TS. ELIOT loved to read murder mysteries, could quote passages from Sherlock Holmes by heart, hinted mysteriously at violent crime in his poems and plays (in Sweeney Agonistes, Sweeney Among the Nightingales, The Waste Land, Murder in the Cathedral, and The Family Reunion, for example) and is likely to have admired that classic of the genre, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? If it can't quite be said that Peter Ackroyd has balanced the books by doing in Mr. Eliot, I'm afraid I must report that the new biography of Eliot is plainly unsatisfactory, and that as compared with recent literary biographies -- Stock on Pound; Kaplan on Whitman; Hamilton on Lowell; Seymour-Smith on Graves; Carpenter on Auden; Bell on Virginia Woolf; Ellmann on Joyce or Edel on James -- this is sadly inferior to them all.
Eliot did not want any biography, and stipulated as much in his will. And in selecting Kipling's verse he closed with these lines: If I have given you delight By aught that I have done Let me lie quiet in that night That shall be yours anon: And for the little, little span The dead are borne in mind Seek not to question other than The books I leave behind.
Why, then, in express violation of his wishes, and without the cooperation of his estate, do we have this volume? Well, for at least two reasons: Ackroyd's, which is, at best, murky, and our own prurient curiosity about a man who made something of a mystery of himself, who was indisputably a figure of international importance, winner of a Nobel Prize, a critic who changed the taste of a generation and became, posthumously, the librettist of a smash Broadway hit that in my dreams presents itself as Katz, a musical about a little Jewish tailor in London who makes chasubles for the archbishop of Canterbury. It may be said that Eliot is also the subject of another hit, Tom and Viv, a play currently running in London about his terribly unhappy and troubled first marriage.
Public interest in him is highly "theatrical," focused on scandal, supposition, and his own protective evasiveness about himself. Over the past years we have caught glimpses, insinuations and hints from other writers who have opened a lot of ground for conjecture. For example, T.S. Matthews, in his book on Eliot, reports that Logan Pearsall Smith told Cyril Connolly that Leonard Woolf had said that Eliot had "compromised" Vivien (who became his first wife) and had to propose. Bertrand Russell, Robert Sencourt, Virginia Woolf and others have furnished grist for further speculations, and added richly to the general gossip.
It would be pleasant to be able to say that Peter Ackroyd has brought clarity to opacity, solved some mysteries and put some speculations to rest, and if this claim can't be made, it should be pointed out that the author had to labor under difficult and restrictive handicaps. Not only was he denied permission to quote materials of importance, but many of Eliot's friends, as well as his widow, guided by what they knew to be his final wishes, refused to assist in this project. Ackroyd consequently put his chief reliance upon those repositories of letters and memoirs placed in the major libraries in England and this country, where enormous treasures of information are in safekeeping. His researches among these archives must have been laborious and time-consuming, and if he was limited in his right to quote (as I could tell by transpositions of quoted to indirect discourse between uncorrected proofs and the final version of this book) one can sympathize with his predicament.
Having granted this, however, it must immediately be added that he was not the right man for the job. He exhibits here almost complete incomprehension of the poetry, a superficial sense of the plays, and a rudimentary understanding of the critical essays. Since Eliot's achievement, whatever it may be, must rest upon these writings, it's disappointing to find Ackroyd so disabled by them. In addition, he writes badly: he misuses words like "mollified," "prevaricated," and "enormity" (which he seems to suppose means "very big") and is capable of the following: "they had both been so much alike"; "on Christmas day Vivien wrote in her diary that she wished she was dead"; "she wrote in advance to Ottoline Morrell suggesting that they took two rooms in the village." This is not encouraging in a book about Eliot which presumes to find fault with his prose.
Early in the book Ackroyd remarks, "Eliot's sense of the religious life is one in which he is the central figure, both supplicant and saint, tormentor and martyr. The anxious sexuality of the early poetry has now been transformed into the general violence directed primarily against himself. . . . But you cannot make poetry out of suffering and pain without in some way enjoying the experience of doing so -- a tormented man speaks in sighs and monosyllables, not in iambic pentameters." There are hopeless muddles and crudities merely in the last of those sentences. Are we, according to Ackroyd's rather primitive psychology, to suppose that all the writers of tragedy from Aeschylus and Sophocles onwards, and all those who have written about spiritual despair, like Herbert and Hopkins and St. John of the Cross, were indulging a morbid satisfaction? And as for the way tormented people speak in literature, what of Hamlet, Lear and Coriolanus? Ackroyd would have us believe that since Mimi is suffering from consumption she shouldn't be able to sing a note in La Boheme. He is particularly bad on the French and quatrain poems, and while his book offera bibliography including a list of books he claims were "of most value or interest in my research," it is difficult to believe he read any, or at least the best, of them. Absent from that bibliography, incidentally, is some of the best recent criticism on Eliot, essays by William Arrowsmith about the quatrain and French poems, as well as on Eliot's debt to Petronius, a topic also dealt with by H.S. Davies in a volume listed here but apparently not read. Had he paid even the smallest attention to what Austin Warren tells us about Eliot's debt to Irving Babbitt, Ackroyd could never have written the preposterous statement that Eliot "described, long before his conversion, the necessity for an allegiance to an external order which will silence what he called the 'inner voice,' a relic of Rousseauism or Romanticism which he professed to despise. . . " This is grotesque. "Inner check" (not "voice") was Babbitt's term, and was intended as a control over, not as a symptom of, the laxities he wrote of in a book called Rousseau and Romanticism. Of Eliot's "Gerontion" Ackroyd writes, "here we have the character of an old man who has not engaged in the martial or creative activities of his contemporaries," as though the speaker lived at the time of Thermopylae. And Ackroyd is equally capable of the flat-footed statement, "in poetry, belief need play no part." Since this is a topic Eliot wrote about thoughtfully and at length on several occasions, it comes as a surprise to have the matter settled so briskly.
LATE IN the book, in an emotional peroration, the biographer quotes Eliot as saying in regard to his second marriage, "I'm the luckiest man in the world" and Ackroyd then proceeds to observe, "This was quite a remarkable transformation in a man who only two years before had talked of dying: neither fame nor literary achievement had brought him any contentment, and in the end it was human love, the love that he dismissed in his writings as the consolation only of ordinary men, that rescued him from a lifetime of misery and isolation." There can be no doubt of the misery, isolation and loneliness of most of Eliot's unenviable life; but to say that he dismissed love as the consolation only of ordinary men is bewildering in the face of such lines as these: . . . blood shaking my heart The awful daring of a moment's surrender Which an age of prudence can never retract By this, and this only, we have existed Which is not to be found in our obituaries Or in the memories draped by the beneficent spider Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor In our empty rooms.
Ackroyd's book is full of endnotes, and they are infuriating, since they invariably give no page number. Reference is made, for example, to the three-volume Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. Those at least have indices of their own, though other works referred to do not. He also drops names like hot potatoes, and just where notes would be helpful they are absent. Those who keep tabs on Eliotica will know who some of his friends or acquaintances were, but is every reader supposed to be able to identify Gluyas Williams (a splendid cartoonist for The New Yorker), Ada Leverson, J. C. Squire, Sidney and Violet Schiff, E.W.F. Tomlin, S.S. Koteliansky, Gordon Porteus and many others?
Indeed, there are many ways that Ackroyd takes our knowledge of Eliotic matters for granted. He tells us, for example, that the poem that would eventually become known as The Waste Land was first called "He Do the Police in Different Voices." He does not bother to tell us that this curious title came from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, or what its context was in the novel. Nor does he tell us where the phrase "One- Eyed Reilly" (Eliot's first title for The Cocktail Party) came from, though he is not above discussing indelicate matters in other parts of his book. Late in its course he reports of Eliot, "While in North Africa. . . he did manage to write out a fair copy of The Waste Land, in order to raise money for the London Library. As he did so, he remembered a line which almost forty years before he had struck out of the poem at Vivien's insistence. Now he put it back in," but Ackroyd refuses to tell us what line it was. And every once in a while he flatly differs from another commentator: he says, "Pound had, in fact, given (Eliot) the nickname 'Old Possum,' as a way of describing his ordinary tactics of evasiveness and caution." But Noel Stock, in his solid life of Pound, reports, "The name 'Possum,' which Eliot apparently had given himself, belonged to a private game between (Eliot and Pound) into which Morley was sometimes admitted; the game was conducted in the language of Uncle Remus." And there are other discrepancies. One of Ackroyd's oddest confusions appears in his account of the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Pound.
WHAT SURPRISED me most of all is how little information is adduced here that I was not already acquainted with in one way or another. Indeed, one of the regrettable things about this book is that when occasion offers for a really good anecdote Ackroyd muffs it. For example, in Blasting and Bombadiering Wyndham Lewis tells the story of delivering a pair of old shoes from Pound to Joyce while accompanied by Eliot. Lewis tells the tale so carefully and poignantly that it was reproduced entire in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, whereas here it is abridged, paraphrased and ruined.
What was new to me was largely medical, sordid and tragic: that Eliot "was born with a congenital double hernia which meant that he had to wear a truss for most of his life"; that Vivien had suffered from tuberculosis of the left hand as a child, was subject to nervous disorders that included cramps, an irregular and over-frequent menstrual cycle, and "as a result of the latter complaint. . . had an obsessivehabit of washing her own bed linen even if she was staying at a hotel," a habit that led to an obscure scandal while she was staying in Rome. Ackroyd comments, "Although now her condition would probably be diagnosed as one of hormonal imbalance or deficiency. . . her mother was always fearful that she had inherited what was then known as 'moral insanity.'"
Late in his career, Eliot was asked to give evidence to a Parliamentary Commission on Obscene Publications, and he told the commission that he had little experience of such literature, and that his own was "quite anodyne." Yet for years it had been noised about that he had worked on a pornographic epic called King Bolo and His Great Black Queen. It seems at least plausible to conjecture that he could have been influenced by Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, though the notion nver occurs to Ackroyd. Eliot, we are told, used to send excerpts from this work to certain friends, among them Bonamy Dobree, "in which words like . . . 'penis,' 'bunghole' and 'Jewboy' were used for light relief."
AND SO we come to the topic of anti-Semitism. It is a topic Ackroyd pretends to face squarely at a certain point. He declares, "Since it is the charge still most frequently levelled against him, it is perhaps worth examining the evidence for it. In his published writing there are two egregious instances: the line 'The Jew is underneath the lot,' in 'Burbank. . .' and the reference to the undesirability of a large number of 'free-thinking Jews' in After Strange Gods. In his unpublished correspondence there are four references," which Ackroyd goes on to enumerate and describe. But this is flatly ridiculous, and I can't imagine how Ackroyd could expect us to believe him. He singles out one line in the Burbank poem, which also includes the following lines: But this or such was Bleistein's way: A saggy bending of the knees And elbows, with the palms turned out, Chicago Semese. A lustreless protrusive eye Stares from the protozoic slime. . .
And that is just the beginning of the list. There is Rachel nee Rabinovitch with murderous paws in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales." there is Klipstein and the "red- eyed scavengers" that at least one critic identifies as Jews, there are references in "Gerontion," and, with special viciousness, in the now-published manuscript of The Waste Land, to say nothing of King Bolo, which is not among the four unpublished items Ackroyd describes for us. There is Eliot's unswerving admiration for and devotion, which he shared with another notorious anti-Semite, Hilaire Belloc, to Charles Maurras of the Action Francaise, a militant fascist and anti-Semite whom Eliot, we are told, was addressing as "Cher Monsieur et Maitre," in 1928, and "as late as 1948, in Hommage a Charles Maurras, described him as a Virgil who led some to the very gates of the temple." By 1948, it should be remembered photographic evidence had made clear to the world what anti-Semitism had accomplished in Germany. Since Ackroyd himself furnished materials that contradict some of his benign conclusions, we may ourselves conclude either that he is being cunning or slipshod: hinting at more than he cares to state outright, or hasty and careless in composition. In either case, Eliot, the Mystery Cat, has so far kept a good deal of his mystery intact.