T.S. Eliot retreats into a constructed persona: “Hysteria”

In 1914 T.S. Eliot was studying at Oxford. He was only 26 but he had already acquired the disposition of someone late in what is now called “middle age.” Part of this was attributable to his fastidiousness. Part of it had to do with his shyness. Both of those likely were the result of his mid-western upper middle class upbringing.

Eliot’s paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, descendant of Andrew Eliot, Boston minister in revolutionary times and progenitor of a vast and distinguished progeny, was a Unitarian minister and community leader in St. Louis involved in education, at a time when Unitarianism was a something of a progressive force among local civic elites. He had died by the time Eliot was born, but his view of life, with emphasis on duty and self-denial, was the prevailing influence in his childhood, owing to the devotion not only of his father but also of his mother to the reverend. Eliot’s own father, Henry Ware Eliot, after a fitful start in business, became President of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company. Henry Ware would also become prominent in charitable and civil affairs of St. Louis. Eliot always maintained great respect for his father and was always mindful of the money that his father spent for his education, even if he had no interest in what his father did for a living or much respect for business. (In his 1915 application for a marriage license in London, Eliot listed his father as “Brick Manufacturer.”) Eliot was no Baudelaire spending recklessly to support a dissolute life and writing to his mother begging for more funds. And thus sedate, respectable Oxford seemed perfectly suited for his tamed bourgeois personality.

Eliot at 19 in 1906 on the cusp of being late middle aged. (Houghton Library)

But Oxford seemed fitting for another reason. Eliot had been long going through something like a revolt in his thinking. Unitarianism with its self-satisfied ethos of duty, lack of commitment to a compelling mythical narrative and its tepid rituals no longer engaged him intellectually, however much it left its mark on his personality. Since attending Harvard College, Eliot had been an intellectual pioneer but he found the scientific-material bent of Harvard and the positivism pervading philosophy unsatisfying. So he retreated into ancient religious mysticism as his preferred outlook. Eliot’s midwestern inhibitions prevented him from too great a dive (such as becoming a full-fledged Buddhist); Oxford’s solid Anglicanism was therefore both daring (for a prominent Unitarian) and safe.Harvard at the turn of the century was being transformed by another Eliot—Charles W. Eliot (another descendant of Andrew Eliot). President Eliot was near the end of his very long tenure, one that he used to transform Harvard from a college that taught classical languages and not much else into a modern school whose express aim was to create leaders and with a curriculum that was both broad and practical and forward-looking.

Even at 19 Eliot was not forward-looking, and was not particularly interested in much beyond literature. His great discovery as an undergraduate was the writing of the French Symbolists. He was introduced to them not by a professor but by the library of the Harvard Union where he found Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (London:  W. Heinemann, 1899). Eliot began aping Laforgue’s voice and his viewpoint of urban landscapes. Irony became to Eliot not so much a technique as an intellectual perspective. Rimbaud, Verlaine and Tristan Corbière had such an effect upon him that he resolved to move to France to become a French poet. (Harvard’s practical orientation did not rub off on Eliot.)

His father agreed to pay for his stay in Paris (where he studied at the Sorbonne), even though his mother had been against it. As in his last year at Harvard, Eliot led a solitary life, and, as he did in Boston, he would venture out, when the evening was spread out against the sky, to explore as a voyeur, never the participant, those parts of the city where poverty exposed modern life at its most raw.

When he returned to Harvard for graduate studies, he had become unmistakably conservative—foppish, smug, an unabashed bigot and antagonistic to socialism and condescending to anything that challenged the Prevailing Order. In an address to the Philosophic Society he said that “no radical is so radical as to be a conservative.” (Lyndall Gordon, T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (NY: W. W. Norton & Co: 1999) [“Gordon”], p 77.) His newly developed superiority seemed to allow him to socialize more easily and become less of a loner and withdrawn voyeur.

Bertrand Russell at 44. Frontispiece photo from his Justice in War-Time (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co: 1916).

He first studied Sanskrit and the Hindu classic texts. Then he began philosophy in earnest. The philosophy department of Harvard was decidedly positivist, an approach too modern for Eliot’s tastes. His draft thesis was a confused commentary on F.H. Bradley. But, in partial defense of Eliot, no systematic treatment of any form of idealism (whether Plato or Hegel or any other) can be both coherent and meaningful. Bradley’s view of the world (that reality is merely an intimation of a complete unknowable Absolute) would remain Eliot’s (and symbolism was the perfect technique for this view), although Eliot would give up any attempt at a systematic philosophy. Eliot’s most important connection his last year at Harvard was with visiting professor Bertrand Russell. Russell was at Harvard in March and April 1914 to deliver the Lowell Lectures (which would be collected in Our Knowledge of the External World (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1914)) and taught a graduate seminar in symbolic logic. Russell could hardly have been less likely a mentor, if Eliot were to select one. Russell came from a prominent ancient family which recently acquired a hereditary title. (Russell would become the Third Earl Russell when his brother died in 1931.) The Russell lineage was prominent politically (they were Whigs), while Eliot’s was prominent religiously. Russell’s parents were radicals (his father lost his seat in Parliament over his advocacy of birth control) and were considered traitors to their class. Russell himself was at the time a socialist of sorts. (He wrote of social democracy and was a member of a Fabian club.)  But most importantly his work in mathematical theory made him perhaps the most prominent anti-idealist of the day.

Eliot possibly agreed, however, with Russell’s condescending view of the Harvard students. Russell wrote his lover Lady Ottoline Morrell that the students “obviously had not been taught with the minute thoroughness that we practise in England. Window-dressing seems irresistible to Americans.” He singled out Eliot, however, as “the only one who is civilised, and he is ultra-civilised …” Russell was impressed (as a British upper-cruster would be) with Eliot as “very well-dressed and polished with manners of the finest Etonian type.” The problem, however, was that Eliot “has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm.” (Russell to Lady Ottoline Morrell, March 27, 1914 in Robert Gathorne-Hardy (ed.), Ottoline: The Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell (London: Farber & Farber, 1963), p 257.) In his breezy—and selective—autobiography many years later Russell remembered the one classroom encounter he had with Eliot: “He was extraordinarily silent, and only once made a remark which struck me. I was praising Heraclitus, and he observed: ‘Yes, he always reminds me of Villon.’ I thought this remark so good that I always wished he would make another.” The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914 (Boston: Little Brown, 1967), p 327. Although Villon would be championed by Pound as well (Pound even scored Le Testament as an opera), Eliot likely only noted the similarity in their epigrammatic styles. Russell probably knew nothing about Villon beyond the popular play about his life that was performed in the UK the previous decade. Ray Monk says that for Russell Villon was “the very personification of the value and danger of submitting to the ‘central fire’ of the human soul’ (Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 (NY: Free Press: 1996), p 350)—a speculation (on Monk’s part of Russell’s knowledge of Villon) which seems more based on Villon’s repeated criminal behaviors than his poetry. Heraclitus, on the other hand, was a current enthusiasm of Russell who extolled him as an empiricist (as opposed to Plato) who also was able to see the underlying unity of all things. Russell argued that such “mysticism” was not incompatible with scientific induction. (See, e.g., his essay “Mysticism and Logic” published in the Hibbert Journal in July 1914, reprinted in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1917) at pp 1-32.) (Russell makes no reference to Villon anywhere in the collection.) Eliot had studied Heraclitus before. In his notes from a 1912 lecture Eliot wrote that Heraclitus was an aristocrat who was contemptuous of democracy and scorned man’s inability to find stability and see a knowledge behind logic. (Gordon at 78.) It is unlikely that Russell and Eliot were thinking of the same thing when they compared Heraclitus and Villon.

Before his final year at Harvard, Eliot had several finished poems—”Prufrock,” “Portrait of a Lady” and parts of the “Preludes.” His poetry since France, however, mostly consisted of endless sections of a long, obscene, scatological and racist “cycle” about King Bolo, a black ruler of Haiti and, with his increasing fascination with religious mysticism, poems of flagellation and martyrdom. His “humorous” poems with their sneering views of blacks and Jews were apparently for the benefit of Conrad Aiken and perhaps a few other Harvard friends. Those poems as well as his “serious” religious poems—”The Death of St. Narcissus” and “The Love Song of St. Sebastian”—also unmask a decided streak of virulent misogyny. The images of mutilation and strangulation of women were written at a time when he was “courting” (in the upper class Boston manner) the prim Emily Hale. Eliot’s intense shyness towards women probably caused his deep hostility toward them. He never saw anything amiss in any of these puerile pieces, and he even pressed his poems about “King Bolo’s hairy Kween” on Ezra Pound and attempted to have Wyndham Lewis publish them in the Vorticist journal BLAST.

Price list of Hydraulic Press Brick Co. By the turn of the century, it produced over 100 million brick annually, making it the largest brick producer in the US. (Masonry Institute of St. Louis.) The prospect of this life loomed starkly before Eliot.

With the end of the academic year approaching, Eliot faced pressure to make a choice between the two unappealing options that always faced him: the business office or philosophy professor. He opted to delay the choice in a way his father could not object to: he accepted the Sheldon Travelling Fellowship in Philosophy, and he decided to spend it at Merton College, Oxford. He intended first to take a course in Germany, but he was chased out by the outbreak of war. He arrived in London in August 1914, that most ominous of months in modern Western history. No one yet had even a suspicion what lay in store far into the future as a result of the decisions made that month, least of all Eliot. Eliot took a room on Bedford Place near the British Museum. He had visited the tourist spots before, on an excursion from Paris. The poet must obtain a consciousness of the past, he would later famously write, but “Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum.” Eliot didn’t much like museums, where women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.

Aiken had visited Ezra Pound the previous year and promoted Eliot to him, showing him a copy of “Prufrock.” At Aiken’s urging Eliot visited Pound in September. After Eliot provided him with copies of his poetry, Pound became a tireless advocate, spreading Eliot’s name far and wide, introducing him to Wyndham Lewis, HD and others of the London avant-garde set. Eliot was not one to be swept off his feet by effusive praise or attention by celebrities. Eliot had practiced condescension to such perfection that he could write to Aiken that Pound’s “verse is well-meaning but touchingly incompetent; but his remarks are sometimes good.” He then enclosed another buggery poem (to Conrad Aiken, September 30, [1914], in Valerie Eliot (ed), The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume One 1898-1922 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: c1988) [“Letters“], p 59).

Eliot left London for Merton on October 6; at the same time Pound sent off “Prufrock” to Harriet Monroe, urging publication. At first Eliot preferred Oxford over Harvard: “I think that I should have gotten along with the undergraduates better and made more friends than I made at Harvard.” (TSE to his cousin Eleanor Hinckley, October 14, 1914, Letters, p 61.) He liked his tutor and hoped to see his hero, F.H. Bradley, but Bradley was ill and never came up. “Boarding school discipline” and various “regulations” he endured “for the sake of being taken care of,” so he said (id.). But it was a dull, dowdy place. He confided to Aiken that “[f]or intellectual stimulus, you will find it not in Oxford” (November 16, [1914], Letters, p 68). The war depleted the student ranks; those left were mostly foreign students. The professors and their wives stayed to themselves, and the whole community was insular, correct and conformist. Worst of all, it lacked the social activities that Eliot had grown to depend on: teas, socials, domestic play-acting, dancing, and other interactions with women. He missed Emily Hale and sent Aiken $4 so he could buy her red or pink roses to be presented at a play she was to perform in (November 21, [1914], Letters, p 69-70).

At the end of the term he spent three weeks in the southern resort village of Swanage and then went to London, where he took a pension. He spent the vacation with Brand Blanshard. Eliot regarded him with the kind of contempt that he usually had in store for Americans beneath his social stratum: Blanshard, he told his cousin, “if not intelligent, was at least an excellent butt for discourse, as he defended with great zeal all the great American fallacies, and exhibited all the typical American middle class confusion of thought—anxious to be broadminded (that is, to be vague), to have wide interests (that is to say, diffuse ones), to be tolerant (of the wrong things) etc., and very amiable, though I think he has come to regard me as an unscrupulous sophist” (to Eleanor Hinckley, January 3, 1915, Letters, p 78). Blanshard, who would become the chairman of Yale’s philosophy department, most likely regarded Eliot as a pompous fraud because he later noted that Eliot spent breakfasts “each morning with a huge volume of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica propped open before him.” (Letters, p 78 n3.)

He had grown tired of the provincial life and was planning on staying in London and working at the British Museum. He begaun to suspect that the entire enterprise of metaphysical philosophy was a meaningless endeavor. He told Norbert Wiener, a Harvard chum already a post-doctorate at 20, studying philosophy and mathematics with Russell and G.H. Hardy at Cambridge: “In a sense, of course, all philosophising is a perversion of reality: for, in a sense, no philosophic theory makes any difference to practice. It has no working by which we can test it. It is an attempt to organise the confused and contradictory world of common sense, and an attempt which invariably meets with partial failure—and with partial success.” There were consequences to this conclusion. “I am quite ready to admit that the lesson of relativism is: to avoid philosophy and devote oneself to either real art or real science. (For philosophy is an unloved guest in either company.)” (January 6, 1915, Letters, pp 80, 81.)

It all pointed to living in London, where Pound beckoned like a siren, flattering him as a poet and persuading him that he could make a living as a poet there. He tentatively began breaking off his philosophy career by telling the Dean of Harvard College that perhaps others students should be considered for the Sheldon Travelling Fellowship the following year. He began spending more time in London, where Pound drew him into the vortex swirling about him. Lewis chose “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” for the second issue of BLAST, and Pound was consulting him on the founding of a College of Arts.

When he first came to London after his holiday, there was one problem with the city—it sharpened his feelings of loneliness. On New Year’s Eve (a particularly lonely time), he wrote Aiken about the “nervous sexual attacks” he was experiencing: “this is the worse since Paris. I never have them in the country.”

“I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society); and feel the deprivation at Oxford—one reason why I should not care to remain longer—but there, with the exercise and routine, the deprivation takes the form of numbness only; while in the city it is more lively and acute. One walks about the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rise up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches. I should be better off, I sometimes think, if I had disposed of my virginity and shyness several years ago; and indeed I still think sometimes that it would be well to do so before marriage.” (Letters, p. 75.)

But now he was getting about. He told Eleanor:

“There are at least a dozen people in London whom I like exceedingly. I had lunch with [Bertrand] Russell a few days ago, and he talked most brilliantly. (We walked along he Embankment afterwards. He said suddenly ‘Do you remember what Mrs. Elton’s Christian name is?’ ‘No.’ ‘It is mentioned once—Harriet Smith says to Emma: “He calls her Augusta. How delightful!!”‘).” (To Eleanor Hinkley, April 24, [1915], Letters, pp 96-97.)

He was beginning to overcome his shyness. It was not just poets and artists he mingled with, “but I have also met a few ladies, and have even danced.” He told her of the big hotels that provided for dancing on Saturday nights where he met women. Even though he had not mastered the fox trot, his dancing was still “modern” compared to the British, who were not even familiar with “dipping.” Two, however were “good dancers,” and they being “emancipated Londoners” he saw quite a bit of them at tea and dinner. They were “charmingly sophisticated (even ‘disillusioned’) without being hardened”; they even smoked in public. And they had such “amusing names.” He knew two women named “Phyllis,” (Ovid’s forsaken lover of Demophoon) and “one named Vivien.” (Id. p 97.) It was her liveliness that would capture Eliot.

Preparing for the Ball by Charles Haigh-Wood. 1896. Oil on canvas. Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead, England.

Vivienne was born in Lancashire, as Vivienne Haigh. Her father had prefaced his given name with his mother’s maiden name (Haigh) to distinguish himself from his own father, who was a master picture-frame maker. Charles Haigh-Wood was, in fact, a serious artist, not an artisan like his father, although he was a painter of a conventional sort. Nevertheless, his technique (and probably lack of innovation) got him elected to the Royal Academy of Arts at 21.

Haigh-Wood’s father, Charles Wood, came into money through his wife and was able to have him enrolled in the Art Academy at 17. Charles eventually inherited his mother’s property and set up house in a well-to-do section of London. He acquired fame for his “conversation pieces” or story-telling scenes of polite society. The paintings generated substantial income through sales to greeting-card manufacturers for reproduction. Once securely comfortable Haigh-Wood began painting in a realistic style with scenes of village life in Yorkshire.

Vivienne was treated to the advantages usually afforded upper middle class girls: piano lessons, ballet, painting. Her early childhood, however, had been hellish. She developed tuberculosis of the arm, a disease then with no cure. So she had to endure numerous surgeries. She was undoubtedly indulged as a result. She adored her father and became an unrestrained free spirit.

Eliot knew no unrestrained free spirits in St. Louis, Cambridge, Oxford or even Paris. He met Vivienne at a party hosted by wealthy Harvard alumnus Scofield Thayer (later editor of The Dial and later still, a patient of Freud’s), who, it seems, was also interested in her. They met again at a lunch at Thayer’s (Gordon, p 113). She was a governess at the time with a family at Cambridge. A direct, unpretentious and animated woman, she also took interest in his poetic aspirations and not only believed in his literary talents but considered them important. So now there was Pound and Vivienne (and Aiken, of course). This at a time when Eliot found his powers receding, perhaps gone. “Prufrock” was nearly four years old (and still not published). The recent poems like the “King Bolo” cycle were rejected, because, despite Eliot’s explanation that Wyndham Lewis was a prude, they were quite puerile. Eliot wrote Aiken in September: “I think all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry—three years ago. I sometimes think it would be better to be just a clerk in a post office with nothing to worry about—but the consciousness of having made a failure of one’s life.” (September 30, [1914], Letters, p 58.) These worries were American worries—what career to make, where to go to work, how it will all end up. He wrote the Dean of Harvard that he wanted to get back, to obtain his doctorate as soon as possible, “to begin my métier.” (To J.H. Woods, March 2, [1915], Letters, p 90.) Pound was insisting, however, that he had to make his break with America. Eliot knew he was right. American universities taught pabulum such as “How to Appreciate the Hundred Best Paintings” (To Pound, April 15, [1915], Letters, p 96). He could not escape American gaucheness even in his pension, where there was an American English Department Ph.D., who twice pronounced “moustache” with the accent on the first syllable (to Eleanor Hinkley, April 24, 1915, Letters, p 97). But there were counter-influences: Charles W. Eliot (now ex-President) told him not to stay in Europe and ruin his art like Henry James did (Gordon, p 115). Pound put the choice more concretely: “Henry James stayed in Paris and read Turgenev and Flaubert, Mr. Howells returned to America and read Henry James” (Pound to Henry Ware Eliot, June 28, 1915, Letters, p 102). It was so clear, and yet so difficult. But Vivienne made short order of difficulty.

Eliot and Vivienne at 18 Crawford Mansions in 1916. (Valerie Eliot Collection.)

On June 26, 1915 they were married at the Hampstead Registry Office. Eliot was described as “of no occupation.” The bride and groom, 26, had not informed their parents.

The decision did not end those worries he told Aiken about. The first one was his father. When Eliot accepted the Oxford fellowship he had worried that he was a “burden” to his father (Letters, p 37). Now he had to persuade him that he had not made a career-ending decision for the most frivolous of all reasons. But he was not up to the task. Instead he engaged Ezra Pound to write his father to explain how remaining in London to become a professional poet was a wise career choice. Henry Ware Eliot must have considered the correspondence even more extraordinary than we do today reading Pound’s recommendations to the “brick manufacturer” concerning Eliot’s career. It begins with an introduction: “I do not imagine that my name is known to you, or if it is it is merely a name, like another, appearing now and again in the newspapers. Stripped of a certain amount of flimsy notoriety we may say that I have brought something new into English poetry, that I have engineered a new school of verse now known in England, France and America, and incidentally that I have introduced certain young poets to the public.” It continues with a brief history of certain innovations in poetry from Ovid to Browning. He tells him how his son compares favorably with Robert Frost (“Incidentally, it was I who insisted or ‘suggested’ that he should do [a book of New England eclogues]”) and Edgar Lee Masters. He tells him that a poet in London making $1,000 can live better than a person in America who makes $5,000 and says that he has already set Eliot on his way by arranging for publication in, among others, Poetry, which “pays rather well.” (Eliot would acknowledge within two weeks receiving 8 guineas (about $40) for “Prufrock,” which took Eliot a year and a half to write.) Pound promised to give his son a trial run before the British critics in the fall by giving him eight or ten pages in an anthology he proposed bringing out. Pound’s letter ends with the suggestion that $500 the first year and $250 the second should be enough to get Eliot off to a good start. (Ezra Pound to Henry Ware Eliot, June 28, 1915, Letters, pp 99-104.)

The second problem was Eliot’s mother—Eliot’s dear mother, who spent her life writing devotional poetry and raised him to aspire to the ideals of civic duty championed by her father-in-law. His mother was a trickier problem.

The newlyweds went on a six-day honeymoon to Eastborne. When they arrived at the train station near Vivienne’s parents’ home near Hampstead (Vivienne had telegraphed her parents the happy news), her brother Maurice picked them up but noted that Eliot’s behavior had an odd forced cheerfulness about it. At that visit, during which Eliot displayed his impeccable manners and fastidious elegance, Vivienne’s mother may have confided to Eliot about Vivienne’s history of “nervous” disorders. (Rose Haigh-Wood believed that Vivienne had inherited “moral insanity.”) (Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot: A Life (NY: Simon & Schuster: c1984) [“Ackroyd”], pp 64, 62.) And now Eliot had a third problem: the germ had been planted in both of them that the marriage was a mistake. They would work to make it a disaster.

Much ink and amateur psychoanalysis has gone into explaining Eliot’s uncharacteristically impulsive decision. Eliot himself did much to perpetuate the view that it was a great mystery by writing that even if he attempted it “the explanation would probably remain unintelligible.” Yet in the same private paper he made it clear to all but those unable to understand a repressed, shy, diffident and immature young man who used condescension to mask his own feelings of inadequacy: “I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair: I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England.” (Letters, p xvii.) But really, is it anything more than that he saw a mermaid singing, and he thought that she was singing to him? Aldous Huxley (who knew Eliot from the Oxford club for aesthetes, the Nineties Society) put it more crudely to Lady Ottoline in 1917: it was “almost entirely a sexual nexus … one sees it in the way he looks at her … she’s an incarnate provocation.” (Ackroyd, p 63.) But what of it? Haven’t souls been sold for less? In any event now was not the time consider the mistake; he was busy arranging for a livelihood as Pound suggested, and asked his brother to meet various editors, such as of the Atlantic Monthly requesting that Eliot be considered as their foreign editor. “Now my only concern is how I can make her perfectly happy, and I think I can do that by being myself infinitely more fully than I ever have been. I am much less suppressed, and more confident, than I ever have been.” (To Henry Eliot, July 2, 1915, Letters, p 104.) It was time to put on a happy face for his family and friends.

To deal with all his immediate problems, Eliot decided to make a short trip to the United States, meet his family, and perhaps speak to some editors. Russell, with the instinct of a minor predator in these matters, instantly sized up the situation. He wrote Lady Ottoline about a dinner he had with the couple, the first after their marriage: “I expected her to be terrible, from his mysteriousness; but she was not so bad. She is light, a little vulgar, adventurous, full of life—an artist I think she said, but I should have thought an actress. He is exquisite and listless; she says she married him to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it. Obviously he married in order to be stimulated. I think she will soon be tired of him. She refuses to go to America to see his people, for fear of submarines. He is ashamed of his marriage, and very grateful if one is kind to her.” (Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Volume 2, in one volume edition (London & NY: Routledge Classics: 2009), pp 263-264).

So Eliot grew to depend on the “kindness” of Russell. He would have Russell flatter his mother by writing to her and reassured her of his prospects and his marriage: “I have taken some pains to get to know his wife, who seems to me thoroughly nice, really anxious for his welfare, and very desirous of not hampering his liberty or interfering with whatever he feels to be best. The chief sign of her influence that I have seen is that he is no longer attracted by the people who call themselves ‘vorticists,’ and in that I think her influence is wholly to be applauded.” (Russell to Charlotte C. Eliot, October 3, 1915, Letters, p 119.) (One can only wonder was the Eliot parents made of these London intellectuals taking the time to offer special pleadings to them.) The trouble that Russell went to was hardly disinterested, but Eliot appears to have taken a long time before discovering it. The midwestern who despised the provincial customs of New England and American middle-brow culture and who expressed himself with a thick layer of irony would now be playing a part in a dramatic irony engineered by the decadent wiles of English aristocracy. When he returned from America, he accepted Russell’s invitation that they stay in the spare room in his house. Eliot profusely thanked him for his kindness. The predictable course of this domestic tragedy, and how Eliot would cover himself with disgrace as a result, will have to be covered later, when we look at Eliot’s brief period of poetic greatness—all under the influence of Vivienne.

This week’s poem was submitted to Pound amid all this turmoil in Eliot’s life. It was included in the “eight to ten pages” Pound announced he was giving to Eliot to showcase him in the fall. The anthology was published in November 1915.

It is often thought that the poem relates to Vivienne’s mental illness. But it is unlikely that Vivienne had any breakdown by the time the poem was written. If it had to do with their relation at all, it is about Eliot. Hysteria, after all, was a Victorian syndrome, thought to be experienced widely among women, the result of sexual “frustration” or “nervousness.” The clinical procedure was originally the “pelvic massage.” Electrical massagers and vibrators were widely available at the time (even sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co.) to “treat” the syndrome. When you read the poem, consider that the narrator (which is of course Eliot) is powerless but fascinated. He has no solution but watching and no interest but to salvage the day. The female of course doesn’t matter, she is just an object or symbol, as she is in almost all of Eliot’s poetry. Sorceresses, succubi, hairy Kweens, fleeting memories, objects to be loved and strangled, and now an insatiable sexual vortex. Eliot probably did himself a disservice by burying himself in abstract metaphysics, because he was now beyond reinstatement into ordinary human associations.

Hysteria

from Catholic Anthology, 1914-1915 (London: E. Mathews: 1915)

by T.S. Eliot

AS she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth
were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-
drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at
each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark
caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of un-
seen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling
hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white
checked cloth over the rusty green iron table,
saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take
their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman
wish to take their tea in the garden . . .” I decided
that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped,
some of the fragments of the afternoon might be
collected, and I concentrated my attention with
careful subtlety to this end.

Text Note: Although the work is a prose poem I used the line breaks of the original publication. If it is less bothersome to read it full to the margins without hyphenations, I set it out below:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden . . .” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

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  1. Illuminating. I love Eliot’s poetry that I have read, but now – not the man. It feels disappointing but strangely exciting to understand part of the real man that lived in the poet.. When I was a girl I loved my father,; later – as the man revealed himself, I loved him less. Such is the disappointment in love, in being human.

  1. February 21st, 2011
  2. May 20th, 2011

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