Subscribe to Christianity Today
Jewel Spears Brooker
The Two Eliots
One of the earliest and most durable responses to T. S. Eliot is that there are in fact two Eliots and that they are polar opposites. In one of the first reviews of Eliot's poetry, Arthur Waugh found "Prufrock" so strange that he wondered if it had been written by a rebel whose motto was "I knew my father well and he was a fool" or perhaps by a "drunken slave." But the drunken slave was soon seen to have a sober side. Prufrock and Other Observations was followed by The Sacred Wood, The Waste Land by Homage to John Dryden, and the poet who had been introduced to the world as a drunken rebel announced that he was a royalist in politics, a classicist in literature, and an anglo-catholic in religion.
Accounts of the two Eliots came in spatial and temporal versions. In the spatial, the two coexisted as layers in the same personality; in the temporal, the two succeeded each other in time, with Eliot number two displacing Eliot one at the baptismal font in Finstock Church on June 29, 1927. The persistence of the myth can be explained by the fact that it is strikingly corroborated in his writing, including his verse from "Prufrock" through The Elder Statesman—spatially, in a complex doubling of the self; temporally, in a sharp change in style after The Waste Land. Eliot, of course, was painfully aware of conflicting tendencies within himself. One page in his early notebooks contains this "prayer":
"O lord, have patience / ... / I shall convince these romantic irritations / By my classical convictions" (Inventions of the March Hare).
Almost every book on Eliot gives some account of the two Eliots. The version articulated in Lyndall Gordon's T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life is one of the most compelling. She argues that Eliot should be seen in terms of a self split psychologically between surface and depth, polished shell and burning core, and split morally between perfection and imperfection, saint and sinner. Eliot, she maintains, "had the mind to conceive a perfect life, and he ...