Remote, tormented, even ‘daemonic’: Can TS Eliot really be the nation’s favourite poet? He’s scarier than you think, argues Mark Ford
When, four years ago, TS Eliot topped a poll commissioned by the BBC to discover the nation’s favourite poet, the most common reaction was surprise. Poetic beauty contests of this kind tend to uncover the philistine streak in British taste: could Eliot, the man who made poetry difficult, much of whose work can only be fully understood with the help of scholarly footnotes, really be our “favourite” bard? And wasn’t he still American when he wrote his most revolutionary and influential poem, The Waste Land? Since its publication in 1922, the annus mirabilis of the modernist movement, Eliot’s greatness and importance have never been in doubt, but the word “favourite” can conjure up someone cuddly. And, Cats notwithstanding, there is nothing cuddly about Eliot in the way that there is about, say, John Betjeman – who was a pupil of Eliot’s at Highgate Junior School in 1915-16, and remembered him as a “remote, quiet figure”.
Remoteness has always been part of the allure of Eliot’s poetry. “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,” the dithering J Alfred Prufrock longs to declare to the salon hostess with whom he takes tea in Eliot’s first great poem, “Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all –”
The poem mocks this impulse, but much of Eliot’s subsequent work reveals a similar yearning to deliver in words “tongued with fire” (“Little Gidding”) some otherworldly, all-transforming revelation.
The brilliant American critic Randall Jarrell once described Eliot as one of the most “daemonic poets who ever lived”, arguing that all his critical talk of tradition and the individual talent was just a smokescreen, a means of disguising the “human anguish” that motivated his own sporadic eruptions into poetry.
Still, possibly the first response elicited by Eliot’s work is amazement:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table …
Etherised? Upon a table? Where did that come from? An Eliot scholar will reply: “from Jules Laforgue”, the French poet who was the catalyst for much of Eliot’s early work, but even after decades of familiarity with the opening of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, that third line still delivers a shock, a frisson of wonder.
It was published in June of 1915, the very month that Eliot took the most unPrufrockian, and disastrous, step of his life, committing himself to what The Waste Land calls “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”: he married Vivien Haigh-Wood, an English girl whom he’d only just met. Unknown to Eliot, Vivien had long suffered from a range of physical and mental ailments, and the young couple’s marital difficulties started almost at once. They cut short a planned two-week honeymoon in Eastbourne after only six nights, one of which Eliot apparently spent in a deckchair on the beach.
“When the bridegroom smoothed his hair,” Eliot wrote in a weird, opaque poem called “Ode”, “There was blood upon the bed”. He was possibly referring here to Vivien’s over-frequent and heavy menstrual cycle, which led her to wash the sheets herself when she stayed in hotels, but the line also inspires thoughts of conjugal murder. Virginia Woolfmemorably described Vivien as like “a bag of ferrets” that Eliot was condemned to wear around his neck. Throughout their marriage, one or other of them was nearly always ill, and Vivien often on the verge of suicide.
Their misery was also, however, the crucible out of which emerged the most radical poem of the twentieth century: “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.” “WONDERFUL,” wrote Vivien beside this passage in the margin of the typescript of The Waste Land, apparently not minding her husband’s characterisation of her as a shrill, unhinged hysteric. The male protagonist does stay with her, as Eliot stayed with Vivien for 17 gruelling years, but he refuses to speak; we do, however, learn what he is thinking: “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.”
From the outset, Eliot’s work fused satire and mysticism; his denunciations of society depend for their authority on his conviction that the religious vision of his great hero, Dante, offered a securer means of interpreting and judging culture and experience than the formulae and rituals of liberal democracy. “I had not thought death had undone so many” – a direct translation from Dante’s Inferno – Eliot observes of the commuters flowing over London Bridge in the first section of The Waste Land. The commuters are obviously not literally dead; Eliot must be saying that they are spiritually dead, that they have not yet been awakened to their limbo-like state, and therefore drift like unreal zombies in a Dantescan hell. Eliot was in the employ of Lloyds Bank on Lombard Street while at work on The Waste Land, so was in fact a commuter himself – but one with a difference: like the poem’s Tiresias, he had “foresuffered all” and “walked among the lowest of the dead”; thus he was able to see through the illusions of modern life, and deliver this withering verdict on his fellow commuters.
Over the years all manner of explanations have been offered for the disaffection so brilliantly dramatised in “Prufrock” and “Gerontion” and the quatrain poems and The Waste Land. The American poet Hart Crane, for instance, was convinced that Eliot was gay (“the prime ram of our flock,” the homosexual Crane called him), and various Eliot sleuths have pored in particular over his relationship with the young Frenchman Jean Verdenal, who was a fellow lodger in his pension in Paris in 1911. Verdenal was killed in the French campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915, and is the dedicatee of Eliot’s first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, of two years later. It has even been suggested that Verdenal is the hyacinth girl, and indeed that the whole of The Waste Land is an In Memoriam-style elegy for him.
While there’s no doubt that Eliot was sexually tormented, as he admitted in letters to his friend Conrad Aiken, no evidence has yet come to light to disprove Peter Ackroyd’s assertion in his 1984 biography of Eliot that “when he allowed his sexuality free access, when he was not struggling with his own demons, it was of a heterosexual kind”. And Eliot did, after all, marry twice, the second time extremely happily.
TS Eliot with Vivien in the background Credit: Wesley Merritt
The strangeness and ferocity of those demons emerges most starkly in an early poem called “The Love Song of St Sebastian”: “I would come in a shirt of hair,” it opens,
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled …
This self-flagellation is the saint’s opening gambit in a peculiar courtship ritual; after hours of self-punishment – and prayer – and when enough blood has been drawn, the saint follows the white-clad woman whom he is wooing to her bed. Far from being repelled, she takes him in precisely because he is now hideous, and she suffers no shame because he is dead: “And when the morning came / Between your breasts should lie my head”.
This masochistic fantasy turns out to be only one wing of a deeply disturbing erotic diptych. In the second half of the poem the saint comes to the same woman with a towel in his hand. He bends her head beneath his knees, caresses the curve of her ears, and then proceeds to tighten his grip:
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I had mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me.
Murderous sex, necrophilia, witchy succubae, bats with baby faces – Eliot, I think, owes far more to the gothic world of Edgar Allan Poe than he was ever willing to acknowledge.
Eliot found a solution to some of the anxieties provoking a poem such as this by joining the Anglican Church in 1927. The terrifying vignettes and outlandish characters that animate his early poems disappear in sequences such as Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets. A meditative, measured tone and a carefully calibrated religious iconography replace the “sordid images” that electrify in the early work. Yet passages of Four Quartets can still find their way to parts of the psyche that no other poet can reach. Was I alone in finding tears welling up while listening toJeremy Irons’s superb rendition of these poems, broadcast on Radio 4 a few weeks back? Although sceptical of the religious solution to the world’s problems that they offer, I found their hypnotic rhythms and intricate verbal patterns once again illustrating the power of what Eliot called “the music of poetry” to delve deep beneath the intellect and engage our primal responses.
Mark Ford is Professor of English at University College London. He is the author of three collections of poetry, and the editor of London: a History of Verse. He will be teaching the Telegraph/ How To: Academy class on ‘How To: Read TS Eliot’ next Saturday, February 15. For more information, go to howtoacademy.com