T.S. Eliot and me



By Todd R. Nelson

It was not until many years later that I discovered how close a neighbor T.S. Eliot had been when we lived in London: a block away. His flat was in the large red brick building just down Stanford Road from ours — past the Builders Arms pub at the corner of St. Albans Grove, across Kensington Court Place. A blue historical plaque commemorates his presence: “T.S. Eliot lived and died here.” It sounds like a layered epitaph, or a line from his poetry. My daughter photographed it for me last Christmas.

This was his home as he wrote “Four Quartets” during the Blitz. Then “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” referencing surrounding streets and imagining the lives of Kensington felines. I knew the neighborhood: Cornwall Gardens, Launceston Place, Kensington Square, Victoria Grove. Eliot, éminence grise of English literature, author of “The Wasteland,” had a sense of mirth.

Though the relationship was apparently fraught, Eliot hosted Groucho Marx for dinner in 1964. “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that … you have come to London to see me,” wrote the Nobel laureate, “has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighborhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously, I am now someone of importance.” Did Eliot and Groucho smoke cigars and share cat jokes?

I remember that green grocer, still making neighborhood deliveries on his decrepit bicycle. He could have been Macavity the mystery cat; “the hidden paw.” Or was he Mr. Mistoffelees? His wife was Grizabella for sure — the boss.

Eliot’s widow, Valerie, 38 years his junior, still lived in that flat when our family arrived in 1970, five years after the poet’s death. Did I see her in the shops? Did I pass her on my way to the bus on Kensington High Street? Their flat was en route. Did Mrs. T.S. Eliot buy her tea and biscuits at the Sainsbury’s on Gloucester Road, like my mother, while she presided over his literary legacy?

Alas, at the time, I was not yet thinking of T.S. Eliot. By 1972, I was. Eleventh grade English class was an Eliot-reading benchmark. I wrestled with “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Why were those women coming and going, “talking of Michelangelo?” “Do I dare to eat a peach?” What? Trousers rolled? This made no sense. Agony. I could not just allow the language to flow through me. I was working hard at “interpretation.”

As a college junior, I spent a year at Stirling University in Scotland and took a seminar called “Pound, Eliot and Auden.” A half dozen students seated around a table, with tutor Michael Alexander, discussed the works of the poetry colossi. Ezra Pound was American; W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot had each swapped their birth citizenship for that of the other. It was difficult. I struggled. Participation was demanding. Much focus was on Pound’s responsibility for the final form of “The Wasteland.” And I still recall the story Alexander told about Eliot’s funeral in Westminster Abbey.

“Pound was there,” he told us. “I saw him. But I don’t think anyone recognized him.” Eliot’s memorial stone is in Poet’s Corner, right below Henry James, another Anglo-American. His ashes, however, were placed in East Coker, the ancestral Somerset village figuring in “Four Quartets.”

I loved “Rannoch, by Glen Coe,” — “here the crow starves…” — and hiked that very mountain scene. I loved his short poem, “A Dedication To My Wife,” at a time when I was courting my wife…

 

To whom I owe the leaping delight

That quickens my senses in our wakingtime

And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime.

 

Eliot left a poem for Valerie at her bedside every Sunday night.

“Four Quartets” took root. I returned to my senior year at Bates College and wrote a thesis about the nature of authority for a religious poet.

“Four Quartets arc from the Mississippi to the Thames, through the four elements, personal and English history, the Gita and English mystics. Tom Eliot of St. Louis also sailed the coast of Gloucester, Mass., during youthful summers. He wrote wryly of his Brahmin relatives; went to Harvard before moving to England; converted to Anglicanism and British citizenship. In 1948, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Eliot follows me, bursts from his poems informing my own arc. It’s a life’s work fathoming Eliot’s poems. Why not? It was a life work to write them; to weave the threads of memory, history, family experience, religion and philosophy into self-study.

 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.[1]

 

You must live with a poem and a poet for a long time to even approach full transmission of the meaning and love entrusted to mere words, for it seems,

 

as one becomes older,

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere

sequence —

 

We become the poem.

 

Todd R. Nelson is a retired English teacher. April is National Poetry Month.

[1] Burnt Norton

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