Eliot's New Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years, published in 1977, treats the first thirty-eight years of the poet’s life, from his birth on September 22, 1888, until his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927. Gordon, who lectures in English and American literature at St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford, is primarily concerned with the ties between Eliot’s life and work.

Eliot was born into an affluent St. Louis family, the lonely last child of elderly parents; his father was a brick manufacturer, his mother, a poet and a religious woman. At Harvard University, his undergraduate studies included Sanskrit and metaphysics; his graduate work concentrated on the philosopher F. H. Bradley. Shortly thereafter, Eliot moved to London and cultivated a polished and meticulous British sophistication, as he aspired to the career of poet and also worked at Lloyds Bank. The tall, lanky young man, brandishing a tightly wrapped umbrella and wearing a tweed suit, cravat, spats, and proper bowler is a familiar image from this time, a period during which he also associated with the preeminent literati of the postwar period, Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound.

Even while at Harvard, suggests Gordon, Eliot pursued the quest for salvation, indeed the quest for martyrdom: “He was struck by martyrdom and sainthood,” by “a life that would pass through the ordeals of the waste and penitence towards the ultimate attainment of love.” Eliot came to believe in “a God of pain, whose punishment . . . was almost the only sign of the absolute paternal care.” This spiritual sojourn, which became increasingly more refined, and its major twists and turns, along with its final and perhaps ironic success, constitute the subject of Gordon’s narrative in Eliot’s New Life.

She returns to several matters taken up in the earlier book. One is Eliot’s troubled marriage to the suffering Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a gentle and fragile young woman, who exacerbated her husband’s deeply felt awareness of sin, yet who encouraged and was perhaps responsible (along with Pound) for his career as a poet.

Divided between the dream for salvation and the reality of his dependent and guilt-generating wife, Eliot underwent numerous stages of creative invention and spiritual development. There were three other women, however, who played major roles in his artistic and spiritual development.

Until the last eight years of his life, although the world respected him as spokesman for an era, Eliot was tormented by a sense of personal failure. Indeed, it was not until his second marriage in 1957 to his secretary Valerie Fletcher that he found inner peace and “a different pattern of redemption: not through the heights of divine communion . . . but through a more common solace.” As Gordon explains, the love Eliot’s wife brought him was to him a sign that he was finally blessed. Yet Gordon’s subject—Eliot’s journey to this state of peace and the women he befriended en route—is not a pretty story. One understands perfectly well, reading this well-documented narrative, why the poet forbade biographies during his lifetime.

Eliot’s New Life exposes even further than Eliot’s Early Years the myth of this poet’s aesthetic of “impersonality.” Eliot believed that the writer should be totally separated from his literary creations (William Shakespeare is neither Hamlet nor Lear), having well prepared “a face to meet the faces” of his readers. As James Joyce defined it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the author becomes so refined and distanced from his characters, it is as though he were standing behind his fictions, paring his fingernails. Rejecting this notion of impersonality in Eliot’s work, Gordon takes as her major assumptions the following. Although Eliot led a double life (the public man was elegant and confident, but the inner man tormented and isolated), he had a clear plan regarding how to reach his goal of spiritual purification, and he manipulated both his art and his life accordingly. Unlike the more traditional writer whose art follows or reflects his life, Eliot’s life complemented his work—because he consciously structured it to do so. He might externalize in poetic verse his sense of sin and need for penance, but this would then be implemented in the specifics of his daily life.

That Eliot would convert to Anglicanism, she begins, was foreshadowed in the now-famous essay “Baudelaire,” in which he acknowledges that the awareness of sin alone provides the pathway to salvation; this recognition is imperative, for it permits one then to structure one’s life toward the good. Indeed, Eliot’s explanation provides Gordon the title for this book: “The recognition of the reality of Sin is a New Life.” Damnation thus becomes an immediate form of salvation; original sin is the sign of election: “Only when we are awakened spiritually are we capable of real Good.”

It was in 1910 that Eliot actually stated his plan to convert—in a little-known poem, “Silence,” to which, unfortunately, Gordon makes only brief reference. Here the twenty-one year-old expresses his quest for vision, for salvation and beatitude, which she interprets as his rejection of sexuality (which disgusted him) and the crass materialism of the modern world. In so doing, she continues, he committed himself to the love of God, rather than of man or woman. Needless to say, the reader can foresee the potential complexities of any relationships that might, and certainly did, evolve.

First, there was the impulsive marriage to Vivienne, who was devoted, highly intelligent, and witty, but mentally disturbed and utterly incapable of pursuing her talent for music, writing, and dance, let alone of maintaining a stable personal relationship. Vivienne’s emotional neediness tortured Eliot continuously: She threatened suicide if he were to leave her, and while he remained for several unhappy years, the marriage depleted him of any illusion regarding the comforts of human relationships. As one acquaintance put it: “Vivienne was Eliot’s muse only so long as he shared her hell.” There are, all the same, numerous scholars who maintain that it was Eliot’s steely coolness that drove Vivienne to desperate, neurotic behavior and that theirs was a brutally symbiotic, masochistic-sadistic relationship...

(The entire section is 2620 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Boston Globe. September 26, 1988, p. 17.

The Economist. CCIX, October 1, 1988, p. 99.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, July 1, 1988, p. 949.

Library Journal. CXIII, September 1, 1988, p. 168.

National Review. XL, November 7, 1988, p. 65.

The New Republic. CXCIX, December 12, 1988, p. 28.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, November 10, 1988, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 16, 1988, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, July 22, 1988, p. 47.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 23, 1988, p. 1037.