“We could go through East Coker,” Lynette Ballard told the British tour-bus guide, enthusing about how valuable and important this detour would be for her fellow passengers. Then she held her breath, because she had no idea what East Coker was like. All she knew was that one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets was set there.
The bus driver was game, even took it as a challenge when the village entrance was so narrow the bus squeaked through with only an inch or two to spare. They oohed over the sweet thatched-roof cottages and gardens and made a reverent stop at St. Michael’s, where Eliot’s ashes are buried beneath a plaque that quotes him: “In my beginning is my end.” As they climbed back onto the bus, Ballard let out a long breath. Her gamble had paid off.
On their next trip to England, she and her exquisitely patient husband drove to the Cotswolds and chugged up a long drive to the Burnt Norton estate, site of the first quartet, afraid they would be arrested at any moment. Which would in fact be appropriate, as Eliot had found the place by trespassing. Next, she visited Little Gidding. Now all that remained was The Dry Salvages, a group of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. “When the water is high, they can be dangerous,” she says, “because sailors can’t see them. They’re sharp and low. They become a metaphor….”
So did the Mississippi River, whose ways Eliot learned during his St. Louis childhood. In “The Dry Salvages,” he wrote, “the river/ Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,/…. almost forgotten.” Ballard knows his St. Louis influences by heart and often helps scholars with local research. (Were the gashouses where coal gas was burned to light the city lamps located near the Eliot house, spewing coal dust that stayed in his imagination when he made all those references to smog and fog and pollution in The Waste Land? She checked the old insurance maps and reported back regretfully: St. Louis was filled with smog, but the gashouses were not anywhere near the Eliot house.)
A lifelong dilettante, I envy Ballard her deliberate immersion. Passions focus you. Free time becomes a particular sort of opportunity. And a consuming interest reminds you who you really are.
She first read Eliot as a sophomore at a small rural high school in Dixon, Missouri. “Oh, my goodness,” she remembers thinking. Modern poetry went straight to the core of her. By the time T.S. Eliot died, she was a freshman at Mizzou, planning to become an English professor.
After grad school, Ballard wound up in healthcare administration instead, which felt almost unfaithful to that first love. She kept reading Eliot, and when she joined the Episcopal church, she began a spiritual practice of reading The Four Quartets every Holy Week. “Every single time, there is something new,” she says, “a little revelation.”
This June, she will take her eighth summer course in Eliot, offered by the University of London’s Institute of English Studies. She also mustered the courage to join the St. Louis T.S. Eliot Society, now renamed the International T.S. Eliot Society because its membership ranges so far.
Who would I choose, I wonder, if I could ever settle on just one absorbing interest. Rilke, maybe, or Goethe. T.S. always seemed too cold—though Ballard is quick to correct me. In her informed vision, he was more like a big room in a country house: chilly until you light the fire and then crackling with warmth and wit. Yes, he could be stiff and snobbish and overserious, but he could also be very, very funny, and once he got over his shyness, he was a great conversationalist. Yes, he was anti-Semitic, but he was vehemently opposed to Hitler and tried hard to get a manuscript published after it was smuggled out of a concentration camp. Yes, he could be priggish, but he was not a rabid, rulebound Christian.
“He was terrific with kids,” she continues. “The Old Possum book started as verse he would send to his friends’ children, who adored him. He had a lasting friendship with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, who were the ones who published The Waste Land. He’d take the latest jazz album to their house and dance—he loved to dance.” She says this softly, as though speaking of a friend she has lost. “Virginia could be catty—she saw him for what he was—but she also loved him.” A passage in her diary wishes that “poor dear Tom had more spunk in him, less need to let drop by drop of his agonized perplexities fall ever so finely through pure cambric. One waits; one sympathizes, but it is dreary work.” Yet she defended him staunchly vis à vis his first wife, with whom it has long been fashionable to sympathize. “Oh – Vivienne!” Woolf groaned in her diary. “Was there ever such a torture since life began! – to bear her on one’s shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity … This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.”
Ballard shares this sympathy. Until his last decade, “Tom Eliot never had a home of his own for any length of time. One year, he and Vivienne moved six times.” Even when they were broke, Tom had to lease multiple flats at once, because his wife “would become paranoid and go from one to the next.” They sometimes rented a summer place with Bertrand Russell, “who is known to have had a short affair with Vivienne and then struggled to get rid of her.”
Hunting through the Missouri History Museum archives, Ballard found a formal little Christmas card Tom wrote to his family when he was eight years old: date and year at the top and full signature, Tom Eliot, at the bottom. She also found Tom’s and his father’s passbooks to the St. Louis World’s Fair. “Tom, age sixteen, looks anxious,” she says. “You can tell he fluttered his eyes as the picture was taken.” Nonetheless, he made it to the fair forty-nine times, leaving only one of the fifty tickets unused. (His father went once and left forty-nine unused.)
What fun it would be to know what young Tom saw at the Fair, what tickled or delighted or wowed him. “He must have gone almost daily,” she points out, because his family would have left by June to summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Did the Fair’s wonders influence his later poetry?
The jazz and piano clubs near his house might have. Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, Clive Bell, saw The Waste Land as “ragtime literature,” breaking traditional rhythm with syncopation. Ballard has a theory about “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Years ago, I saw a footnote saying Prufrock was a shoe store in St. Louis. But it was a furniture store, and I think Tom chose the name because he passed it whenever he went to his father’s office at Hydraulic Brick.” In one of the old Prufrock catalogs, she saw a selection of circular, Italianate upholstered benches with statuary in the center. “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo,” she murmured.
Lately, she has been reading Eliot’s correspondence as it is published. “Nine volumes already, and the war hasn’t even ended!” she says gaily. “I’ve read every word. Many are letters he wrote to poets and writers when he was director of Faber & Faber, turning some down and building others up.”
Ballard is glad she refused to let the formal scholars scare her, refused to think Eliot’s work too hard for her to understand. His influence on culture is impossible to quantify—though she does plays a game with herself every time she reads The New Yorker, looking for buried references to his life or work. “For a while there was one in every issue,” she reports. “Now it’s maybe one out of three.” She grins. “If you want to be crazy about something, this is a good thing to be crazy about.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.