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 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. 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?
The only contemporary writers he considered his peers were Pound and Lewis (though he knew their limitations extremely well). 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. 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. “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.
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. The inside view makes the success only a little easier to understand.
Eliot was not just inscrutable; he performed inscrutability.
At the height of his creative and critical output, he had a nervous breakdown and diagnosed his condition as —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. Eliot” (Yale; each), lets us watch that story as it was unfolding, day by day, from the inside.