundation of Prufrock's publication in June 1915. That same month he rushed into marrying a woman by the unusual name of Vivienne Haigh Haigh Wood. The couple were basically incompatible; what should have been a fling became marriage, because Eliot's severe sense of rectitude meant that if you slept with a woman then you had to marry her. Pound was also involved, encouraging Vivienne to marry Eliot because he needed looking after for the sake of his poetry and the world. It wasn't Eliot who ended up being looked after, however. Vivienne wasn't the strong nurturing type. She was fragile, nervous, creative, needy, and her fragility had been compounded over many years by the intervention of doctors using powerful drugs which did more harm than good. She nevertheless had healthy sexual appetites, that the repressed Eliot could not help her with. As Vivienne was not the woman that Eliot needed, the self absorbed Eliot was not the man that Vivienne needed. The marriage turned into a long nightmare. They lived at first in a flat owned by Bertrand Russell. Eliot taught in a school. Vivienne had an affair with Russell.
46 Gordon Square, meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group
In a lonely marriage, with the First World War raging in Europe, Eliot was a stranger in wartime London. Fortunately Bertrand Russell introduced him to the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals and writers. Elliot was invited to 46 Gordon Square, one of the centres of Bloomsbury, and also to Garsington Manor, home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, mistress of Bertrand Russell. Ottoline was a famous hostess who regularly entertained leading lights of England's intellectual scene.
Eliot's first volume of poetry, Prufrock And Other Observations, was published in 1917 by Egoist Press. The following year Leonard Woolf wrote to Eliot and invited him to submit a book of poems to Hogarth Press, the small publishing company he ran with Virginia Woolf. Eliot went to the Woolf's home, Hogarth House in Richmond, and seven poems were published in 1919. Publication in England was helping to turn Eliot much more towards the country he was later to adopt. He had been rejected in his application to work for U.S. Intelligence, but was happy working for Lloyds Bank in the City of London, where he was valued and steadily promoted. By 1919, writing in his spare time, Eliot already had a lot of material which would eventually became The Wasteland , set vaguely in postwar London. This was to be a great poem, probably Eliot's greatest, and brings out the best and most humane side of the man. In this poem a balance is achieved between progress of knowledge, and the unchanging truths that poets set out to find again and again in whatever era they might live.
St Mary Woolnoth
I recall The Wasteland from school as a kind of impenetrable code, which required me to read the whole of Greek and English Literature, to speak Latin, French, German, and to know stuff about eastern mysticism. The thing I now realise is that you don't have to know about all that. Deep and meaningful quotations are the same as idle chats. In the poem's second section, A Game Of Chess, a publican calls "hurry up please it's time". People leave the pub saying goodbye to each other: "Goodnight Bill. Goodnight Lou. Goodnight Mary. Goodnight. Ta ta. Goodnight. Goodnight." This leads into a quotation of Ophelia's last words to Hamlet, words which are much the same as the drinkers goodbyes. In Shakespeare's play Ophelia says: "Good night, ladies. Goodnight, sweet ladies, good night, good night." Ophelia's words, which are her last, are the same as words said at the end of an evening out which will be followed by many other evenings out. Eliot compared this situation to a mirror, a flat surface in which you see the depth of life. In The Fire Sermon a bored typist takes little notice of her lover who has just left: "She turns and looks a moment in the glass, hardly aware of her departed lover." In the glass you see superficiality, and depth, held together. Here I feel that the cold, elitist Eliot found a humane balance between the general run of life and the desire to explore its profundities.
A walk around the City of London will take you glancing over the surface of things. Crowds of people walk over London Bridge, doing today what they did yesterday. People, as Eliot put it, "flowed up the hill and down King William Street to where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine." And like a world seen in a mirror, a flat surface will also give a sense of depth.
Nayland Rock Promenade Shelter, Margate - Eliot wrote sections of The Wasteland here (photo by Derick Fusco).
During a period in Margate, recovering from a nervous breakdown, Eliot sat in a shelter on the sea front and wrote lines in The Wasteland about joining "nothing to nothing". In a way The Wasteland is not deep and meaningful. It skims over life, joining a Shakespeare quote here to a description of London there, a bit of German or Greek thrown in for good measure. No discovery is made, and nothing changes. As American readers suggested, The Wasteland is like Scott Joplin's rag music, which was popular in the St Louis of Eliot's youth. The Wasteland is a rag in the way it joins together snatches of tunes and voices in a single piece. It is fitting that some have seen the piece as a pop poem.
In many ways following 1922 Eliot had to try and simply repeat what he had said in The Wasteland. If truth does not fundamentally change, how do you progress? Eliot did not in a sense progress. As for the rest of T.S. Eliot's life, you could go into lots of deep detail: how he started working for Faber in 1925, embraced the Church of England in 1927, how his marriage eventually fell apart, and his wife was confined in an institution. You could investigate his later love affairs, life in London during the Second World War when he worked as an air raid warden and wrote the Four Quartets, his post war celebrity, being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948, how in 1956 he spoke in a Minneapolis basket ball stadium to 13,700 people like a kind of pop star. Or you could just skim over it.
St Magnus The Martyr seen as a reflection on the stone work of a neighbouring office building
The whole of Eliot's effort in life was contained in The Wasteland. "All time is eternally present" he was to write in The Four Quartets in 1940. The time and places of The Wasteland were something he kept coming back to. In the 1950s, his friend Mary Trevalyn would take him on nostalgic drives to the Wasteland area of London. You can follow Eliot's typical route by starting at the magnificent junction at the Mansion House, walking down King William Street past St Mary Woolnoth, to the wide open space of the approach to London Bridge. From London Bridge descend to the Thames path, and in Lower Thames Street you will see St Magnus the Martyr which Eliot would visit in his lunch hours away from the bank. From here Eliot and Mary drove to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. You can do the same by simply continuing east along the Thames Path. Other drives took Eliot past Crawford Mansions in Paddington where he had lived with Vivienne, and to Victoria Grove, the home of cats Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, who had appeared in his 1939 book of poetry for children, Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats. Eliot's favourite drive was down the length of Portobello Road. All time might be eternally present, but Eliot's eternal present is most associated with 1920s London.
T.S. Elliot died of emphysema, brought on by years of smoking, in London on January 4th 1965. His ashes were taken to St Michael's Church in East Coker, Somerset, the village from which his ancestors had emigrated to America.