Although I am no expert on his life and work, T.S. Eliot is my favourite poet and it is reassuring to learn that he was just as weird as the rest of us.
In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone is an expert on Eliot, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The editor of Eliot’s complete prose (seven volumes, with the accompanying commentary) estimates that “90 percent of what has been written about him has been written without the knowledge of 90 percent of what he wrote.”
Seven volumes of his letters have been published – but they only reach up to 1933. And the most anticipated letters of all – 1,131 of them – were unsealed barely a week ago. Written to his long-time friend Emily Hale, they were donated to Princeton University Library on the condition that they would remain unread until 50 years after her death.
This is a treasure trove which will make previous biographies of the great poet and critic obsolete. And it is also being used to disparage him as a bad, abusive, selfish misogynist.
A bit of background is needed to put all this in context.
Eliot’s romantic life was, um, complicated. When he was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, he met a young woman named Emily Hale. In 1914 he told her that he loved her, but she brushed him off. So, in 1915, after moving to London, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, an Englishwoman, in a registry office. He had known her for only three months.
Their marriage was a disaster. She was intelligent and vivacious but unstable. They formally separated in 1933. In 1938 her brother had her committed to a mental hospital, where she remained until her death in 1947.
Lonely and unhappy, Eliot revived his friendship with Miss Hale. Between 1930 and 1957 Eliot wrote to her nearly once a week, on average. Although scholars still have not read the Princeton letters in full, a few passages have been released. One of them, from 1930, could have been cribbed from a Barbara Cartland romance:
“You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life; the only kind of happiness now possible for the rest of my life is now with me; and though it is the kind of happiness which is identical with my deepest loss and sorrow, it is a kind of supernatural ecstasy.”
Divorce, however, was out of the question for him. In 1927 Eliot had been confirmed into the Church of England and at the time the C of E frowned upon divorce.
They often spent their summers together but their relationship, it seems, was entirely Platonic. In fact, Eliot insisted in a posthumous letter to be read when the correspondence was unsealed that “I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale”.
Eliot also had a close 20-year friendship with another Englishwoman, Mary Trevelyan. She proposed three times. He remained loyal to his marriage vows.
Then, to everyone’s astonishment, in 1957, at the age of 68, Eliot married his 30-year-old secretary, Valerie Fletcher. He was happy enough, but Mary was dismayed and Emily had a nervous breakdown. As I said, it’s complicated.
Eliot was horrified to learn that Miss Hale had donated his letters to Princeton. In his posthumous letter, he wrote a scathing assessment of their relationship.
Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my seventeen years with Vivienne seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative …
Upon the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, I suddenly realised that I was not in love with Emily Hale. Gradually I came to see that I had been in love only with a memory, with the memory of the experience of having been in love with her in my youth …
And he concluded that “It may be too harsh, to think that what she liked was my reputation rather than my work.”
Ooof! Even at the distance of 60 years, these words cut like a knife. Miss Hale had hung on for decades in the hope of becoming the second Mrs Eliot — and her reward was to be treated as a gold digger.
Which brings us to an essay written for CNN by Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani feminist living in New York. In her view, these letters show that Eliot was an abusive misogynist.
Now there is no shortage of such men in 20th Century literature. Zakaria cites the American poet Robert Lowell (punched his first wife in the face; stole from his second wife’s correspondence) and the British poet Ted Hughes (drove his poet wife Sylvia Plath to suicide). But there’s also Ernest Hemingway (four wives), Norman Mailer (stabbed his wife, her fault), William Golding (raped a teenager), and so on and so on.
In Zakaria’s #MeToo analysis, “The sins of misogynistic poets past must not be so easily forgiven. The gift of verse should not, as it has for so long, deliver undeserved immunity to the estimation of character and its shortcomings.”
She goes on to contend that abusive men should be expunged from the canon: “Bad men, abusive men, selfish men, it must be admitted, cannot be great poets, deserving of reward and reverence, their sins washed away by rhyme and unreason.”
But this is a revival of the kind of old-fashioned Victorian literary criticism which used to assess literature in the light of writers’ lives. As a latter-day inquisitor, Zakaria is committing the “biographical fallacy” by judging a book on the virtues of its author. If we obeyed her strictures, we could read no one but Homer – not Homer Simpson, the other guy – because we know absolutely nothing about him. Plus, of course, the collected works of Anonymous, who is the most prolific author who ever lived. Perhaps sinless AI bots will write our literature someday and Zakaria will have nothing to complain about.
Eliot seems to have done the best he could under the circumstances. As an immature young man he had made a bad mistake but he did try to make his first marriage work. Amongst the women he knew, he had friends, but not friends with benefits. He was faithful to his marriage vows. Was that the very best he could have done? His very, very best? Did he reach the summit of Christian perfection? Probably not. He was a genius, the defining poet of the 20th Century, but sometimes cowardly, cold and cruel. He was, in short, just like the rest of us. He was a human being.
Despite Zakaria’s censorious Puritanism, it’s still OK to read Eliot’s wonderful poems and to be enriched by both the misery of his failings and the wisdom of his struggle against them. As he writes in “East Coker”:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.