After I moved to Leamington, and the process of unpacking began in earnest, one of the things I found in amongst the flotsam was an old postcard you sent me with T. S. Eliot and your gal Virginia on the front. There is something interesting about seeing those two together, missing only Joyce in order to complete the meld into some sort of Modernist super-Transformer. It is particularly interesting in the context of a card from you to me: my favourite writer sat beside yours, and interesting knowing there was genuine warmth between them, despite Eliot’s general distrust and dislike of womankind.
While looking for something to read that was writing related – a habit I often use for encouragement – I pulled down from the shelves my copy of Lyndall Gordon’s The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot. Cracking it open I was reminded by the inscription that it was given by you to your ‘dearest friend, on Christmas 2015.’
The book follows the biography of Eliot with the aim of illuminating the art he produced in his life, and so I thought this an excellent opportunity to read his poems again and his plays for the first time. I open up my Complete Poems & Plays and find ‘To Jon, at Christmas 2012.’ The formal address ‘To Jon’ ages it as much as the date.
So I have started The Imperfect Life and… well, one should never meet one’s heroes. The imperfections abound. The cold, pompous and frequently cruel Eliot of reality is hard to match up to my internal reactions to his works. Especially when those works are so significant to me; ‘The Hollow Men’ was the poem which rescued poetry from an uninspiring GCSE teacher. Reading it in my second year at uni was first time poetry happened and I thought: Oh yeah, this is doing something in my brain; I am having the feels about this.
Then of course there is Eliot’s misogyny, his antisemitism (he would not even capitalise ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ until 1962), and the secondary infection of finding Bertrand Russell conducting a sordid and mean-spirited affair with Vivienne Eliot. Two heroes for the price of one.
But despite this the work still stands. And I allow myself hope. Woolf has just been introduced into Eliot’s story, Pound is drifting further away. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s bohemian influence will affect a softening; perhaps as the picture in the photograph develops he might become less terrible.
Which reminds me that Eliot was the first brick in the eldritch edifice of our friendship. I remember you remembering the first time we met: your lit-student brain being pleased to find a scientist with a favourite poet. That Eliot was that poet was a bonus. I also remember that Mrs Dalloway was one of the first books you ever lent me.
Another strange thing for me in reading The Imperfect Life, is that Eliot’s poetry is ‘explained’. Connected up to his biography, but also interpreted in light of the things he intended by it. I don’t yet know how I feel about that, C– W– once mentioned that ‘The Hollow Men’ was about WWI vets, and I recoiled. Maybe that was who Eliot’s Hollow Men were, but it wasn’t mine. Mine were far more like the men of The Waste Land‘s ‘unreal city’, the dead eyed commuters whose accidie was catching.
The rest of the poem is sinister fragments – just places and pictures – as far as I’m concerned. The dry cellar, the twilight kingdom, the dead land, those eyes, that shadow. Whatever literal interpretation there is, I can’t help but feel knowing it might push out the weird feeling I get in my gut while reading those passages in abstract. There’s not many works of art I feel that way about – reading is more often ‘of interest’ or a source of entertainment for me, and analysis often wrings more of both from a book or play. So when a piece does something more, as ‘The Hollow Men’ did, I get almost superstitious about it. I don’t want that weird feeling in my gut-brain to get replaced by something more interesting perhaps, but less weird in my head-brain.
So why am I risking it now with The Imperfect Life? In part it is because Eliot matters too much to me and my writing for superstition to win the day. With ‘Prufrock’ and The Waste Land he managed two more gut-brain poems, with the rest of his major works he does the toppest notch of head-brain interests; and he even sneaks a few entertainments in with ‘The Hippopotamus’ and the lyrics to Cats. So I do want to know more about what he did and how he did it. But I approach that knowledge with the trepidation that comes from messing with something you don’t fully understand. I’ll let you know how it goes.
In the meantime, it feels appropriate that this first ‘letter’ in what will hopefully be a productive collaborative bloggáge – written at a desk about twelve minutes walk from your own a geographical closeness represented in metaphor by the picture postcard above – be about Eliot in some way.
This letter is also a thank you note, for the Complete Poems & Plays of Eliot you gave me back in 2012, and for The Imperfect Life of his you gave me last year; but also for the many, many, many, many words of your own that you have written and/or waffled at me, and for your having read/listened to the many, many, many words of my own that I have waffled at you and/or written.
Here’s to many, many, many more,
Read Jim’s reply here.