Book Review

Still Mixing Memory and Desire

One hundred years ago, The Waste Land made T. S. Eliot’s career. Published in four distinct venues (as a book by New York’s Boni & Liveright and then by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and in The Dial magazine in the U.S. and Eliot’s own Criterion in London), the poem’s elaboration of what Eliot later characterized as personal “grumbling” captured a broadly shared postwar malaise. Stitched of lines from and allusions to past literary texts, set in tawdry contemporary locales, echoing scenes familiar from contemporary pop culture, The Waste Land voiced a generation’s aesthetic and moral confusion. For generations since, it has provided both a window on London in the early 1920s and a wealth of fragments to shore against their own ruins (including, of course, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”). For many, it is also both beginning and end of the encounter with Eliot. Their experience with the poet ends not with the bang or whimper opposed to each other in “The Hollow Men” but, instead, with “Shantih shantih shantih,” the conventional conclusion of Upanishads that Eliot translates, in the notes he added to bulk out the poem’s book version, as “the peace which passeth understanding,” the phrase betraying his increasingly committed Christianity. The Waste Land is also the culminating episode in the first volume of Robert Crawford’s biography of Eliot. Published in 2015, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land covered the poet’s youth and early development, his immersion in literature and the idealist philosophy of F. H. Bradley (his erstwhile dissertation topic), his marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, his intense friendships with Jean Verdenal and Ezra Pound, the publication of his first volume, Prufrock and Other Observations, and, crucially, the long process of writing and revision (punctuated by poor health and a profound breakdown) that led to the triumph of The Waste Land. In his new book, the second and concluding volume of this detailed biography, Crawford leads readers through the long and accomplished, but for most readers less familiar, later career.[1]

Crawford comes to Eliot through his own work and interests as a Scottish poet, anthologist, and literary historian. The author of more than half a dozen books of poetry and more than a dozen books about poetry, Crawford is able to address Eliot’s craft from the inside, to guide readers through the poet’s decisions and revisions, through his individual talent’s complex negotiations with tradition. Having written both careful critical studies—on Scottish poets Douglas Dunn and Liz Lochhead, for example, as well as an earlier book on Eliot (The Savage and the City in the Work of T. S. Eliot, 1991)—and a highly regarded biography of Robert Burns, 2009, Crawford smoothly synthesizes literature and life. Eliot, in these pages, lives at once in an embodied world of work and daily detail—of illness and stress, relationships and entanglements, financial worries, and political intrigues—and in a textually composed world of poetry and criticism, philosophy, theology, and intellectual history. More than this, as Crawford’s deployment of recently released letters between Eliot and Emily Hale and of his generally voluminous correspondence demonstrates, those worlds were inextricable: words were the chief medium through which Eliot moved.

Crawford begins his volume amid the various publications of The Waste Land and with the rumor that the poem’s author had committed suicide. The anecdote effectively opens onto the emotional landscape that poem and poet shared at this moment. As Crawford writes, “a keen sense of death, the presence of the dead, and of being at once possessed and dispossessed by past voices haunts not just The Waste Land and ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’; it also haunted Tom, and would continue to do so.” Eliot’s health was poor, damaged by exhaustion, overwork, and emotional turmoil. His marriage was in distress; he and Vivien spent part of the year informally separated, and Eliot conducted an affair with Nancy Fairbairn (aka Nancy Cunard, heiress and eventual avant-garde publisher of Hours Press). Vivien, who had been seriously ill throughout 1922, had had an affair as well, some years before, with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. His literary reputation rising even as his personal life was falling apart, Eliot became more and more convinced that he was still in love with Emily Hale, the young woman he had known in Boston while at Harvard and whom he had left there when he departed for Europe and his graduate studies in philosophy in 1914. At the same time, he turned more and more to his burgeoning Christian faith.

Throughout his tribulations, whether in marriage or his work for Lloyds Bank, in the business of keeping the Criterion afloat or keeping in touch with Emily Hale, in exploring his beliefs or experimenting with his verse, Eliot wrote. At Lloyds, his job was to read European newspapers and provide excerpts and summaries. Mornings and evenings and weekends, he solicited material for the Criterion, writing to mostly conservative and right-leaning literary and cultural figures such as Jacques Maritain and Charles Maurras, revising and editing, even as he managed the magazine’s precarious finances. As Crawford writes, Eliot’s “literary activities and bank work demanded verbal judgment, internationally minded alertness, and commercial sense.” They also required him to spend hours reading and writing. It is difficult to imagine how he found the time not only for this work, but also for the correspondence he kept up with family and friends (ranging from his mother and brother in America to Virginia Woolf and Ottoline Morrell in nearby Bloomsbury and Sussex to Vivien’s brother, Maurice Haigh-Wood, as he tried to manage both her health and their marriage, and to Emily Hale as he sought refuge from them).

Of most interest to us, the readers of Eliot’s poetry, is the writing of verse for which he somehow found the time and energy. The early drama in Crawford’s account is Eliot’s composition of “The Hollow Men” and “Ash Wednesday” out of his struggles with the frailty of the body (exemplified in Vivien’s constant and severe intestinal illness and his own frequent bouts of flu and bronchitis) and the soul (tormented by shame over the body’s needs and failures, including the repeated fall into sexual guilt). Tormented, Eliot turned to an array of cultural resources. While Baudelaire and Dante continued to inform his thinking, they were joined now by an increasing interest in the theatre, especially the non-naturalistic modes available in puppetry, ballet, and mechanistic work. The poetry of other languages and the suspension of access to meaning entailed in the act of translation helped him to incorporate estrangement into his own poems; Eliot’s labor on a translation of Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis shaped the lines and phrases of his work of the mid-1920s. But the cultural resources Eliot brought to the processing of pain were not limited to the literary. His close attention to Maurras and the Action Française movement provided a vision of interwoven politics and aesthetics derived from and dedicated to order. And most of all, Eliot relied upon his Anglo-Catholic Christianity. Crawford writes that during the various crises that beset Eliot during the middle and late 1920s, “Increasingly, afflicted by his sense of the ‘waste’ and ‘hollow,’ he turned towards the suffering Christian God.” While we tend to think of these resources as separate streams in Eliot’s experience and thought, they were, for him, all synthesized in the commitment to and practice of poetry. The incantation of the Anglican liturgy, Crawford writes, was of the same order as the rhythm and music that Eliot heard in the work of Poe or Mallarmé. A line from the latter, which would arise to prominence in the greatest of the Four Quartets (“Little Gidding”), captures the synthesis: “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” (to purify the language of the tribe). Speech and society come together here, and when Eliot writes of Mallarmé that the French poet substitutes for philosophy “the primitive power of the Word,” he reveals his understanding that both speech and society are determined by and properly direct themselves back to God. The “Word,” of course, translates the Greek Logos, understood in the Gospel of John as God’s word miraculously incarnate in Christ. Crawford nicely wraps up the point: “As Tom’s Christianity deepened, he saw the aim of poetry as attempting to let words approach the Word.”

It is impossible to overstate the centrality of Christianity in either Eliot’s life or his work from this point in time. Written in 1924, “The Hollow Men” is, as Crawford puts it, Eliot’s “most desolate poem,” one that “articulates near-total despair.” The poem is grounded in suffering both bodily and spiritual. Eliot had spent years attending to Vivien during her illnesses (physical and mental), and he had endured years of his own poor health and guilt. All of this saturates the poem. Appearing three years later, after Eliot’s baptism and confirmation in the Anglican church and his naturalization as a British citizen, “Ash Wednesday” arises from despair and finds redemption through a ritual not only described to readers, but demanded of them. Salvation requires our rigorous participation. Even as Eliot left Lloyds and moved up to the position of director of the new Faber and Gwyer publishing company, his own religious commitment took up a great deal of his time and energy. One achievement of Crawford’s biography is its translation of what might be one phrase in an anthology headnote into a palpable sense of how the Church absorbed Eliot. At one level, this was a simple matter of his own religious practice: he attended services at least twice every week, served on church committees, and stood for selection to the vestry. But his Christianity shaped every facet of his life and work. Eliot read widely and deeply in theology and church history, from the sermons and spiritual exercises of seventeenth-century cleric Lancelot Andrewes to contemporary books and pamphlets like Bishop Charles Gore’s Can We Then Believe? Much of this reading was for his own edification, but a good deal was also for Faber, where he shaped the publisher’s list on topics related to religion and from which position he also shaped some of the British nation’s religious as well as literary discourse. He cultivated and kept up relationships with a number of religious authorities, undertook spiritual retreats, and participated in “the Moot,” a discussion group led by J. H. Oldham, comprising highly placed intellectuals and “focused on relations between Christianity and social organisation.” He devoted numerous lectures and essays to this intersection of religion and political culture (“Is a Christian Society Possible?,” “The Church as an Ecumenical Society,” “The Life of Prayer,” “Religion without Humanism,” and many others) and, in 1938 published The Idea of a Christian Society. His beliefs determined the character of his literary work as well; Crawford shows that there is no daylight between Eliot the churchman and Eliot the poet and playwright. His Christianity informs not only the themes (especially in the plays to which he turned during the 1930s—Murder in the Cathedral, The Rock, The Family Reunion), but also the dramatic structures and the very texture of the work. He was influenced by productions of medieval mystery plays and by contemporary churches’ theatrical stagings, both, in his mind, ultimately deriving from the incantatory performance at the heart of the Eucharist. All of this work, which is to say most of the work Eliot devoted himself to from the time of his conversion well into the Second World War, was unified in its aspiration “to provide arguments for a new Christendom,” to “‘regain, under very different conditions, what was known’ to earlier ages—part of ‘this endless battle to regain civilisation.’”

Throughout the 1930s, this “endless battle” was largely figurative, a matter of Eliot’s personal struggle with memory and desire. In 1939, it became literal. As bombs fell on Britain, Eliot divided his time, decamping from London to the countryside homes of Hope Mirrlees or Geoffrey Faber or Frank Morley, then returning to his work as a warden for the Air Raid Precaution service, spending sleepless nights patrolling blacked-out streets and reporting bomb damage. Through it all, he wrote: detailed memos on manuscripts for Faber, letters to family and friends, scenes for new plays, and, most importantly, new poems: the last three of his Four Quartets date from the early war years. And through it all, on visits and on patrol, in meetings of “the Moot” and the pages of essays and lectures, in the plays and in the poems, he offered his distinctively austere and demanding faith as the answer (or, better, the best way to shape the question).

Eliot’s religious commitment accounts for two elements of his life that pose awkwardly interesting problems for his readers. First among these is the anti-Semitism that pervades his writing. Scholars have debated the significance of Eliot’s remarks about (and poetic caricatures of) Jews, especially since the publication of Christopher Ricks’s T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988) and Anthony Julius’ T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (1995), but Eliot courted controversy on the subject during his lifetime. Crawford recounts an embarrassing episode late in the book: in 1951, Eliot “walked into the room” at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts as Emanuel Litvinoff, “a Zionist from Hampstead,” began to read a poem he had written that criticized Eliot “for his alleged views on Jews.” Though alerted by Herbert Read of Eliot’s presence, Litvinoff continued to read the poem, and the controversy continued when, in an interview with the Zionist Review, he pointed out passages in “Gerontion” and “Sweeney among the Nightingales.” The reading and comments were reported in the Daily Mail, and “accounts of the reading circulated” for some time after. Crawford judiciously addresses the treatment of Jews in Eliot’s writing and is especially illuminating on Eliot’s own casuistry in the 1930s, as he tried hard to distinguish his philosophical support for a right-leaning politics and aesthetics of order from authoritarianism, his particular Anglo-Catholicism from the rightist Franco-Catholicism of Maurras (itself inextricable from French anti-Semitism) and, especially, the Italian Fascism espoused by Eliot’s old friend, Ezra Pound. Citing Eliot’s published writing and private correspondence as the persecution of Jews in Europe became widely known in England in the late 1930s, Crawford traces Eliot’s distinctions between the Christian society he saw as the only viable resolution to historical conflicts and the murderous prejudice of National Socialism. He writes that it is unfortunate that a statement that Eliot wrote, clearly disavowing anti-Semitism, remained unpublished during the poet’s lifetime, but he also offers a frank diagnosis of a would-be subtle analysis of the contemporary situation that Eliot wrote in 1940: “To suggest that the Jewish problem may be simplified because so many will have been killed off is trifling: a few generations of security and they will be as numerous as ever.” Of this sentence, Crawford writes that Eliot “missed the point; or, more invidiously, he revealed that underneath his arguments there remained, despite denials, a deep-seated antisemitism he had harbored since childhood.” It is hardly convincing or comforting to read Eliot refusing on principle to sign on to public statements against mistreatment of Jews or insisting on the legitimacy of criticism of a people as opposed to hatred of them, but it is useful in assessing the totality of his views to see these remarks in the context of his developing, and increasingly insistent, Christian orthodoxy.

Of more recent interest, thanks to the release of letters deposited at Princeton University in 1956 and opened to researchers only in 2020, is Eliot’s long and tortuous relationship with Emily Hale, a relationship just as conditioned by his religious beliefs as was his attitude toward Judaism. Eliot and Hale met in 1912, and by the time he left for Europe in 1914, the two were in love. Eliot married Vivien, however, and for the next forty years the voluminous correspondence between Eliot and Hale is dominated by the tension between what seems to have been deep and intense love for each other and the pain arising from Eliot’s conviction that they could never marry or be together. They exchange epistolary accounts of a 1923 conversation in London in which Hale questioned Eliot about his feelings and intentions and, as Crawford writes, “at a crucial moment, he ‘did not answer.’” Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, they conduct long postmortems on a series of meetings and partings in England and the U.S., probing the emotional wounds these left and wondering together about what their future might look like. Finally, the correspondence turns painfully chilly when Eliot confesses that even after Vivien’s death he cannot marry Hale, and again when he announces his marriage to Valerie Fletcher. The relationship was limited by Eliot’s shame at his desire for Hale, by his guilt over the failure of his marriage to Vivien, and by continuing religious disagreements, ranging from his dismissal of Hale’s Unitari­anism to his strict adherence to his church’s prohibition (as he understood it) on divorce. Crawford’s digest of an exchange soon after Eliot and Hale spent time together in the Cotswolds in 1934 is worth quoting at length because it gives a good sense both of the tenor of the correspondents’ back-and-forth and of Crawford’s deft way of dealing with it:

Once more, they discussed divorce and marriage. “I would literally give my eyesight to be able to marry you,” he protested. “But my love, my love, what do you think I CAN do?” He would talk again to his spiritual advisor. He felt he was a “blood-sucker,” causing her “pain.” She felt “terribly unhappy” to make his “misery more acute.” They found it both wonderful and heart-rending to spend time together. Lavishing praise on her “very perfect nose,” he wondered if, perhaps, he could stand it if she married “someone else.” He told her he admired her “dominating personality,” and that he had been surprised to hear some people thought he had a “dominating personality” himself. She held back, worried there was “inequality” in their “abnormal” relationship, and that she lacked sufficiently strong feelings, though she invited him to write “as much of a love letter” as he felt inclined to do. He wanted to worship her “for what you are.” It was hard for each to fully understand the other.

The “after The Waste Land” of Crawford’s title may be read, this passage reminds us, not only chronologically, but also influentially. Eliot’s willingness to give up his eyesight here echoes the hyacinth garden passage in that early and important poem (and, indeed, the whole pattern of reference to sightlessness and speechlessness throughout the poem). In the decades-long suspension of this continuously deferred relationship, Eliot seems to have lived—and to have imposed on Hale—the condition of The Waste Land.

Crawford is a helpful guide to and interpreter of these aspects of Eliot’s life and work, but he also recognizes that the reason anyone is interested in Eliot is the poetry. One of his most impressive achievements here is the way he situates Eliot’s plays and poems in the complex problematics of the man’s life in all of its painful complexity. Crawford’s treatment of “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets, is exemplary in this regard. He links the poem’s sense of human experience as irretrievably fallen to Eliot’s Christianity, to his conviction that salvation lay in the transcendence of “ordinary physical life” and entry into a world of divine Love “that is ‘Timeless, and undesiring.’” At the same time, he grounds specific images and references in Eliot’s lived experience. Lines about time and memory can be traced, he shows, to books that Eliot knew because of his work with Faber (J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time, for example, which the company reprinted in 1934). Images of rose gardens and dry pools come directly from the Burnt Norton manor near Chipping Campden; Crawford points out that the pools “looked odd because (though Tom did not know this) they had been constructed out of the wrong kind of concrete and so would not hold water.” And the poem’s setting at Burnt Norton, its themes of memory and desire, all derive from Eliot’s visits to the manor with Emily Hale in 1935. Crawford quotes Eliot’s letter to Hale describing “Burnt Norton” as “a new kind of love poem, and it is written for you, and it is fearfully obscure” and describes it as Eliot’s “secret tribute to Emily.” But he also shows that these strands were woven together to make a fabric irreducible to any individual thread, that Eliot’s genius lay, at least in part, in the transformation of materials drawn from life and reading into something rich and strange.

My only criticism of this book is that Crawford holds back as an interpretive reader. His comments on the poems and plays are both illuminating and perspicuous, but they tend to be brief and fragmentary. Crawford describes his intention as an effort “to delineate how [Eliot’s] powerfully resonant, superbly calibrated poetry is linked to the trials of his emotional, intellectual and spiritual life,” and his dedication to the life’s shape deters him from more sustained or substantial readings of the work. Fair enough. But the glimpses of critical acuity here whet the appetite for such readings, the ones you just know Crawford, a fine critic, could deliver. This is a minor cavil, though, a desire simply for more, really, that feels a little greedy given the wealth of insight and information in this lucidly thorough treatment of a supremely complicated writer.
[1] Eliot after The Waste Land, by Robert Crawford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $40.00.