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Stop Digging Through T.S. Eliot’s Laundry

A recently revealed statement has revived the debate over whether we should let artists' personal lives affect our reading of their work.

T.S. Eliot. Credit: Wikimedia/Public Domain

Most of us would cheerfully affirm the proposition that a man’s life should not color one’s perception of his work. Equally, most of us fail not to let it happen. Knowing that Arthur Koestler and Graham Greene were so astonishingly cruel to those around them makes it difficult—though not impossible—to treat the social, moral, and intellectual dilemmas of their books with the seriousness they deserve. This is not a good thing. It is something that should be resisted. But it is human.

“Time,” wrote Auden, “Worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives”:

Time that with this strange excuse

Pardoned Kipling and his views,

And will pardon Paul Claudel,

Pardons him for writing well.

Has Kipling been forgiven? Dubious, but at least what people find obnoxious about him bled into his work. As for Paul Claudel, time has been sufficiently unforgiving that I did not even know what Auden thought he should be pardoned for. His most significant mistake appears to have been his instrumental role in the callous institutionalizing of his sister Camille, though I suspect what really stuck in Auden’s craw was the fact that he was a Catholic conservative.

Clearly, then, the lives of artists are of unavoidable relevance. Still, the catty, sneering, frivolous responses to the release of a statement by T.S. Eliot about the nature of his relationship with his friend and muse Emily Hale makes one wish they were not. Eliot wrote the statement when he heard that Hale—who he had been in love with, but decided against marrying after the death of his first wife—had donated his letters to her to Princeton University, and requested that it be published when those letters were made public. More than half a century later, here we are.

“T.S. Eliot,” writes Kelly Conaboy for The Cut, “needs you to know something. He did not have sex with Emily Hale….”

The obvious implication is that Eliot was being ridiculous to clarify the point, but the poet—who was by this time a Nobel Prize winner—must have known that his biographers would have inevitably speculated about it. What was wrong with answering them? In doing so, we should remember, he was casting no aspersions against Ms. Hale. He was upholding his reputation as an Anglo-Catholic.

The headline of Violet Kim’s report for Slate calls Eliot’s letter “deliciously petty.” I think it is quite sincere and honest, and again, was written in the knowledge that Hale’s donation of his letter to Princeton meant that dismayingly petty literary critics would be raking through his personal life whatever he did. Kim and Conaboy are writing as if Eliot inflicted this statement on the world with no provocation. He was mounting a defense against an attack he knew was coming.

Kim sniffs at Eliot by saying that he “goes into great detail about Hale’s faults,” but given how much ink has been spilled over the question of Eliot’s and Hale’s relationship, is it not natural that he would wish to explain why he fell in and out of love with her? It is not as if he was painting it on the walls of her house either: he explicitly requested that the statement be published 50 years after it was written, decades after he and Hale would have died. He did this knowing that Hale was adding “some commentary of her own,” so if he can be faulted for emphasizing his side of the story, it should be acknowledged that she had already given hers.

Of course, defending Eliot by no means entails elevating the man to secular sainthood. His painful marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood might, as he said, have been the making of him as a poet, but that does not mean it was less immature and reckless of him to propose to someone he barely knew. While Emily Hale was a grown woman who decided to continue a quasi-romantic correspondence with Eliot, it was foolish of the poet to have sent gushing letters to her if, as he claims in the statement, his love for her was not real but a coping mechanism. Perhaps the happiness of his second marriage made his feelings for Hale seem more trivial. One can only guess.

Still, while we can acknowledge this, we should also ask ourselves how impressive our lives would look if they were subjected to the same analysis. How dignified and gracious would our prose seem if we were forced to explain the sadder and less honorable aspects of our lives? If your judgment is faultless and your heart as pure as crystal, then by all means draw imperious conclusions about the dead. If, like me, you have done things, and do things, and will do things you regret, you should take care before, as some of the Twitterati have done, flinging obscenities at a long dead poet. Your own mistakes are veiled by your obscurity.

Admirers of Eliot have been kept busy by his critics. Antisemitism was the charge most often flung at him, a charge I believe Craig Raine ably dissected in two of the essays gathered in the book In Defense of T.S. Eliot but which had undeniable relevance given that his views at least contributed to his work. This affair, though, seems to satisfy nothing more than an appetite for prurience.

Sometimes it is at least arguable that the behavior of artists and intellectuals should inform our analysis of their work. The exploitative relationships that Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir maintained with young admirers, for example, vividly illustrates the fact that exploitation can exist outside the non-traditional relationships that the feminist critiqued.

I am sure that some Eliot scholars will maintain that a deeper understanding of the poet’s relationships will inform a deeper understanding of his poems. How they will be able to understand the interplay of his art and his emotions when he barely seems to have understood his emotions himself is peculiar to me, but I am no critic. Regardless, how many people will have their appreciation of Eliot’s poetry enriched and how many people will read these articles for no greater purpose than when they take in the latest pseudo-scandal from the Kardashians? Perhaps our interest in biography—and mine included, because I read Eliot’s statement as eagerly as anyone—is an attempt to dress up our basic nosiness in the garb of intellectualism. We shall not cease from interference, and the end of all our interfering will be to arrive where we started and know very little.

Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.

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