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Jewel Spears Brooker

The Two Eliots

To all appearance, a biographer writes, "Eliot was conventional, mild, decorous, yet the hidden character was daring and savage."

T.S. Eliot: An
Imperfect Life

by Lyndall Gordon
721 pp.; $18.95

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 also had the honesty to admit that he could not meet it," and she describes her book as a "spiritual biography" which "explores the divide between saint and sinner in the greatest poet of the twentieth century."

It is the sinner, as her title indicates, that fascinates Gordon, but unlike some who have chronicled Eliot's imperfections, she never loses sight of his virtues as a person and his greatness as a poet. Gordon carefully positions herself between older reverential critics and newer iconoclastic ones. In Oxford in 1996, she was present at a lecture by James Fenton in which Eliot was characterized as anti-Semitic and hypocritical and which ended with the line "Eliot was a scoundrel!" Gordon reports that after a stunned pause, some in the audience ap plauded, but that she did not. Fenton's abusive view is just as false as its opposite, for both deny Eliot's psychological and spiritual complexity. She proposes to

look his flaws in the face without seeing flaws alone ... flaws in lesser works can coexist with moral urgency and poetic greatness in other works. Eliot's greatness ... shows itself in a struggle with certain flaws in his nature, a long struggle that gave birth to the spiritual journeys of his maturity.

Gordon's new book is a revised and updated version of two earlier books, Eliot's Early Years (1977) and Eliot's New Life (1988). The revision was needed because of the recent publication of important materials: the poet's early letters, his 1926 lectures at Cambridge, and his early poetic notebooks.

The facts of Eliot's life are generally known, and Gordon gives them their due. She describes the American back grounds, the Harvard and Oxford education, the crucial year in France, and the move to London in 1914. She covers the miserable marriage, the early fame, the conversion, and the return to America and his first love in the early 1930s. She chronicles his labor in the classroom, at the bank, and in the boardroom; she guides us through his dismal years l'entre deux guerres, his wartime duties and postwar prizes, and finally, reminds us of his bliss in a May-December marriage.

These events, however, are for Gordon primarily a scaffold for revealing the poet's hidden life, which she accesses by reading his poems, plays, and essays. Eliot, Gordon claims, lived a double life:

publicly at the centre of a sycophantic buzz; privately there was the incommunicable life of a solitary that was all the stranger because it was conducted in the stir of the city, in the glare of fame. ... It was his nature to have scruple within scruple and to regulate his conduct on principles ignored by men of the world, like Lot in Sodom or Daniel in Babylon ... In a solitude guarded by public masks he lived a hidden life. It would be unreachable if he had not been a poet with a need to explore and define that life. His poetry distills ... a coherent spiritual autobiography, direct, honest, and more penetrating than any outsider could dare to determine, a life so closely allied to creative works as to be a reciprocal invention.

In Eliot's Early Years, Gordon argued from a reading of an unpublished poem, "Silence," that in 1910-11 Eliot had a mystical experience, a glimpse of glory that launched him on a lifelong quest for salvation, a quest that is at the heart of both his personal and his artistic life. His poetry began from a confluence in his college years of spiritual crisis and sexual conflict, a confluence she traces in his poetry and in his relationships with a series of women: his mother, Charlotte; his first love, Emily Hale; his first wife, Vivienne Haigh Wood; his friends Virginia Woolf and Mary Trevelyan; and finally his second wife, Valerie Fletcher. It is in and through these relationships, Gordon argues, that Eliot's spiritual life takes shape, that both his virtues and his flaws become apparent.

The task of the literary biographer, in Gordon's view, is to remove the mask and show the face, to X-ray the face and reveal the heart. She argues that there are three distinct but parallel and interrelated levels in the life of a poet, and that these can be identified and mapped by analyzing his creative work. First, there is the surface self, the face put on to meet the faces that one meets. Second, there is the hidden self of which the artist is conscious, the thoughts, the longings, the thousand sordid images of which one's soul is constituted. And third, there is the buried self of which the poet is unaware or half-aware.

Gordon builds her surface level from the same documents other biographers use—public records, letters, diaries, supplemented by a literal reading of Eliot's poetry and prose. On this level, she finds a high-minded, well-meaning figure, a great poet who sought but failed to find personal happiness. But taking a cue from The Waste Land (real existence is "not to be found in our obituaries / ... Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor / In our empty rooms"), she discounts the historical level: "Eliot's visible life offers only the shell of a character. ... To all appearance, Eliot was conventional, mild, decorous, yet the hidden character was daring and savage. The outward appearance proclaimed normality; the hidden self refused all norms as it struck out for the frontiers of existence."

Gordon constructs her second level, hidden from the casual observer but present to the poet himself, largely from his writing. Her methodology, though updated, is old-fashioned: she boldly assumes that art is at bottom confessional, that the poet confides in the reader as a penitent confides in a priest. The Waste Land is Eliot's letter to the world, an opening of his mind, a revelation of his memories and desires.

On this level, Gordon on principle refuses to interpret, on principle ignores figurative language and symbolic constructs, arguing that interpretation conceals more than it reveals. Most of Eliot's allusions, she argues, have little to do with the real meaning of the poem. She rejects the notion that he was writing of the problems of his age (World War I, the disappearance of belief, cultural despair), insisting that his themes are almost entirely personal. What she hears in the literal narrative is a cry for salvation, a preoccupation with the absolute and with God. But again taking a cue from The Waste Land (real existence is "not to be found ... in memories draped by the beneficent spider"), she moves deeper to her third level.

Although she resists interpretation on her first two levels, she embraces it in constructing her third, the dark level of which the poet is only vaguely conscious. And she finds that not only in Venice, but in the poet himself: "The rats are underneath the piles." She claims that Eliot's quest for divine love has a flip side, a dark subterranean side involving rejection of natural love; his desire for bliss conceals his pleasure in pain; his preoccupation with ideal women is a cover story for his hatred of real women; his longing for God masks a hatred of life.

Gordon associates Eliot's several selves with literary patterns which clarify and complement her thesis. She argues that in trying to cope with his awareness of guilt and his longing for God, Eliot identified with certain models encountered in his earliest reading. One such model comes from his readings in mysticism and his fascination with saints. He worked through some of his conflicts regarding sexuality, sin, punishment, women, love, and God in such early poems as "The Burnt Dancer," "The Death of St. Narcissus," and "The Death of St. Sebastian." Eliot chose not to include these poems in collected editions, but Gordon suggests that he deeply identified with these saints and martyrs and saw his own life in terms drawn from their stories. The interest in saints as models continued into his later work and is central in Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party.

This pattern was supplemented by another of even greater importance, drawn from Dante. Eliot appropriated Dantean patterns in working through his feelings of guilt, his understanding of sin, his idealization of women, and his need for beatitude. Dante is present in his earliest work in "Prufrock," in the poems related to martyrs and saints, in the quatrains and The Waste Land. But it was in midlife that the Dantean model became crucial, for it was then that he reached his own purgatorial moment and consciously decided that the knowledge of sin and the acceptance of suffering were essential to la vita nuova, then that he began to think of Emily Hale as his Beatrice. This pattern also continues throughout, reaching impressive heights in Ash-Wednesday and Four Quartets. As related to Gordon's overall thesis, it is in these carefully chosen patterns that one can discern this solitary poet imagining the "perfect life."

But to understand the "imperfect life," to move from saint to sinner, one must descend lower into Eliot, descend into the cave of internal darkness. The patterns that Gordon finds here he could not have escaped, for in the words of the Chorus in The Family Reunion, they "shamed / The first cry in the bedroom, the noise in the nursery, mutilated / The family album." These patterns, Gordon suggests, reach back to America, to New England, to his Puritan heritage. Eliot was the spiritual child of his forefather Judge Blood of the Salem witch trials, the unrecognized descendent of those upright Puritans who inhabit the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, characters such as the Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter: "The Dimmesdale nature pervades Eliot, the excruciation of a sinner of high spiritual gifts, gazing absorbed into the mirror of election with its associated dangers of pride and despair."

There is another important American pattern, taken from a man Eliot admired intensely, Henry James. In addition to the surface kinship between the two great expatriates, Gordon finds a hidden bond. Eliot's character and style are foreshadowed with such precision in the Jamesian hero that they almost seem to have been plagiarized from one of the master's novels.

The Jamesian pattern is particularly evident in Eliot's ambivalent relationship with women. It explains what in Gordon's opinion is Eliot's special sin: "detachment," or virtuous coldness in human relations. In his first marriage, the pattern replicates one from Daisy Miller. Eliot can easily be seen as Winterbourne and Vivienne as Daisy; his sin, like Winterbourne's, is an aloofness that has devastating consequences. In his relationship with Emily Hale, the pattern echoes the plot of "The Beast in the Jungle." Marcher spends his days waiting for some rare destiny, some "beast in the jungle" worth waiting for. He convinces May, who is in love with him, to join him in waiting, and they grow old, waiting. When May dies, Marcher falls on her grave in the terrible realization that the rare thing he had been waiting for and had now lost was human love. Except for the ending, this is the story of Eliot and Emily Hale, two well-mannered, high-minded people trapped in their own exquisite webs. Interestingly, Gordon observes, Eliot charmed the women who loved him into playing matching Jamesian roles: "Vivienne played the wild Daisy to his shocked Winterbourne. Emily played the companionable May, watching with Marcher for a spring that was not to be."

As readers of both James and Eliot will see, this is a brilliant insight. One feels torn, however, between congratulating Gordon and demurring. Eliot does exhibit detachment, and at times, especially in ending relationships, detachment to a fault. But in fairness, it must be said that he could not have survived without it. The insight is profound, but it misses something essential. "Teach us to care and not to care" (Ash-Wednesday) is much more than a prayer for detachment, and to this reviewer, it is Eliot at his wisest.

Lyndall Gordon has made substantial contributions to Eliot studies. Much more could be said about the sympathetic imagination she brings to the women in this study and about her brilliant readings of Four Quartets. But space is limited, and I would be remiss if I did not express my reservations regarding her methodology and some of her conclusions. My reservations are primarily a matter of degree, for even when one disagrees with Lyndall Gordon, one is forced to acknowledge that she is profoundly insightful. My being stirred to protest should be taken as a warm tribute to a scholar and friend.

My major reservation has to do with Gordon's methodology and the impoverishment of interpretation that it entails. Gordon is important as a corrective to the critics who argue (bringing selective statements by Eliot as proof-texts) that his poetry is impersonal. It now seems odd that so many readers allowed themselves to be convinced that such emotionally charged poems as "Prufrock" and The Waste Land were related only to large cultural problems. But Gordon goes too far in the other direction. To focus exclusively on the literal and confessional is to distort as seriously as to focus exclusively on the symbolic and impersonal. In denying Eliot the use of symbols, she forbids one of our greatest poets to speak of anything but his private life.

The resulting poverty of interpretation runs throughout Gordon's book. She takes little or no notice, for example, of the waste land myth, important throughout his poetry. This ancient religious myth has to do with the interconnectedness of devastation (or its opposite, prosperity) in various elements in a community. When Oedipus commits parricide and incest, he does not suffer alone; his corruption infects his kingdom. The land is rendered barren, and the victims include innocents, namely women, children, and animals. The main idea is that nothing happens in isolation; the corruption of a prince contaminates his country; the disease of a husband sickens his wife. Hitler's hatred and madness infected ordinary "good" Germans and completely devastated a land. Marion Barry's addictions drugged his city, which became the capital of cocaine, murder, and aids with women and newborns conspicuous victims. As the proverb has it, "fish rots from the head down."

In commenting on Murder in the Cathedral, Gordon notes the "pervasiveness of corruption," especially in the Chorus:

The Women of Canterbury smell a "hellish" sweet scent in the wood path, and feel a pattern "of living worms" in their guts. Vileness floods their senses—rat tails twining in the dawn; incense in the latrine; the taste of putrid flesh in the spoon ... They say: "We are soiled by a filth that we cannot clean, united to supernatural vermin."

Gordon approvingly quotes Stevie Smith's opinion that this horror is private and peculiar to Eliot. This is too easy and denies Eliot his major myth and his vision as an artist. The horror in the guts of the poor women of Canterbury originated in the guts of the king, the church, and other leaders. A refusal to put the corruption of England and the murder of Thomas in the context of Eliot's myth is to impoverish the play almost beyond recognition.

In regard to The Waste Land, as we have seen, Gordon argues that Eliot's allusions "have little bearing on the poem. It is almost always best to respond to the literal import of Eliot's words" (p. 160). Yet on the very next page, we find a clear illustration of the limitations of this principle of reading. Here Gordon quotes the following fragment from his notebook:

Our sighs pursue the vanished shade
And breath a sanctified amen,
And yet the Sons of God descend
To entertain the wives of men.

And then the Female Soul departs
The Sons of Men turn up their eyes.
The Sons of God embrace the Grave
he Sons of God are very wise.

Gordon comments: "In one of the discarded drafts of 'Whispers of Immortality,' in May-June 1918, he deplores the social framework that demeans a Son of God to tending his wife. Hopefully, she'd die." True to principle, she does not mention the allusion to Genesis 6 in which the intermarriage of "Sons of God" (variously interpreted as angels, as rulers, or simply as godly persons) and "daughters of men" (humankind) is related to the corruption which leads to the Flood. Eliot's lines may, as Gordon suggests, stem from his misogyny, from the fact that he was responsible for tending a helpless wife. But had she permitted Eliot the benefit of his allusion, she would have seen that much more than that is going on in these lines. One cannot but be disappointed to find a critic of Gordon's sophistication seeing merely sexist meanness in a clear allusion to the mythic connection between the sexual corruption of princes and the devastation of the earth.

Regrettably, Gordon's methodology controls her interpretation of Eliot's character. On the level of the poem, she refuses to interpret his negative images, but on the psychological level she interprets them as pointing to a deep hatred of life. No one will deny the sordid nature of the images. "Prufrock" compares the ends of his endless "days and ways" to cigarette butts; the night walker in "Rhapsody" observes prostitutes whose dresses (and lives) are "torn and stained" and cats whose tongues reach for rancid butter; the lovers in The Waste Land eat out of tins and make "love" on a divan piled with dirty laundry.

Admittedly, this pervasive sense of blight has to do in part with Eliot's vision, but it also has to do with his environment. He was perhaps drawn to the urban waste land, but as the work of Victorian poets and novelists shows, he didn't invent it. It was real, and part of his genius was to put the blight in the context of a myth that is explanatory and hopeful, the myth of the waste land. A crucial point is that if the reader allows Eliot his myth, the interpretation of his character is suddenly flipped from "hatred of life" to a lament for lost vitality and perhaps a hope for renewal. The latter interpretation is, in my view, not only more accurate, but fairer, more generous.

In spite of my reservations, I behave that Lyndall Gordon's work is immensely valuable. She brings special intelligence and massive research to her work, and she offers a nuanced and complex reading of Eliot's life and of his poetry. She has spent decades coming to her conclusions. But as she acknowledges, Eliot is as complicated as a character in a novel by Henry James. For this reviewer, that means he will remain not only endlessly fascinating, but also endlessly elusive.

Jewel Spears Brooker, professor of English at Eckerd College, is the author and editor of several books on Eliot, including most recently Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (Univ. of Massachusetts Press).

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