John Smart’s Tarantula’s Web, on the circle of intellectuals around John Hayward and TS Eliot is, according to Lachlan Mackinnon, an unrivaled “demonstration” of “just how ‘unpleasant’ it might have been ‘to meet Mr Eliot.”

Hayward and Eliot were “extremely” intimate Mackinnon writes, but they fell out over Eliot’s marriage to a lowbrow typist, Valerie Fletcher. According to Mackinnon, “Eliot behaved badly. He did not take Hayward into his confidence about his feelings or his intentions, and relations were never truly restored. Mary Trevelyan, a close companion of Eliot’s who had shared evenings at the theatre, intimate dinners and country-house weekends with him throughout this period, was first fobbed off with a fake address, then refused any contact, and although Hayward fared a little better, one cannot help feeling that the more celebrated, more gifted man abused his position.”

He concludes with an observation on Eliot’s humorlessness: “Eliot’s later behaviour, involving carelessness amounting to cruelty, is hard to understand, and Smart does not account for it. The ultimately sadistic nature of the inveterate practical joker, which Eliot was, has something to do with it, as does the lack of a genuine sense of comedy. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) is, after all, as unfunny as comic verse gets. Eliot understood religious aspiration far better than most, but never shows any awareness that the sinfulness which prevents sanctity often has something comic about it. Unable properly to laugh at himself, he detached his life from the acceptance of common humanity.”

Unpleasant Eliot may have been, but I have to defend Old Possum, which I have long seen as evidence that Eliot could deploy his gifts for rhythm on something more than grumbling.

More on: T.S. Eliot

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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