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Portrait of the Artist as a Grown Man

On T. S. Eliot’s later years

Eliot After “The Waste Land” by Robert Crawford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pages.

In a June 1922 journal entry, Virginia Woolf described a memorable evening spent with her friend, T. S. Eliot:

Eliot dined last Sunday & read his poem. He sang it & chanted it rhythmed it. It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure . . . One was left, however, with some strong emotion. The Waste Land it is called; & Mary Hutch[inson], who has heard it more quietly, interprets it to be Tom’s autobiography — a melancholy one.

It is remarkable that Woolf could respond so intelligently to her first encounter with a poem that, one hundred years after its publication, remains synonymous with inscrutability. (A year before this recitation, Eliot claimed “that it appears likely that poets in our civilization . . . must be difficult.” He certainly was.) On the spot, Woolf identified the particular brilliance of The Waste Land: its balancing of, or oscillation between, symmetry and fracturing; its impersonal form and deeply personal feeling; its vibrating “tensity.” It’s easy for a reader now, schooled in the history of modernism, to sense the poem’s architecture and preoccupations. Far harder to recognize these in the moment, over cocktails.

By another light, though, Woolf’s introduction to The Waste Land—listening to it rather than poring over it—was ideal. Eliot later described the poem as “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” We can argue over the source of Eliot’s grousing. There was his unhappy, even dehumanizing marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, which he summed up in 1925: “In the last ten years—gradually, but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V.” There were his infirmities both physical (regular bouts of influenza and a congenital double hernia) and psychological (he composed much of the poem while at a Swiss sanitarium). Finally, there was postwar Europe. From 1917 to 1925, Eliot worked on foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank in London. He knew just how prone to breakage the world was.

What can’t be argued is the power of The Waste Land’s rhythms—its feel in the ear, the way this tissue of quotations booms, echoes, and resonates. Despite his image as a prematurely-aged fuddy-duddy, Eliot loved to dance—in 1927, he offered to teach Woolf the Grizzly Bear and the Chicken Strut—and his language jitterbugs all over the place. His impressive mastery of cadences ranges from the Biblical (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) to the demotic (“And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said. / Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said”) to the surrealistic (“And bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled, and beat their wings / And crawled head downward down a blackened wall”). At the suggestion of Ezra Pound, the original nineteen-page manuscript of The Waste Land was cut almost in half. What remained was language pressurized into music.

All of which is to say, Woolf’s first, purely acoustic encounter was in many ways perfect. In the poem’s third section, “The Fire Sermon,” we read, “But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.” In “What the Thunder Said,” a speaker intones, “I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only.” To read The Waste Land well is, in the end, to hear it well—to listen to its voices and to recognize the music they jointly create.

For generations, critics have located The Waste Land, that great poem of the center not holding, at the very center of both modernist history and Eliot’s life. Robert Crawford’s Eliot After “The Waste Land,” the second volume in a two-part biography of the poet, follows suit. 

In the first volume, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to “The Waste Land,” Crawford, an excellent poet and seasoned biographer, meticulously followed Eliot’s years of apprenticeship: his descent from a Boston Brahmin family; his childhood in St. Louis (Eliot’s grandfather founded Washington University); his time as a Harvard undergrad, where he drank, sailed, and wrote racist doggerel about a figure named King Bolo until, in 1908, he discovered his own voice by discovering the voice of the Uruguay-born French poet Jules Laforgue; his experience as a philosophy grad student, also at Harvard; his decision to leave academia and conquer the London literary market; his rash marriage to Vivien in 1915 (her mother had warned a previous suitor off due to Vivien’s “moral insanity”);  the many breakdowns of Vivien (she suffered from migraines, digestive issues, and paranoia), of Eliot (respiratory problems and bad teeth), and of their relationship (shortly after the wedding, Vivien began an affair with the British philosopher Bertrand Russell). In Crawford’s telling, all of this—the “soundscape of St. Louis,” the reading, the marital discord—led to The Waste Land in 1922. The final words in Young Eliot read, “It was as if he had never been young.”

This notion—that Eliot led a belated, almost posthumous existence—is a critical truism, and part of Young Eliot’s success lay in its sharing of a different, livelier Eliot. This “Tom,” as Crawford refers to him throughout, was not just a dancer but a rascally prankster: Crawford opens with Eliot and his nephew, in the 1960s, setting off a stink bomb in the Bedford Hotel and then fleeing the scene. What to do with a second volume, though, one that seems to announce a dwindling away in its very title: Eliot After “The Waste Land”?

The poet had a lot of life to live after 1922. In those forty-three years he converted to Anglo-Catholicism; engaged in a seventeen-year-long epistolary extramarital romance with the American drama teacher Emily Hale; separated from Vivien; became an editor at Faber and Faber; saw Vivien committed to a mental hospital (where she died almost a decade later); published one of the century’s great religious lyrics (“Ash-Wednesday”) and one of its great poetic sequences (Four Quartets); won the Nobel Prize in Literature; and, in 1957, got married again, this time to his much-younger secretary, Esmé “Valerie” Fletcher. Still, if you see The Waste Land as the pinnacle of modernism and of Eliot’s achievement, then there’s an inevitable sense of anticlimax to the post-Waste Land life.

There are different ways a literary biographer might deal with this issue: rush through the last decades at a breakneck pace, say, or dilate upon the later, less celebrated work. Crawford employs neither strategy. Clocking in at over six hundred pages, Eliot After “The Waste Land” is a maximalist biography of a minimalist poet. (Eliot declared in 1919 that “there are only two ways in which a writer can become important—to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little . . . I write very little, and I should not become more powerful by increasing my output.”) Crawford’s seeming command of every letter Eliot wrote—and he wrote many—is admirable, and he doesn’t skimp on the great anecdotes. For example: one day, W. H. Auden visited Eliot at his flat, where the older poet was playing Patience. Asked why he enjoyed the card game, Eliot campily responded, “Well, I suppose it’s because it’s the nearest thing to being dead.” Still, one occasionally longs for a Pound-like editor to excise and condense. At times, the book’s second half devolves into a desultory lecture tour. Now Eliot is at Harvard, now he’s at Oxford, now he’s speaking in Minnesota, where, in 1956, 13,523 people showed up to listen to “The Frontiers of Criticism.”

If you see The Waste Land as the pinnacle of Eliot’s achievement, then there’s an inevitable sense of anticlimax to the post-Waste Land life.

In Young Eliot, Crawford said that he wanted to spend less time on Eliot as “a thinker,” and more on him as “a poet.” In that volume he succeeded, attending to pitch and irony in the early poems. There’s some of that sensitivity in Eliot After “The Waste Land,” too. Crawford provides a lovely reading of Eliot’s 1930 poem “Marina,” focusing on its distinctive “soundscape.” In “Reflections on Vers Libre,” Eliot claimed that “liberation from rhyme might be as well a liberation of rhyme. Freed from its exacting task of supporting lame verse, it could be applied with greater effect where it is most needed.” His use of internal rhyme in “Marina” is exquisite, and Crawford beautifully observes how the poem’s sounds are “islanded yet joined, scattered but netted.”

Yet this kind of sustained attention, one critic responding to the music of another, is largely absent from this second volume. Partly this is because, after Four Quartets was published in 1943, Eliot was essentially done as a poet. He still wrote some very good verse drama and occasional verse but no serious lyrics. Still, Crawford dispatches with the new, more abstracted sounds of “Burnt Norton” (“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past”) in a few pages. He notes biographical echoes in “The Dry Salvages”: the title refers to Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where the young Eliot sailed during summers. But he doesn’t spend much time with that poem’s claim that all our epiphanic experiences—“the moment in and out of time,” when “music [is] heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts”—are but echoes of and pointers towards “the Incarnation.”

Throughout Four Quartets, Eliot considers, often obliquely but always seriously, the Incarnation—God taking on human flesh in the form of Jesus Christ—and how this event might change our understanding of time, embodiment, beauty, language. Yet the word “Incarnation” appears not once in Crawford’s reading of the sequence. He notes that we can hear World War II in Eliot’s description of language as “a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” But he doesn’t spell out how these lines are also about apophatic theology: the inability of language to capture the real, which for a believing Christian like Eliot means God and grace. Eliot often used words like “order” and “structure” when talking about Christianity. Just as crucial for him, though, were the disordering and de-structuring effects of religious faith: belief in God troubled one’s self and one’s language. The sentences in Four Quartets are longer because they needed to make room for the poet to unsay what he’s just said: “That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory: / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion, / Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.”

Language fails; that’s what it does. Eliot believed that in The Waste Land, and he believed that in Four Quartets. But the reason for this belief had changed in the intervening years. Part of the task of Four Quartets was to find a new style—less expressionist and more philosophical—for this new theological poetics. To go back to Crawford’s distinction, Eliot the thinker can’t be separated from Eliot the poet. Four Quartets gives us a new pitch of mind by giving us a new pitch of voice.

Ultimately, though, neither Eliot the poet nor Eliot the thinker are the star of Eliot After “The Waste Land.” That distinction belongs to Eliot the letter writer—or, more specifically, Eliot the correspondent of Emily Hale. The two met in Boston in 1912. They could have married but didn’t, first in 1914 because she rejected his declaration of love (if it was a declaration of love and if she did reject it: it’s all a bit unclear since, as Crawford writes, Hale was “schooled in Bostonian restraint,” and Eliot was, too); then in the 1930s because, due to religious convictions, Eliot wouldn’t divorce Vivien; finally in 1947 because, after Vivien’s death, he just didn’t want to.

Starting in 1930, Eliot and Hale corresponded regularly, and in loving terms, for seventeen years. It was intimacy at a distance, with Eliot in London and Hale in America, though they did see one another occasionally, including at Burnt Norton in 1935. For decades, the record of this relationship remained unavailable: Eliot destroyed most of his letters from Hale; Hale donated her letters from Eliot to Princeton with the condition that they not be opened until fifty years after both parties were dead. On January 2, 2020, after the allotted time had passed, Princeton threw open the archival doors.

Crawford reminds us how remarkably stable the reputation of this unsettling poet has been.

Though there have been several excellent accounts of the letters, Eliot After “The Waste Land” does something different, folding the missives into a synoptic vision of Eliot’s life and the many roles he played in it. There’s Eliot the besotted lover, referring to Hale as “Raspberrymouth” and imploring her to “imagine [him] kissing [her] dear dear feet.” There’s Eliot the Anglo-Catholic, reminding Hale that “in canon (Church) law there is no divorce.” And there’s Eliot the antisemite, writing that he’s “distressed for the fate of the Jews in Vienna” while crossing his fingers “that all the university professors will not come and settle here: there are enough Jews in the English universities as it is.” The original title for The Waste Land was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a phrase that comes from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, and Eliot’s letters—cajoling and imploring, romantically playful, and theologically serious—reveal a personal voice as varied as his poetic voice.

At one point, Crawford describes Eliot, who regularly appeared on BBC broadcasts, as “good at radio work.” As a poet, he could tune into different stations. Classical, ragtime: you name it and he could find it. We shouldn’t be surprised that he tuned into more hateful frequencies, too. Crawford doesn’t look away from Eliot’s ugliness. But he doesn’t allow it to color everything about the work either, and he clearly shows how questions of authorial ethics were alive in Eliot’s own time. His contemporaries wouldn’t have known that he wrote privately in 1941, “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.” But they would have read this from “Gerontion”: “My house is a decayed house, / And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner, / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.” And they would have known that, first in a 1933 lecture given at the University of Virginia and then in 1934’s After Strange Gods, Eliot claimed that, in the West, “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” Accusations of antisemitism dogged him for years; in 1951, he issued a statement through his secretary denying these prejudices.

Crawford doesn’t offer a “revisionist” account of Eliot’s career; there’s no need to revise when his tendencies toward nastiness have long been known. Rather, Crawford reminds us how remarkably stable the reputation of this unsettling poet has been, continues to be, and most likely will be. As Eliot knew, time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. 

In this year that marks the centennial of The Waste Land, what is to be gained by looking at all the years that came after? For one thing, these years remind us how much of the life of a great poet is lived outside the poetry: in romances imagined and achieved, in letters written and received, in friendships made and sustained.

Take Eliot’s friendship with Virginia Woolf. They had a professional relationship: Woolf published Eliot’s work at the Hogarth Press, and Woolf contributed to the Criterion. But the two bonded less over their august writing than over gossip and snobbery. They enjoyed one another’s company deeply, even if they complained about one another in private—what true friends don’t! Woolf often wrote about Eliot in her journals and letters, and these furnish Crawford with all manner of delightful quotes. Here she is on Eliot’s reserve: “There’s something hole & cornerish, biting in the back, suspicious, elaborate, uneasy, about him.” And on his marriage: “But suppose a little boy was beaten every day, and had his fingers shut in doors, and dead rats tied to his tail coat—that is Tom’s predicament I maintain.” And on his conversion: “A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” And on the Eliots moving from flat to flat, seeking something peaceful for the sickly pair and convenient for Eliot’s commute: “the 5th move in 6 months; which means I suppose that the worm in Vivien turns and turns, and not a nice worm at that.” And on Eliot’s changed comportment after separating from Vivien: “tight & shiny as a wood louse,” with “well water in him, cold & pure.”

When Woolf died, Eliot confessed that he “did not know her work very well”; James Joyce and detective novels were more his style. But, in a lovely tribute, he described her as “like a kind of member of my own family”: “Virginia Woolf was the centre, not merely of an esoteric group, but of the literary life of London.” In Young Eliot, Crawford says that “Eliot had perfect pitch when it came to the music of words.” He did, and so did Woolf. Of the many rewards of Crawford’s biographical project, this is not the least of them: listening to the sometimes strained, often beautiful music of this strange friendship.