Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Glowed into Words": Vivien Eliot, Philomela, and the Poet's Tortured Corpse

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Glowed into Words": Vivien Eliot, Philomela, and the Poet's Tortured Corpse

Article excerpt

After he finished the poem that irrevocably transformed twentieth-century poetry, T. S. Eliot set about rewriting himself. Shortly after The Waste Land was published, the introspective poet, who had struggled for years to write it between bouts of exhaustion, nervous collapse, and financial uncertainty, established himself as a highly respected public figure with an ultraconservative image. One of the major founders of modernism, the editor first of a magazine of his own and later an editor for Faber and Faber, one of the most influential publishers of twentieth-century poetry, he became in addition a chief figure in New Criticism, determining the way poems were read and taught for nearly half a century. Accomplishing all of these things required that he distance himself from the disaster of his former life--especially the disaster of his marriage.

His wife Vivien was also a writer. Her short, witty pieces appeared regularly in his quarterly, the Criterion, under a pseudonym. Choosing not to be acknowledged for her modest accomplishments, she gained no reputation as an artist, and she died in a mental institution after a nine-year hospitalization. She had been ill for years before she was hospitalized and had increasingly displayed her illness in public, performing the private disaster of the Eliot marriage as a public spectacle. (1) Consequently, nearly all of the critical attention she has received has focused on the detrimental impact of her illness on her husband's life and work. Virginia Woolf referred to her, famously, as a "bag of ferrets" that "Tom wears around his neck" (3: 6). One of Eliot's biographers, Lyndall Gordon, surmises that Vivien's "nervous hysterical, unsympathetic nature contributed substantially to their unhappiness" (7).

Some critical consideration has been given to the fact that Vivien contributed positively to her husband's work. That she as well as Pound edited The Waste Land became apparent when the facsimile edition was published in 1971. Her conversation appears in "A Game of Chess"; she contributed several other significant lines to the poem, and may have authored one of the passages that Pound later excised. Loretta Johnson, one of the first critics to focus primarily and sympathetically on Vivien, suggests that for a few years, during the period when Eliot wrote The Waste Land and some time after, "there was at least a marriage of the minds, in which they shared and influenced each other's work" (48). Most recently, Carole Seymour-Jones has published Painted Shadow, a massive but highly problematic biography of Vivien. In it, she demonstrates plausibly enough that critics have drastically underestimated Vivien's influence on her husband's life and work, but argues less convincingly that this critical neglect is largely due to active suppression of her role on the part of her brother, her husband, and various others in the snobbish, competitive literary circles they frequented.

This essay argues that the difficult circumstances of Eliot's marriage gave him the necessary conditions for writing The Waste Land, and that both Vivien's illness and her intelligence were essential to its making. The poem is thoroughly imbued with Vivien's presence--as an object of the poet's terror and a figure for his desire. I do not mean to suggest that the poem is purely biographical, nor that it is ultimately about his wife. Rather, she is a central, metaphoric node in the complex matrix of mythic, literary, and libidinal cross-references from which it is constituted. Although separating himself from Vivien may have been necessary to Eliot's emotional survival, The Waste Land exists because of his identification with her suffering--identification founded in experience that fuses the personal with the mythic.

In many of Eliot's early poems, the speaker suffers from desire that is unfulfillable and possibly unspeakable, but so intense that it produces a visionary state similar to madness--that state which is, according to tradition, the condition of poetry. …

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