Eliot after ‘The Waste Land’ 
by Robert Crawford.
Cape, 609 pp., £25, June, 978 0 224 09389 7
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Emily Hale​ was Eliot’s ‘Raspberrymouth’. That’s what he called her in the love letters they began exchanging in 1927, a correspondence that intensified in the early 1930s, and continued through the awkward years of their disentanglement after the death of his first wife, Vivien, in 1947. Eliot’s love for Emily, his ‘Tall Girl’, retained all the shy ardour he felt when he first met her as a young student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1912. She was a spur to his imagination, as he tested out new words for deep feeling, and the object of some comic erotic-spiritual exercises. Take this letter from December 1935: ‘When I go to bed I shall imagine you kissing me; and when you take off your stocking you must imagine me kissing your dear dear feet and striving to approach your beautiful saintly soul.’ Eliot was a creature of habit: in the mornings, communion at St Stephen’s; in the afternoons, business at Faber, dictating innumerable letters; writing in the evenings; rosaries in the early hours. Letters to Emily, typed from his desk, were a vital part of his amatory and auditory imagination – part of the rhythm of his life across the major years of his mature work.

Hale’s profession was her voice. She was an assistant professor of oral English at Simmons, Scripps and Smith Colleges, and taught elocution and voice training for actors. Yet speech between Emily and Tom was rare. One opening for talk came when Eliot went to the US to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard in October 1932. He telephoned Hale on arrival. Fortunately for biographers, the call was difficult. Eliot soon had to follow it with a letter, explaining that hearing her voice had left him ‘nearly speechless, and partly imbecile, and afraid of being too emotional’. Letters remained their medium. By November 1935, Eliot had enjoyed enough kisses from that Raspberrymouth at meetings in London, Chipping Campden and California that he lamented losing count of them. But for the most part he ‘kissed’ Emily’s signature. This was an Emily of words, an epistolary Emily. ‘As I can’t have what I want, which is of course to have you with me day and night always,’ Eliot wrote to her, ‘all that I want is to pursue and develop the mutual sympathy and understanding and companionship through letters.’

The Hale letters are the source for a lot of Eliot ephemera: a new thought on Yeats and one on Hitler’s abilities; hints of the ‘immodest’ bathing suit purchased for his holiday with the Fabers; his first impressions of that ‘remarkable toy’, the television. But they are also revelatory on a grander scale. The unsealing of the Eliot/Hale archive in 2020 at Princeton’s Firestone Library was the event of the century for scholars preparing to mark the centenary of The Waste Land’s publication. When Christopher Ricks reviewed Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot in the LRB (1 November 1984; the same year Michael Hastings’s play about Eliot’s first marriage was staged), he remarked: ‘Plainly it is the Tom and Viv bits which we are all likely to home in on.’ In 2022, with the second volume of Robert Crawford’s sensitive biography, it’s the Tom and Em bits.

This is unfortunate: Eliot after ‘The Waste Land’ is a rich study of the period from 1922 until Eliot’s death in 1965 – years that contained much besides a complicated love affair. Crawford’s book offers new and well-arranged details about Eliot’s plays and wartime life, a steady handling of his Anglicanism and antisemitism, intensive studies of the distress of his first marriage and the delights of his second – all while remaining commendably calm about the Hale letters. Still, it’s this correspondence that most justifies the need for another Eliot biography. As early as the 1980s, when Eliot emerged from reverence and then rejection to become a figure of primarily biographical interest (‘the “life” without the “literature”’, as Barbara Everett put it), there was a weary familiarity to discussions of the relation between his work and his biography. Without capitulating to the sensationalism of the romance plot, Crawford demonstrates that the letters refresh our sense of Eliot because they show him negotiating the ways in which his private life and public work converged.

Eliot’s private life was continually under threat. His ‘breakdown’ made the newspapers in 1922; he retreated to undisclosed writing rooms under the light disguise of ‘Captain Eliot’; when reached by that new technology of invasion, the telephone, his voice had ‘a curiously strangled sound’. Yet, with Emily, he retained some seclusion. So, when we read him writing to her, we hope to overhear something rare: his ordinary improvisatory voice. What Crawford shows is that we do and we don’t. Eliot’s letters to Hale were never simply private. Writing about their correspondence in the LRB of 22 October 2020, Paul Keegan highlighted a remark from Eliot’s lecture on ‘Letters of the English Poets’ (1933):

The desire to write a letter, to put down what you don’t want anybody else to see but the person you are writing to, but which yet you do not want to be destroyed, but perhaps hope may be preserved for complete strangers to read, is ineradicable. We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written.

Desire for privacy, hope for confession: these competing impulses can be read into Eliot’s ardently ‘shy’ style in the letters to Hale. His uncertainty about address may be one factor in his sometimes vertiginous shifts between giddy amorousness and starchy self-protection. Crawford handles with equanimity the challenges presented by these tonal shifts. In this second volume he deals with a difficult period of Eliot’s life for a biographer. As his fame grew, Eliot’s wariness expanded along with it, and his general reticence in speech and action became a more determined reserve. He even worried that Emily was showing his letters to her friends. While he cautioned her (under the gaze of the wartime censor), ‘I want to continue to feel that I am writing to you alone,’ he knew he was, in a fundamental sense, not alone with her on the page. Premonitions of future publication brought ‘a kind of invisible censorship’ into their so-called private prose.

The vexed problem of trying to be alone with Emily, or choosing not to be, gave impetus to a series of moral and spiritual crises. They happened whenever his relationship with her realigned, or threatened to do so, and their correspondence bears witness to some of Eliot’s most painful occasions of self-fashioning. The trajectory of the relationship is still puzzling: why did Eliot marry Vivien not Emily in 1915? Why, after Vivien’s death, did he once again choose not to marry Emily? And what had changed in his self-conception by 1957 for him to abandon the conviction that he could not remarry and to choose his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, as a wife instead of her? Crawford wisely leaves things open while quoting long stretches of Eliot’s letters as they stage (and stage-manage) various moments of near finality: letters reflecting on their parting in 1914, unengaged; letters on the impossibility of divorce even after his separation from Vivien in 1933; letters on the occasion of Vivien’s death; letters on the crisis of public and private selves brought about by Hale’s decision to deposit his letters to her at Princeton in 1956.

Crawford does not choose to build a rounded sense of Hale from her own papers as compensation for the asymmetry of the correspondence (only Eliot’s half survives). Crawford’s reticence about Hale, except as she appears in Eliot’s letters, pushes readers of this biography towards a version of Eliot’s own position: an acute ‘conception’ of Hale but a fatal uncertainty about the way her reality might fit with the rest of his experience. ‘You have never disappointed my conception of you,’ he wrote to her, ‘and I am happy in the knowledge that my conception of you is not an “idealisation”.’ Yet even as he insisted that Hale was not the product of a mind prone to abstractions, Eliot’s phrasing savoured the bloodless reasoning of his early philosophical work. When, on her visit to London in 1934, he decided to fit ‘various pieces of my life together, in order to make sure that they belong to one real world’ by introducing her to his London circle, the reality test failed. John Hayward dismissed Eliot’s ‘cousin’ as a ‘grim, prim, school-ma’amish female’; Ottoline Morrell called her that ‘awful American Woman’; for Virginia Woolf she was a ‘dull impeccable Bostonian’, a ‘rich American snob lady’. Eliot’s ardour, and the reasons for it, passed his contemporaries by.

Crawford’s biography restores Eliot’s devotion to view while keeping its object shadowy. His concern is with tracing the way Eliot’s ‘conception’ of Hale joined with, disturbed, formed and deformed his self-conception in the years between 1927 and the termination of their correspondence after Eliot’s second marriage thirty years later. Crawford achieves this by sticking close to Eliot’s own words. Or some of them: Crawford’s Tom is ‘Eliot the poet’, and here another difficulty emerges. ‘For many readers,’ he argues, ‘it is in his finest poetry rather than in social or critical writings (which are most compelling when closest to the music and making of poetry) that this poet best sets out his deeply held ideas of order.’ Crawford is undeniably deft in his treatment of the poetry; he makes the soundscape of poems like ‘Marina’ shimmer. But does this volume do enough to resolve the relations between ‘the music and making of poetry’ and the mind of the ‘coldly reasoning, logically subtle theorist’ described (in that somewhat puzzling sobriquet) on the award of his Nobel Prize in 1948? Crawford’s bias towards the poetry can seem to thin his readings of Eliot just where they most need texture.

Take Chapter 3, ‘Crisis’, which covers Eliot’s 1926 Clark Lectures in Cambridge, along with the demands of Vivien’s ill-health: the subject matter seems to catch Crawford in his own crisis of method. In this series of lectures on the metaphysical poets, Eliot aimed at a grand vision of ‘the role of the artist in the development and maintenance of the mind’. Some of the audience thought he fell short of characterising ‘the mind’, arriving only at lectures that mattered as the ‘history of your own mind’ (as Mario Praz wrote to Eliot). In his commentary on the lectures, Crawford comes too close to Vivien’s later claim, ‘As to Tom’s mind, I am his mind,’ suggesting: ‘What he projects as large-scale analysis of the history of poetry can seem, at times, a wrestling with his own and Vivien’s demons.’

Set on this narrowed explanatory path, Crawford turns each of Eliot’s hard-won (if sometimes still unstable) feats of intelligence homewards; his diagnosis of ‘disintegration of the intellect’ in poetry after Dante becomes a symptom of Eliot’s fear that Vivien had ‘nearly lost her reason for a time’. So visceral and personal is Eliot’s mind, in Crawford’s account, that as ‘he likens Donne’s metaphysical “bringing to light” of “curious aspects and connections” to an infusing “as it were, the dose of bismuth which makes the position of the intestine apparent on the X-ray screen”,’ we are encouraged to see him as an anxious husband: ‘This image derives, surely, from Vivien’s “intestine” having been diagnosed recently as “so nearly dead”.’ Crawford is probably right about the bismuth, but it’s the wrong kind of rightness: the source of the image matters less than the way it behaves. This is a metaphysical conceit; a yoking of dissimilar thoughts (connections in poetry; X-rays of the intestine) through a graphically vivid image of their shared form (disclosure). Eliot is neither fumbling around in his recent memories for a lively metaphor, nor a harried victim of an intrusively anxious image: he’s continuing his serious work of testing out whether the practices of the metaphysical poets have vitality for the modernists, and through this also exploring a direction for his critical reasoning, as it moved from the avant-garde energies of his periodical essays towards an established voice of authority in prose. Can a biography that will not take the prose as seriously as the poetry do justice to Eliot and, in particular, to the place in his life and work of his fraught self-conception?

Many of​ Eliot’s self-characterising tones are fashioned in his prose; in fact, in the decades after The Waste Land, his prose and drama may be their major outlets. Crawford remains sharp on the legacy of Eliot’s early poems and the way the qualities of certain personae from them surface in other contexts when Eliot is trying to make sense of himself. Normally, this is a matter of finding things ‘Prufrockian’. Crawford recalls that Stephen Spender once surprised Eliot with his gastronomic panache: ‘I don’t think I dare eat smoked eel,’ Eliot remarked, when he heard the younger poet’s lunch order. Spender discerned the Prufrockian echo in this declared timidity. Crawford hears it in the letters too. ‘I have again and again seen the impression I have made,’ Eliot writes to Hale in 1932, ‘and have longed to be able to cry “no you are all wrong about me, it isn’t like that at all”.’ Crawford calls these ‘Prufrockian words’, and they undeniably catch some aspects of a speech pattern that Eliot sometimes shared with Prufrock: the plangent-strident negatives and slight repetitions, their melancholic self-importance striated by nervous panic. But ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published in 1915. Can the ready-made term to which it gave rise adequately recognise Eliot’s evolving sense of himself after the 1910s, and the challenges that later events posed to his language of self-belief? Perhaps not sufficiently, and it is in dealing with these later decades that Crawford’s wariness of equally sustained or subtle thought about Eliot’s prose seems ill-judged.

His lecture ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ raises some vital biographical questions. Between its delivery as a lecture to the Shakespeare Association in March 1927 and its publication as a book that September, Eliot converted to the Anglican Church. This was also the year he resumed his correspondence with Hale and became a naturalised British citizen. A minor lecture, then, at a major juncture in Eliot’s life. It was one of the first things Eliot sent to Hale and one of the rare things she kept when, after their non-marriage, she began to donate his gifts to archives. It is a mock-diffident study of the impulses towards individualism or stoic grandeur as they shaped the early modern imagination. The characters of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Eliot claims, show an attitude derived from Seneca; they lack humility – none more so than Othello, whose final speech Eliot diagnoses as a case of ‘cheering himself up’. Othello is ‘endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.’

These words come to have a sharp bearing on the way Eliot negotiates moments of crisis as ‘women come and go’ in his life and, unsurprisingly, he couldn’t help but think biographically in the lecture. Before he diagnosed Othello’s weaknesses, Eliot anticipated his audience’s response: ‘I am used,’ he said, ‘to having my personal biography reconstructed from passages which I got out of books, or which I invented out of nothing because they sounded well; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I did write from personal experience.’ The sum of Crawford’s attention to this lecture is to quote the last clause from the sentence above, the one of Eliot’s three compositional scenarios that best justifies the biographer’s task of uncovering ignored personal inflections. Yet this leaves untouched Eliot’s intriguing self-positioning near Othello’s self-cheering rhetoric. It also swerves the significant challenge to the biographer that lodges in Eliot’s middle clause: what to do, in the story of a writer’s life, with a claim of impersonality, that redirects attention to sound not private sense?

It’s worth pausing on this key question for biographers of poets: how many words can be walled off from personal biography as cases of pure sound? Consider a symbol that appears in the tragedies of both Othello and Eliot himself: the handkerchief. After one parting in December 1935, Eliot wrote Hale a regretful jingle: ‘I waved too, but my handkerchief was blue.’ Pentameters such as this often crest the surface of Eliot’s prose, making it ‘sound well’. They appear in his critical essays and public addresses, and Ricks detected them in his letters, spotting ‘a heroic line’ in a 1927 epistle where Eliot excuses himself to his brother for not visiting their dying mother because Vivien needs him. ‘I must not leave her, even for a night,’ Eliot writes, constraining his wildly irregular circumstances to the regularity of prose rhythm. The heroic line (an eloquent five stress phrase) is a form that tends towards the tragic intensity and hint of self-dramatisation that Eliot identified when he spoke of Othello. It’s no surprise then that such lines are also present in the Hale letters. The jingle about the handkerchief emerges from this longer sentence on parting: ‘I watched you go down the street, turning and waving, and I waved too, but my handkerchief was blue and I fear you did not see it wave.’ Eliot’s words to his brother and his letter to Hale may share both shape and subject (to leave or not to leave) but they diverge in cadence: one is locked into tragic intensity, the other carries a light anapaestic trip in the middle and a failed gesture of such bathos that it throws off any austerity of sound or sense.

Emily is presumably not expected to believe in Tom’s improbably blending-in handkerchief. He is offering up the line as consolation for their asymmetry, for the failure of their intentions to meet as neatly as the sounds that rhyme ‘too’ and ‘you’. This was a might-have-been wave to his might-have-been love. Eliot departs from official music-making in his letters, but these (mock) heroic line forms show that he never fully abandons it: the blue handkerchief blends with its surroundings and the private prose with the auditory imagination of the published writing. Crawford refrains from commenting on details like this, but his poet’s ear selects them for quotation. He allows this particular line about the handkerchief, with its jaunty forlorn grace, to contour the end of a chapter called ‘Irrevocable’.

The​ cumulative effect of such moments, as Crawford presents them, is to suggest new possibilities of understanding what Eliot spoke of as the ‘auditory imagination’. He defined this as ‘the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling’. Sounding out phrases in letters as well as in verse kept things going for Eliot: he needed a low level of compositional hum. Like a secular spiritual exercise, the letters sustained a gentle level of committed awareness of words and feeling, occasionally reaching ecstatic pitch. This was the way he liked to live, and to write, as he made clear to Hale on several occasions in 1933. ‘One simply could not live if one’s emotions and sensibility were wholly awake all the time … Occasionally, very rarely, the periods of heightened life pass for a moment into a mood of peace and reconciliation, a momentary perception of a pattern in life, which one just accepts.’ Momentary patterns like the prose rhymes of ‘too’ and ‘blue’ perhaps. Or the allusions across the letters to Eliot’s work, both past and future.

These remind us that his private correspondence was part of a wider web of public words. When Eliot wrote to Hale in December 1940 that war had stalled his work on ‘The Dry Salvages’, he told her: ‘The original impulse has eluded me like a dream on waking and the verse has not gained its own impetus. But there is only the trying.’ Here, as he spurs himself to write, he alludes to words from ‘East Coker’, published earlier that year: ‘For us, there is only the trying.’ Anticipations occur here too. Crawford observes one in a letter of January 1934 where Eliot wrote to Hale: ‘In my worst states of depression my past life seems only a nightmare of things ill-done and undone.’ This is ‘apparently prefiguring a passage about “things ill done and done to others’ harm” in his later poetry’, as well as echoing the Anglican liturgy on which it draws. The quietly reserved style in which Crawford observes some of these patterns serves well the half-awake quality of Eliot’s auditory imagination and allows him to show ever more clearly what it meant across all levels of his life and work.

This is particularly intriguing in the chapters that cover the war. Here, Crawford reaches into the years not yet covered by the published volumes of Eliot’s letters. (The selected letters have reached 1941 in their nine volumes.) A fuller picture emerges of the extent to which ‘going on’ in wartime was a struggle for Eliot, and of the change his relationship with Hale underwent during those six years of separation. The war began at a point of close union for Tom and Emily. They heard Chamberlain’s broadcast together in Chipping Campden before parting. In a letter soon after, signed ‘Your adoring Tom’, Eliot wrote that ‘those last minutes in the window are pictured in my mind with an intensity that can never disappear.’ But much did disappear: he felt that war, with its ‘withering effect’, ‘precipitated’ in him a certain aridity, an often ‘blank’ mind and equally blank page (‘nothing has come’), alongside a ‘suspension of other feelings’. This he termed ‘a phase of middle age’.

For all this ‘withering’, the value of the letters as a resonance chamber for Eliot’s published writings is sustained during the war years. When Eliot was eager to characterise for Hale the new and fearful experience of bombing sounds which, from the safe distance of America, she was not to know, he dipped into the pool of shared words between them to do so. Leaves had often figured in the image clusters passed between them in correspondence and in Eliot’s published writing; notably so in one of his most Emily-inflected poems, ‘Burnt Norton’, with its ‘dead leaves,/in the autumn heat’, which we encounter if ‘we follow/The deception of the thrush’ and move towards ‘the unheard music hidden in the shrubbery’. In his letter to her about fire-watching in October 1940, Eliot once again sounded out the main notes of this poem (their poem):

On one of my first nights being bothered by a strange sound, going out to reconnoitre, and discovering after several minutes that it was merely dead leaves being swept along the street by the breeze. It is often difficult to distinguish whether what you hear is a small noise close by (even indoors) or a greater noise a long way off; and the sound of bombs can be very deceptive.

Eliot here seems to be pulling gently on the silken ties of the words, images, constellations that they knew to hold in place their love, even if at a barely conscious level. It seems likely that the meditative work in these letters, going back over sounds and images, bears fruit in ‘Little Gidding’, where, once again, the lines follow indecipherable sounds down bomb-threatened streets.

But Eliot’s ready adaptation of words, sounds and images was not matched by a similar pliancy in his relations with Hale. The war had obliged him to think of himself as an organism, shaped by circumstance: ‘one’s capacity of adaptation is remarkable,’ he wrote to her on 3 September 1940, in the early days of adjusting with attempted gusto to a changed world. But by 1947, this valour spent, he returned to the same vocabulary of adaptation to cancel the future of their relationship. He recognised his ‘inability now to carry out the continuous self-adaptation to another personality’ required in marriage. After the attrition of his private war with Vivien, and then world war, Eliot shut like a clam. He could no longer tease out words that ‘sounded well’ to his Emily; he now (in Crawford’s words), ‘sounded selfish, old-buffering, self-protecting’. Like Othello in that lecture from 1927, perhaps?

To adopt that lecture’s vocabulary again, it’s clear that letters to Hale, even before the war, were often a way Eliot had of ‘cheering himself up’. First, in the usual sense of that phrase: they helped him find constancy, safely epistolary devotion, letter kisses. But sometimes, too, they worked as attempts to deceive himself through rhetoric at moments of moral anguish. Eliot had always been capable of this, even in the purplest patches of his letters. One, emblematically dated ‘Holy Saturday 1933’, had repelled another attempt from Emily to reopen the question of divorce from Vivien with Othello-like declarations of the extent of his service: ‘I can say wholly without overestimating my importance that if I had a divorce it would be the greatest misfortune to the Anglican Church since Newman went over to Rome.’ It is painful to imagine how Emily might have experienced the bathos of Eliot’s further minute specifications: ‘I feel that I am a symbol for instance to John Hayward or to Geoffrey Curtis; even to Stephen Spender.’ His duty as a role model to Spender – that bold consumer of smoked eel! Surely the best evidence in the case against initiating divorce proceedings. Six months later, Eliot’s words were still at an impasse of absolute contradiction: ‘I should like you to know once and for all, that there is nothing in this world that I would not give up without hesitation if I had even the slightest hope that you would accept me as your husband.’ Yet for all the oath-like grandeur of ‘once and for all’, Eliot immediately had to perjure himself: he would not, in fact, give up something, his commitment to the Church, from which he refused to defect to marry her. And so, somewhere between tentative and vainglorious, he plays the ethical card instead: ‘I think that my responsibility to society counts more with me.’

Crawford allows these quotations from the letters to dilate, without moralising, or even pointing to signs of strain in Eliot’s rhetoric. This wise decision to allow Eliot’s self-justifications to occupy significant space in the book, and to be self-convicting, serves the story best. But just occasionally readers may wish for Crawford to be less reticent on the subject of the emotional reverberations around Eliot’s grander monologues. Take the moment when the shadow of ‘The Hollow Men’ falls across Eliot’s words in one of his many letters preparing the ground for not acting in accordance with his past declarations. Emily had written to Tom in the final days of the war, attempting ‘to realign relations between us once again, after now nearly six years separation’. For once, we hear her words – she kept a copy of this single letter – and we hear her make a version of a proposal. ‘Do you still feel that if you were free you wish to marry me?’

It is Hale’s turn for a heroic line here, falling into five-stress rhythmic regularity with the words, ‘if you were free you wish to marry me’. To the plain and measured appeal of these words, Eliot replied with awkward obfuscation, twice nearly stuttering: ‘Nothing could give me more, or more enduring pain, than the thought that you should deliberately sacrifice a genuine chance of happiness in this world, out of loyalty, or fear of giving pain, or for the shadow which is all I am in a position to give as a substitute for substance.’ This is Crawford’s gloss: ‘Combining the tones of frustrated lover with those of a philosopher, Tom mixed scruple with implied moral blackmail.’ But, oddly for a biographer who always has an ear to Eliot’s poetry, this gloss seems to miss that cruel twist by which some words from ‘The Hollow Men’ began to seal the fate of his hyacinth girl as a might-have-been: ‘Between the idea/And the reality/… Falls the Shadow.’ At moments like this, the hope is that a biographer will make good on the connection between life and work by turning Eliot’s careful strategies for judging what ‘sounded well’ and what did not on the man himself. Did Eliot not know he was cheering himself up?

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Vol. 44 No. 19 · 6 October 2022

Helen Thaventhiran mentions an occasion when Stephen Spender surprised T.S. Eliot with his ‘gastronomic panache’ (LRB, 8 September). In the 1960s Vigo Demant, then Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, told me he had once been at a party with Eliot, who sent out for ice cream and hot chocolate. Someone said to him, ‘I can’t imagine how you’d like that.’ Eliot replied: ‘Of course you can’t imagine it; you’re not a poet.’

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford

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