Searching for Salvation

T. S. Eliotby Lyndall GordonW. W. Norton & Company. 721p $35

The T. S. Eliot industryall those library shelves of dissertations and articles and book-length studieshas issued at last in a model biography. In it Lyndall Gordon sharpens and expands two earlier volumes on Eliot, Early Years (1977) and New Life (1988). She has drawn on much correspondence and material no longer off-limits.

This tell-all book is excruciating as well as fascinating. For those familiar with Eliot’s poetry, it will illuminate the intensely personal substratum of his poetic and dramatic fictions, his symbols and prolific allusions. His words would not hold all the concentrated emotion they do, Gordon makes clear, without the author’s own lifelong hammer-and-tongs debate of body and soul.

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Lyndall Gordon quite frankly has set out to do justice to the women in T. S. Eliot’s life and to show their mark on his poetry. Hers then is a work of detection and interpretation, just the thing that Eliot himself was always fending off as merely grist for the gossipy masses and distraction from the Word. Charlotte Stearns Eliot, to begin with his mother, wrote high-minded and religiously dutiful poetry that her son, says Gordon, took as an "unacknowledged standard." He abjured his family Unitarianism, however, for being too cozy with the divine and for relying so readily on moral uplift.

A sense of sin took hold of the poet in his Harvard days, and a desire for perfection (Gordon sounds this latter motif often). What most lastingly imbued him, amid his long transformation into an Englishman, was the American Puritan temperament of his New England roots. The poetry and prose following Eliot’s baptism as an Anglican in 1927 still show an uneasy tension of the Calvinist and the Catholica mix of guilt with eucharistic and Marian devotion and ascetical striving.

Eliot often, and most notably in The Cocktail Party, took issue with Doctor Freud, who pinpointed guilt as modern society’s main problem. Gordon has nonetheless traced in Eliot’s poetry and life all the vicissitudes of the libidosadistic and masochistic fantasy (in poems of his 20’s and in Sweeney Agonistes), inhibition, misogyny, chauvinism, idealization of the "lady." The author has noticeably to fight her distaste for this element of early Eliot, and the "impenetrability" of the later Eliot, while making a case for the poet’s "moral urgency and poetic greatness."

A woman entered Eliot’s life to stay in his mid-20’s, his time of philosophical and personal uncertainty and awakening of great poetic ambitionsVivienne Haigh-Wood. Gordon describes Vivienne as a "flamboyant woman," blunt, impulsive, though articulate and artistically sensitive"a thin little governess, hungry for a big scene." Their sudden marriage in 1915 was, to use a phrase from The Waste Land, "the awful daring of a moment’s surrender." The two of themone a solitary with an unsure connection to flesh and blood, the other unpredictable and chemically dependentwere to be each other’s anguish for 30 years.

Emily Hale, on the other hand, an American teacher and family friend, won Eliot’s affection early. Later they corresponded almost weekly, and Eliot saw her often during her summer visits to England. She, according to Gordon, was Eliot’s "hyacinth girl" in The Waste Land, his "Lady of silences" in "Ash Wednesday," the heroic Celia in The Cocktail Party and, in The Family Reunion, Mary, the pole of domestic attraction whom Harry the protagonist has to reject. Emily was Eliot’s companion in his life’s most blissful moment, the rose garden visit celebrated in "Burnt Norton" (1935).

When Vivienne died in a mental home in 1947, Emily Hale felt she and Eliot would marry. Eliot, though, discovered that it was too late; his love had cooled. On a visit to New England, he had to explain that he could not. Emily bravely occupied herself with her speech and drama students in many schools, but took this turn of events hard and even depressively. For 20 years, meanwhile, he found a strongly supportive friendship, and much patient humor, with a down-to-earth Englishwoman and World War II heroine, Mary Trevelyan. And eventually, in his 65th year, a real flame was lit by his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, whom he married secretly. The marriage and its abruptness left a few friends adrift; but it did greatly lighten Eliot’s final years. As Gordon puts it, "His married happiness restored the self-confidence his turbulent years with Vivienne had undermined." And it helped the poet strike an unusually warm, optimistic and reconciling note in Act 3 of his final play, "The Elder Statesman."

Writers transform the stuff of their experience; biographers dig back into the original. Eliot-lovers of an older generation can be grateful that Lyndall Gordon did not do her work much earlier. (That many of these survive I learned when writing about The Waste Land for America in 1997. The essay drew more letters than all the rest of my writing while on the staff.)

Gordon’s biographical take on T. S. Eliot may be summed up in her comment about his conversion, that "sexual guilt precedes religious fervor." Canto 26 of Dante’s "Purgatorio," where the once lustful are now burned clean, remained a favorite for Eliot. He quoted it several times as a lesson for his age because it was so much a lesson to himself. He loved The Divine Comedy enough to carry the Temple Classic version around in his pocket. Whatever the personal valence of this passage for himand Gordon has made it pretty clearEliot would no doubt have seen the whole weight of human history in the words of Dante. What he wrote was plurivalent, besides containing hidden biography.

What more does Lyndall Gordon say? That T. S. Eliot was a man who feared hell, that he aspired to sainthood and that he left the best concentrate of his spiritual outlook in "Little Gidding," the finale of Four Quartets.

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