T.S. Eliot: Some infinitely gentle and infinitely suffering thing

by dollydelightly

T.S. Eliot once said that his marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood brought about “the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land”. If one knows anything of the poem, it’s not difficult to imagine the kind of marriage it must have been. Former tutor and friend Bertrand Russell was the first to meet Eliot’s young bride in 1915, just weeks after the nuptials.  In a letter to his long-time lover Ottoline Morrell Russell described her as “light, a little vulgar, adventurous, full of life – an artist I think she said, but I should have thought her an actress.”  The letter went on: “She says she married him to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it. Obviously he married to be stimulated. I think she will soon be tired of him. She refuses to go to America to see his people for fear of submarines. He is ashamed of his marriage and very grateful if one is kind to her.” Russell was very fond of Eliot but also and perhaps more so of Vivienne. “It is quite funny how I have come to love him,” he wrote about Eliot in another letter a little later, “as if he were my son. He is becoming much more of a man. He has a profound and quiet unselfish devotion to his wife, and she is really very fond of him, but has impulses of cruelty to him from time to time…It is a Dostoyevsky type of cruelty, not a straightforward every-day kind…She is a person who lives on a knife-edge, and will end as a criminal or a saint – I don’t know which yet. She has a perfect capacity for both.”

Interestingly enough, Vivienne – prone to hysteria and anxiety from an early age – ended up as an amalgamation of both and thereby in Northumberland Mental Hospital. The years between 1915 and 1920 proved to be the most turbulent of Eliot’s life, with speculation of Vivienne’s promiscuity and involvement with Russell propelling the dissolution of their marriage and subsequent divorce, and his father’s death in 1919 before the two had time to reconcile, Eliot had a nervous breakdown and spent three months in a sanatorium in Switzerland where he finished writing The Waste Land. Looking through the index of the panoptic Faber & Faber edition of Eliot’s Complete Poems & Plays I opened it to this most famous, and perhaps most accomplished, poem which won Eliot the Dial Award in 1922. There has been copious, exegetical commentary as to the exact meaning of The Waste Land, with some academics suggesting it to be a social criticism, a preliminary glimpse into Eliot’s post Second World War literary politics, and an astute pessimistic overview of modern-day life. While others, most notably biographical scholars, maintain the poem to be far more autobiographical, documenting that out of which it materialised. This view seems to coincide with Eliot’s own, who speaking of The Waste Land said: “To me it was only a relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” Certainly in the second part of the poem A Game of Chess Eliot seems to be borrowing from his domestic life, in the personalities of both the male narrator and his female companion, illuminating his own diffidence and Vivienne’s high-strung sensuality. The female character says: “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me/ Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak/ What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?/ I never know what you are thinking.” She is later compared to the hot-tempered and inconsonant Cleopatra sitting on her “burnished throne.” The poet remains silent during this episode, ignoring the woman imploring him to speak, a stance Eliot took towards the end of his marriage.

The other biographically significant part of the poem, Death by Water, is thought to have been influenced by Eliot’s friendship with Jean Verdenal, a medical student he befriended in Paris, who was killed in the First World War. Eliot commemorates his friend in the opening lines: “Philibas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead/ Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell/And the profit and loss/A current under sea/ Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell.” “The Waste Land” is a lyrical jeremiad containing a myriad of somewhat obfuscatory references and quotations from literary sources, theology, philosophy and history. But Eliot was never one to make things plain as he experimented with structure, continuity and shifting perspective, using his personal emotions to give vitality to images in his work and reflect a world broader than his own. This, in turn, incensed some hardened stoics reviewing poetry at the time, as one early critic of  Prufrock and Other Observations suggested the poems in the collection to be both “bizarre” and “violent” and hailed the title poem as “idiotic”. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is perhaps one of my favourite of Eliot’s works, for its playfulness, its subcutaneous gristle and spry one-liners such as “I grow old … I grow old …/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”, “Time for you and time for me…/Before the taking of toast and tea,” and “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”, and quizzical nuances reminiscent of non-sense verse: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”, “It is perfume from a dress/That makes me so digress?” and “Do I dare? Time to turn back and descend the stair/With a bald spot in the middle of my hair.”

The exact idea behind the poem is somewhat ambiguous but speaking about it Eliot once said that the male narrator was a dramatic creation of a man of about 40, and partly reminiscent of himself. This seems to be one of the most autobiographical of Eliot’s admissions, who was intransigently reticent about his life. Interestingly, it reveals a somewhat different facet to Eliot’s personality than that of a studiously ascetic and taciturn bard with too much pomade in his slicked-back hair, as the narrator “pinned and wriggling on the wall” vacillates over his decisions and the postponement of the “overwhelming question”, finding it impossible to express his love to his paramour. According to some critics, the point of calling the poem a Love Song lies in the irony that it will never be sung – something Eliot himself knew quite well in regard to his own unconsummated love affair with a young Bostonian woman by the name of Emily Hale. Eliot fell for Hale in 1914 before leaving for Europe, a separation which he curiously predicted in La Figlia che Piange describing Hale as the “girl with golden hair” clutching flowers to her bosom in a “pained surprise” at the thought of her beloved departing. Hale also makes a cameo in The Waste Land as the “hyacinth girl” providing a fleeting moment of light, in an otherwise forlorn setting, when Eliot says: “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing/Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” Eliot corresponded with Hale intermittently until 1956 when he ceased contact after she gave his letters to Princeton University Library. In the time he did write to her, he noted that every poet starts from “his own emotions”, which is precisely where Eliot’s work commenced and concluded despite his advocacy of the “Impersonal theory of poetry”. This notion is further confirmed by Eliot’s own admission that: “A writer’s art depends on the accumulated sensations of the first twenty one years of his life.”  Eliot’s were influenced by both Hale and his upbringing, first in St Louis where he was born in September 1888, and later New England the setting of East Coker penned during Eliot’s early 20s. It documents his fledgling interest in writing, which he notes in the following lines: “So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years/ Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres/Trying to use words, and every attempt/Is a wholly new start and a different kind of failure.” The poem goes on to convey the transitional nature of life, highlighting the fact that every moment is an end and a beginning and each points inevitably to the other. This idea is captured beautifully in the following lines: “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated/Of dead and living…In my end is my beginning.”

Eliot’s Complete Poems & Plays is a sympathetically assembled chronological catalogue of his poetic and other works and contains his five plays, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and his Collected, Arial, Unfinished and Minor poems. Among the latter is the first Eliot poem I have ever read called The Eyes that Last I saw in Tears. This was the poem that sparked my interest, with the following lines: “Eyes that last I saw in tears/Through division/Here in death’s dream kingdom/The golden vision reappears/I see the eyes but not the tears/This is my affliction.” In retrospect, perhaps, I was struck by the potency of the words rather than their meaning and only later, after reading The Hollow Men and The Waste Land, realised the poem, like the latter two, was themed around spirituality and man’s desolate voyage into its bathypelagic depths. The Hollow Men, the “lost violent souls” of “Shape without form, shade without colour/Paralysed force, gesture without motion/Those who have crossed/With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom” entreat the reader to “Remember us – if at all – not as lost,” and inhabit a sort of no-man’s land: “Between the desire/And the spasm/Between the potency/And the existence/Between the essence/And the descent” where “Falls the shadow.”  This poem seems to have sprung from the same creative mood that produced The Waste Land, a mood that also defines Ash Wednesday yet in a more direct and self-reproaching manner. Ash Wednesday is distinguished by a sense of complete hopelessness, the speaker’s voice resigned to it, for he has no desire for anything. The poem, originally dedicated to Vivienne, reads like an act of contrition particularly when the speaker says: “And pray to God to have mercy upon us/And pray that I may forget/These matters that with myself I too much discuss/Too much explain/Because I do not hope to turn again/Let these words answer/For what is done, not to be done again/May the judgement not be too heavy upon us.” It is perhaps no surprise that Eliot agonised over his failed marriage, for he set out to make Vivienne “perfectly happy” and felt as if he had failed.

There’s a unique anthropocentric quality to Eliot’s work, reflecting a radical break from tradition and a reformation of poetic verse by use of unconventional diction and rhythm based on cadences of speech rather than poetic structure. Eliot picked up poetry while at Harvard studying for a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and doing research in preparation for a PhD in Philosophy. There he learned Sanskrit, read Dante, the Elizabethan and metaphysical poets, John Donne, Jules Leforgue, the French symbolists such as Gérard de Nerval, and began to write poetry himself. His early verse such as Portrait of a Lady follows in the classic tradition of 19th century portraiture akin to that of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning and Gabriel Rossetti. Portrait of a Lady was described by one of Eliot’s friends, Conrad Aiken, to be about Adeleine Moffatt, an elder woman who “lived behind the State House in Boston and invited selected Harvard undergraduates to tea”. Eliot reportedly attended one or more of her gatherings and in creating the “Lady” appears to have drawn on his memories. The poem is a descriptive monologue which portrays the Lady both as wizened and pitiful and her visitor as a somewhat supercilious naïf, yet subtly the derision in which he holds her is turned upon himself. The two converse of friendship, with the Lady taking the lead and dejectedly declaring: “But what have I, but what have I, my friend/To give you, what can you receive from me?/Only the friendship and the sympathy/Of one about to reach her journey’s end.” The idea of death both opens the poem when the visitor likens the Lady’s parlour to “Juliet’s tomb” and ends with him insouciantly contemplating his reaction should the Lady drop dead and leave him “sitting pen in hand”. All the poems in the collection detail Eliot’s development into a radical innovator of modern expression with a knack for turning classical, historical and philosophical questions into new melodious apothegms.

Eliot always spoke in his own singular voice, representing the literary individual, a device which underpinned his work. Explaining his modus operandi, he once said: “I have tried to write of a few things that really have moved me.” Reading his Complete Poems & Plays I was reminded why his best known works, such as all of the aforementioned, as well as Gerontion (I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it/Since what is kept must be adulterated?), Hysteria (As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved/in her laughter and being part of it, until her/teeth were only accidental stars with a talent/for squad-drill) and The Naming of Cats (The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter/It isn’t just one of your holiday games/You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter/When I tell you, a cat must have three different names) remain timeless, enduring, inimitable. But I also discovered several of Eliot’s poems seldom remembered, one of which is Preludes. The poem, apparently loaded with philosophical and religious references, is one I read without these prejudices and could relate to more than any other, most notably to its evocations of mornings  with “faint stale smells of beer” and all the “muddy feet that press/To early coffee-stands,”and especially to the desolation captured in the third stanza when Eliot says: “You tossed a blanket from the bed/You lay upon your back, and waited;/You dozed, and watched the night revealing/The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted;/They flickered against the ceiling/And when all the world came back/And the light crept up between the shutters/And you heard the sparrows in the gutters/You had such a vision of the street/As the street hardly understands/Sitting along the bed’s edge, where/You curled the papers from your hair/Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/In the palms of both soiled hands.”

The world described here seems entirely familiar, the sense of boredom in despair and the ritual of everyday speaking directly to my own personal experiences and making intelligible the idea of “some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing”. My reading of the poem is perhaps entirely erroneous, but I think this is the trick with Eliot’s work that in relating his own experiences he managed to capture those of others. Which leads me to conclude something that I wasn’t entirely convinced by when I began reading his collection, namely that Eliot was right in saying that “what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author.”