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Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on 26 September 1888 in St Louis, Missouri, the son of a New England schoolteacher and a St Louis merchant. Thirty-eight years later he was baptised as an Anglican in an English village. Such facts tell little of a man for whom there was usually a gap between his outward and his private life, the constructed, highly articulate surface and the inward ferment. Wyndham Lewis painted Eliot's face as if it were a mask, so that he might distinguish Eliot's formal surface from his hooded introspective eyes, and the severe dark lines of his suit from the flesh of his shoulders beneath. Virginia Woolf wrote that his hazel eyes seemed oddly lively and youthful in a pale, sculptured, even heavy face.
Eliot's admirers played up his mask, while detractors stripped it only to find the flaws: both overlooked a man of extremes whose deep flaws and high virtues were interfused. Obsessed by `this self inside us' and determined to guard it, he was barely famous in 1925 when he decided there should be no biography. He urged those close to him to keep silence, and sealed many letters until the next century. Meanwhile, he devised his own biography, enlarging in poem after poem on the character of a man who conceives of his life as a spiritual quest despite the anti-religious mood of his age and the distracting claims of women, friends, and alternative careers. He once spoke of the man who tries to explain to himself `the sequence that culminates in faith', and in a letter, written in 1930, mentioned his long-held intention to explorea mode of writing neglected in the twentieth century, the spiritual autobiography.
Eliot aimed to be a `poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth'. In some sense his own works do retain `all the particularity' of personal experience, though to work back from the work to the life can only be done through imaginative transformations that intervene, the discarded fragments of The Waste Land or the ten layers of Eliot's most confessional play, The Family Reunion. The challenge is to discern the bonds between life and work in a way that brings out the greatness of major works which are, after all, the most important facts in the poet's life. To do this we must imagine a man with immortal longings, and reconstruct the strategy by which he attained immortality. The strategy was extraordinary, so willed in its acts of surrender, so directed in its doubts, so sure in its single-mindedness, that we see all the way the pure line of that trajectory — leaving broken lives in its wake.
Eliot was recognised in his lifetime as the moral spokesman of the twentieth century, but as that century now recedes from view the question is rising whether the huge power of his voice to engage our souls can sustain sympathy for a man who was stranger and more intolerant than his disarming masks would have us believe, a man who grew progressively harder to know during the inscrutable years of fame. Eliot's guardians, most now dead, no longer block the crucial issue whether his intolerance for the masses, for women and Jews in particular, infects his greatness. The anti-Semitism is integral to the poetry, said a lawyer, Anthony Julius, who built up a formidable case against Eliot in 1996, thirty years after the poet's death. Biography, though, can't reduce a man to the adversarial categories — guilty or not guilty — of the courtroom. Courts construct set dramas that rarely elicit the complexity of motives in actual lives. Undoubtedly, an infection is there in Eliot — hate — and we can't explain it away; and yet biographers, of all people, know it is naïve to expect the great to be good. Dickens was monstrous to his wife and children, while his works laud the social ideal of the family; Tolstoy was a self-willed autocrat who parades an image of humble holy man; Carlyle was another domestic tyrant, while Hardy estranged his wife and then wrote touching elegies after her death. Eliot's superiority invites scrutiny. In his case, we must walk a difficult path through a thicket of `things ill done and done to others' harm'. Shall we find that Eliot's great poems answer ill-doing? Is it conceivable that they are all the greater, in fact, for their admission of failure to match the perfect life to which Eliot aspired from the start?
Eliot's Notebook and other manuscript poems (published thirty years after his death) show that he began to measure his life by the divine goal as far back as his student days, in 1910 and 1911, and that the turning-point came not when he was baptised in 1927 but in 1914 when he first interested himself in the motives, the ordeals, and the achievements of saints. In later years Eliot seemed to beg off personally in favour of a routine life of prayer and observance, but the early manuscripts suggest that for a time in his youth he dreamed of the saint's ambitious task, of living by his own vision beyond the imaginative frontiers of his civilisation.
At the heart of the hidden life was a hunt for signs. One came to him in an English garden seven years after his conversion, a renewal of a sign he had as a student moving through the streets of Boston in June 1910. It had cut through the urban clamour, cut through sense perception, cut through time itself with an intuition of timeless `reality'. Emily Dickinson called it
To favorites — a few —
Of the Colossal substance
Eliot would not call it anything, unwilling to wrench it to fit words that fall short of the Word. But there is no question that he recognised whatever it was as momentous. He said simply there was nothing else to live for — `there is nothing else beside'. This absolute conviction explains his view of ordinary life as waste. In The Waste Land, the waste is a place, a city filled with hopeless inhabitants. Later, in Four Quartets, the waste is time, the `waste sad time' between signs.
Whether the waste was place or time, it meant the failure of the human mind to grasp the sign. There followed, a bit automatically, Eliot's disgust with the debasement of the human condition. This was confirmed by a wretched marriage and early struggles to make a living in what seemed, to a newcomer, a squalid and soulless London. His London, like the equally squalid Boston of his `Preludes', is not really an objective scene but a correlate for the collapse of a private vision. If this is true, Eliot's famous disgust is no common élitism. It is a stranger, soul-sick state of his own.
Eliot is most outspoken in his poetry, guarded by his celebrated theory of impersonality which, he once admitted, was a bluff. As more is known of Eliot's life, the clearer it becomes that the `impersonal' facade of his poetry — the multiple faces and voices — masks an often quite literal reworking of personal experience. Eliot wrote that there is a `transfusion of the personality or, in a deeper sense, the life of the author into the character'. This book will follow the confessional element in Eliot's poetry by measuring the poetry against the life. It may be called a biography, but in Eliot's sense of the genre. Whenever he wrote about lives Eliot was not so much concerned with formal history and circumstance as with what he called `unattended' moments. `The awful daring of a moment's surrender,' he wrote in The Waste Land. `By this, and this only, we have existed.' The external facts of Eliot's life are here, but only to prop what was for him the definitive inward experience that shaped the work. By limiting biographic trivia, it is possible to trace the continuity of Eliot's career and see poetry and life as complementary parts of one design, a consuming search for salvation. Throughout his life and throughout his work, Eliot was testing the sublime plot of spiritual biography, the plot laid down in Exodus: an exit from civilisation followed by a long trial in a waste place, followed by entry into the promised land. To obscure this plot with too much detail would be to miss the point, and that is why, with Eliot, the form of full-scale biography is simply unsuited to an understanding of his life.
A poet, Yeats said, `is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.' It is hard to say exactly how or when the commanding idea is born but, in Eliot's case, an obvious source suggests itself in the figures that surrounded his American youth. The shadowy exemplary figure that haunts Eliot's poetry may be traced to his grandfather, whom Emerson called `the Saint of the West', to his mother's heroes of truth and virtue, to the hardy fishermen of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, who all shaped Eliot's imagination. Towards the end of his life he came to see his poetry as more American than English: `... in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.'
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Eliot said he was brought up to believe that there were `Eliots, non-Eliots and foreigners', and that amongst Eliots the pinnacle was his grandfather, the Revd William Greenleaf Eliot (1811-87): `... the most one could possibly achieve was to be a Credit to the Family, though of course one's Grandfather was the Great Man, so there was no hope of reaching that eminence.' His grandson was never `whacked', in fact as the last of seven children he was `spoilt', but he had no sense of importance in his own right.
Eliot's parents were both forty-five when he was born, and seemed to him remote, like `ancestors'; he felt closer to his only brother, Henry Ware Eliot, Jr, and to his sister Marian, nine and eleven years older. His father, Henry Ware Eliot, Sr, was a man of refined bearing with a taste for art and music, and an acute sense of smell. He had a habit of smelling his food before he ate it and could identify which of his daughters owned a stray handkerchief. He started with wholesale groceries, then went bankrupt making acetic acid. Although he eventually found success as a manufacturer of bricks, he lived under the shadow of his own father, William Greenleaf Eliot, a financial genius of whom it was said that, had he not been called to the ministry, he might have owned nearly everything west of the Mississippi. There is little sign of imagination in Henry's autobiography; he presents himself as rather a plodder, proud of his industry and filial piety. He could be, in a studied way, playful and liked to draw faces on his children's boiled eggs. He commended Tom as a modest and affectionate son, not as a promising one, and this left the boy rather `mournful', since his grades, mostly C's, gave no indication of latent gifts.
His mother, on the other hand, may have thought more of him than he granted, for she spoke to him as an equal. He, in turn, was devoted to her. Later, when he was cut off from her by a comfortless marriage, struggling through war years in a gloomy England, he recalled lying in bed at home in St Louis, his mother by his side, telling the tale of the `little Tailor' as the firelight played on the ceiling. His strongest recorded expression of emotion is on the flyleaf of a copy of Union Portraits which he sent to her `with infinite love'. High-minded and plain-living, Charlotte Champe Stearns taught her children to perfect themselves each day, `to make the best of every faculty and control every tendency to evil'.
T. S. Eliot spent his first sixteen years in a city distinguished at the turn of the century for the corruption of its businessmen, its inadequate sewers, and sulphurous fumes. Yet he could still say: `I am very well satisfied with having been born in St. Louis.' Whenever he recalled St Louis in later life he did not think first of the city's blemishes but of the childhood memories that overrode them: the moods and rhythms of the great Mississippi (`the river is within us ...'); the steamboats blowing in the New Year; the river in flood in 1892, 1897, and 1903 `with its cargo of dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops'; his Irish nurse, Annie Dunne, who discussed with him, at the age of six, the existence of God, and took him with her to a local Catholic church on the corner of Locust Street and Jefferson Avenue. `... I liked it very much.' he recalled, `the lights, the coloured statues and paper flowers, the lived-in atmosphere, and the fact that the pews had little gates that I could swing on.' There is a photograph of Eliot, aged seven, with his dimpled nurse, his beret perched jauntily on his head and his face mischievous; Annie's lips are pursed, one hand on her hip. Years later, Eliot wrote a rhyme about some naughty Jim Jum Bears who got up to tricks to exasperate their Nurse (`Was ever a Nurse so put about?'). It recalls the secure intimacy of early days with Annie, to whom he said he was `greatly attached'.
Annie took him to Mrs Lockwood's school, what was called in those days a dame school. When he was ten, in 1898, he moved on to Smith Academy, a school founded by his grandfather; his mother sent him in a sailor-suit, and the boys laughed. There was one other `terrible' humiliation as he described it: `I sat between two little girls at a party. I was very hot. And one of the little girls leaned across ... to the other and whispered loudly: "Look at his ears!" So one night I tied some rope round them when I went to bed, but my mother came and took it off and told me they would fold themselves back so I needn't worry.' He avoided another children's party: `I walked round and round the streets until it was time to go home.'
The Eliots lived in Locust Street, an unfashionable part of St Louis, not far from the saloons and brothels of Chestnut and Market Streets, at a time when pianists in back rooms were joining `rags' together as jolting tunes. At the turn of the century St Louis became the world's ragtime capital, where Scott Joplin produced his ragtime opera in 1903. An impresario called Turpin set up a National Ragtime Contest for the 1904 St Louis World's Fair. This music was the first popular hit of the twentieth century, and there are Americans who claim that Eliot's improvisation in The Waste Land (1922) is a kind of rag, joining snatches of tunes and voices in a single composition. Certainly, a rag of 1902 `Under the Bamboo Tree' by Johnson, Cole, and Johnson, was to enter Eliot's Jazz Age play, Sweeney Agonistes (1926).
Since most of the Eliots' friends moved to quieter suburbs further west, and since Tom's sisters and brother were a good bit older, he had few playmates and spent most of his time reading. One favourite was Poe. From the age of ten he had to go to a dentist twice a week for two years: he found the collected works of Poe in the waiting-room, and managed to read them through. From 28 January to 19 February 1899 he brought out fourteen numbers of a magazine called The Fireside, boasting `Fiction, Gossip, Theatre, Jokes and all interesting'. At the same age he could identify some seventy kinds of birds on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where the family spent the summer. He had a congenital double hernia and his mother, afraid it would rupture, forbade football and strenuous sports. When `the Skipper' gave him sailing lessons, Charlotte would go along, fortified by a guard of grown-up sisters, to ensure that he did not get too wet or too hot or too tired. He accepted his mother's domination in good humour.
There was in Eliot's mother a moral passion and a gift of eloquence. She had the intellectual ardour of able nineteenth-century women — like Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch — a natural scholar whose sex and circumstance debarred her from higher education. She set out to be a poet, and when her youngest child showed talent, hoped that he might redeem her sense of failure. She wrote in a letter to Eliot at Harvard:
I hope in your literary work you will receive early the recognition I strove for and failed. I should so have loved a college course, but was obliged to teach before I was nineteen. I graduated with high rank, `a young lady of unusual brilliancy as a scholar' my old yellow testimonial says, but when I was set to teaching young children, my Trigonometry and Astronomy counted for nought, and I made a dead failure.
In 1862, after her graduation from the State Normal School of Framingham, Massachusetts, she had moved from one teaching post to another — Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, Antioch College in Ohio, and then back to Framingham. It was when she moved yet again to teach at the St Louis Normal School that she met a handsome clerk who shipped goods on the Mississippi. This was Henry Ware Eliot, and they married in 1868. She then devoted her energies to her growing family and local reforms, particularly a separate house of detention for juveniles. When her husband went bankrupt in the 1870s, she supported the family for a year, teaching at an adjoining girls' school, the Mary Institute. Her room displayed no sign of conventional femininity except for a pincushion on the dresser. There was a comfortable armchair next to a sunny window even though it blocked a chest of drawers. The bed faced a mantelpiece draped with a velvet cloth on which rested a painting of the Madonna and child. On her wall there hung an engraving of Theodosius and St Ambrose, illustrating the triumph of holy over temporal power.
After her death, when Henry Ware Eliot, Jr, placed Charlotte's poems in Harvard's Eliot Collection, he wrote to the librarian: `Perhaps a hundred years from now the connection with T. S. Eliot will not seem so remote. Of all the family, my brother most resembled my mother in features and ... if there is anything in heredity, it must have been from that side that T. S. Eliot got his tastes.' Apart from Charlotte herself, there were no writers on the Stearns side, but there was that moral fervour. The statue called `The Puritan' in Springfield, Massachusetts, shows a Stearns ancestor striding forward with a huge Bible grasped under one arm and, in the other, a pilgrim's staff. A reserved uncle, the Revd Oliver Stearns, used to startle his students at Harvard Divinity School with sudden floods of eloquence. Whatever he saw to be true or right, that would he say and do, `though the heavens fell'.
It is telling to read Charlotte Eliot's poetry in the context of her son's work. She writes of `the vision of the seer' and `the prophet's warning cry'. Her poems recount turning-points in the lives of the chosen: the Apostles and `The Unnamed Saints', St Barnabas and St Theodosius. Her heroes are `truth-inebriated', `God-intoxicated' individualists modelled on nineteenth-century New Englanders Emerson and Channing; her Savonarola, her Giordano Bruno, her St Francis trust the private vision. Her image of the thinker who, from unfathomed depths, seizes on the sublime truth is almost identical with the dominant figure in her son's vigil poems of 1911 and 1912.
Charlotte Eliot's strength is essentially that of a preacher. All the force of her poetry lies in passionate argument and dramatic illustration. She speaks particularly to those who `by gift of genius' are set apart; her message is to endure with faith periods of religious despair:
Ye who despair
Of man's redemption, know, the light is there,
Though hidden and obscured, again to shine ...
Her gift is didactic; she lacks the inventiveness and imaginative freshness of the great poet. Her son, using the same traditional images, rescued them from triteness — the beatific light, the fires of lust and purgation, the pilgrimage across the `desert waste', and the seasonal metaphor for spiritual drought that pervades his mother's poetry. In the extremity of `the dying year' the boughs in her garden go stiff and dry, no flower blooms, while a new power awaits its birth. `April is the cruellest month,' her son was to write, `breeding lilacs out of the dead land'. Mother and son used the same traditional images to signal grace. In `The Master's Welcome' she hears children's voices. Bells signal recovery of faith after a period of doubt. Water — the `celestial fountain' and `the healing flood' — promises relief after long ordeals.
Charlotte Eliot mapped out states of being between loss and recovery of grace, a map her son redrew in his poetry in twentieth-century terms. The main difference was his mother's optimism. She felt an assurance of grace her son could not share. His faint-hearted character, J. Alfred Prufrock, feels obliged to frame an `overwhelming' question but shirks it. In the context of his lack of nerve, it is curious to note the many questions Charlotte Eliot posed in her poetry: How does one face `blank annihilation'? Is life worth living since we know we must die? `And is this all [,] this life so incomplete?' `What shall I do to be saved?' Eliot had a model of the perfect life before he left his mother's side; the long-term issue was whether he could make it his own.
He was later to lead a double life: publicly at the centre of a sycophantic buzz; privately there was the incommunicable life of a solitary that was all the stranger because it was conducted in the stir of the city, in the glare of fame. There was an inward silence and, at the same time, a speaker on platforms across Europe and America. Eliot's face acquired a sort of exposed reticence from the habit of looking down from a lectern into rows upon rows of eyes. His skin had a look of being drawn tightly across his face. His features, though sharp, were delicate, especially the softly indented mouth. It was his nature to have scruple within scruple and to regulate his conduct on principles ignored by men of the world, like Lot in Sodom or Daniel in Babylon who, Eliot said, kept silence because they could do no good.
He often spoke of the `unspoken'. In a solitude guarded by public masks he lived a hidden life. It would be unreachable if he had not been a poet with a need to explore and define that life. His poetry distils a predetermined drama from the dross so that what emerges is the coherent form of spiritual autobiography, direct, honest, and more penetrating than any outsider could dare to determine — a life so closely allied to creative works as to be a reciprocal invention. This biography follows his own formulation, testing it against the facts of his actual existence.
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In a talk, `The Influence of Landscape upon the Poet', Eliot called himself a New England poet because he had been so deeply affected when he came east as a child. He was always happy near the sea and would remember with joy his boyhood summers at Gloucester, Cape Ann.
Until he was eight, the family stayed at the Hawthorne Inn; then, in 1896, his father built a large, solid house at Eastern Point, beyond the town, on land bought in 1890, an uncultivated rough coast, surrounded by wild bush and slabs of rock going down to the sea's edge. The upper windows looked out on the granite shore, the white sails on the sea and, looking the other way, the harbour. Eliot remembered Gloucester harbour as one of the most beautiful on the New England coast. A photograph by his brother, Henry, shows it at the turn of the century, the tall masts of what was then an all-sail fishing fleet dominating the village in the background with its clapboard houses and sloping roofs. From the beginning, fishing was the main occupation in Gloucester. When a divine came among the first settlers in the seventeenth century and said: `Remember, brethren, that you journeyed here to save your souls,' one of the brethren added, `And to ketch fish.' In Eliot's day fishermen lounging at the corner of Main Street and Duncan Street told yarns of storms and shipwrecks on the half-hidden rocks offshore from Cape Ann. Working in hard winter gales, the deep-sea fisherman put out from the schooner in a tiny dory which often capsized or went astray in fog or snow. And when a man lived through such an experience, he told the kind of yarn Eliot listened to as a boy, of risk and tenacity beyond belief.
Glory in the fisherman's casual acts of heroism and hardy self-reliance is reflected in Eliot's schoolboy compositions and sustained through his writings. In `A Tale of a Whale', published in the Smith Academy Record in April 1905, and in `The Man Who Was King', published the following June, Eliot made proud use of sailing jargon. Later, in Marina (1930), the dross of civilisation is blown away by the sea wind, and an awakening to redemptive love, its mystery and promise, is aligned with the perilous crossing of the Atlantic and slow approach to the New World, the dim New England shore with its woods and grey rocks. Eliot imagined forebears in the mould of the Cape Ann sea captains he admired. In an article called `Gentlemen and Seamen' (1909) he extols as `plebeian aristocrats' men like the old Eliots — small-town patriarchs, seamen, small printers, and tradesmen, who established themselves in villages along the New England coast. His great-grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot, Sr, had been a New Bedford ship-owner, and acquired a dinner service of Chinese `willow-ware' porcelain which survives in the family. Eliot calls up old sombre faces, old compressed lips, old Eliot natures difficult and unyielding as a consequence of religious principle and endless struggle with the narrow resources of New England.
As a child Eliot explored the Cape Ann beaches for what the sea tossed up — starfish, a whale bone, a broken oar, a horseshoe crab. The pools offered, for his curiosity, `the more delicate algae and the sea anemone'. He collected, dried, and classified algae. When he was ten, peering through water in a rockpool, he saw the sea anemone for the first time, an experience, he remembered, `not so simple, for an exceptional child, as it looks'.
Eliot was to return again and again to the Cape Ann shore and sea for scenes of crisis and revelation in his poetry. To the Cape Ann summers of his youth he owed his model, drawn from the Gloucester fisherman, of a sailor `faring forward' on the thin edge of mortality. His imagination fastened, too, on the still pool and the light-filled water that recurred in his poetry as a tantalising memory of unspeakable bliss.
* * *
When Eliot was sixteen his mother published a biography of her father-in-law, William Greenleaf Eliot, and dedicated it to her children `Lest They Forget'. `I was brought up to be very much aware of him,' Eliot said. `The standard of conduct was that which my grandfather had set: our moral judgements, our decisions between duty and self-indulgence, were taken as if, like Moses, he had brought down the tables of the Law, any deviation from which would be sinful ...'
William had a narrow frail body and large, calm, benign eyes. His son, Henry, recalled those magnificent eyes in his autobiography, and said that they seemed to read one's innermost thoughts. William's expression was sensitive and serene, the face of a man who looks on suffering from a citadel of moral assurance. He was not stern, but it would have been unthinkable, said his son, to argue with him or to attempt undue familiarity. `How can one be familiar with the Day of Judgement?' said James Freeman Clark, a classmate at Divinity School. `One feels rebuked in his presence.... Yet he is playful, fond of fun, and there is a sweet smile appearing on the corner of his mouth. But there is no abandon.'
Charlotte revered her father-in-law and brought up her children to observe two of his laws in particular, those of self-denial and public service. T. S. Eliot acknowledged that his early training in self-denial left him with an inability to enjoy even harmless pleasures. He learnt, for instance, that it was self-indulgent to buy candy, and it was not until he was forced to stop smoking in his sixties that he could bring himself to eat it as a substitute. This kind of upbringing was, of course, not peculiar to the Eliot home. Henry Adams, also constrained by the virtue of New England ancestors, recalled that he would eat only the less perfect peaches in his grandfather's garden.
Eliot's grandfather had died in 1887, the year before his birth, but a vice-regent in the shape of his grandmother lived on next door all through his youth. Abigail Adams Eliot (1817-1908), who had spent her childhood in Washington, could recall her great-uncle, the second President, for whose wife she was named, and she knew his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, grandfather of the writer Henry Adams (1838-1918) with whom Eliot felt much in common.
As Eliot grew up he had to face the most important of his grandfather's laws, the subordination of selfish interests to the good of Community and Church. William Greenleaf Eliot exemplified the family ideal of manhood, combining piety and public enterprise. In 1834 he moved from Harvard Divinity School to found the Unitarian Church on what was then the American frontier. A brilliant fund-raiser, he helped found both the Academy of Science in St. Louis and Washington University, where he served as unpaid professor of metaphysics. He was an early advocate of women's suffrage and of prohibition. During the terrible typhoid epidemic of the 1840s he visited sickbeds indefatigably, and during the Civil War organised the Western Sanitary Commission in Missouri which looked after the medical services of the Northern army and its fleet on the Mississippi. For three decades, he opposed slavery in his border state, appalled by whippings, mob violence, and the `vile traffic' of chained gangs led through the streets to the steamboats going South; he was known as St Louis' `only open abolitionist'. A portrait of Lincoln hung in the front hall when Eliot was a child — his grandfather had known him slightly. In 1852, when Emerson visited St Louis, he reported that the Unitarian minister had `a sumptuous church and crowds to hear his really good sermons'.
William Greenleaf Eliot fulfilled Emerson's ideal of an individual with the power to remake his world. `All history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons,' Emerson said. `The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances indifferent. Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age.' The gambling and drinking habits of the French Catholics and American pioneers from Kentucky and Virginia (who settled St Louis) had called, said Eliot, for his grandfather's strong missionary hand. Brought up to applaud William's reforming zeal, it is not surprising that his grandson should confront, a century later, the moral wilderness of post-war London. Even as a boy, said one cousin, `Tom had a great sense of mission.'
Generations of Eliots before him had responded to the call to family and communal duties. Those Eliots who lived in Somerset, Wiltshire, and Gloucestershire in early Tudor times made wills which did not forget the poor, and sent their sons to institutions of higher learning, and tended to marry rich widows of the landed gentry.
Little is known of the Andrew Eliott (1627-1703) who emigrated from Somerset to Salem, Massachusetts, except that he was a man of property and education, that he was accompanied by his second wife, Mary Vivion, and four children, and that he became a member of the First Church of Beverly in 1670 and in 1690 Beverly's first Town Clerk. He was drawn into the frenzy of the Salem witch trials, where he condemned innocents to death, along with the notorious `hanging' Judge Blood, a forebear on the Stearns side (Eliot's grandmother Charlotte Blood was a descendant). In 1692 Andrew Eliott confessed that he had acted on insufficient evidence. He and eleven others signed a declaration that they had been `sadly deluded and mistaken', unable `to withstand the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness', which now left them `much disquieted and distressed in our minds'. Andrew Eliott asked forgiveness of God and of the sufferers. For he and others, he owned, `fear we have been instrumental ... to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord the guilt of innocent blood —'.
In the tight network of cousinage in New England, reaching down from the colonial period, the Eliots were interrelated with all the leading New England families: William Greenleaf Eliot was distantly related to John Greenleaf Whittier, Noah Webster (the lexicographer), and Herman Melville, and there were also links on both sides of the family to Louisa May Alcott. There was a political tie between William's brother, Thomas Dawes Eliot, and Edward Dickinson (father of Emily Dickinson) who shared rooms in Washington as representatives to Congress in the 1850s, where they set up meetings that led to the formation of the anti-slavery Republican Party. The Eliot network included, besides the eminent Adamses, the Lowells, and, most closely, Nathaniel Hawthorne, another direct descendant of the first Andrew Eliott, whose ancestor (on the Hathorn side — Colonel John Hathorn) was another of the jurors at the witchcraft trials — not one of the repenters. By the next century the Eliots were flourishing as city people, conspicuous in the affairs of Boston. The first to distinguish himself was the Revd Andrew Eliot (1718-78). Chubby-faced, with neat features and a double chin, he seldom gave controversial sermons from his pulpit in the New North Church. His Calvinism was moderate in temper but he practised it most earnestly. When Boston was blockaded during the Revolution, he was the only Congregational minister, apart from Samuel Mather, to open his church every Lord's Day. When he was proposed as successor to President Holyoke at Harvard, and again after the resignation of Locke, he declined because of religious duties. One acquaintance used to call him `Andrew Sly' because of his political prudence and circumspection. When he felt his temper rising he used to retire until he had controlled it.
The Eliots were a prudent lot but the best of them had moral courage. T. S. Eliot was proud of Sir Thomas Elyot, who risked reproving Henry VIII to his face on account of Anne Boleyn, and in The Boke Named the Governour (1531) attacked kings for their luxury and frivolity, urging them to rule for the common good. Two centuries later, in 1765, the Revd Andrew Eliot preached a censorious election-day sermon before the colonial governor of Massachusetts. Both Eliots escaped charges of treason because their tones were sober. They felt strongly about morals, conduct, and the public good, but they did not resort to flaming rhetoric.
There was much in the model Eliot man to admire. Throughout his life, T. S. Eliot was to feel the disjunction between his poetic impulse and his compulsion to conform to the Eliot ideal. `The primary channel of culture is the family,' he wrote: `no man wholly escapes from the kind, or wholly surpasses the degree, of culture which he acquired from his early environment.' At a prestigious New England boarding-school, Milton Academy, which Eliot attended in 1905-6, and as a student at Harvard, Eliot prepared for the professional career his family would applaud, but came to feel that the claims of his poetic gift had priority over the claims of his family: `The Arts insist that a man shall dispose of all he has, even of his family tree, and follow art alone. For they demand that a man be not a member of a family or a caste or of a party or of a coterie, but simply and solely himself.' Eliot puzzled and alarmed his parents by staying in London in 1915 instead of finishing his doctorate at Harvard, and by spending years writing poetry that was published only sporadically and in little-known magazines. His father died in 1919 under the impression that his youngest child had made a mess of his life. Yet although Eliot resisted the family pattern he also followed it, first as a poor clerk like his father in the early Mississippi days, and later, when he became a publisher, as a successful man of business. To the end of his life he faithfully performed the kind of responsible daily labour that had been, for generations, the self-affirming activity of the Eliot family.
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Bred in a family which belongs at the very heart of Boston Unitarianism, Eliot's fervent nature found no nourishment there, and by the time he enrolled at Harvard he had become indifferent to the Church. The religion taught by William Greenleaf Eliot was strict rather than spiritual. He was not concerned with perfection, or doctrine, or theology, but with a code that would better the human lot. With Unitarian scorn for evangelical enthusiasm, he said that educated, practical people reject `sudden miraculous conversion, wrought by divine power, independently of the human will ... by which the sinner of yesterday is the saint of today.' True salvation comes from human effort. `It is at once arrogant and dangerous to claim direct and extraordinary guidance. It is virtually to claim inspiration, and that which begins in humility ends in pride.' He passed on to his children and grandchildren a religion which retained Puritan uprightness, social conscience, and self-restraint, but which had been transformed by the Enlightenment. T. S. Eliot was taught to be dutiful, benevolent, and cheerful. He was always acutely sensitive to the power of evil, but was taught a practical common-sense code of conduct. He once mentioned that his parents did not talk of good and evil but of what was `done' and `not done'. In abandoning Unitarianism, Eliot rebelled against those tepid, unemotional distinctions. `So far as we are human,' he wrote, `what we do must be either evil or good.' Like Jonathan Edwards, who had rebelled in the first half of the eighteenth century against religion tamed as a respectable code and re-evoked the fervent religion of the previous century, so Eliot in the first half of the twentieth century sought an older, stricter discipline, unsoftened by nineteenth-century liberalism. Edwards and Eliot each seemed, to his own time, an isolated reactionary.
Unitarianism arose in America in the mid-eighteenth century, during the Great Awakening, in opposition to the Puritan conviction of man's innate sinfulness. The Unitarians were confident of man's innate nobility (Eliot's grandfather was a protégé of the leading Unitarian of the early nineteenth century, William Ellery Channing, who spoke of man's `likeness to God'). They rejected the Puritans' doctrine of damnation, their tests of orthodoxy and heresy, and undemocratic distinctions between church members. Their God was benevolent not wrathful. The year before Eliot was born, his mother praised a benign, rational universe in her poem, `Force and God':
While worlds harmonious move in breathless awe
We whisper `God is here, and God is Law.'
In view of the sincere piety of Eliot's mother and grandfather and his father's lifelong support of the Unitarian Church, it may seem odd that he should have come to think of himself as one brought up `outside the Christian Fold'. He had in mind the Unitarians' denial of the Trinity as against his own definition of Christianity as a belief in the Incarnation. In 1931 Eliot wrote to the critic Middleton Murry that the perfection of a Lord who was merely human did not seem to him perfection at all. His antagonism to England's greatest religious poet may be traced to his grandfather's view of Milton as a Unitarian. Similarly, Eliot's wish to exclude free thinking Jews has to do with the easy association of such Jews and Unitarians in his youth. `The Jewish religion is unfortunately not a very portable one,' Eliot said in 1940, `and shorn of its traditional practices, observances and Messianism, it tends to become a mild and colourless form of Unitarianism.' So, Eliot disliked `the intellectual and puritanical rationalism' of his early environment. In his revival of ideas of depravity and damnation, and in his craving for orthodoxy, he opposed his Unitarian background. Probably the most important difference was his sense of man's unlikeness, his distance from an unknowable deity.
Eliot said that to understand a modern writer it is necessary to classify him according to the type of decayed Protestantism which surrounded his childhood. Already in the 1830s Emerson resigned his pulpit in protest against `corpse-cold Unitarianism'. The Transcendentalists of the 1840s liberated themselves from formal Christianity and trusted, like Emerson, in the private light, but the next generation found themselves, as one historian puts it, `in a chilling void ... The heir of Emerson was Henry Adams who turned away from the barren chaos of American life to the certitudes of Dante and St Thomas; and after Henry Adams came Eliot who not only admired the lost traditions of Catholicism from a distance, but made a heroic attempt to recapture them.'
For sensitive Unitarian children growing up in America in the nineteenth century, the bland surface presented by their religion must have seemed to resist too much of life. Eliot himself made only passing critical comments, but Henry Adams's analysis of the insufficiencies of Unitarianism suggests what Eliot reacted against:
Nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy ... They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught ... the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were a waste of thought ... Boston had solved the universe ... The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived, although one made in later life many efforts to recover it ... That the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have ... quite ceased making itself anxious about past and future ... seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.
The Unitarian code, with its optimistic notion of progress (`onward and upward forever', Eliot said as a student), glossed over unpleasant changes in American life, particularly after the Civil War. Walt Whitman, commenting on a widespread `hollowness at heart', wrote: `The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism ... A sort of dry and flat Sahara appears, these cities, crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms ...' with manners `probably the meanest to be seen in the world'. The authority of the class to which Adams and Eliot belonged, genteel responsible descendants of the Puritans, was superseded by the business power of the Gilded Age. In St Louis the moral law of William Greenleaf Eliot was ousted by the motive of profit, and in 1902 the city's corruption was scandalously exposed. Eliot was sensitive to the monotony that resulted from immense industrial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century and to the loss of native (New England) culture to a new America in which, as he put it, Theodore Roosevelt was a patron of the arts. The muscular Virginian was the popular hero during Eliot's adolescence, not Lambert Strether. Eliot belonged to an older America, before 1828 he said, when the country seemed like `a family extension'. What that date meant to Eliot must be a guess. It was soon after that Eliot's grandfather left Boston for the frontier. It was also then that the civilised élite of the eastern seaboard lost their power in the bitter election of 1828, when John Quincy Adams fell before the rude, uncultivated Andrew Jackson. Was Eliot still resisting the impact of Jacksonian democracy — more Western, more individualistic — a hundred years on? Or was it some more subtle change: the fading of the last traces of Calvinist piety before the cheery optimism of a new age of self-reliance? For Emerson, the very advocate of self-reliance, that old demanding piety remained a lingering force through his memory of his Calvinist aunt, Mary Moody Emerson: `What a debt is ours to that old religion which, in the childhood of most of us, still dwelt like a Sabbath morning in the country of New England, teaching privation, self-denial and sorrow'.
During Eliot's youth his mother guarded him from the jarring aspects of the new America. It is necessary to look rather to the more trying years that followed in Boston to explain why Eliot came to feel oppressed by the American scene and had to escape it.
1. Early Models
2. A New England Student
3. Beyond Philosophy
4. Eliot's Ordeals
5. `The horror! the horror!'
7. Enter Beatrice
8. The Mystery of Sin
9. Enter the Furies
10. The Perfect Life
11. Lady of Silences
12. Fame and Friends
13. A Prophet's Mission
14. Love: the Unfamiliar Name
I. Eliot's Reading in Mysticism
II. Dating the Waste Land Fragments
III. The Waste Land and Ulysses
IV. `Bellegarde' and Murder in the Cathedral
V. The History of The Family Reunion