Eliot worked incredibly hard, some might say insanely hard. Early in his career, he was putting in a full day’s work as a banker at Lloyds in the City of London, before returning home to write essays, lectures and book reviews – eventually taking on the editorship of a new literary magazine, the Criterion, in his spare time.

To begin with, he needed the extra money from his literary journalism, but even later in life, when he was financially comfortable, he still set himself an incredibly demanding schedule, over and above his ‘day job’. He continued to write articles and essays, give lectures, attend meetings of various societies and serve on voluntary committees.

Meanwhile, he managed to produce several volumes of some of the greatest poetry in English.

In 1921 T. S. Eliot teetered on the brink of a mental collapse. For two years he had been struggling at night to finish a long poem, while working by day in the foreign transactions department of Lloyds Bank. His neurologist — as they were then called in Britain — told Tom to get three months’ sick leave and then travel to Lausanne to see a leading psychiatrist. He did. His escape from London freed him from negotiating exchange rates and his unhappy marriage. While in Switzerland, he was able to complete his poem “The Waste Land.”

Eliot handed the text to Ezra Pound, whom he had met in 1914 when the two lived in London. Both were Americans — Tom from St. Louis, Ezra from Idaho — and both were modernists who sought to shatter all existing forms of poetry. It was Pound who had edited Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and arranged for its 1915 publication in Poetry magazine. When the poem appeared in chapbook form two years later, it placed Eliot at the forefront of poetry’s avant-garde.

Now, in 1921, Pound edited “The Waste Land,” cutting down lines devoted to parody and eliminating witticisms, but leaving untouched its mood of despair and desolation, and its message of neo-Christian hope. Boni & Liveright published it in the United States, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press printed it in Britain. Some critics greeted the poem with outrage, some with puzzlement at its sudden changes in location, time and narrator. It was not written to be easily understood, but the youth loved it for reflecting their disillusionment after the Great War. Before long it was decided — by the people who decide such things — that T. S. Eliot was the greatest poet of the 20th century.

In 1946 he was invited to Buckingham Palace to read for the king and queen. (But not his own verse, which Tom didn’t think the royals would understand.) Two years later he received the Nobel Prize and the British Order of Merit. Cambridge and Oxford made him an honorary fellow and 18 universities gave honorary degrees. France made him an Officier de laLégion d’Honneur, the United States gave him its Presidential Medal of Freedom and Time put him on its cover.

He should have been happy. But he had, as he himself said, “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage and a Puritanical temperament,” so how could he be?

T. S. Eliot was a morally, intellectually, and sartorially fastidious man. His manner was so correct that it sometimes seemed a few degrees too correct. He was known to friends as a connoisseur of cheese—there are several anecdotes about him in which the punch line is provided by a remark about cheese—and as a collector of umbrellas with custom handles. He came to hold political and religious views that were far to the right of most of his contemporaries’, and to believe that Western civilization had been in decline since the thirteenth century, the time of Dante. He claimed to consider Richard III, who died in 1485, the last legitimate English king.

The poems and plays that Eliot published in his lifetime fill a single volume; his prose works are collections of talks and occasional journalism. The project to which he committed most of the latter part of his career, the revival of verse drama, was a failure. He was dismissive of grand theories of poetry, or anything else, and he never held a regular academic appointment. During his most productive years as a writer, from 1917 to 1925, he worked in a bank. His place in the curriculum is established, but he is hardly popular as a subject of teaching or scholarship.

Yet he was a true avant-gardist, and he made a revolution. He changed the way poetry in English is written; he re-set the paradigm for literary criticism; and his work laid down the principles on which the modern English department is built. He is the most important figure in twentieth-century English-language literary culture, a position he achieved with a relatively small amount of writing produced in a relatively brief amount of time and in unpromising circumstances.

He was a foreigner in a society, literary London, that is almost as incestuous and xenophobic as intellectual Paris. The writers he counted as comrades were looked upon by most of the literary establishment with distaste: Ezra Pound, an American; Wyndham Lewis, whose father was an American; and an Irishman, James Joyce. (There was not much love lost on their parts, either.) He was cut off from his family by the war; he was married to an unhealthy, demanding, and unstable woman; and he had troubles all his own. At the height of his creative and critical output, he had a nervous breakdown and diagnosed his condition as aboulie—lack of will. While he was recovering, he wrote “The Waste Land.”

His success is an improbable and amazing story, and the publication, in two volumes, of his correspondence from 1898 to 1925, “The Letters of T. S. Eliot” (Yale; $45 each), lets us watch that story as it was unfolding, day by day, from the inside. The letters (some of which are by Eliot’s correspondents) have been compiled and edited, with generous annotation, by Hugh Haughton and Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife. They take up almost two thousand pages.

The inside view makes the success only a little easier to understand. Eliot was not just inscrutable; he performed inscrutability. He was pleased to adopt Pound’s nickname for him, the Possum, and the too-correctness was a way of suggesting that the umbrella fetish, the cheese-course rituals, the white flower (for York) that he wore on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed, and all the rest of the bowler-hatted persona might be a put-on. He came across as a man who had got trapped inside an elaborate, Chaplinesque joke of his own devising. He was enjoying the joke, but he couldn’t get out. Ivor Richards, a founder of modern literary studies and one of Eliot’s most powerful disciples, recalled “the ghostly flavor of irony which hung about his manner as though he were preparing a parody.”

But what was within? Richards’s wife, Dorothea, described Eliot, on a visit, as “very gaunt & grim—as if he had burnt himself out. His queer coloured, strangely piercing eyes in a pale face are the most striking thing about him. He is pale with special wrinkles which run horizontally across his forehead & his nose is delicately Jewish. He doesn’t understand all I say nor do we him. His questions are surprising—disconcerting because so simple, sometimes also inane.” This was in 1928, a low point in Eliot’s life: he had secretly converted to Anglicanism the year before, and he was preparing to leave his wife. But from the beginning of his time in England the same details turn up in people’s takes on him: the unusual eyes (tawny, like a lion’s), the enervated demeanor, the uninspired conversation.

“Dull, dull, dull,” complained the Bloomsbury-circle hostess Ottoline Morrell in 1916, after Eliot’s first visit to her estate. “He is obviously very ignorant of England and imagines that it is essential to be highly polite and conventional and decorous and meticulous.” Most of the Bloomsbury figures had the same response at first. “Altogether not quite gay enough for my taste,” Lytton Strachey reported. “In an envelope of frozen formality,” Leonard Woolf remembered him. Bertrand Russell thought that Eliot was “lacking in the crude insistent passion that one must have in order to achieve anything.” But Eliot made friends with them all. He also made friends with many of their rivals, like the Old Guard novelists Hugh Walpole and Arnold Bennett. He plugged himself in.

The letters show that he knew what he was doing. He was persistent, and he understood how the game was played. “Don’t think that I find it easy to live over here,” he wrote to his brother, Henry, in 1919, after he had been in England for five years:

It is like being always on dress parade—one can never relax. It is a great strain. And society is in a way much harder, not gentler. People are more aware of you, more critical, and they have no pity for one’s mistakes and stupidities. They are more spontaneous, and also more deliberate. They seek your company because they expect something particular from you, and if they don’t get it, they drop you. They are always intriguing and caballing; one must be very alert. They are sensitive, and easily become enemies. But it is never dull.

 He saw that, among people so high-strung and self-centered, being an outsider, someone who appeared to have no personal stake in things, could be a source of authority. More important, he held all the English writers in contempt. It was a cool and disinterested contempt; it came from arrogance, not from pettiness or insecurity, and he gave just enough of a hint of it to make people nervous. The only contemporary writers he considered his peers were Pound and Lewis (though he knew their limitations extremely well). The only one he looked up to was Joyce.

That London was the square of the board Eliot landed on was something of an accident. If he had picked a city to expatriate to, it would probably have been Paris, where he spent a very happy year after graduating from Harvard College, in 1910. But he had not intended to emigrate at all. When he arrived in England, in August, 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War, he was on a fellowship from the Harvard philosophy department. He planned to spend a year at Oxford, reading Aristotle and writing his dissertation, and then return to the United States and become a professor.

He liked Aristotle. He disliked Oxford. “I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books, and hideous pictures on the walls,” he wrote to an American friend, the poet Conrad Aiken. “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.” He had met Pound soon after arriving in London—a meeting arranged by Aiken—and he had already written “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pound, who had been in England since 1908 on a self-appointed mission to modernize the natives, read the poem and was stunned. “He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own” was his famous reaction, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe. He encouraged Eliot to make more poems.

In the spring of 1915, at a party hosted by Scofield Thayer, a wealthy Harvard classmate who was also studying at Oxford, Eliot met Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a friend of Thayer’s sister. She was English, and working as a governess. Three months later, without informing their parents, they married. Eliot was twenty-six and, before they met, almost certainly a virgin. She was a party girl, unrefined, vivacious, and self-dramatizing—pretty much everything he was not.

People assumed that Eliot was sexually infatuated, but, considering the entirety of his romantic history (fairly barren), this doesn’t seem the most likely explanation. Eliot’s own version, in an unpublished memoir written near the end of his life, was:

I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or mild affair: I was too shy and unpracticed 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. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. . . . To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came “The Waste Land.”

They did, in the end, have one thing in common. They were both tremendously ambitious for his career.

The month they were married, June, 1915, “Prufrock” appeared in Poetry. Apart from work in student publications, this was the first poem that Eliot ever published. It was as though “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” had been the first painting by Picasso ever exhibited, or “The Rite of Spring” the first piece by Stravinsky ever played. Pound was right: it was something new. It changed the rules. Eliot knew it, too. “I feel more alive then I ever have before,” he wrote to his brother in July. He told his parents that he was abandoning his academic plans and staying in England.

The euphoria didn’t last. As the story of the career in the “Letters” surges ahead, the story of the marriage is the dark cloud racing alongside. Some of the letters are by Vivienne, and they are spunky and uninhibited. “I am very popular with Tom’s friends,” she writes to Thayer a few months after the marriage, “and who do you think in particular? No less a person than Bertrand Russell!! He is all over me, is Bertie, and I simply love him. I am dining with him next week. I see a good deal of the Pounds, of course, and between ourselves, find them rather boring.”

Eliot’s first books sold poorly in England. The book edition of “The Waste Land,” published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, sold three hundred and thirty copies in the first six months. In April, 1923, the British publisher of “The Sacred Wood” reported that only about twenty copies had been sold that year. But Eliot was almost immediately taken up by young British academics, particularly at Cambridge. His route to influence and renown passed through an institution he had pointedly scorned.

Cambridge is where Richards taught. He sought Eliot out at the bank to entice him to teach a course. Eliot demurred (he liked his job at the bank), but Richards and other Cambridge academics, including Richards’s student William Empson, and even Richards’s rival F. R. Leavis, found in Eliot’s books the template for a new method of teaching English. Their American counterparts, the New Critics, were also Eliot’s devoted exegetes (and almost all of them cited Richards as a model and inspiration). Together, they created the modern English department.

The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature. This is not a self-evident proposition. Before there were English departments, people read stories, poems, and plays without assuming that special training was required. But most English professors think that people don’t intuitively get the way that literary writing works. Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that “stand for” something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the author’s own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find. They are unable to make sense of statements that are not simple assertions of fact. People read literature too literally.

Almost everything in Eliot’s early criticism, except his aversion to methods and theories (“There is no method except to be very intelligent,” as he disarmingly put it), met the situation of literary academics. Eliot attacked the confusion of literature with other kinds of writing. He formulated terms, like “objective correlative,” that looked like precision tools for critical analysis. (Eliot himself never used the term again.) He insisted that works of literature be judged on literary grounds, and he separated literature from biography and intellectual history. He argued for the principle that the most important thing you need to know in order to read a poem is other poems—a principle that Leonard Woolf, in a review of “The Sacred Wood,” identified as “back to Aristotle.” Eliot helped to reëstablish the autonomy of literature. That was modernism’s other great project, and it is also what literature professors needed in order to make English an academic discipline.


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