The Hollowed Man

On New Year’s Eve 1925, the last day covered in the second and most recent volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters, the poet wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald to thank him for the gift of The Great Gatsby. The novelist had written in the flyleaf, “For T. S. Elliot [sic] / Greatest of Living Poets / from his enthusiastic / worshipper / F. Scott Fitzgerald,” and the poet wrote back to say that he had read the novel three times and was convinced that it was “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

James was important to both men. Eliot himself, as he told Leonard Woolf, had set out to work in James’s shadow but then, wrote Woolf, “a personal upheaval after ‘Prufrock’...altered his develop in the manner of Henry James.” And yet the influence persisted, for it is difficult to imagine “Burnt Norton” having been written without “The Jolly Corner” as a precursor. And if Eliot’s Jamesian investigation of “What might have been” proved persistent, so did James’s influence prove for Fitzgerald (along with a touch of Eliot’s). Reviewing Fitzgerald’s posthumously published book The Crack-Up, Lionel Trilling noted: “It is a book filled with grief of the lost and the might-have-been, with physical illness and torture of mind.” As the most recent volume of his letters shows, Eliot had an advanced degree in dealing with physical illness and torture of mind. “My fatigue, which has been growing for years, is not solely due to overwork and anxieties,” he writes in one letter. “It is largely due to the kink in my brain which makes life at all an unremitting strain for me.” Eliot’s tortures of mind, like Fitzgerald’s, were complicated by an unfortunate marriage.

James had examined the consequences of an unfortunate marriage in The Portrait of a Lady, where an idealistic young American woman, Isabel Archer, is transformed by such a marriage, as her cousin Ralph Touchett acknowledges: “There was a kind of violence in some of her impulses, of crudity in some of her experiments, which took him by surprise: it seemed to him that she even spoke faster, moved faster, breathed faster, than before her marriage. Certainly she had fallen into exaggerations—she who used to care so much for the pure truth.” Eliot, who began his intellectual life as a philosopher, grounded in Aristotelian ways of thinking, had also once cared “for the pure truth.” And like Isabel Archer, Eliot had set out to prove his mettle far away from family and home, across the ocean. But his marriage in June 1915 to the English Vivien Haigh-Wood took him away not only from native circumstances but also from an innocence still evident in the first volume of his letters. (On New Year’s Eve 1914, the twenty-six-year-old Eliot could still write to Conrad Aiken, “I should be better off, I sometimes think, if I had disposed of my virginity and shyness several years ago.”) His marriage to Vivien was less a “dignified and commodious sacrament” (“East Coker”) than a malevolently inflected coupling that would destroy either him or her, if not both.

I have deliberately killed my senses—I have deliberately died—in order to go on with the outward form of living—This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? “I am I” but with what feelings, with what results to others—Have I the right to be I—But the dilemma—to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? Does it happen that two persons’ loves are absolutely hostile? It is true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?

 These worries appear in a 1925 letter to the writer John Middleton Murry, a friend Eliot repeatedly badmouthed behind his back. Later he would insult Murry more openly, as when he curtly wrote to refuse Murry’s invitation to his second wedding: “I am sure that you have done the best thing for yourself in marrying again, but you know that it has always been impossible for me to understand any of your actions.” Perplexed as Eliot claimed to be by Murry’s marriages, it was to him that both Eliot and Vivien appealed when things got especially rotten. “Tom’s terrific life takes all my energy,” Murry wrote, “and I can only lie still and wait for it to end.” Murry urged Eliot in a letter to conceive what “the choice really is: she may die, I must die. Then you must say: I will not die.” Conceding this advice might sound “terrible,” Murry insisted on its paradoxical truth: “When you take your stand: ‘I will not die,’ then indeed you do die—to all that you were. That choice is a self-sacrifice of the deepest.” Murry urged Eliot to “live, and let come what may,” for “one of you two must go forward.” And it was clear which of them Murry thought it would be: “going forward is the man’s job.”

There can be little doubt that Vivien Haigh-Wood entered into the marriage with a battery of physical and mental ailments that virtually foredoomed it. Because the couple married only a few weeks after meeting, there was little time for Eliot to learn much about Vivien’s past. He would later complain that he hadn’t been adequately apprised of her medical history. As the commencement of the marriage coincided with the beginning of Eliot’s public reputation as a poet (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published the month Eliot and Vivien were married), there was tension from the start. At one point, in the mid-1920s, Vivien confessed to the publisher Geoffrey Faber’s wife, Enid, that she had been counseled by Eliot’s friend Charles Whibley that having children was to be postponed for the sake of her husband’s career: “What would you feel like if you were told you must not have any children?” There is ample evidence in the letters that Eliot was conscious of the sacrifices he was asking of his wife: “I know that I have killed her. And this terrible sense of the most subtle form of guilt is itself paralyzing and deadening…. I give her nothing to live for, for I have blocked every outlet.” The arts seemed to Eliot the most logical outlet for Vivien, who struck him as gifted in painting, music, and dance. He did not think her so well gifted as a writer, yet Vivien did, under his tutelage, turn herself into one. She claimed in a letter to Ezra Pound (her companion in exile) that “I wrote nearly the whole of the last Criterion—except anything that was very good in it, if there was such—under different names, all beginning with F. M.”

Vivien wrote for the Criterion under other names so that she and Eliot, who received no salary from the journal’s owner, Lady Rothermere, could keep some of the money they were supposed to be paying writers. (Vivien: “So thought what a good idea will receive money for contributions. Have received money. No one knows.”) Eliot intended, as he told Richard Aldington in 1925, that Vivien should get “training and systematic education, because there are so few women who have an un-feminine mind that I think they ought to be made the most of.” However, only Aldington and two of Vivien’s friends were said to be in the know about her contributions to the Criterion, and when Vivien was seriously ill and depressed, Eliot himself wondered whether writing might prove destabilizing. He wrote to Leonard Woolf, asking for counsel: “She wants to begin writing again: do you think I should encourage this or not?” Woolf wrote back to say that much would depend on whether the writing increased or decreased Vivien’s depression and excitability. Eliot remained uncertain, yet as Vivien’s rest cure (“has to stay in bed, keep absolutely quiet, sees no one and knows nothing”) left her hankering for something to occupy her mind, he concluded she was better off writing: “If she postpones writing, the idea goes on fermenting in her brain, so that often it has seemed better to let her write.”

By contrast, Eliot, a full-time bank employee during the day, an editor at night, and a nurse in whatever time remained, was doing little writing, leaving him with a regret that in the letters becomes a refrain: “I have written nothing whatsoever for three years and I do not see any immediate likelihood of my writing. The writing of poetry takes time and I never have any time.”

In February 1926, one of Vivien’s physicians, Dr. Raymond Miller, wrote to Eliot of his regret that the couple had made “the circles of your lives too coincident.” It was a legitimate concern. Between Hamlet and Ophelia, on the one hand, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, on the other, Thomas Stearns and Vivien Eliot insert themselves into our literary history as a couple beset by incipient madness. Evidence of the madness is scattered throughout the letters—ending with a note Vivien wrote from a nursing home to Eliot’s maid, now imagined as her last and best friend, asking that the latter intervene to help gain her release from what was, in truth, a form of incarceration: “Here is a copy of Mr. Eliot’s letter to me, which has just this moment arrived. This is the answer to two of mine which were long letters and most affectionate and in which I begged him to have me home for Xmas. So now you can see for yourself. Is this like the Mr. Eliot you used to know?”

The fact is, it was not: the Eliot we meet in the second volume is a man whose goodness has been worn down. To read Eliot’s letter to Marianne Moore, who had graciously written to say that the Dial could not publish Vivien’s short story, is to be taken aback. Threatening revenge, Eliot wrote:

I have hitherto praised your work both in America and here, without reserve, especially here: where the literary public sees in it no merit whatever. I have championed you in the face of derision and indifference, and I had the right to expect better treatment from you. In future, I shall take a different course, and I intend to see that justice is done and the balance righted.

Understanding and generous, Moore forgave Eliot this willfulness; and most readers, viewing the extraordinary pressures the man lived under, will do much the same. Eliot was not a perfect man, perhaps not even an altogether good one, though Virginia Woolf, who knew him well, inclined toward seeing him this way: “good, sensitive, honourable man as he is.”

The newly published volume, along with the newly expanded first volume, includes not only Eliot’s letters but also relevant letters and diary entries from others (wife, mother, brother, friends, et al.). The correspondence addresses not only matters of personal stress and rupture, but also culture, politics, religion, and lived history. Meticulously edited by Valerie Eliot (the poet’s second wife) and Hugh Haughton, under the general editorship of John Haffenden, this new volume of letters shows Eliot going through tumultuous challenges and hardships. The letters strengthen our sense of the poetry’s authenticity, speaking as it does from a point where few of us would venture: “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones....”

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 

Christopher J. Knight is a professor of English at the University of Montana. His most recent book is Omissions Are Not Accidents: Modern Apophaticism from Henry James to Jacques Derrida (University of Toronto Press, 2010).

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