TS Eliot: searching for sainthood amid hate speech and hurt

Roz Kaveney

Some of the 20th century’s finest poetry belongs to Eliot, yet any account of it must also keep track of the harm he did..
TS_Eliot_birthdayIn Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Stearns Eliot has his namesake and mouthpiece Thomas Beckett say:

“The last temptation is the greatest treason / To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Eliot may often have been deeply unkind – he had vile views on many topics – but he was never stupid, especially about the moral and rational life. Yet in this, as in so much else in the work I shall be considering in this series, he was speaking a brilliant half-truth.
Eliot – arguably the greatest poetry in English in the 20th century – was so worried that he might be pursuing religious and literary sainthood for his own ego rather than to the greater glory of god, that he forgot ever to consider whether it was even possible or desirable to pursue sainthood at the expense of ordinary kindness and common decency. Throughout his life – and it was a long one, full of great work – he left a trail of human wreckage and hurtful speech. Any account of that work and of the ideas embedded in it has to keep track of the harm he did, not in a spirit of cheap point-scoring, but as an awful warning. Those of us who try to pursue both an ethical life and a creative one find that it is never easy, that it is always needful that we weigh one good against another.
We should never think selfless virtue can be reached by treading on others. The cold splinter at the heart of the true artist must be harsher in its quarrel with the self than it is in its rhetorical engagement with other people. For believers, this is the virtue of humility; I am not sure what the rest of us can call it. What we can agree on is the constant examination of conscience, and, when we fall short, a conscious decision to do better.
Eliot was in love three times, and each of those loves became events in his artistic and spiritual lives – and two of the women involved were massively the worse for it. Vivien Eliot was a difficult woman, yet Eliot – who had connived at her affair with Bertrand Russell – treated her, with the agreement of his spiritual advisers, with a coldness that helped break her spirit, perhaps her mind. Emily Hale was the woman he deserted for Vivien; she spent her life at his encouragement waiting for Vivien to die, and it was in her presence that he had some of his deepest moments of spiritual intensity – yet she was eventually dismissed from his life with equal coldness. They were both central to his greatest works: Vivien to The Waste Land and Emily to much of The Four Quartets.

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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of  T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.


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