“What Might Have Been and What Has Been”: How T. S. Eliot Looked at Lives

Fifty years ago, at the time of T. S. Eliot’s death in January 1965, his reputation seemed unassailable. The Waste Land was the poem of the century, and Eliot stood in line with England’s great poet-critics: Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold. In America, the poet had addressed 12,000 in a football stadium on the subject of Criticism. His judgements seemed to come from on high. Then, in the nineties, came a reaction, probing Eliot’s own flaws: the incitement to anti-Semitism in the early poetry; his misogyny; his elitism.

Now, half a century beyond his lifetime, there are signs that the old, embattled camps—on the one side his supporters who refused to hear a word against him, on the other, detractors who fixed exclusively on prejudice—are fading, to make way for a more nuanced view, one that will not ignore his flaws—as Eliot himself puts it, “things ill done and done to others’ harm”—but not permitting the man’s imperfections to undercut a renewed sense of the poet’s stature. How did he come to transcend his time?

One possible answer is that Eliot had a vision of a perfect life. It came to him, at first, in what he called “unattended moments,” like a memory of pure love, “looking into the heart of light, the silence” in The Waste Land, and at the end of that poem a message in thunder to give, sympathise and control. It’s a plausibly distant vision of perfection, the far-off vision of an imperfect person. This makes it not too remote for the rest of us imperfect people, unlike the medieval ladders of perfection on which his later poems draw, those of Dame Julian of Norwich, of the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing and, in the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross. Eliot speaks intimately. His words pierce our souls, whatever our beliefs may be.

Eliot acknowledges the routine plot of existence—“in my beginning is my end”—but he will reverse this: “in my end is my beginning.” Though, of course, this looks to eternal life beyond death, he is thinking also of the life of his ancestor, Andrew Eliott, sailing in 1669 from East Coker, Somerset, across the North Atlantic—a dangerous, three-month voyage—to Salem, Massachusetts. Here is one model life: the risk taker who can begin again in middle age, who takes off for a new life in the New World. This risk mirrors Eliot’s move in middle age to remake his private life during the thirties.

There are plodding elements in all our lives, but a life worth telling, Eliot suggests, has an alternative to sequential biography as we routinely practise it. “It seems to me,” he says in The Dry Salvages, “That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence— / Or even development.” His poems disrupt set stories laid like Roman roads across our lives moving towards a retired old age. Instead, Eliot says, “Old men ought to be explorers.” He alerts us to alternative dramas which may be visible in the surface of lives, like Andrew Eliott’s migration, or they may be private like an entry into the rose-garden of the Gloucestershire house, Burnt Norton, when the visitor stares, once more, into the “heart of light.”

When I was writing a life of Mary Wollstonecraft, I took heart from Eliot’s suggestion that beginnings and endings can be called into question. Is the end of a life only the beginning of that life’s reverberation in others’ lives? “The communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living,” I read in the finale to the Quartets. An editor warned against going beyond Mary Wollstonecraft’s early death—it would be “an anti-climax,” she said—and yet I didn’t see death as “end.” I saw rather a continued transmission of different versions of Woll­stone­­craft’s life: the slanders of a supposed wild woman versus the impact of that life on the next and following generations. Where does a life end? Can it be that an “end” hasn’t yet come, even now, two centuries on? “We are born with the dead,” Eliot reminds us. “See they return, and bring us with them.”

In the same way that he questions sequential and set narratives, he questions also the mirage of objectivity. Twentieth-century biographers were bent on objectivity in reaction against Victorian hero worship. They strove to have no agenda and to hold onto as many facts as they could accumulate. Eliot challenges the limitations of record with passages of reflection. When I reread his famous line, “we had the experience but missed the mean­ing,” his simple need for meaning came as a relief. Eliot pictures biographical activity as something “anxious, worried women” do in the middle of the night: a man, it may be, has not come back, or he may be in danger. And so, these women try to make sense of their bits and pieces of biographic data, “trying to unweave, unwind, unravel / And piece together the past and the future.” Whether we are worried women or professional recorders of lives, we must question ready-made narratives, “the assurance / Of recorded history,” by taking our own backward looks, over the shoulder, at moments of “agony” or “illumination.” Whatever meaning is to be distilled from such reflection is as permanent as “a ragged rock in the restless waters” of time and change. That ragged rock lies under the surface events of biography—what “is covered by the currents of action.”

During Eliot’s lifetime he was hailed for the Modernist fragmentation he introduced into poetry, but fifty years on, his concurrent revolution of what we understand as biography has yet to be recognised. For in the course of his search for perfection, Eliot points to unseen events and to a narrative that can’t be seamless if it claims to be true. The shadows of different narratives haunt the gaps in lives, the apparently vacant spaces where purpose, in the routine sense, may be withdrawn, and past and future, in the purposeful sense, don’t exist.

Since Eliot was an expatriate, like his ancestor, it’s not surprising to find images of travel and migration: the pilgrimage (in “Journey of the Magi”), the train journey and the ocean crossing. As the furrow narrows behind the ship, a traveller is neither the person he was nor the person he will be on the farther shore. In the biographic structures of Eliot’s verse, this hiatus in a life span, this non-being, is his central focus. It’s potentially fertile, yet, because it lies inchoate in shadow—mostly unrecorded—it’s not the focus for traditional biography. Yet Eliot would have it that this is the fulcrum for a life in the making—a model that could transform the future of life writing.

A biographer looking, say, at the influence of Mary Wollstone­craft on a disciple in the next generation, Claire Clairmont, might be drawn to her unconventional youth: her relations with Shelley and Byron. But more significant for women of the future was Claire’s silence and invisibility during 1823 when, following the deaths of Shelley and her child, she went to Russia to become a governess.

She was ill—tubercular—and it seemed insane to travel north into the Russian winter, “my ice cave,” as she called it. Still, she had to earn her living and earn it where no one knew her “dark history.” At this point, when her life was almost destroyed, there was this silence. “The world is closed in silence to me,” she records in her Journals four years on and still in Russia. Friends thought they would never see her again, but that silence, in so powerful a character, has a different quality, as Mary Shelley, her stepsister, guessed.

The gaps, the non-events, the apparently vacant waiting as a life unravels, can be its most momentous event. Keeping her secret in the alien ice cave, entirely cut off and alone, distrusted at first as a stranger, Claire Clairmont entered some kind of chrysalis in which she shed her tried and familiar narratives of sexual surrender, abandonment, and unrequited love, together with the motherhood that had been taken from her. During that hiatus, she stripped herself of feminine hopes and the marriage plot. A fellow-tutor in Russia, a German intellectual, fell in love with her, but she had to refuse him. For she had become a fiercely independent creature who could endure. It’s this resilience, this power to remake herself, that’s of the same ilk as Mary Wollstone­craft, apart from what she learnt from Wollstonecraft’s educational principles, which Claire began to practise. “My soul,” she jotted, “seems to have been regenerated in the fountains of adversity into which it fell; there is a vigour and an elasticity in my spirit which it never knew even in the spring of life.”

This is an instance of Eliot’s belief that only those who expose themselves to unmaking, to waiting (“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope”)—only those are candidates for the route to perfection. For darkness, Eliot tells us, is “something to purify the soul.” It’s associated with absence of self and humility. “Humility is endless.” To insist on this was part of what Eliot modestly calls “trying.”

Part of “trying” is his effort to devise for himself and for us, his readers, a narrative of transformation, disrupting a routine plot where we put one foot in front of the other through the hours of the day and through the days of a lifespan. Emily Dickinson has a wonderfully succinct version of the alternative existence, erupting under the surface of her hourly domestic routine:


I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—

I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—


The parallel to this in Eliot’s Quartets is a quickening brought on by the heart of light at Burnt Norton:


Quick now, here, now, always—


Both Dickinson and Eliot can’t say what actually happened because its perfection is beyond even the language of poetry. Where Dickinson uses dashes to push the language apart, Eliot breaks the line with panting commas.


Eliot speaks of the “waste sad time” before and after this “hint” of perfection. The come-down, the loss of vision, was terrible, as for other great religious poets, Donne and Herbert. The evanescence of perfection shapes Eliot’s sense of a Fall from “what might have been” to “what has been.” He’s framing a moral—we might say biblical—narrative, judging a life (includ­ing his own) by its distance from perfection, which he defines as a saint’s life “burning in every moment.” A life in these terms is not to be measured by achievement in any public sense—not by Eliot’s Nobel Prize in 1948. It’s measured by moral impetus: the quality of an inward resolve behind waiting and “trying.” The blinded Samson is his model for this alternative route to perfection: the flawed man whose moral being takes shape in darkness.

A German bomber over London during the Blitz, “the dark dove with the flickering tongue,” translates easily into our present gloom in the face of global jihad, a yen for weapons and unrelenting sexual abuse. Eliot takes so pessimistic a view of human flaws that, for him, the answer is to strip away the worst of our nature. Radical surgery (“the healer’s art”) begins when a surgeon-creator “plies the steel / That questions the distempered part.”

Eliot’s formula for recovery comes from Exodus, a journey through the desert towards a promised land. Amongst its many parallels are the Grail quests and the pilgrims’ progress from the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City. Eliot reformulates and tests this traditional scenario in his own life and times: the trials of the Blitz and, preceding that, his own private trials in the thirties when his first marriage ended and he lived for a while in a Kensington clergy house. There’s an autobiographical resonance to Eliot’s original title, Kensington Quartets, before he brought the separate poems together as Four Quartets in 1943.

Each of the four starts with the poet himself in a place that has a particular significance in his life. Burnt Norton, East Coker, and Little Gidding are places he visited between 1934 and 1937, years when he was trying to remake a life after he left his first wife, Vivienne, in 1933. Unlike these, the Dry Salvages took him back to his youth in America: the seascape of his summers on Cape Ann, and linked memories of his childhood in St. Louis on the Mississippi. The scenario is to try again, and again, and a fourth time, to make some progress, but to remain ever falling short of those whose lives “burn in every moment.” When I first met the great Eliot scholar Helen Gardner in 1973, I remember her saying that Eliot’s appeal lies in his honesty.

He’s too honest to lay claim to divine love and has to fall back on the Revelations of Dame Julian of Norwich in the fourteenth century: “Love is the unfamiliar Name. . . .” Eliot’s emphasis is on the journey rather than arrival. His poetic journeys are approached with a formula—in riddling Greek—“the way up and the way down are the same.”

The way up is unplanned. It’s the evanescent hint of perfection that comes to the poet in the garden of Burnt Norton. This particular “unattended moment” follows haunting memories of what “might have been”: an attachment that preceded Eliot’s unhappy first marriage. It’s a formal garden with a straight walk leading to two empty, concrete pools. The pools, when I saw them, surprised me. They looked like vast, dry, unpromising swimming pools. But in Eliot’s imagination some sort of miracle did take place there: the pool is “filled with water out of sunlight,” and “they,” the children he never had, are reflected in the pool. For Eliot this vision of a “might have been” is “reality,” as distinct from the loveless “Unreal city,” the urban scenes of The Waste Land.

In The Waste Land the waste is a place, London in the wake of the First World War; at Burnt Norton, the waste is time—time unredeemed by a sense of the timeless. The implied question is how to recover what is timeless. And so, the seeker turns around to face the other way, to take the alternative route, the “way down,” which the next three quartets will pursue.

The way down is a process of transformation, stripping everything we know and are. “Unhealthy souls” are told to “descend lower” and undergo “internal darkness,” wiping out our senses and superficial interpretations of the soul. “East Coker,” published in 1940, the first of the wartime Quartets, shows houses crumbling and explosions of chaos. Helen Gardner spoke of the extraordinary impact of this Quartet on its first readers when London was being bombarded. Eliot himself was an air-raid warden in South Kensington; invasion threatened; England was disrupted. At this time Eliot spoke intimately to his readers:


In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.


This is not about fighting back, even in self-defence. It’s a completely different, internal scenario, a chance to be remade, to become so “other” that the spirit is ready to meet the otherness of the divine spirit.

The end of the journeys in Eliot’s poetry is not divine love, the “might have been” that his flaws, the things done to others’ harm, had rendered impossible. The next best thing is to find a place “where prayer has been valid.” For Eliot this was Little Gidding. It was an Anglican community in Huntingdonshire, founded in 1625 by Nicholas Ferrar. It was a highly regulated way of life: a unique combination of monastic and family life. Eliot saw Little Gidding as a place of refuge after trials (as it was for Charles I after his defeat at the Battle of Naseby). It was a place that had suffered in time of war, for its church was vandalised by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1646—a reprisal for giving shelter to “a broken king.” But, primarily, this was a holy place. Of course, it’s important to Eliot that it’s a Christian place, but he does make it clear that it could be any holy place, anywhere, at any time.

Here, Eliot’s seeker undergoes yet again a lacerating examination of his flaws, publicly condoned and yet rankling in the conscience. Public rectitude is itself part of the pain, for “fools’ approval stings.”

This self-examination takes place in the aftermath of an air raid, with dust still suspended in the air, as Eliot would have seen London from his rooftop. It’s here, seen through the dust and smoke, that he encounters “a familiar compound ghost,” a compound of the immortal poets whom he is now to join by way of his poem Little Gidding. “I met one walking,” he reports, “I caught the sudden look of some dead master” on a down-turned face still forming in the half-light. And in the deserted street after the all-clear, they talk about art, and they also talk about sin (“the bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit”), and they talk about rage, and the re-enactment of shame: of motives late revealed and things ill done. The poet’s honesty has a distilled brilliance that can speak to and for us all. And when he makes, finally, a promise that “all shall be well and /All manner of thing shall be well,” he offers, again, not his own words but those of Dame Julian of Norwich. She had the “condition of complete simplicity” he longed to have.


For all his self-imposed and hard-won humility, Eliot was a poet of enormous ambition. He once said that he wanted to go “beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in the late quartets, went beyond music.” In 1931 he mentioned to Stephen Spender that he had the A Minor quartet on the gramophone.

“I find it quite inexhaustible to study,” he wrote. “There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

Beethoven’s finale seems to fit Eliot’s idea of feelings “which we can only detect . . . out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus . . . feelings which only music can express.”

In youth, Eliot dared to hope for heavenly bliss (“your heart would have responded / Gaily . . . beating obedient / To controlling hands”), but in his fifties, he had to content himself with “reconciliation and relief.” In the final lines of the poem he regarded as his masterpiece, Four Quartets, he reaches towards, though can’t himself attain, reconciliation of pain and divine love: “the fire and the rose are one.” He ventures to formulate this sublime equation in hopes that, someday, it might call out a perfect life. And so he leaves us his formula for the perfect life as a vessel the spirit might fill.[1]


[1] The author wishes to thank the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies for giving her the opportunity to write this essay during her residence there.