T.S. Eliot - Biography #
Eliot’s poetry, written in the early 20th C. reflects a sombre, bleak, tired, world-weary view of the urban world of an effete, decadent, exhausted society. Eliot is profoundly influenced by the realistic novels of Dostoevsky; Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov and French and German Novels and Poetry.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri to a respectable and distinguished family, when he arrived at Harvard at the age of 18, Eliot viewed Boston and modern cities like Paris and London with a critical disdain for their grimy industrial impersonality. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
According to Peter Ackroyd:
The Eliot family motto is tace et fac, be silent and act, or, with some licence, keep separate the man who suffers from the artist who creates. An older way of reading Eliot took that injunction seriously, but of late ‘the connection between the life and work’ which is Ackroyd’s stated subject has come to seem a more interesting topic. The assumption is that in spite of all that has to be said about Eliot’s insistence on ‘impersonality’ our understanding of his poetry will benefit from knowledge of his suffering, or at any rate of his life in general. And indeed Eliot himself probably came to think this plausible, for he said it of Edwin Muir.
Indeed it seems that this profound and lonely man was under a compulsion to make every great alteration in his life a matter for remorse, for the incursion of a general horror into the particular life. He thought he had deserted his parents; and even his intellectual and spiritual development entailed what could be understood as a desertion of old friends and principles. Ackroyd shows, as one would expect, that this predisposition to guilt was early formed, and quite consistent with a determination to make his life on his own terms, in spite of all the breakdowns, alarming illnesses and deep loneliness of his whole life except for the last happy years.
Earlier, Eliot became influenced by the French Poet Baudelaire, who attempted to find beauty in the ordinary, but found the rise of urbanisism unnatural, grubby and alienating. Ayn Rand wrote about the NY skyline as “the will of man made visible”.
From 1910 – 11, Eliot studied French Literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris before returning to Harvard in 1912 and going to Munich in 1914. Eliot dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations to the memory of his Parisian boarding-house companion Jean Verdenal, who died serving as a medical officer during the First World War in Gallipoli. Some suggest repressed homosexual feelings.
The threat of war brought Eliot to England in October where he taught in a Grammar school for two years before joining Lloyd’s Bank until 1925. His early poetry was written in Boston and Paris and published in 1915. He lived in England until his death in 1965. Eliot commented that teaching was twice as hard as working longer hours in a bank.
Eliot’s personal letters to Emily Hale, released in January, 2020, reveal a conflicted, socially insecure, buttoned-up private life, surrounded by highly mannered, but gossipy snobby hostesses. He reveals his pain at her decision to release his letters, as he feels a private man who finds it difficult to write about himself. His brief reference of the indebtedness to his father for the expense of three years at Harvard could indicate some guilt, which could be relevant to some of his personas. While his mother and sister came to his wedding in London, his father failed to make the trip.
He had been unlucky in love. His first unrequited love was meeting Emily Hale at a Harvard Tea Party in 1912. When he declares his love, he sees no signs of her returning it. He writes: “I was very immature for my age, timid, inexperienced with gnawing doubt." A proposal appears to have been rebuffed.
Eliot left America for Germany but with the coming war, he went to London where he suddenly married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. They shared an apartment with Bertrand Russell, who was renown as a confident ladies man. (it’s possible he and Vivienne enjoyed a brief fling). One account suggests Eliot came home one night to find them in bed together. Shortly later Vivienne is confined to a mental hospital and Eliot too, has a breakdown, spending 6 months in hospital in Lucerne Switzerland where he completes The Waste Land. When he returns to London, he continues to care for Vivienne, despite their mutual misery. At tremendous expense, her care was a financial burden. In 1938, Eliot has her confined into institutional care until her death in 1947.
Eliot’s father died in January 1919, producing a paroxysm of guilt in the son who had hoped he would have time to heal the bad feelings caused by his marriage and emigration.
After an extended visit in the summer of 1921 from his mother and sister Marion, Eliot suffered a nervous collapse and, on his physician’s advice, took a three month’s rest cure, first on the coast at Margate and then at a sanitarium Russell’s friend Lady Ottoline Morell recommended at Lausanne, Switzerland.
On his return, The Waste Land is published.
Meanwhile, during a year teaching in Harvard in 1934, he and Emily Hale re-ignite their love for each other and write passioned letters for the next 13 years. He destroyed her letters, while she donated his to Princeton University, not to be opened for fifty years after the death of both.
Eliot, alarmed, responded with an illuminating three page covering letter, justifying his decisions, revealing a pettiness, unworthy of a great poet. He reveals some guilt for abadoning his father, who footed the bill for all his education and travel.
With the death of his wife in 1947, he decides not to continue the relationship with Emily because she would have killed the poet in him. His explains his surprising marriage to Vivienne:
“All I wanted of Vivienne was flirtation or a mild affair. I was too shy and inexperienced. I was a divided man, as I had been from 1911 - 1915."
Eliot accuses Emily of loving him for his reputation but insensitive to his poetry and a lack of respect for his newly found religion.
In 1957, Eliot married his secretary, Valerie Fisher, and lived happily ever after; or at least, until his death in 1965. She wrote of him:
“There was a little boy in him that had never been released. Cats may have released it”.
Eliot presented Valerie with the first edition of “The Waste Land,” on February 17, 1958, with the words inscribed:
This book belongs to Valerie, and so does Thomas Stearns Eliot, her husband. He could not give her this book, for he had no copy to give her. She had wanted the book for many years. She had possessed the author for over a year, when the book came. She had made his land blossom and birds to sing there.
The period from the suppression of the 1848 Revolutions gave rise to supreme optimism of the ruling classes working toward unlimited progress. Isms emerged, flourished and died. The unifications of Italy and Germany posed a threat to the status quo.
Europe suffered under the delusions of la belle époque (1890-1914), a period in history characterized by the very rich’s inability to deal with the grim reality of modern life, and, as a consequence, their retreat into a frivolous, fairy-tale kind of existence of their own making, reminiscent of The Bourbon courts of Versailles.
Most of this is reflected in what W.B. Yeats, called confining conventions established by “The parish of rich women”, the soirees of Eliot’s Prufrock, where “the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo, Gatsby’s parties “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy,” or Mrs Dalloway’s party with all the right people.
This aristocracy rejected reality and thus dissociated itself from the real world. Instead, this elite constructed a rigidly structured society based on the domination of the weak—whether the poor, the opposite sex, or children. Most are trapped in their rigid mannerisms.
The right people judged others according to social standards in no way connected to merit. Besides being based on social inequality, this elitist system was also founded on faith in the unquestioned values of the 19th century. The rich behaved in such an arrogant, autocratic manner, clinging tenaciously to an ordered world that would withstand the forces of modernity and preserve their privilege.
It is surprising that Eliot favours a Royalist society.
American high society aped Europe’s decadence. Most early literature reflects a world at the beginning of the 20th C, The Gilded Age, with its faux aristocracy, with a sense of disillusionment as a result of a collapse of public and private values.
Most historians agree on the needlessness of the first world war - leading mediocre politicians naively sleep walked into a futile war - the war to end all wars - the Great War, thought to be “over by Christmas”.
The later butchery and aftermath of WWI utterly demoralised many intellectuals. Both Boston and Paris had degenerated from their former glory wearied and stifled by propriety and cultural decadence.
New times marked a dislocation from rural life to the unreal muttering of the city; a fragmented impersonal world. City life was sterile, wearied, exhausted, enervated, effete, sapless, stuffy, over cultured, pretentious, buried, smothered ….. they had lost their heroic sense of revolution and dynamism. Entropy refers to cosmic decline.
Eliot appears to speak for a disillusioned generation yearning for some mystical purpose and inner peace to fill the void. Raised as a Unitarian (reason over spiritualism, they rejected the trinity) he early demonstrates a high mindedness with strong moral duty and respect for tradition. Later he is drawn to eastern religions of Buddha and Hinduism, but eventually is converted to high Anglicanism and Classicism as a rejection of the “highly undisciplined squads of emotion”. He is attracted to kneeling to a superior being, a surrender to a greater power by submission and even abasement. He prefers the structure and degrees of Royalism, by quoting Shakespeare’s:
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows. Troilus and Cressida
He felt that the Protestant reformation’s emphasis on individualism had destroyed Western Civilisation.
Artists are in the best position to understand and reflect their times.
Edvard Munch’s best known work, The Scream, has become one of Western art’s most iconic images. See:
Picasso’s Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. This work has gained a monumental status, becoming a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace.