by Sophie Pretorius
John Betjeman, poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death in 1984, was taught by T.S Eliot at Highgate School. In a text written in his memory, Betjeman remembered how Eliot took ‘delight in localness’. Indeed, Eliot’s poetry revels in and exalts the specific to a height, which brought the literary Modernism of the preceding century, to a fine point.
London, and England more broadly, remembers his locality every chance it gets. Thomas Stearns Eliot may have been born in America, but you could hardly tell, with the number of plaques studding this country dedicated to him. There is one at 18 Crawford Mansions, Marylebone, where he lived with his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, from 1916 (during which time he was teaching at Highgate School), one at 31 West Street, Marlow, commemorating his 1917-1920 stay, during which Thomas and Vivienne split after her affair with Bertrand Russell, and possibly where Eliot began writing ‘The Waste Land’ (1922).
There is another at Carlyle Mansions, Chelsea, where Eliot lived between 1946 and 1957 (known as the ‘Writers’ Block’, because of the number of distinguished men of letters it has housed), and one at the house where he lived from 1957 onwards (shortly after having wed his former secretary, Valerie Fletcher), and where he died, 3 Kensington Court Gardens.
Valerie lived there until her recent death in 2012. There are also plaques on Thornhaugh Street, Camden, former offices of Faber and Faber (where he was literary editor), at Nayland Rock Shelter in Margate, commemorating lines in ‘The Waste Land’ (“On Margate Sands / I can connect / Nothing with nothing”) that he, allegedly, wrote while in residence there. Obviously, there is an obituary plaque commemorating his remains at Golders Green Crematorium. That is seven, but I am sure I have missed a couple.
Eliot said of his writing in an interview with fellow American, Donald Hall, published in
1959, It wouldn’t be what it is, and I imagine it wouldn’t be so good; putting it as modestly
as I can, it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America. It’s a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.
Only, whatever sprung from America was changed a great deal as it meandered through the British Isles. Most significantly, Eliot, in his own words ‘born & bred in the very heart of Boston Unitarianism’, converted to what he called the ‘English Catholic Church’ in 1927. He had a complex relationship with what he perceived to be the empty liberal moralism of the stark, stripped-bare beliefs of his grandfather’s faith. In Anglo-Catholicism, he found, along with many of his contemporaries, a relief in ritual, and the pattern of history.
One reads a hope regained when comparing the details in his poems before and after this watershed. Before this, as in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), Eliot torments his protagonist with the problem of action in a world, in which action in the next, is not guaranteed, where miracles are brought down to the level of social propriety, and morality is equated with common sense, ‘I grow old . . . I grow old .. . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. / Shall I part my hair behind? / Do I dare to eat a peach?’
In contrast, those works which come after, and which find their crowning in ‘Four Quartets’ (1941), have a rounded knowingness and lay comfortable in newfound bedclothes of ritual and tradition. This, at least for Eliot, created enviably solid and resounding meaning. Meaning enough to beat down the blunt and lonely nudity of his American beliefs which he alludes to in ‘Little Gidding’, the last passage of ‘Four Quartets’; ‘…A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern.’
In the same section, and with the fervour and authority of a convert, Eliot writes, ‘While the light fails / On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel / History is now and England.’