The Eliots’ Waste Lands

Beautiful manners, wd. adorn any yacht club, etc … ought to be private secretary to some rich imbecile.           —Ezra Pound on T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot met Vivien Haigh-Wood during his postgraduate year at Merton College, Oxford. A hasty marriage took place in 1915. They had attended a few dances together and drifted dreamily several times in a punt upon the river. In America, news of the marriage came as an inestimable shock to the extended Eliot family. Scholar Tom, who had inherited the Boston Brahmin propriety of his forebears, was normally measured. A position at Harvard was to be his, and the thought that he would now be forced to make ends meet by school-teaching was considered abhorrent. Furthermore, as time wore on, the new bride would steadfastly refuse to cross the Atlantic for fear of wartime submarines.

The family’s icy reception thawed to a degree on Eliot’s gaining employment at the London banking firm Lloyds in 1917. He worked initially in the Colonial and Foreign Department, before being given the role of superintending the Foreign Information Bureau. This involved, amongst other things, providing a monthly analysis of foreign-exchange movements relative to some twenty other countries. It was demanding work and the hefty responsibilities and long hours were trying. Little time was left for his various and ambitious literary interests. These needed to be addressed as early as five each morning, and after Lloyds, late into the night.

The banking went so well that by 1919, Eliot’s father Henry, writing a few days before his own unexpected death, tells his brother how pleased he is regarding his son’s professional advancement. As for the daughter-in-law he will never meet, he is dismissive: “Wish I liked his wife, but I don’t.” Three other family members would meet Vivien in the summer of 1921.

That the news Eliot’s mother Charlotte would visit England accompanied by his elder brother Henry Jr and one of his sisters would be met with considerable trepidation requires some explanation. Before the marriage, Vivien had withheld from Eliot a litany of medical ailments. These had soon manifested themselves by way of fevers, bouts of insomnia, colitis, neuralgia, neuritis, eye troubles, migraines and, in her own words, “increasing mental incapacity”. Treatment of these conditions had been not only unsuccessful but financially ruinous. Early on in the marriage, Bertrand Russell, something of a mentor to Eliot—and one who had also taken more than a passing interest in Vivien—had observed to Ottoline Morrell:

… she is really very fond of him, but has impulses of cruelty to him from time to time. It is a Dostojewsky [sic] type of cruelty, not a straightforward every day kind. I am every day getting things more right between them, but I can’t let them alone at present, and of course I myself get very much interested. She is a person who lives on a knife-edge, and will end as a criminal or a saint—I don’t know which yet. She has a perfect capacity for both.

Before the news of the arrival of the Eliot entourage, Vivien’s specialist had given “express command” that she forgo any situation that might provoke emotional excitement.

On the surface, the two-month English holiday proved a success. The tourists were understandably keen to embark on whirlwind tours of the sites they had long read about, and it was Eliot rather than his wife who complained of his mother being “terrifyingly energetic for seventy-seven”. Despite the concerns of Vivien’s specialist, she bore up bravely, and initially at least spent much time with the visitors, including organising a meeting with Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. She was, however, constantly mindful that she might not be making the right impression. Osbert Sitwell would remember the two American ladies as “polite, formal, even stiff, black-clothed New Englanders”—a far cry from the description of Vivien, given by one doctor, as a person in a state of “extreme youth … even childishness”.

On returning home, Henry Jr offered the following summation to his mother:

Vivien always recites some account of her migraines and malaises … But I suppose that is natural; it is a relief to talk about one’s pains. I do not think she takes proper care of herself, though. I have seen her drink coffee at midnight. I have a feeling that sub-consciously (or unconsciously) she likes the role of invalid; and that, liking as she does to be petted, “made a fuss over”, condoled and consoled, she unconsciously encourages her breakdowns instead of throwing them off by a sort of nervous resistance. It is hard to tell how much is physical and how much mental and uncontrollable by willpower; but I think that if she had more of “the Will to Be Well” she would have less suffering. To acquire this sort of willpower unaided is something like pulling oneself up by one’s boot-straps; but I think some strong impulse from outside, some change in her circumstances, might call forth the necessary willpower to be well. She needs something to take her mind off herself; something to absorb her entire attention.

For her own part, the Eliot matriarch reflected that Tom had seemed to be in want of the collective love of a family “that makes no demands from him”. And while she had felt the couple shared a fondness for each other, she concluded, “I think he is afraid of her.”

The visit had added to Eliot’s already considerable personal strain. Putting on a brave face in the presence of his relatives ultimately proved a tipping point, and an inevitable breakdown came not long after the family had embarked to return home. Only then could he confide in his brother, “I have been feeling very nervous lately, and have very little self-control”, adding that he had come to view what he termed the “post-war machinery of life” as a “horrible waste of time”. A London nerve specialist had initially set out a rigid regime of rules which included reading only, as Vivien put it, “for pleasure not profit” and for no more than two hours a day. He also told his brother that he longed for “a period of tranquillity to do a poem that I have in mind”.

That poem would be The Waste Land (1922) and its final sections, namely “Death by Water” and “What the Thunder Said”, would be written while he was undergoing treatment at the Swiss clinic of Dr Roger Vittoz on Lake Geneva (Lac Leman): “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept …”

Vittoz had treated William James and Joseph Conrad and had been recommended by both Ottoline Morrell and Julian Huxley. The doctor’s diagnosis was forthright. Eliot had succumbed to what Vittoz described as a classic case of “insufficient brain control”, a condition prone to those who have been experiencing “sorrow, or excessive worry in work”. His notion was that the two “different working centres” of Eliot’s brain were out of balance. These “working centres” consisted of (a) the objective conscious—controlling reason and the will—and (b) the subjective unconscious—controlling sensations and ideas. Once out of joint, a condition could arise which produced a “whirl of unconnected and uncontrolled ideas”. He proposed a treatment based on thought exercises concentrating on the “idea of calm”.

For the most part, the poem Eliot had “in mind” was anything but calm. Indeed, once completed it contained a gathering of individuals cast as either victims or perpetrators of grief and trapped in failed personal relationships. Their backdrop was the collateral damage and aftermath of Europe’s Great War: “… so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many”.

The poem’s opening allusion to the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387–1400), tells us that April is no more the longed-for time when “the sweet showers fall”, rather it is:

        … the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.


JOURNEY through The Waste Land is not a pilgrimage. Eliot takes us instead through a collapsed world, and he is ably assisted by quotations from and allusions to William Shakespeare, Oliver Goldsmith, Dante Alighieri, Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, even F.M. Chapman’s Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America (1895), and a bevy of others. Well may our tour guide warn: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

On publication of the poem, Eliot’s brother—who it must be said was an intelligent and informed reader—saved his most vehement criticism for its sections that struck him as resembling the sorts of things that might be extracted from psychiatric patients by their clinicians—“under hypnosis”. These were the sorts of things, in his view, that were best left unsaid. Part of one of Eliot’s responses to one of his brother’s earlier critiques reads:

… a person who is not worried as to whether they ought to like a thing or not and does not approach a thing with an attitude of suspicion, frequently gets a truer impression than the more sophisticated who are constantly occupying their minds in dissecting art and the impression it makes on them. But such simple sensitive natures, especially in this age of great chatter and great consumption of printed chatter, are very rare.

Was Vivien such a rare character? A copy of Poems: 1909–1925, given to her by Eliot, is inscribed: “… for my dearest Vivien, this book, which no one else will quite understand”. Vivien herself wrote to Sidney Schiff in 1922 that The Waste Land had “become part of me (or I of it) this last year”. Eliot left no doubts regarding the importance of her input (also to Schiff): “I have done a rough draft of part III, but do not know whether it will do, and must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable.”

Much has rightly been written about the importance of the judicious editing of the poem by Ezra Pound. He had warned Eliot: “The thing now runs … 19 pages, and let us say the longest poem in the English langwidge [sic]. Don’t try to bust all records by prolonging it further.” Less attention has been paid to Pound’s perception of Vivien’s interference. At one point he called for “someone to elope, kidnap, or otherwise eliminate Mrs. E”. In a mellower moment however, he reflected: “Eliot has always been very reserved about his domestic situation … Last time I saw him I got down to brass tacks. And find that the girl really has a long complication of things.” For his own part, Eliot defended his wife’s continual maladies by blaming his own inadequacies as a husband and assuring Pound: “it must be remembered that she kept me from returning to America where I should have become a professor and probably never written another line of poetry”.

In the second section of The Waste Land—“A Game of Chess”—and one which Hugh Kenner has described as a scene of “silent unnerving warfare in which everything hinges on the welfare of the king, the weakest piece on the board”, we do know that the line: “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” emanates from a pencilled annotation of Vivien’s in the typescript. And tellingly, when Faber & Faber published The Waste Land: Facsimile and Manuscripts of the Original Drafts in 1971 (Eliot having died in 1965), it shed light on a line which had been omitted at Vivien’s request. In the published poem we read:

And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

while in the draft it had been:    

And shall we play a game of chess,
The ivory men make company between us.

Seemingly, Vivien found the suggestion of separateness and the lack of cohesion between the poem’s contestants too close to the bone. In the same section, she is also responsible for Eliot’s replacement of the clumsy and laborious “coming back out of the Transport Corps” in one draft, and “Discharge out of the army” in another, with the simpler and more effective “demobbed”.

Early in 1923 Charlotte Eliot wrote to her brother-in-law, who had been befuddled by reading his nephew’s poem:

The poem puzzled me at first, but now I think I understand it better. Tom wrote me before it was published that he had put so much of his life into it. Certainly up to the time of his marriage and residence in England he dwelt in an ideal world. Since that time he has had pretty hard times. He had made a splendid record in Philosophy at Harvard, and they intended to advance him as fast as they could. After he married his wife she and her mother were very averse to her coming to America, although we urged it all we could. For a year he taught small boys … Then he obtained the position at Lloyds he now holds, and all his literary work has been done in the evening … [he] is at present very much overworked and tired. One of his greatest misfortunes has been the invalidism of his wife. It was not an eugenic marriage. He wrote me at Christmas she had not been at table for six months. Then she was “better”, next she had Bronchitis and a recent cablegram says: “Vivien recovering Pneumonia.” Tom has been a perfectly devoted husband, but it is very hard on him. Under these circumstances you can easily imagine some of his ideals are shattered.

We know that at this point Vivien weighed only thirty-eight kilograms.

1925 had promised to be a pivotal year. With The Waste Land now already considered something of a modernist blueprint, Geoffrey Faber had proposed the editing of a new quarterly review and also invited Eliot to join the publishing firm Faber & Gwyer. Vivien’s health further declined, however. It also became apparent that she had developed a dependency for the sedative chloral hydrate. She was hospitalised and then sent to a sanitorium specialising in hydrotherapy. Faber proved a sympathetic employer and explained to Alsina Gwyer: “Eliot has been ordered by his doctor to the south of France … I am very glad indeed that this has happened. He has been under terrible strain for a year or more through his wife’s continual illness.”

During this time, Eliot confided to John Middleton Murry that, immediately after his marriage, he felt he had become “like a machine” and had “deliberately killed” his senses—“deliberately died … in order to endure, in order not to feel”—this, so as to maintain “the outward form of living”. Again, in a series of letters to Bertrand Russell, he remarked, “everything has turned out as you predicted ten years ago” and extrapolates: “I find her still perpetually baffling and deceptive. She seems to me like a child of 6 with an immensely clever and precocious mind.”

It was felt advisable that, for the time being, Eliot’s whereabouts should be withheld from Vivien. Meanwhile he received progress reports by mail. Some were better than others. One such report read: “the hysterical state, when it recurs is now very much less acute and less prolonged”.

A frantic Vivien wrote to Pound: “I wrote to T. courtesy of you. I have a feeling it won’t arrive. I want you to let me know if it doesn’t. Tell T. not to be a fool. He pretends to think I hate him, but it’s just a lie.” And to one of her doctors:

When I think of all my husband has done for me, and of all of the life I smashed up (as I do think of it, all night and much of the day) I do not know why I don’t go out and hang myself … There is so much atmosphere for sorrow and brooding here and the atmosphere fosters it. I feel absolutely done.

The word done is heavily underlined. By the following year she was temporarily on suicide watch in a French sanitorium.

A decade after writing The Waste Land and a year before his decision to separate from Vivien, Eliot noted:

Various critics having done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life.

Eliot’s second wife, Valerie (above with Tom)—the two married in 1957, she his secretary and forty years his junior—was blunt about the Faber Facsimile Edition:

The years of “The Waste Land” were a terrible nightmare for him … if he had seen these drafts, they might have brought back all of the horror … It’s sheer concentrated hell, there’s no other word for it, and it was the sheer hell of being with her that forced him to write it.

Robert Sencourt claimed to be one of the very few to have ever been a live-in Eliot household guest, and his appraisal of a 1930 visit was equally forthright: “How, I wondered, had she and Tom managed to live together for so long?” While describing Vivien as “wayward and unpredictable” and at times “caustic”, Eliot’s manner was, he felt, as extreme in its “undeviating correctness”. As witness to this he relates hearing Eliot speak on the telephone in his “smooth, courteous voice” to a person who, as he later found out, was the social secretary of the socialite Lady Astor. In his inimitable tones, Eliot said:

Will you tell her Ladyship that I am unable to come to lunch with her because I don’t accept invitations from ladies I have not met, nor from one who invites me without my wife, nor from one who is divorced.

Eliot decided on a formal separation from Vivien while alone in America and having spent the academic year of 1932-33 as recipient of the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard. Due to his anglo-catholic religious convictions, he could contemplate divorce. In a letter to the couple’s close friend Alida Monro he confessed: “this is a step which I have contemplated for many years; I should feel nothing but relief, and would prefer not to see V. again”. He goes on to say he feels it best for both parties that the break should be sharp and sudden.

Eliot told Sencourt that when he had placed the letter with instructions for his solicitor into the American post-box, he had recited some lines to himself from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.

Vivien never accepted the decision and steadfastly refused to sign the Deed of Separation Settlement. She declined into her own “waste land” and fell prey to increasingly erratic and humiliating behaviour. She took to hurriedly walking the London streets with her little dog Polly, all the while making good use of a network of pharmaceutical outlets. She repeatedly visited the offices of what had now become Faber & Faber. Here she was regularly politely turned away by office staff. Not to be put off, she would send money to the Faber offices with instructions for Eliot to buy socks “from Marshall & Snelgrove”. She would send notes to HRH the Prince of Wales and the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth and also draft notices for the Personal Columns of the Times: “Will T.S. Eliot please return to his home 68 Clarence Gate Gardens which he abandoned Sept 19th 1932.”

An exasperated Eliot explained to his brother: “She has put my name in the telephone book, at her address, and it will take me 6 months to get it out again. And if any letters are sent to that address. I shall never see them.”

In a ledger dated April 1, 1935, Vivien wrote, “And it does not matter what I do ever again.”

Eliot attempted to describe his state of mind before the writing of The Waste Land in a New Year’s Day letter to his brother in 1936:

I was of course, too much engrossed in the horrors of my private life to notice much outside; and I was suffering from … a feeling of guilt in having married a woman I detested, and consequently a feeling that I must put up with anything … Gradually … I came to find … that I had merely married into a rather common suburban family with a streak of abnormality which in the case of my wife had reached the point of liking to give people pain.

Save for a rudimentary meeting in a solicitor’s office and a chance street encounter, the two spoke only once in the intervening years between 1932 and her final committal to a mental hospital in 1938—and her death there in 1947. Eliot, as a guest speaker at a book fair organised by the Sunday Times in London—in an episode bleakly worthy of The Waste Land itself—was confronted by Vivien, resplendent in a British Union of Fascists uniform and replete with black beret and cape. Under one arm she nursed dog Polly, and under the other three of Eliot’s books for him to sign. She rushed up as he was about to deliver his speech. Clearly embarrassed but forever the gentleman, he had inquired after her welfare. According to Vivien’s diary entry, Eliot then:

gave the most remarkably clever, well thought out lecture … I stood the whole while, holding Polly up high in my arms. Polly was very excited & wild. I kept my eyes on Tom’s face the whole time, & I kept nodding my head at him, & making encouraging signs. He looked a little older, more mature and smart, much thinner & not well or robust … No signs of a woman’s care about him. No cosy evenings with dogs and gramophones I should say.

Speech completed, the diary entry then tells of Vivien’s approaching him once again and asking, “Will you come back with me?” Eliot could offer only, “I cannot speak to you now.” 

In 1939 Eliot made the extraordinary claim: “I never lay with a woman I liked, loved or even felt any strong physical attraction to.” And in 1960 he wrote:

To explain my sudden marriage to Vivienne [sic] Haigh-Wood would require a good many words, and yet the explanation would probably remain unintelligible … to her the marriage brought no happiness … to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land … Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.

In 1952, a schoolgirl wrote to Eliot, asking for advice on how to be a good writer. She also sought his opinions regarding his own work. He answered: “The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.” Asked which of his works was his favourite, he responded, “my essay on Dante (1929), not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about”.

Barry Gillard, a frequent contributor, lives in Geelong. He wrote on James Joyce in the October issue

One thought on “The Eliots’ Waste Lands

  • Sindri says:

    Thanks for this Barry. Fascinating. My spotty education in poetry completely missed Eliot, though I seem to remember that The Waste Land was the inspiration for the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby (a book I thought was clever but not all that good, but which my conservative English teacher at school was wild about). Will have to add some Eliot to my reading list.
    PS also loved your piece on Rochester.

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