Personal influences on Eliot’s The Wasteland



“They know and do not know, that action is suffering

And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer

Nor the patient act. But both are fixed

In an eternal action, an eternal patience

To which all must consent that it may be willed

And which all must suffer that they may will it,

That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action

And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still

Be forever still.”

-from Murder in the Cathedral


When does an individual give up on his poetry? Or when does an individual realise after many futile efforts that poetry has deserted him? Is it when a part of his self becomes too critical of the endeavours of his artistic existence or perhaps, the burden of literary tradition and history becomes so great that the self appears trifle and meaningless? In the winter of 1921-22, during one of his customary lunches with Conrad Aiken, Eliot expressed his inability to write. Every evening he would go back to his flat hoping he could start writing again; his material was ready but the pencil and paper lay untouched, the hope illusory. Conrad Aiken mentioned Eliot’s problem to Dilston Radcliffe who at that time was being analysed by the American lay analyst, Homer Lane. Homer Lane’s solution to Eliot’s problem was startling and frightfully simple- “Tell your friend Aiken to tell his friend Eliot that all that’s stopping him is his fear of putting anything down that is short of perfection. He thinks he’s God.” Eliot’s reaction, quite unsurprisingly, was one of boundless rage and he found the intrusion intolerable. But a couple of months later, while in Switzerland, he finished writing The Waste Land.

In the early 1920s, Eliot was going through a sustained phase of emotional upheaval and domestic trouble which could have significantly contributed to Eliot’s problems with writing. But Lane’s remark, considering its remarkable candour and the effect it possibly produced, can hardly be dismissed as a mere accident. To appreciate the significance of this remark, we must for a moment focus our attention on the intricacies of Eliot’s poetic process. It is obvious and recognised that tradition is a hallmark of Eliot’s thought processes. That Eliot was a classicist with a particular interest in Dante and Shakespeare is perhaps no secret but the figure that arguably had the single most impression on Eliot was that of Jules Laforgue. Eliot did more than simply study Laforgue; even the Larforguean disguise actually fitted Eliot so well that it was easy to identify the immediate psychic recognition Eliot felt for him. Laforgue died the year Eliot was born in 1887~a synchronicity that affected Eliot so deeply that Eliot would later choose to get married to Valerie Fletcher in the same church in which Laforgue had married. Eliot confessed that his reading of Laforgue helped him shake off the pretentiousness of late Greorgian poetry and re-invent himself as a poet. Together with Marlowe, Kyd, Webster and Tourner all of whom he discovered at this time, the cross-fertilisation of ideas from other languages and periods would revolutionise Eliot’s poetry.

Eliot’s firm conviction in tradition as the transcendentally ‘ideal order’ of artistic ‘monuments’, as he mentions in his essay ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’, continuously haunts his poetry. However, it is difficult to pin down Eliot’s conception of tradition as a single monolithic concept; from his famous treatment of tradition in ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ which in a way reflects his juvenile objectivism and literary purism to a more liberal stance that ‘Tradition cannot mean standing still’ in After Strange Gods, Eliot’s idea of tradition underwent a significant metamorphosis. By the late 1930s, though Eliot had thus somewhat moved away from his rigid orthodoxy as far as the question of tradition was concerned, the nagging question remained: how can tradition claim to maintain its stable identity and unassailable validity in the face of real change in arts? Much of Eliot’s poetry then is caught in this paradoxical flux and fixity of tradition and the significance of Lane’s remark read in this light becomes easy to decipher: Eliot’s poetry haunted by the ghost of tradition faces the pressure to create something new. What haunts him is his perpetual doubt whether his poetry can bear the weight of tradition and still make a place for itself.

Misunderstandings of Eliot’s conception of tradition as a timeless, transcendental standard has led to efforts to dismiss Eliot’s ideological position and literary outputs as conservative. Scholarly disenchantment with his traditional focus of literary education led to Eliot falling from favour among critics. It is not surprising that much of Eliot’s works have been left untouched by postmodern theoretical criticism ranging from poststructuralism to new historicism and cultural studies, but it is ironical perhaps that a figure who has been traditionally considered to be a reactionary representative of New Criticism should elicit such strong biographical readings of his works. Much of Eliot’s conservatism is a product of his strict moral upbringing; his mother’s biography of Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, a man known for his rigid moral conducts, made a deep impression on Eliot in his childhood. Eliot in fact famously confessed: “The standard of conduct was that which my grandfather had set.” Eliot’s conservatism coupled with his scathing social snobbery, his misogyny and anti-Semitism has made him quite unfortunately a literary figure vulnerable of being dismissed in the name of political correctness.


In the ‘seduction episode’ in ‘The Fire Sermon’ in The Waste Land, Eliot’s class bias in the portrayal of the clerk and the typist has come under subsequent criticism. But it is important to understand that for Eliot it clearly serves his antiliberal purpose. What criticism has interestingly ignored or repressed is the fact that Eliot’s tone while describing the class identifications only makes sense if Eliot’s own class position, the place from which the voice comes, is taken into consideration. Eliot here is taking a dig at the crisis of liberalism of his very own ‘Bloomsbury fraction’ whose bourgeois liberalism represents social conscience and concern within its own class~ Eliot’s unmasking reveals the worst kind of social demons under their democratic and egalitarian rhetoric. What is also interesting is the ‘casual sex’ that takes place~ desire in the poem quite interestingly is either futile or sterile and frigid ending in unhappy consummation. The figures of the Fisher King, Belladona and Philomel in fact all serve to be portent symbols of a deep seated sexual horror in Eliot. Belladona, the Lady of the Rocks which is perhaps a sardonic pun of a marriage on the rocks, in ‘The Game of Chess’ is a parody of Cleopatra, a sterile manipulator of sexual allure. A procession of legendary temptresses through the figures of Eve, Cleopatra, Dido and Belinda follows and the fire of desire of the wife portrayed through the burnished throne, glowing marble and the doubly flaming candelabra is made an object of grotesque parody. The wife is here turned into a ludicrous creature and the only treatment that such fleshly desire can receive is the coercive, bestial act of rape rudely being forced on her. The atmosphere of sexual claustrophobia that pervades the poem reaches a crescendo with the bedroom wall displaying Eliot’s own neurosis and the wife turning into a fiery Medusa. Images of sterility and frigidity in the poem that run as an antithesis to the possibility of sexual regeneration lend comfort (‘Winter kept us in forgetful snow’);  but the poem can merely embody an impossible or failed desire as it is a desire that tries to end desire in the first place.

One of Eliot’s friends, Mary Hutchinson who read The Waste Land soon after its completion, called it ‘Tom’s autobiography’. Eliot himself had called it ‘the relief of a personal…grouse against life.’ By the 1920s, even at a time when he was still not famous, Eliot had strictly forbidden that his biography should be written. Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s later biographer points out how Eliot’s poetry, The Waste Land in particular performs an autobiographical function in layers; and yet The Waste Land as a poem is much more than that, having come to represent the modernist sensibilities of ennui, alienation and pessimism for an entire post-war generation. That Eliot wrote it from a very personal perspective as he had confessed hardly makes such readings of the poem any less authentic~ it had risen about the defects of personality, by transmuting personal anguish into something rich and strange, and by establishing personal impressions as authentic principles. But the desire portrayed in The Waste Land is paradoxical as it is the quintessential desire for the exotic which is both wanted but also hated and feared at the same time. This is the shadow that always lurks in Eliot’s poetry ‘Between the desire/And the spasm’; be it in the figure of Gerontion or in Prufrock’s famous nervous assertion: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” InRhapsody on a Windy Night, this desire mixed with hesitation is perhaps best articulated through the ominous warning of the street-lamp: “Regard that woman/Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door/Which opens on her like a grin.” Desire can also sometimes be a raw craving for putrid flesh which almost wrestles with the repugnance of the moral self that hates, fears and even exposes to contempt its own desiring being.

This paradoxical desire in Eliot is not without strong biographical elements and can be traced back to his childhood days. It is has been of immense interest always to the modern Eliot scholar to trace the journey of desire in his own life and  trace its mutations as in Eliot it never fails to throw light upon his poetry. I do not wish to engage in such an exercise in its entirety mainly because this area has already been touched upon by many critics and Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s biographer in particular, and also because such a journey as of now lies beyond the scope of this essay. I briefly choose to dwell upon a few key moments in Eliot’s life which might facilitate our understanding of the question of desire as far as Eliot himself is concerned. Eliot’s earliest biographical accounts tell us that from a very early age, desire for Eliot was always accompanied by an overpowering sense of narcissistic regression that often gave way to forced retreats. Eliot’s childhood home bordered on the Mary Institute, the girls’ school founded by his grandfather. Eliot along with his classmate Thomas H. McKittrick would often use the family key to sneak into the school’s playground and on one occasion when he had ventured in early enough to see a few girls staring at him through the window, Eliot says he ‘took flight at once’. John Soldo has suggested that this memory might have contributed to the lines in ‘Burnt Norton’ in the Four Quartets: “Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose garden.”

A subject of much speculation in Eliot’s life has been the overbearing dominance of Eliot’s mother and his own strong oedipal ties which have been cited as strong reasons for Eliot’s problematic relationship with women in his life. Eliot’s typescript of his lecture notes for the course he gave on contemporary literature at Harvard in 1932-33 includes the remark: “What he [Lawrence] says about mother love in the Fantasia is better than all the psychoanalysts.” Charlotte Eliot’s desire that her son should carry out her failed ambition and become a poet had a considerable effect on Eliot in his early childhood. Eliot’s protest as a perplexed child is vehement in ‘Animula’: “The pain of living and the drug of dreams/Curl up the small soul in the window seat/Behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica”.  Eliot’s understanding of his own problem and his deep-seated animosity finds way into the character of Harry in The Family Reunion who is shocked by his father’s attempt to kill his mother Amy, who is seen as the root cause of Harry’s neurosis. Eliot’s overpowering need to connect with another human spirit without the repulsion of female sexuality was satisfied in his encounter with Jean Verdenal, a young medical student who also like Eliot lived in Mme Casaubon’s pension at 151 bis rue St Jacques, a qaurtier of St. Germain des Pres in Paris and shared Eliot’s interest in Henri Bergson. The relationship they shared in the autumn of 1910 was one of intense emotional and physical excitement, as we later learn from the memories expressed in a series of letters after Eliot left for Munich and northern Italy in July, 1911.  It’s was Jean’s death later as a medical officer in war on 2nd May, 1915 that left Eliot shattered~ his memory of Jean was never quite eradicated as in 1934, reminiscing in the editor’s column of theCriterion, he wrote: “I am willing to admit that my own retrospect is touched by a sentimental sunset, the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later (so far as I could find out) to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli.” Lilacs thus become a symbol of loss in Eliot’s poetry: “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire”. Eliot’s passage from Tristan and Isolde in The Waste Land is popularly read as a tribute to Verdenal as it was he who with an immense sense of pleasure introduced Eliot to the Wagnerian opera. A firm conviction that Verdenal may have drowned to death leads to much of the ominous water-imagery in the poem, with Verdenal being transfigured into Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician in the section ‘Death by Water’.

On the New Year’s Eve of 1914, Eliot confessed to Aiken that he was experiencing ‘one of those nervous sexual attacks’ as a result of being alone in the city. What Eliot particularly felt at that time as he told later was the growing burden of his virginity: “One walks about the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.” It was during this time that Eliot first met Vivienne, one of the ‘river girls’ as the press called her at that time. Eliot first caught sight of Vivienne in the punt on the Cherwell at Oxford with Lucy Thayer, a cousin of Scofiled Thayer, Eliot’s fellow alumnus from Milton’s Academy in Massachusetts. They were formally introduced at a luncheon party in Scofield’s rooms at Magdalen and the attraction which was almost instantaneous blossomed into courtship. It was a violent love~so fiercely uncompromising and ending in disaster years later that it would become the focal point of popular literary voyeurism. Virginia Woolf who considered Vivienne a nuisance, ‘a millstone’ around Eliot’s neck, nevertheless called her Eliot’s muse: she was according to her ‘the true inspiration of Tom’. But the effect of their relationship on Eliot’s poetry is perhaps best summed up by Theresa Garrett Eliot, Thomas Eliot’s cousin: “Vivienne ruined him as a man, but she made him as a poet.” Without Vivienne, in all probability, The Waste Land would never have seen the light of day.

Vivienne’s mental illness dates back to her early childhood when she was diagnosed a hysteric and prescribed bromide by Dr. Smith, the family physician. Her breakdown after her engagement with her fiancé Charles Buckle was broken off by her mother who being aware of her daughter’s mental instability and being a firm believer in eugenics, did not want her to be pregnant, gave glimpses of what was to come in the later years. Vivienne’s devastating passion for Eliot with ‘the real middle westerner’s deep and thrilling voice’ was of more permanence: Eliot though he was grateful to Vivienne for marrying him at a time when he was struggling financially, saw their incompatibility soon after their marriage while Vivienne failed to accept it. “Father and Tom, Tom and father, these two of my heart,” she whispered as she walked by her father’s grave. Eliot found in Vivienne the daring, extrovert English girl which led to their hurried, clandestine marriage; this character of her would later turn out to be unbearable as she was caricatured very often in Eliot’s poetry as the loud-mouthed, bawdy wife who had an insatiable sexual urge. Pound’s practical allowance of $500 for the first year after their marriage and $250 for the second was far below the Eliots’ standard of living and  Vivienne’s problems were compounded when she found she was unable to ‘stimulate’ Tom. Bertrand Russell who dined with his Harvard pupil, Thomas Eliot and his wife on 9thJuly, 1915 at once recognised that their problem was sexual. In his letter written to Lady Ottoline Morrell soon after the dinner, Russell mentioned Vivienne as ‘listless’ and she had married Tom ‘to stimulate him.’ When their marriage started failing, Eliot turned to Russell for help which turned out to be disastrous: Russell’s own marital crisis with Ottoline Morrell made him turn towards Vivienne. Their adulterous relationship flourished for some time; Russell was soon to be disillusioned with Vivienne however and by the time Russell ultimately wrote her out of his autobiography, Vivienne had become an emotional wreck.

Anne Olivier Bell, editor of Virginia Woolf’s diaries comments that by 1919, Vivienne looked ‘washed-out’: She suffered increasingly from psychotic illnesses and this began to show in her appearance. Besides, rumours of an adulterous relationship between Thomas Eliot and Mary Hutchinson perhaps proved to be too mentally strenuous for Vivienne . Her nervous breakdowns became more consistent and her physical health was also in ruins. Eliot felt that much of his troubles would be resolved if he could write, but his job at Lloyds Bank and  his literary reviews which he was forced to work on for money not only took away his money but also proved to be a huge physical exertion. Besides, he continuously had to care for Vivienne and it started to take a toll on his own health. Eliot’s friends pitied him as they felt his life was being wrecked by Vivienne. Indeed, posterity has not been kind to Vivienne Eliot with Aldous Huxley considering her the perfect femme fatale and her own dairies, sketches, poetry and correspondence which she had bequeathed to the Bodleian library in her 1936 will being withheld subsequently by Valerie Eliot. “Your job”, Eliot had written to Valerie, “will be to suppress everything suppressible.” During that phase in Eliot’s life from 1915 to 1919, Ezra Pound had repeatedly requested Eliot to quit his job as a banker as he felt it was one of the grave losses of literature; but with the financial security it afforded with a hope of subsequent pension and Vivienne’s nagging insistence that he continued at the bank, Eliot somehow held on. By 1919, Thomas Eliot was barely holding on to a marriage that he believed was long dead and a life that was sterile and mechanical sans the intellectual pursuits he demanded. His father’s death in 1919 proved to be the last straw and Eliot had a severe mental breakdown. It was during this time that he first mentioned of The Waste Land in his letter to Quinn, calling it then a series of personal poems that he had been working on for the last four or five years with no immediate plans of publication.

Eliot’s symptoms at this time were manifold according to his Swiss psychiatrist, Harry Trosman who treated him apparently successfully but more fortunately as a result of transference. The diagnosis was “Depression with exhaustion, indecisiveness, hypochondriasis, and fear of psychosis…Sexuality was a potent danger not only because of intense conflict but because instinctual forces threatened him with loss of ego control and dominance.”Trosman’s theory that The Waste Land was a form of ‘self-analytic work’ is backed up by Eliot’s own confession in the poem: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Valerie Eliot’s publication of the original drafts brought to light the overtly personal elements in the poem that have been meticulously edited out by Pound. Critics like James E Miller have put Verdenal at the centre of The Waste Land calling it a modernist In Memoriam while Cleaneth Brookes’ reading of the figure of Tiresias has encouraged tangential critical parallels to be drawn with Eliot’s own incestuous oedipal desires. A point of further possible interest is that desire in The Waste Land is always linked with or culminates in death, suggesting the eros-thanatos relationship that runs through Eliot’s verses. The problematic nature of desire in The Waste Land also has a deeper parallel with Eliot’s own neurotic impossible desire: Vivienne’s death on January 22, 1947 cleared the way for his marriage to Emile Hale, his lover from his Harvard days whom he was dating again for the last decade, but Eliot strangely broke off the relationship. When he married Valerie Fletcher in 1957, Emile had a severe mental breakdown.

The death-in-life existence with a powerful sense of aboulie and constant painful withering away that Eliot’s life goes through during this phase finds frequent references in his poetry. This existence makes it difficult to distinguish between ‘Birth or Death’: “This birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death” writes Eliot in ‘Journey of the Magi’. Thus, the post-war desolation in The Waste Land may have had to do with Eliot’s own personal devastation due to loss of Jean Verdenal in the war and the painful slow suffering and gradual erosion of existence nothing more than a mirror of his own life at that time. But Eliot’s greatest concern as a critic was that poetry should not have personal limitations and must learn to transcend the personal to embody universal feelings. Eliot, the poet certainly passed the test and his fame as a representative voice of his own generation has remained unchallenged.

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