Excerpt: Gloucester in T. S. Eliot

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In 1896, a sizeable new summer “cottage” was under construction up in back of Niles Beach. Henry Ware Eliot of the Hydraulic Brick Company of St. Louis and his wife Charlotte had been summering for several years at the Hawthorne Inn, and so enjoyed the ambience of East Gloucester they decided to build. The neighborhood, they decided, was just the place to vacation with their older children, and with eight-year-old Thomas Stearns who had been born when both parents were forty-four. He would become better known as T. S. Eliot.

The poet would spend all or parts of his young summers in East Gloucester: regularly as a young boy, then at intervals when he was a student at Milton Academy and Harvard, and as a Harvard graduate student. When Eliot returned to Gloucester from England briefly in 1915 it was only to make some effort to explain to bewildered parents why he had abruptly married Vivien Haigh-Wood and given up an academic career. He did not return again until 1958 when he stopped by for a last visit to the fine big house on Edgemoor Road, by then sold out of the family.

In childhood photos taken by his brother, there he is, boy and book on the veranda of the family cottage. “Curl up the small soul in the window seat / Behind the Encyclopoedia Britannica” he said in his poem “Animula.” This was the T. S. Eliot of intellect. The future candidate for a Ph. D. at Harvard who did all the spadework on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley but never returned to deliver his dissertation.

Here was the later author of The Waste Land, the poetic work that spoke to the despondency of the post-World War I generation, and was richly annotated with references that sent critics scurrying to track down sources in Dante, Ovid and Baudelaire. Rose Macaulay said that in The Waste Land Eliot was heard as a new voice, “revealing ancient things in a new way.” This was the Eliot whose originality would establish him as the most solidly revolutionary American poet of the 20th century. He was, too, the respected literary critic. And the much-produced playwright, of Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. His poetry sometimes had unexpected reverberations: from the litter of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats came Andrew Lloyd Webber’s longrunning Broadway hit “Cats.”

But there was another T. S. Eliot – the boy splashing on Niles Beach and exploring tide pools. Who learned to handle a sail in Gloucester harbor. Who, sailing with his brother in Henry’s boat, the Elsa, became wind- and current-wise cruising down the back shore to Thacher’s and Dry Salvages, coming about and making for the whistling buoy, the “groaner.” Herbert Kenny was certain that the influence of those Gloucester boyhood summers persisted in Eliot’s work: “One cannot read Eliot’s poetry, and particularly Four Quartets, without sensing that the sea stirred in the depths of his being and stands as a major symbol in his work.”

It was this T. S. Eliot who one time was sailing down Maine off Mount Desert Rock in a nineteen-foot knockabout with his Harvard classmate Harold Peters when gale winds and fog forced them to take shelter for the night at Duck Island. Next morning it was still rough weather, but late in the day they made it in to Somesville. Their log book showed a sketch of Eliot casting off, with the caption “heroic work by the swab.” In 1964, writing to his distant cousin, historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Eliot recalled those two days marooned at Duck Island when he and Peters “lived chiefly on lobster.” He was writing in the last year before his death and he was still close to his other identity, the self-reliant sea-venturing T. S. Eliot.

He took an intense interest in what others, the best ones, had written about Gloucester and the fleet. As a boy Eliot had heard the schoonermen chuckle at the dialect Rudyard Kipling put in their mouths in Captains Courageous. Cape Cod talk, they said, and young Eliot took note that ways of speech could be so different from one cape to another across Massachusetts Bay. As a boy he had soaked up the rollicking Kipling ballads, and at ten recited Danny Deever for an audience of other children of the neighborhood. When Tom Eliot was older he read what that same Kipling was writing about the Gloucester fishermen, in Captains Courageous. Eliot said Kipling entered into his own verse.

Eliot admired the Gloucestermen stories of James B. Connolly, too. Connolly was little known in England (which probably did not distress that scorner of all things Britannic). But Eliot thought the oversight should be corrected and – in 1928, more than a dozen years after Eliot had emigrated to England – he persuaded his publisher employers, Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber), to print Fishermen of the Banks, a collection of representative Connolly Gloucester fleet tales that included “A Fresh Halibuter,” “The Lone Voyagers,” “The Race it Blew” and “Driving Home from Georges.” Eliot did not put his name to the Introduction, but these were without question his words as he looked from London back to the Gloucester of his young summers. Gloucester “has the most beautiful harbour for small ships on the whole of that coast” he said. But then the menace behind the beauty for the fishermen: “There is no harder life, no more uncertain livelihood, and few more dangerous occupations.” In his admiration of Connolly’s tales of those fishermen, Eliot said they were written by “one who (with all respect) knows the subject much better than Mr. Kipling.” These were true narratives, he said, that could “be learnt by word of mouth from the men between trips, as they lounged at the corner of Main Street and Duncan Street in Gloucester.” That was Fishermen’s Corner. Eliot remembered, then, himself venturing down Main Street as a boy, buying a notebook at the Procter Brothers’ Old Corner shop. Eliot carried that notebook around for years, to Harvard and Paris and London, jotting down the lines of his early poems that shook the American poetic establishment.

The Gloucester fishermen would have figured prominently in Eliot’s The Waste Land had it not been for Ezra Pound’s red pencil. When Pound was done suggesting deletions from Part IV, “Death by Water,” only ten lines remained. Purged was a long section that could have been spawned from tales Eliot overheard at Fishermen’s Corner. It is a haunted passage in which a schooner scuds swiftly and fatally northward into a world of mist and myth, storm seas and final rush into the embrace of an iceberg. These lines are sea-aware and searhythmed, distant from Eliot’s deft sketches of the despair of hollow people in empty rooms. How did he learn to speak with such nautical familiarity of gaffjaws and gleet and garboard strakes and fore cross-trees and Marm Brown’s house of ill repute on the Gloucester waterfront? Eliot himself is not helpful – he provided no notes for the “Death by Water” segment. He was probably right to take Pound’s advice that The Waste Land would be tighter without these lines. But in themselves they are a masterly poetic telling of a fishing voyage to the winter Banks from Gloucester.

Gloucester surfaces elsewhere here and there throughout Eliot’s poems. He titled one section of Landscapes “Cape Ann,” and in it glories in songbirds, but concludes by conceding all to the seagull, “the tough one.” There’s nothing more to be said: “The palaver is finished.” A sharp local touch – dismissing idle chatter as mere “palaver.” Even in the religiously anguished “Ash Wednesday” there are brief images of Gloucester harbor, of a granite shore and of sails.

Four Quartets was T. S. Eliot’s last major poetic work. The third section, “The Dry Salvages,” distills finally the impressions the summer-sailing boy never forgot, storm seas bursting upon granite, and tossing upon the shore a “shattered lobsterpot” and “the gear of foreign dead men.” Gear – the young sailor Eliot would speak of shipboard gear. And they were lobster “pots” to him, as they were to Winslow Homer. Lobster “traps,” the modern term, had not yet taken hold. There is much in the poem that speaks of Gloucester – but with T. S. Eliot it is risky to jump to conclusions. For instance, the line “Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory …” Was Eliot talking about the Portuguese church on Prospect Street, Our Lady of Good Voyage? Poet Charles Olson thought so. In 1947 Olson was cultivating a friendship with Ezra Pound and sent a postcard to him that showed the façade of the church, and Olson in his note confidently identified it as the “shrine” in Eliot’s poem. Pound sent the card to Eliot who replied frigidly to the effect that this Olson, whoever he might be, did not know what he was talking about. Eliot said he did not remember the church in the photo (it had been rebuilt in its present form in 1915, the year of Eliot’s last previous visit to Gloucester). Eliot wrote to someone else that the shrine he really had in mind was the church of Notre Dame de la Gard, high up overlooking the Mediterranean at Marseilles.

But other elements in “The Dry Salvages” are unmistakably Cape Ann, as in the sense of some unknowable beyond speaking through the thundering waves: “The distant rote in the granite teeth.” Eliot’s use of the word “rote” fascinated his kinsman Samuel Eliot Morison. In an article, “The Dry Salvages and the Thacher Shipwreck,” Admiral Morison said rote was an old English word, no longer heard much outside New England, used to describe the distant roar of waves along a rocky coast. But in New England speech, he said, it was heard often. In New England writing, too. In 1858, on the cruise that took him along the Cape Ann shore, Robert Carter spoke of a night on board “listening to the ‘rote’ of the sea.” That was what his charter captain called the sound the waves made when breaking over ledges. Thoreau, too, quoted an old Wellfleet oysterman speaking of the “sea ‘rut,’ a peculiar roar of the sea before the wind changes.” And George Wasson in Sailing Days on the Penobscot said the fishermen around Isle au Haut “found their way in a thick-o’-fog by listening for the distinctive rote of the surf on various ledges and islets.” An old NewEngland sea word was rote, and Eliot knew it, savored it, used it.

T. S. Eliot was everlastingly a study in contradictions. In Gloucester he was a Missourian, in St. Louis a New Englander. He was a Midwesterner in what was still Boston Brahmin Harvard. He returned to family roots in England because he could not tolerate what had become of American culture after 1830. In London he lived the roles of financial clerk in the City and later publishing house executive. He Anglicized his diction and nationality, and Anglicanized his religion. And suffered through marital mismatch across decades of his adult years until finally coming to a happy marriage. Here was the hypochondriac with polite, mannered reserve wending his way with rolled brolly toward his desk at Lloyds, more English than the English, writing fiercely erudite, wearily urbane poetry. Here was the Eliot described by literary critic Edmund Wilson as “a completely artificial, or, rather, self-invented character.” Eliot was “the most highly refined and attuned and chiselled human being” Wilson had ever encountered. Eliot became a British citizen, but the English never really accepted him as one of theirs (his poems contained odd Americanisms like “dory”). He became an Anglo-Catholic, but literary critics and friends sensed that deep down he was New England Calvinist.

Wherever he was, he always felt himself an exile. He sometimes signed himself “metoikos,” Greek for alien. But somehow he never escaped his Americanness, and admitted that he was a New England poet after all. “I speak as a New Englander.” His creative daemon, like Hawthorne’s, had been nourished by ancestral whispers north of Boston. “My country landscape . . . is that of New England, of coastal New England.”

The cultural historians and analysts of poetic schools and influences have the T. S. Eliot of social decay, donnish wit and religion-drenched despair. Cape Ann has the Eliot of bright sailing days in Gloucester harbor, a boy’s quick ear for palaver along by Fishermen’s Corner, and that unfathomed metaphor the sea presents.

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