Hijack of the Great Poet: Beneath T S Eliot's buttoned-up image raged true artistic torment

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A new film, we are told, is to expose the naked truth about T S Eliot's first marriage to the 'society beauty' Vivien Haigh-Wood. Tom and Viv will star Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson. It will shock the literary world with its searingly honest depiction, etc, etc.

This is bizarre. T S Eliot is, after all, a poet, and poets are expected to be a bad lot. It would not be possible, for example, searingly to expose Chaucer, Byron, W H Auden or even the habitues of the Groucho Club, since anything they did would be seen as the predictable stuff of the poetic life. Debauchery, peevishness and general bad behaviour are what poets - even in the sober canon of Eng Lit - do. In France, the sky would be the limit: almost any crime would be seen as acceptable research into the limits of human experience in the name of art.

But there is something odd about T S Eliot. He so obviously failed to match the photofit picture of The Poet. His hair was short, his suits ('four-piece', according to one observer) were those of a banker, and his creed - Royalist, Anglican, Tory - was almost flamboyantly lacking in radical flamboyance. His life, particularly the later years, evokes a certain gloomy, English dampness of inhibition, and intense, conscientiously constructed respectability.

Yet this Classical column of rectitude is the great modern poet. He is taught wherever modern poetry in English is taught, and some of his finest works - 'Prufrock', 'The Waste Land', 'Four Quartets' - are as familiar as anything in the last 600 years of Eng Lit. Ask anybody to name half a dozen modern poets and Eliot will almost always be listed, testifying to a strange popularity for a difficult, supposedly inaccessible modernist poet.

Revisionist critical histories have and will be written, but the barbs of the revisers bounce off Eliot like darts off a dinosaur. In his hands, contemporary English - elsewhere so standardised, so flat - acquired wings and soared with the Elizabethans and the Augustans. He shows what can be done even with the language as it now is. Ruthlessly stuffing 'Prufrock' down the throats of schoolchildren is an act of aesthetic charity; even the least literate will notice in later life how the rhythms and cadences endure. Eliot changed the language for ever, one testament to literary greatness.

But Eliot the Great Poet was hijacked by an image, an image of sacred respectability, disciplined concentration and clerical correctness. In part this was a matter of literary history. He was the leading figure of literary modernism, a movement that aspired to overthrow the misty muddle of late romanticism and replace it with something hard, dry and clear. Not being a poet in the long-haired sense was the whole point, because poetry was to be toughened up, restored to its pre-romantic place at the centre of civilisation, cultivation and manners.

This posture was endorsed by an anti-romantic critical movement that focused its attention solely on the close and scholarly examination of the text. The life was irrelevant, what counted was the assiduous process of placing the poetic text in its rightful place in the tradition from which it sprang. There was something self- serving about this aesthetic, since it was transparently designed to justify the teaching of English as an academic subject. Romantic mists and yearning lacked the appropriate disciplined clarity, so a critical method was invented to compete with and, during the 'two cultures' row between F R Leavis and C P Snow, to defeat the rigour of the scientists.

The net effect was that Eliot, the great modern poet, had also to be the exemplar of high seriousness. He obliged. His poetry moved on from the sterility of 'The Waste Land' to the great Christian affirmation of 'Four Quartets', and the life moved on from the tempests of his first marriage to Vivien, and the emotional games of the Bloomsbury set, to the peace of his second marriage and the quiet respectability of the devout churchwarden and gentleman publisher.

Since his death in 1965, the academics, who demanded so much of his life, have claimed the corpse. The American campus literary industry turns out Eliot criticism by the yard. And his second wife, Valerie, has fiercely protected his name by imposing strict controls on the use of Eliot's material.

The irony of this is that the Eliot image, with which he so enthusiastically colluded, is wholly misleading. Both he and his critics aspired to an ideal of artistic impersonality, a classical distance between the artist and the work. Yet it is almost certainly true that no great poet has been so driven, so inspired by the extraordinarily intense pressures of his private life.

This view has been gaining currency over the last 10 years, thanks to Peter Ackroyd's 'unofficial' biography - Valerie Eliot did not co-operate and refused permission to use quotations - and to Michael Hastings's play Tom and Viv, on which the film is based. The key is Vivien. Eliot was, according to Ackroyd, a 'virginal, perplexed, intellectually over-refined but emotionally immature young man' when he married her; she was mercurial, and emotionally, though not physically, passionate.

It was a profound mismatch. She could not provide the support Eliot needed, and he 'tricked her imagination', as she later told Bertrand Russell. It was a disaster. Their marriage may never have been consummated, and it ended in separation, divorce and Vivien's incarceration in a mental hospital in 1938. She died in 1947.

The worst interpretation of Eliot's behaviour is that he coldly disposed of a woman who had become an embarrassing burden to him, colluding in the dubious medical verdict that she was insane. The best is that he put up with an impossible situation for as long as he did and, in acquiescing in her committal to hospital, simply accepted the prevailing wisdom of the day. But that is merely the stuff of biographical assessment. The really radical claim about his relationship with Vivien - endorsed by Ackroyd's book and passionately affirmed by Hastings - is that it made Eliot a great poet.

'You cannot take her out of 'The Waste Land',' says Hastings. 'He loved her to a passionate degree. She is everywhere in the work. If he had not met Vivien he would simply have been a writer of a few bad poems with strange, Dickensian titles. There is no doubt about it: she made him a great poet.'

The direct evidence of this is to be found in Vivien's comments on his manuscripts. She was a gifted woman with a real critical sense of what Eliot was attempting to do with poetry. The indirect evidence, however, is the work itself. The central image of sterility in 'The Waste Land', and the accompanying sense of mental breakdown and fragmentation, echo, for both Ackroyd and Hastings, his hopeless attempts to make sense of his marriage and his obsession with Vivien. From the appalling pressures of Eliot's private life emerged the most beautiful language of our time, a fact perhaps tacitly acknowledged by Valerie when she said after his death: 'He felt he had paid too high a price to be a poet, that he had suffered too much.' From the relative peace and happiness of his later years, Eliot had suddenly understood what his art had cost him.

For Hastings, revealing Vivien's role - through his play and now the film, which he has co-written - represents a kind of crusade. He is convinced that the poet has been fossilised by criticism. Eliot is routinely presented as a cold, hard, difficult poet, the primary representative of modernism, a cold, hard, difficult movement. Eliot himself insisted that it was the peculiar destiny of modern poetry to be 'difficult'. But difficulty is a relative quality, quickly dispersed by familiarity. Hastings believes the academics insist upon it, accepting Eliot's own mystifications at face value, simply because it protects their position. In reality, he insists, Eliot's poetry is driven by an ideal common to all the greatest English literature: an ideal of clarity.

The film may, of course, be a disaster. The over-simplifying demands of movies and publicity may do no more than produce a garish tale of the doomed love of a towering genius, etc, etc. Equally, it is clear that the enthusiasm for 'exposing' Eliot is largely inspired by his own posture of super- respectability and by the way his reputation has been surrounded by a barbed-wire fence of official interpretations and loaded critical assumptions. He can, in effect, be exposed only because he has been hidden.

But if Ackroyd is right to draw a direct line between the anguish of Eliot's most difficult personal years and his greatest poetry, and Hastings is right to detect traces of Vivien in almost all his work, then we have a curious and wonderful irony. Eliot the forbidding anti-romantic, the impersonal maker, lived the conventionally 'poetic' life, elevating temporary personal torment into timeless art and struggling interminably to understand a woman. This new Eliot may just be the one our time requires, but, on the whole, anything is better than barbed wire.