‘Embarrassment at being human,’ said Kay Ryan in The Yale Review (2004), ‘may be a deeper provocation to artistic production than we usually think.’ Emily Hale’s letters from T S Eliot, made public three years ago, would seem to bear this out. Eliot’s twentieth century eminence spanned everything from cats to Catholicism, via exam syllabuses and a Nobel Prize. The Waste Land, for many students, was their first grown-up poem – vivid, profound, allusive – an examiner’s dream. And impersonal: his criticism repeatedly distinguished between mature and immature poets. Here was a range of voices male, female, both, neither – but nothing personal. Perish the thought.
Now we know, however, how he laced that poem and others with appeals to Hale. Having declared his love but sensed rejection, he had crossed the Atlantic and within a year, on the rebound, made a disastrous marriage. On a second rebound, he publicly embraced a religionwhich forbade divorce. ‘Is it not natural,’ he wrote in 1930, ‘when one has had to live in a mask all one’s life, to be able to hope that someday people can know the truth? I have again and again seen the impression I have made, and have longed to be able to cry ‘no you are all wrong about me, it isn’t like that at all.” As he had said in the thin guise of J Alfred Prufrock – yes, a frock – ‘That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant at all.’ Remorse, frustration, embarrassment: the sticky mess of thwarted love fuelled some of modernism’s greatest poetry. From an ocean away those ‘ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas’ now read differently.
Soul-baring has a limited capacity to surprise, so warier poets wear masks: they put on voices and ventriloquise. The more skilful the act, the surer the effect and affect. At some level we know they must write from experience and for personal reasons, but the best conjurors, cloaked in personae, avert our gaze from them long enough to induce our anxiety for the under-clad sidekick being sawn in half.
For much of the last century, as science and secularism took hold, criticism made itself more scientific, more rational. In retrospect we can see Eliot’s insistence on the ‘objective correlative’ as at least partly a self-serving subterfuge. This is not to diminish his achievement – simply to realise that the pope of poetry was fallible after all.