Eliot from ‘The Waste Land’ by Robert Crawford, review by Michael Dirda


TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, to quote the description of Robert Crawford’s fascinating new book, was – and is – a poem of “ruin, brokenness, pain and waste”, but those same words could easily characterize the disastrous marriage of his author. In 1915 Eliot proposed to Vivien Haigh-Wood, partly out of a desire for sexual experience, that he was too shy to seek other ways. Following “the terrible audacity of a moment of abandonment / Which an age of prudence can never retract”, the young poet finds himself chained to a needy and fragile woman whom he begins to hate, then to pity. and finally to hate. He would turn to love and sympathetic understanding elsewhere.

In “Eliot After ‘The Waste Land'”, Crawford details, with remarkable scholarly impartiality, a life of almost operative “complex and contradictory disorder”. It follows “Young Eliot” (2015), which traces the poet’s upper-middle-class childhood in St. Louis, his studies at Harvard and his European travels as a philosophy student, and ends with the publication of “The Waste Land” in 1922.

TS Eliot may have had flaws, but a new book brings his greatness to the page

This second half of Crawford’s biography begins with a brief account of Eliot’s short-lived and unsatisfying affair with the wealthy and notoriously promiscuous Nancy Cunard. Soon, however, this unhappy husband returned to his thoughts of the daughter he had left behind in America, Emily Hale. In due course, Eliot and Hale embarked on an intense correspondence that would continue for over 20 years. All appearance of simple friendship was soon abandoned: “I would literally give my sight to be able to marry you.” … If ever I a m free, I will ask you to marry me. Much of Crawford’s account rests on this correspondence, which remained sealed until 2020.

Along with epistolary banter, Eliot discovered himself to be “a classic in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion.” He longed for what he called, in his great essay on Dante, “a world of dignity, reason and order”. His eventual commitment to exceptionally austere Anglicanism revolutionized Eliot’s later life but ruined Hale’s. The bonds of marriage, he repeatedly told her, were sacrosanct. There could be no divorce. Nevertheless, the two met occasionally during the interwar years – both in America and in England – for what seemed to have been proper nostalgia afternoons. Hale would long cherish the memory of their few kisses while Eliot commemorated, in “Burnt Norton”, their walks together and, prophetically, “the passage we did not take / To the door we never opened / In the rose garden”.

Even great poets cannot live off their poetry – “The Waste Land” only sold around 330 copies in its first six months – so Eliot, from the mid-1920s, worked as director of a new publishing house called Faber & Faber. From his offices he acquired manuscripts, oversaw the stilted cultural journal The New Criterion, and corresponded with leading poets and conservative intellectuals. To the amusement of his godson, Tom Faber, he regularly sent little boy Edward Learish nonsense verses, later reused for 1939’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” and later still the basis of the musical “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Vivian and Eliot suffered almost continuously from various illnesses. Hers included intestinal inflammation, shortness of breath, the flu, shingles, emotional and mental instability and drastic weight loss – at one point she was down to 80 pounds – while Eliot ruled his wife a respectable second with recurring colds, bronchial problems, badly decayed teeth (five were extracted during a visit to the dentist), a hernia that required bandaging, finger surgery and periods of nervous exhaustion. He also drank impressively, up to five glasses of gin during dinner.

Crawford estimates that in 1925 alone the couple spent a third of their income on doctors, medicines and stays in hospitals or sanatoriums. During the 1930s, Eliot arranged for the increasingly troubled Vivien – at one point he wondered if she was suffering from “demonic possession” – to be cared for in various nursing homes, and in 1938 he signed papers committing him to an asylum. With typical Prufrockian cowardice, he did so by letter while he was out of the country. He never saw her again.

The American childhood of TS Eliot

Eliot’s poetry often reflects these emotional and spiritual upheavals, beginning with the desolation of 1925’s “The Hollow Men” (“So the world ends / Not with a bang but a groan”), passing to the 1935 drama in sacred verse about the death of Thomas a Becket, “Murder in the Cathedral” (which its mystery-loving author originally called “The Archbishop Murder Case”) and culminating in the dark religio-philosophical masterpiece “Four Quartets”. Composed between 1936 and 1942, ‘Burnt Norton’, ‘East Coker’ (my favorite), ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Little Gidding’ draw heavily, albeit indirectly, from Eliot’s love of Hale, of his family’s past and the poet’s experiences as an air guardian during the London Blitz.

And then in 1947, Vivien died. At this point the now free Eliot suddenly recoiled from the idea of ​​actually marrying Hale, to whom he wrote, “I can’t, I can’t start life over and adapt (which doesn’t mean not just a moment, but a perpetual adaptation for the rest of life) to any other person. Hale was devastated but hoped he would change his mind. In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, privately calling the honor “a ticket to his funeral”. Nobody ever did anything after he got it. He is, in fact, absolutely right. From then on, Eliot will be above all a smiling public figure, giving speeches on Christian humanism and obtaining honorary degrees.

In the late 1940s and mid-1950s, this world-renowned poet shared a suite of bedrooms with witty, wheelchair-bound bibliophile John Hayward. (I highly recommend John Smart’s Hayward biography, “Tarantula’s Web.”) Eliot’s bedroom was flamboyantly ascetic: a single bed, an ebony crucifix, a bare light bulb hanging from a chain. Very early one morning in 1957, however, Hayward’s lodger announced – without warning, by letter – that he would not be returning the next day or, indeed, ever. Eliot, 68, had proposed – by letter! – to his adorable 30-year-old secretary, Valerie Fletcher, and was accepted. In due course, Hale received his own letter, revealing this ultimate betrayal. For the last seven years of his life, Eliot was smitten with his new young bride, and the two became inseparable. He died in 1965 at the age of 76.

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Before that, however, Eliot burned Hale’s letters and, hearing that she was dropping off his at Princeton, typed a whiny, rude note declaring that he had never loved her, that she was in fact only that a philistine and that marrying her would have killed him as a poet. Maybe that last part is true, but that note sure kills respect for Eliot the man.

“After such an acquaintance, what forgiveness? However, keep in mind that Crawford’s focus on Eliot’s private life results in a partial image, which moves the poet’s intellectual and artistic achievements to the background. So while these often heartbreaking revelations give us deeper insight into Eliot and therefore his work, it’s ultimately the poetry itself – and the criticism and drama – that we’re interested in. After finishing “Eliot After ‘The Waste Land'”, I took out a player and put on a Jeremy Irons CD playing “Four Quartets”. As moved and exhilarated as ever, I continued driving until that last dantesque line where “fire and rose are one”.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for Book World and the author of the memoir “An open book“, winner of the Edgar Prize”On Conan Doyleand five collections of essays:Readings,” “linked to please,” “pound by pound,” “Classics for fun” and “Navigations.”

Eliot after ‘The Wasteland’

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 624 pages. $40

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