- The Letters of T. S. Eliot ed. by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, and: Young Eliot: From St. Louis to “The Waste Land” by Robert Crawford
ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (London: Faber and Faber, 2015), 862 pp.
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015), 493 pp.
In 1930, writing to Mark Van Doren, T. S. Eliot described what had gone into the making of The Waste Land: “Years of sweat, hell and technical study.” In this superbly edited volume of letters and in this deeply researched biography, we are made to see the unrelenting struggle, one suffused by pain, at the core of Eliot’s life. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he describes the “suffering” of the poet as key to the poet’s artistry, saying that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Crawford tellingly notes that Eliot “selected the verb ‘suffers,’ rather than, say, ‘loves,’ ‘exults,’ or ‘experiences.’ ” Eliot sought to suppress the pain that dominated his life by moving beyond it to a level of existence in which the wholly “impersonal” could assume control. Writing to John Hayward in 1931, he disclosed: “I have had considerable mental agony at one time or another, and once or twice have felt on the verge of insanity or imbecility. . . . And I never found that I could make any conscious deliberate use of suffering.” Nine months earlier, he wrote to Paul Elmore More of the release that religion had given him: it “has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying; it has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery; the very dark night and the desert.” Not being able to make use of pain, he sought to detach himself from it. To get beyond pain also meant a transcendence beyond mere happiness. Thus the “impersonality” of the artist, and thus also its paradox: forever fleeing personality and the suffering integral to it, his personality dominates his poetry. The Waste Land, certainly his most important poem and perhaps the most important poem in English of the twentieth century, seems to be written by no one and, at the same time, by the total accumulations of the past—all of history, all of culture. Yet Eliot’s suffering moves through its entirety—from “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” to “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
As the letters and the biography show, that suffering came from many [End Page 323] sources: his recurring illnesses (neurasthenia, fatigue, endless bouts of cold and bronchial distress, melancholy); his wife Vivienne’s more numerous afflictions, forever mounting in their intensity, mystery, and panic (Ottoline Morrell described her as “a bizarre yet pitiful spectacle”); her betrayal of Eliot with the unscrupulous seducer Bertrand Russell; Eliot’s awareness of his outsider status in both the United States and England; his unrelenting work at either bank or editorial house; his form of Christianity, which was one of self-abnegation; and his belief that the future promised only decline: “Whatever happens will be another step toward the destruction of ‘Europe.’ The whole of contemporary politics etc. oppresses me with a continuous physical horror like the feeling of growing madness in one’s own brain.” Neither the letters nor the biography supplies a bridge between such personal despair and the astonishing artistic bravura of the poem. Still today, no matter how often it has been read, The Waste Land seizes attention, subverts expectation, and reawakens astonishment. Its inventive energy seems to derive from a source remote from the person whose name appears on the 1922 title page. Constrained on every side by family tradition, studied manners, self-imposed inscrutability, and apparent lack of emotional amplitude, the artist who delivered into the hands of Ezra Pound the extraordinary manuscript of The Waste Land is hard to find in the pages of these...