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TSE  April 2014

TSE April 2014

Subject:

Re: At the Guardian: TS Eliot: guilt, desire and rebellion at respectability

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Thu, 10 Apr 2014 09:37:48 -0500

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Carrol

We are so used to thinking of the glum, austere person that Eliot spent most of his life turning himself into that it sometimes takes an effort of will and imagination to remember that he was once young and deeply confused. Most talented people suffer all their lives from imposter syndrome – the feeling that they cannot really be as gifted as people tell them they are, and as a mixture of self-worth and vanity sometimes tells them they are. Religion – particularly that strain in Christianity that tells us we are all miserable sinners from our birth – is not much help with this, or with a tendency to depression.

There was a side of Eliot that felt guilty about being a poet at all, let alone the poet that he became. He came from a long line of preachers and businessmen that went back, on both sides, to New England puritanism, with its culture of earnest endeavour as the proper duty of human beings, not merely an option. His father was deeply disappointed in his decision to stay in England and become a poet, rather than pursue an academic career as a philosopher, to the extent that he put his inheritance of shares into a trust. (The only one of his siblings subjected to that conditional inheritance was a sister with severe learning disabilities.)

It was not that the family distrusted literature altogether: Eliot's mother was a poet too, but her poems were celebrations of strictness and mission, featuring saints, martyrs and preachers. Charlotte Eliot was not a woman to be impressed by any of her son's early work, neither the early impressionist poems of Prufrock and others, with their portrayal of ineffectuality and emotional diffidence, or the poems of a couple of years later, with their aggressive cynicism.

She would at least have read them, and would have found the Prufrock poems vaguely insulting to the aesthetic pretensions of her class ("In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo") and to the quiet respectability of her family ("Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt … Now when she died there was silence in heaven/And silence at her end of the street.") If she read the poems of 1920, with their epileptic whores and shitting nightingales, and talk of animalistic sex: "To seize and clutch and penetrate/Expert beyond experience" – she would have been shocked to the core.

Eliot's parents did not approve much of sex – his father regarded with horror the idea of a cure for syphilis, fear of which kept the young from sexual behaviour, and said that sexual education was an introduction to the devil. The utter mess of Eliot's emotional life can in large part be blamed on this culture of repression and ignorance, and the often sordid and shabby ways he reacted against it – bawdy juvenilia like the Bolo poems with their racism and rape culture. It is far from clear that Eliot ever availed himself of the services of sex workers: Rhapsody on a Windy Night talks of late-night wanderings and stalkerish voyeurism "The street lamp said 'regard that woman/who hesitates towards you in the light of a door/which opens on her like a grin.'"

Various scholars have assumed that Eliot was bisexual and scared of it; he fiercely rejected such claims. And yet, he dedicated Prufrock to his dead soldier friend Jean Verdenal, with whom his correspondence was intensely emotional, and one of the key passages of his last great poem Little Gidding: "In the uncertain hour before the morning …" echoes Dante's meeting with his mentor Bruno Latini in hell in the Circle of Sodomites. It would be reasonable to at least suppose he was concerned about it; the Bolo poems are all about buggering cabin boys.

It's also reasonable to regard the poems of heterosexual yearning from "Prufrock" as being about Emily Hale – the respectable intellectual Bostonian he loved much of his life. La Figlia Qui Piange – the girl who cries – is seen "her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers" and it's obvious that this vision of her, rather than anything to do with Verdenal or Vivienne is the hyacinth girl who haunts other poems. Yet, Emily was the sort of woman his parents would have liked him to marry, a perfect intellectual wife for a professor.

Instead, Eliot married Vivienne and stayed in England and became a poet; it may even be the case that he married Vivienne in order to stay in England and become a poet. It was, far more than the streak of bawdy, the slightly over-willed phallicism of the Bolo verses and the Sweeney poems, an act of rebellion against his parents and their tight world of duty. It was a choice of instant intense desire for a wild girl who danced and wrote, whose own parents thought she might be too mad to be allowed to have children, over respectability.

His parents saw it as an affront – Charlotte talked of making his inheritance dependent on meeting his wife and approving of her; like most such rebellions, it treated his beloved as an object … And with the hernia he suffered from all his life, and Vivienne's menstrual problems, and her affair with Bertrand Russell, and their comparative poverty, Eliot's revolt from duty and Unitarian virtue and philosophy into a poetry that was aggressively about "birth and copulation and death" was perhaps a sudden education in the flesh, and its disadvantages.

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