On St. Louis’s T.S. Eliot and the Arrogance of a Poet’s Love

T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell





When T.S. Eliot came to dinner at the Woolfs’ house and read them his new poem, The Waste Land, “He sang it & chanted it & rhymed it,” Virginia wrote. “It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure. One was left, however, with some strong emotion.”

The emotion was his, much of it unspent, save on foolscap.

All last year—the centenary of The Waste Land—the literary gods watched me struggle, torn between a sense that I should reread the thing and a memory of brilliant jewels scattered in a heap of dense gray allusions. I have always loved T.S. Eliot in bits—phrases that hold the world, sentences that capture an entire philosophy, details (rolled trousers, cat names) that sum experience. But I have rarely been able to comprehend The Waste Land in the single gulp I would prefer to a month of scholarly research.

The Waste Land is an intellectual’s QAnon, sending us hunting for breadcrumbs through every century. I resented that cold bastard genius for demanding that much of us. And so I held off, and read about his life instead, and now, so much makes sense. Especially the arid difficulty of The Waste Land, written when he was miserably married to a woman he could not please or keep sane. “I did try, again and again, to love her as I had promised,” he wrote, “but failed utterly, and no one could thrive on what I had left to give.”

The woman he really loved was Emily Hale, a well-born and lovely actress he had fallen for at twenty-five. Lyndall Gordon’s new book, The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, leaves no doubt how much their awkward, thwarted relationship mattered—to him, to his poetry, and by extension, to all of us.

According to Eliot, he told his beloved, “I can’t ask anything, because I have nothing to offer”—and meant financial prospects. According to Hale, “no mention of marriage was made.” They lost touch when he left for Oxford, where he married the Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whose presence helped inspire The Waste Land. Years later, he admitted to Hale that marrying an Englishwoman had seemed the best way to avoid, for his poetry’s sake, a life of provincial mediocrity.

By then, he had renewed their friendship and assured her again that he loved her. Nothing could come of it, of course, because he was now married, however unhappily, to Vivienne, plus he had converted to High Church Anglicanism, and he was, after all, T.S. Eliot: “If I had a divorce it would be the greatest misfortune to the Anglican Church since Newman went over to Rome.”

He had also taken up celibacy, so their love affair was never to be consummated. Instead, the passion unfolded itself in twenty-six years of correspondence, with Eliot’s letters drenched in a confessional emotionality he rarely allowed into his work. On the rare occasions that Hale’s reply was delayed, he fell apart: “What I most need, day by day, is the constant reassurance of your love.”

That reassurance transformed him, Gordon writes. His work became less pessimistic, surer of the possibility of renewal, even of transcendence. But Hale still longed to wake up in the same bed and have breakfast together. When she nudged, he stonewalled: “I am sure there is something most precious and invaluable about unsatisfied desires…. Unsatisfied desires can play a most important part in keeping the soul alive and urging one higher.”

To reinforce this theme, he convinced her that she was his Beatrice, his muse, his poetic inspiration. Waxing sentimental, he showed her the lines he had written, at the start of “Burnt Norton,” about one of his most treasured, permanent memories: their visit to a rose garden.

He did not show her the rest of the poem, with its reference to “the world of perpetual solitude” and its suggestion that desire was not “in itself desirable.”

Eliot also wrote Hale into The Cocktail Party, as a socialite in love with the play’s unhappily married main character. It is bad enough that he ends the play with the socialite’s graphic, brutal murder. Worse still is the husband’s realization, when his wife vanishes, that despite the pleasant fling with the socialite, “he does not want another marriage,” as Gordon summarizes. “What he wants is not to be disturbed, to go on as before. In fact, he wants his wife back.”

The year before Eliot wrote The Cocktail Party, Vivienne, now living in a mental institution, had died unexpectedly. He was free at last.

Yet he “recoiled violently” from the prospect of marriage, and he told Hale so in those very words. Gradually, the ardor drained from their letters, leaving the pages brittle. In 1960, Eliot wrote to his literary executors: “Gradually I came to see that I had been in love only with a memory, with the memory of the experience of having been in love with her in my youth…. My love for Emily was the love of a ghost for a ghost…. Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.”

And that is the poetry that has shaped contemporary Western literature.

Eliot never would have admitted a connection to his failed love life. Poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” he said. Still, I wonder: why do we listen so eagerly to writers who are unhappy? Because we assume that unhappiness is the condition of true art? There is some truth in it—happiness makes us dozy, more inclined to play with the puppy than write about the world’s pain. Joy carries no imperative, holds out no promise of enlightening the world.

But I think literary criticism made a mistake when it decided that the life and the work had to be separated, the life placed in a soundproof booth offstage. A bit of context will not make us ignore the work of the unhappy, which often does go deeper. But when we are allowing someone to define their entire genre for us, to dictate the parameters of style and set the highest artistic values, might it help to understand where their own life has taken them, and why?

In an early essay, Eliot insisted that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” thereby granting himself permission to remain opaque, footnotes his only concession to the mortals’ struggle to comprehend. “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience,” he said, turning life’s chaos into something ordered and whole.

He did so brilliantly. His gift was perhaps a measure of just how desperately his sensitive intellect needed and loved order. After telling Hale he “recoiled violently” from marriage, he waited a decade and married the thirty-year-old secretary who helped him organize his life. And for her, he wrote of the “roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only.”

Curious what made the man such a bastard, at least to his first wife and his first love, I read Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land. Writing from the other side of the Atlantic, biographer Robert Crawford describes my home town as “that French-named city of ragtime, racial tensions, ancient civilisations, riverboats and (in Eliot’s words) the real start of ‘the Wild West.’” He also makes clear how much Eliot looked down on the place, even as he proclaimed those early childhood years some of his life’s happiest. He grew up on Locust Street, in “a neighborhood which had become shabby to a degree approaching slumminess, after all our friends and acquaintances had moved further west…. So it was, that for nine months of the year my scenery was almost exclusively urban, and a good deal of it seedily, drably urban at that.”

Young Tom preferred his summers, sailing in New England with the snootier branch of the family. Yet his soul was shaped by Annie Dunne, his Irish Catholic nurse, who took him to Mass with her and let him gaze rapt at the polychrome statues of the saints, the tall glassed-in candles lit by parishioners’ hopes, the little pew gates he dared to swing on.

He was also influenced, Crawford suggests, by the tumultuous weather of the Midwest, its floods and high winds, snowstorms and tornados, one of which wreaked havoc all around him and left the family home untouched, as though blessed by one of Annie’s saints.

And who knows how much of his early sense of sensuality (or trepidation) came from the earthy lyrics sung by Mama Lou, a “voodoo princess” who sang at the Castle Club near his home and whose songs were performed at his school by young White men in blackface. Certainly there was little sensual or sexual information flowing freely in his home, where he was scolded for using the vulgar “O.K.” and reminded that buying candy for oneself was a selfish indulgence.

He was left painfully shy, miserable every minute of Professor Jacob Mahler’s Dancing Academy. And the scars of all that repression and snobbery and separation, with the White world austere and all the color coming from the underclass, lasted long enough to make the two women closest to him suffer by proxy.

Still, they helped shape his poetic legacy, one lent clarity by an austere arrogance, lent power by all that repressed energy, lent insight by his profound, often cruel insecurity.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.