T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound introduced Modernism into verse and in the process became two of the most consequential poets of the twentieth century. Indeed, the poetry revolution they sparked with the Modernist Movement was as radical a break from the past as the Romantic Movement initiated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth at the turn of the nineteenth century. But their relationship transcended their poetry. They were truly the “odd couple” in almost every way—temperamentally, spiritually and in their relationships with women—yet they developed a remarkably close and fruitful personal bond that persisted for many years.

They first met in September 1914 when Eliot, just a few days short of his 26th birthday, paid a visit to Pound in his London flat. They were both expatriates and, like a number of other American writers at that time, were seeking out the art and culture of Europe as a refuge from the influence of the ascendant commercialism they perceived at home. Curiously enough, Eliot’s father was an eminently successful business executive as well as a philanthropic pillar of the community.

Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888 to a prominent Boston Brahmin family whose forebears, New England bluebloods having connections with such as the Alcotts and Nathaniel Hawthorne, moved to the area in 1830 and established the Unitarian church there. He was called Tom as a boy and was the youngest of six surviving children, the others being a brother nine years older and four sisters who ranged from eleven to nineteen years older. Another daughter born just three years earlier did not survive a congenital deformity and, because of her early death, Eliot’s subsequent birth aroused much trepidation in the family. His mother, in particular, was terrified over the prospect of young Tom meeting with a similar early demise. She guarded and hovered over him as a child growing up.

Eliot’s early education commenced at Mrs. Lockwood’s Primary School followed by Smith Academy in St. Louis where, in addition to studying Latin, Ancient Greek, French, and German, he wrote some poetry and a few short stories. After graduation, he spent a preparatory year at Milton Academy in Massachusetts followed by something akin to a legacy enrollment at Harvard despite his mediocre grade record. In his Harvard freshman year, he loafed, went to music halls, joined secret societies and wrote ribald verse with rhymes ending in “unt” and “ugger”—decidedly unlike the gravitas often associated later with Eliot.  He nearly flunked out. Then he discovered the French symbolist poet, Jules Laforgue, and began an academic metamorphosis. He completed his bachelor’s degree in three years—with a “pass” rather than honors because of his poor grades as a freshman—and went on to earn an M.A. in one additional year. He continued at Harvard as a philosophy assistant for a year.

In the five-year period following his Harvard matriculation, Eliot took on a peripatetic life as he pursued his academic interests. He studied philosophy in 1910-11 at the Sorbonne, where he attended lectures by Henri Bergson, among others. He returned to Harvard for three years to study Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, followed by another transatlantic trip to fulfill a scholarship at Oxford. He despised the university town surrounding Oxford University and spent as much time as possible in London to escape the deadening effect it had on him. This was fortuitous since it led him to the meeting with Ezra Pound, courtesy of an introduction by their mutual friend and fellow poet, Conrad Aiken. Eliot would have been considered a late bloomer as a poet at the time, having written little of consequence save for his initial blockbuster of Modernism, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (more on this later).

Eliot was born with a double hernia, requiring him to wear a truss for many years, had oversized ears mocked by other children, and over time developed acute anxiety about his body image. He was a shy, protected child who never played sports and apparently had almost no close friends. Yet contrary to the somewhat skewed image later in his life of a gray, buttoned-up persona with “his brow so grim/and his mouth so prim” (Eliot’s own joking reference to himself), he did have a mischievous, quirky streak in him. For example, at an early age he produced a magazine of his jokes and stories in which “Eat Quaker Oats” became “Eat Quaker Cats,” accompanied by a feline sketch. As a youth, he wrote a poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” to mock his adversaries. The Oxford English Dictionary credits it as the first time the profanity appeared in print.  Later in life, he was known to hand out exploding cigars and once bought stink bombs which he and his nephew set off in a London hotel lobby. He and Groucho Marx were pen pals.

These traits carried over into Eliot’s mature years and are nowhere illustrated better than “The Naming of Cats” with the marvelous images it evokes from his book of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (with apologies for compressing the poem’s lines into a single paragraph):

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games; You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter When I tell you a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES. First of all, there’s the name that the family uses daily, Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James, Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey – All of them sensible everyday names. There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter, some for the gentlemen, some for the dames; Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter – But all of them sensible everyday names. But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular, a name that’s peculiar, and more dignified, Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular, Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride? Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum, Such as Munkstrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat, Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellyorum – Names that never belong to more than one cat. But above and beyond there’s still one name left over, And that is the name you never will guess; The name that no human research can discover – but THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess. When you notice a cat in profound meditation, The reason, I tell you, is always the same: His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: His ineffable effable Effanineffable Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Growing up, Eliot was considerably attached to the females around him, especially the eldest sister, who often filled the role of surrogate mother. Later in life, when he was age 26 and still a virgin, he wrote to his close friend, the aforementioned Conrad Aiken, “I am very dependent on women (I mean female society).” He also noted that it would probably dispel his “sexual anxiety attacks” (his lusts) if he could finally lose his virginity. He had recently fallen in love with a young blueblood Bostonian, Emily Hale, but was confused as to whether his feelings were reciprocated and the personal attachment went no further. Hale ultimately came back into Eliot’s life years later as his muse, but they never consummated the relationship sexually or married.

Shortly after Eliot’s correspondence with Aiken, he met Vivienne Haigh-Wood and impulsively wed her in a secretly-arranged ceremony in 1915. It was an extraordinarily unhappy marriage. She was plagued with a host of health problems, both physical and mental, and they were sexually incompatible right from the start. In a way, it is easy to understand Eliot’s discomfort with sex. His mother’s poetry included such lines as “loose the spirit from its mesh/from the poor vesture of the flesh.” His father regarded sex education for children as “a letter of introduction to the Devil” and viewed syphilis as God’s punishment for sexual promiscuity. Then there also was an affair Vivienne had with Bertrand Russell, the well-known philosopher/mathematician and sexual adventurer, which the cuckolded Eliot either tacitly condoned or, less likely, was simply unaware of.  He later reflected that his hasty and ill-considered marriage had produced a host of grim consequences “which an age of prudence can never retract.” Yet, ironically, he also was to observe that his unhappiness in the marriage brought about a despairing state of mind that led to what has been considered his greatest work, The Waste Land.

Vivienne was a pretty, bright and sometimes vivacious woman who repulsed Eliot in private. He told his famous poet friend, Virginia Woolf, that he could not stand to be in the same room with her when he was shaving. He could not abide her over-frequent, heavy menstruations. They argued a lot and they slept in separate rooms. Woolf would reinforce his repulsion of Vivienne, characterizing her as “a bag of ferrets around Tom’s neck.” Eliot and her doctors often sent Vivienne away for extended periods, ostensibly in the hope of improving her health but also increasing his detachment from her. In 1927, Eliot converted from Unitarianism to the Church of England, thereby making divorce from her impossible for all practical purposes. In 1928, he took a vow of chastity, in effect normalizing the absence of sexual intimacy with Vivienne.


Ezra Pound’s background in the years leading up to his maturity was markedly different than Eliot’s. Born in Hailey, Idaho in 1885, he was an only child whose parents had both Quaker and Puritan origins. The family moved to Pennsylvania when he was a toddler, and his early education was at “dame schools” (some established by Quakers) followed later by a military academy. Pound was considered an independent-minded and smart youth, but he was unpopular because he was vain and self-centered.

Following a three-month tour of Europe, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at age 15. Even at that early age, Pound knew that he wanted to be a poet and resolved that at age 30, he would know more about poetry than any man living. He left Penn after just two years and in 1905 took his B.Phil from Hamilton College, where it was less demanding academically. He then returned to Penn for an M.A. in Romance Languages in 1906. While at the university, he courted three women at the same time—one of whom, Hilda Doolittle, was later to be known as the famous poet, H.D.—and offered marriage to two of them, but both rejected his proposals.

Pound continued his dissertation work at Penn, but he managed to antagonize the head of the English Department with his insistence that Bernard Shaw was superior to Shakespeare and by repeatedly and ostentatiously winding an oversized tin watch during lectures. Pound’s fellowship was not renewed and he left school without a doctorate.

Pound got a job in the fall of 1907 teaching Romance languages at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a town he referred to as the sixth circle of Hell. He continued to alienate others. Though smoking was forbidden, he smoked cigarillos in his office just down the hall from the president’s office. He vexed his landlords and had to move more than once from his apartment because of how he “entertained” female guests. In the end, he allegedly offered his bed for the night to a chorus girl stranded in a snowstorm while he slept on the floor, a claim met with disbelief by his landladies. He was asked to leave Wabash and was soon again on his way back to Europe.

Pound’s first book of poetry, A Lume Spento (With Tapers Spent), was written in Venice and a hundred copies were sold at six cents each. It got rave reviews in the London Evening Standard. He then moved to London in August 1908 and remained there almost continuously for twelve years. That move marked the beginning of his notable literary career.  By October, Pound was being widely discussed around town, as much for his behavior as his poetry. He wandered about London with pants made of green billiard cloth, a sombrero, and a single blue earring. He was a self-promoter and provocateur who accompanied his signature with a caricature of a gadfly. His poetry definitely was not the Victorian verse of Tennyson and Kipling.

By early 1909, Pound had published a second poetry collection and had made the acquaintance of William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, and Ford Madox Ford. He also met Olivia Shakespear, a prominent novelist and Yeats’s former mistress, and through her became acquainted with others in London’s literary scene. Olivia’s daughter, Dorothy, was later to become Pound’s long-suffering wife. In September 1909, he published yet another poetry collection and, in 1910, a book of literary criticism. He then returned to the U.S. for several months to take on the New York Public Library, shouting at the architects during almost daily visits because their proposed design of the new library building offended his sensibilities.

Pound wrote several essays on America during his stay in New York, but his love for that city had given way to a view that it was becoming a center of coarse materialism. He sailed back to London in February 1911, and it was nearly 30 years before he returned again to America.

Later that year, H.D. arrived in London and took up quarters adjacent to Pound and Richard Aldington, her future husband. The three of them started working on the ideas that later evolved into the Imagism movement. Imagism, which derived its focal technique from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, stressed clarity, precision, and economy of language while eschewing romanticism, rhetoric, abstraction, and excessive use of adjectives.

Despite being a leading figure in the Imagism Movement, Pound never fully embraced it and some of his verse remained formulaic and old-fashioned. He quit the Imagism Movement when Amy Lowell, the American poet, and other contemporary writers preempted his leadership role. Pound then joined the Imagism concept to the visual arts, especially cubism, and to music and titled the resultant movement Vorticism. That movement was ultimately short-lived due to the onset of World War I and a lack of public interest.


For all installments of “Possum and Brer Rabbit,” click here.