T S Eliot by Peter Ackroyd - review by Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings

Art of the Personal

T S Eliot


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Unless the Autumn smites us with a study of his mother by John Osborne, Ackroyd’s book must be the finest piece of imaginative biography of the year. I use the word imaginative in a cautionary sense because Peter Ackroyd, in order to achieve this book, has perforce had to tackle some unusual obstructions which no self-respecting biographer would otherwise dream of banging his head against. Namely, access and copyright.* It will come as no surprise to anyone that the Eliot Estate, coupled with that wretched chums’ club of clams, Faber & Faber, have offered no help at all in this exercise. Ackroyd claims that (for the purposes of his book) he was forbidden to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence, and yet, in an indirect manner, albeit fully protected by it being subsumed in his text, he has contrived to weld much of Eliot’s unpublished writings into his book. In this sense, the reader is forced to rely on an assumption that what Ackroyd culls from private sources is indeed the truth of the story told. It is an unusual method to say the least: thus the reader cannot easily identify time and place, and so this work does throw itself into the arms of imaginative account. Ackroyd himself freely admits that biography can be seen to be a ‘convenient fiction’, and what is all the more remarkable about this book is the writer’s self-imposed constraints – not trespassing too much to impose states of mind in his subject, nor overtly allowing our expectations of revelation to diminish the true nature of Eliot’s poetry. George Barker once said, in a predictably cavalier fashion that ‘all biographies of poets are read in order not to have to read the poetry itself.’ Ackroyd goes a long way towards discounting this. If anything, and in particular with Tom Eliot, it is the very form of biography which can only lead one back to this poet’s work.

The delicious paradox in Eliot is that along with I A Richards, Cleanth Brooks, Kenneth Burke etc, he devised a theory of impersonality in literature; and yet no other twentieth-century poet has so dramatised his various personas in allusion and analogy, and with such unrelenting self-preoccupation. The irony of course being that any biography which naturally inserts personalia back into the work immediately starts to dismantle this pose of ‘Possum’. Hence the anger and dismay of those foolish enough to allow themselves to succumb to his ‘authority’ on the art of the impersonal. It may well be that Eliot’s belief in the surrender of personality is in itself something of a ‘modern heresy’. But what has Ackroyd now given us in exchange for those lapdog metaphysical waxings by the Gardners, Spenders and Bergonzis and their Eliotian mystique?

To begin with Ackroyd claims there is an implicit connection between the life and the work, and it is the purpose of this book to elucidate this connection. Eliot was the youngest of a Unitarian family rich enough to maintain sizeable homes in St Louis, Missouri, and on the coast at Gloucester, Mass. His mother had a curious habit of reading Savanarola’s life to young Tom as a bedtime story. He was educated at Harvard, and at Milton Academy on a diet of Sanskrit, Symons, Bergson and Baudelaire; after he graduated he sailed to France at the age of twenty-two in 1910. He enrolled at the Sorbonne, acquired a keen interest in Durkheim and Laforgue, and through friends was introduced to the philosophy of the jew-baiting fascist Charles Maurras and his Action Frarzcaise movement. The heir of Taine and Proudhon, Maurras defined French unity as a form of ‘socialism purged of its democratic element, and a natural part of a nationalist monarchism’. The young Eliot returned to Harvard for a doctorate; found a talent for acting in musical variety shows alongside a girl, Emily Hale, with whom he began a lifelong friendship. He was appointed president of the university philosophical club, and in 1914 he was awarded a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship for a year at Oxford. He left behind him at Harvard Emily Hale, a fellow poet Conrad Aiken, and a visiting lecturer Bertrand Russell. It is suggested his family looked on somewhat askance, nevertheless the young student received along with the fellowship an annuity from an Eliot Trust. Peter Ackroyd is quick to underline Eliot’s early enthusiasm for France, especially the authoritarian nature of Maurrassian logic ‘classique, catholique, monarchique’, a phrase which became a lifelong fascination to Eliot.

The young poet in Europe possessed a folder of twenty or so bits of poems, which included the embryo ‘Portrait of a Lady’, literally dozens of pornographic quatrains which later became known as the King Bolo stanzas, and he wrote back to Harvard complaining about walking alone along streets ‘with one’s desires’. He had roughed out poems of self-flagellation and dreams of strangling women to be called ‘The Death of St Narcissus’ and ‘The Love Song of St Sebastien’. Eggs, he complained, were threepence a dozen, and he wrote obsessive limericks about cabin boys who got buggered in the sphincter, and a certain big black bastard queen who was served up snackettes of fried hyenas but had a predilection for a bit of the penis. That same year, Eliot met Pound and showed him the serious poems, ‘Preludes’, ‘Boston Evening Transcript’, ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night ‘ and, of course, ‘Prufrock’; Pound instantly realised, not without a tinge of envy, that Eliot was a man who’d apparently modernized himself on his own. Ackroyd makes the case that these very fragmentary pieces were modern precisely because they embodied a style which had no real predecessor, they were the voice of a bewildered young man, and from out of this confusion the style itself became a metaphor. The next year, or perhaps the last days of 1914, Tom Eliot met a young woman his own age, in Oxford, Vivienne Haigh Wood. Six months later they were married in a London Registry Office. She was known as Viv or Vivien, she was a mimic and a dancer, with a talent for poetry and watercolours. She was a vivacious woman from a well-connected family who whisked Eliot off to ballet and music halls. They shared an interest in cats and French language, and espoused mutual love for identical books (Daphnis and Chloe, Chateaubriand’s voyage down the Mississippi Travels in America). And notwithstanding the fact that her family most probably represented the quintessential fossil order Eliot aspired to, Ackroyd charts their sad and tragic life together with the view that ‘they quite misunderstood each other’s characters’.

But Peter Ackroyd does not limit himself to such simplistics. He allows the eighteen years of this fraught marriage, and in consequence the major section of this book, to chart the extraordinary achievement of Eliot’s poetry between ‘Prufrock’ (1915) and The Family Reunion (1939), poetry which appears to have been written out of pain, but which found the solace of public acclaim. Ackroyd takes the years one by one and seems to unearth in the writing an emblematic parallel to the life. One is never quite sure who is the sanest. Tom takes to doffing his bowler in the street at Grenadier Guards. Viv visits friends at the weekend and regularly steals the bedlinen they’ve lain in. Tom keeps her chequebook in his inside pocket. Viv orders a milliner to make her up a hat made out of programmes to his theatrical oratorio The Rock, and wears it in Bond Street. Ackroyd tends not to recognise the surreal wit in Viv. One of those awful Bloomsbury harridans, Virginia or Ottoline takes tea with Viv. Asks Viv if she ‘keeps bees for honey?’ (knowing full well that Viv lived in a flat in London with her husband). Viv’s prompt reply- ‘No. But I keep hornets under the bed’. It only deepened Tom’s embarrassment. It would seem that he clearly had married above himself. And he floundered in the class intricacy of the Woolfs, the Morrells and the Haigh Woods. But Ackroyd – even if he does not countenance the destruction of her will beside the mounting fame of Eliot – makes a strong case for a man made weary out of incomprehension, and a woman only too desperate to hang on to the partnership she had committed herself to. And Ackroyd is at pains to indicate her distress as a symptom of their joint malaise, and makes the telling point that nothing she did could possibly be called ‘mad’.

The book seems to lose energy after 1938, when Viv is incarcerated in the asylum. Not enough is made of the war years, the writing of Four Quartets, the poet’s attachment to the Mirlees family, and to Mary Trevelyan, and of course the ever present painted shadow of Viv sharing the city with him in a sense- he and his air-raid warden duties, she and her little padlocked white room by the Finsbury by-pass. Much is made of Eliot’s determination to release Pound from an American asylum, not a word is mentioned about the apparent failure of the Trustees to apply for Viv’s release. Ackroyd quotes hardly a line of the poetry, but the spirit of the man’s work is uniquely bound up in the biographer’s patrician desire to exp lain but not justify.

Ten years after Viv’s death, in 1957, Eliot married his secretary Valeric Fletcher. He appeared to be a broken man, wracked by ill-health and a deep sense of remorse, barely able to cope with his fame. He had seven years to live. The second marriage was a stunning success. He became simply and gloriously happy. To certain friends it seemed incredible that this poetic merchant of despair could behave in such a childlike manner. According to Ackroyd he cuddled in public, contemplated dancing, and found a ‘love that he had dismissed in his writings as the consolation only of ordinary men, that rescued him from a lifetime of misery and isolation’.

There is something intensely moving about Ackroyd’s summary of the last days. Perhaps it is an echo of what Eliot called ‘a condition of greater simplicity’. Emphysema had driven him to emergency treatment at the hospital. He recovered from the coma, and with the aid of continuous oxygen he was brought back to his home, and to Valeric Eliot. As he was carried across the threshold, he gasped for air, and shouted ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!’ He died a few days later.

The child who read Savanarola before Huck Finn had indeed come a long way from St Louis. The old man of despair, public and private, was by all accounts now willing to hold hands by the firelight in sheer happiness. The misogamist who, thirty years earlier, had quoted so ostentatiously St John of the Cross – ‘the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings’ – had made a remarkable marital somersault. It was, also, a long way from the surrender of personality or the impersonality of art. Peter Ackroyd does much to interpret these paradoxes. This cannot of course be the last word on Eliot and his work. Not until 2020 can we see his thousands of letters to Emily Hale from Harvard. I suspect those hurrahs on the threshold, days away from death’s kingdom, were something of a poem in themselves.

* In the case of my play Tom and Viv, the Royal Court Theatre were specifically denied access to material by or about Vivienne Haigh Wood Eliot. But copyright of Vivienne’s papers are in the keeping of the Haigh Wood family and the Bodleian Library, thus obstructiveness by the Eliot Estate and Fabers may have a tenuous legality.

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