At about the time that T.S. Eliot appeared on the scene, Pound was beginning to show a wholly unexpected side of his character. This was most apparent in his tireless promotion and generous support of other writers and artists through his work as editor of various literary magazines. He and Dorothy Shakespear had married in 1914 over the objections of her parents, who were concerned about his lack of income. His work with Poetry, The Egoist, BLAST and other journals provided an income, albeit a meager one, and probably more importantly, also afforded him with influence and useful contacts. Ernest Hemingway wrote this about him:

 He defends his friends when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail…he writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying…he advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide…and in the end, a few of them refrain from stabbing him at the first opportunity.

The writers Pound helped are like a Who’s Who of 20th-century literature: James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, H.D., Conrad Aiken, E.E. Cummings, Richard Aldington and Marianne Moore comprise just the short list. He was similarly supportive of non-writers such as Henri Gaudier-Breszka, the French sculptor whose agent he became.

He was especially helpful to James Joyce and arranged for publication of several of Joyce’s stories, including Dubliners (1914) and a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in literary journals before their later publication in book form. When Joyce moved to Paris from Trieste, Pound helped him secure lodging and loans and even got him an old pair of shoes. Pound also introduced Joyce to Sylvia Beach, the future publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses.

When Yeats’s eyesight started failing, Pound spent three winters with him reading, walking in the woods, writing and fencing for exercise. When he was hired by Poetry, he arranged for poems by Robert Frost, H. D., Richard Aldington, Yeats and Joyce to be submitted to the magazine. Pound recognized Hemingway’s talent, introduced him to Joyce, Lewis, and Ford Madox Ford, and helped foster his writing skills. He and Hemingway were close friends despite the 14-year age difference. Hemingway gave boxing lessons to Pound in return for Pound’s writing tutelage but said “Ezra habitually leads with his chin and has the general grace of a crayfish or crawfish.”

But it was T.S. Eliot with whom Pound had the closest and most significant relationship. Pound helped get Eliot’s poetry into various publications and even funded the printing and publication of several of his works. Modernism brought them together, starting with Eliot’s famous opening lines from his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (with apologies again for compressing the lines into one paragraph):

Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells; Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an over-whelming question…Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.

Pound, who at 28 was just three years older than Eliot when they first met, immediately recognized his genius and called Prufrock the “best poem I have yet had or seen from an American.” Pound paid for its printing costs. Eliot’s great work, The Waste Land, was enormously influenced by Pound. He changed the title from He Do the Police in Different Voices, excised entire sections of the poem, and told Eliot to tighten and rearrange other parts. Some critics have argued that The Waste Land was Pound’s vision as much as it was Eliot’s. In its initial release, Eliot dedicated the poem to Pound as “il miglior fabbro,” Dante’s term meaning “the better craftsman,” and continued throughout his life to give full credit to Pound’s contributions to the poem. More than one literary critic has opined that we might never have known the great poet that T.S. Eliot became had it not been for Ezra Pound.

Their relationship included a personal friendship that went beyond their collaboration on poetry. For openers, they shared the childhood pleasure of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories and would often use Remus dialect in their correspondence to each other. For example, Pound included this little verse in a March 28, 1935 letter to Eliot:

Ez Po and Possum Have picked all the blossom,

Let all the others Run back to their mothers…

Eliot was affectionately called Possum and Pound was nicknamed Brer Rabbit in their private exchanges, which some might consider unusual given the public statures of these two great poets, but it reflected the true affection that existed between them at the time. Eliot’s whimsical book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—subsequently made by Andrew Lloyd Webber into the long-running musical success Cats on the London and Broadway stages—stems from Pound’s nickname for Eliot.

Many examples of their personal connection are to be found. For instance, when Pound discovered Eliot’s cache of off-color poems—indeed odd, given Eliot’s fussy, conservative persona and his developing spirituality—he tried getting them published in BLAST, but publisher Wyndham Lewis would make no exception to his policy against four-letter words in the magazine. And when Eliot decided to give up his academic studies in philosophy at Oxford to pursue poetry, it was Pound who wrote Eliot’s parents advising them of the news.

Eliot had a day job from 1917 to 1925 as a bank clerk in the foreign transactions department of Lloyd’s Bank in London. He apparently was well regarded, his salary increasing more than four-fold during his period of employment, and he actually enjoyed his work. Pound, however, thought it was a terrible waste of Eliot’s talent, and even worse because he labored in the sub-basement of the bank. So Pound set up Bel Esprit, a crowdfunding effort to free Eliot from his job and allow him to write poetry full time. There was only one catch: Eliot didn’t want to give up his bank job. In a Paris Match interview years later, Eliot observed that his bank employment and a subsequent publishing job with Faber and Faber actually made him a better poet, saying “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me.”

On the dark side of their relationship, one thing they shared was anti-Semitism. In Pound’s case it was blatant and often accompanied by misogyny—which was paradoxical in a way, considering his lifelong pattern of relationships with and desire for women—as well as a contempt for the common masses. Eliot’s anti-Semitism was more nuanced and more debatable, but lines from several of his poems and statements from some of his lectures made it inescapable to many literary critics that he harbored the prejudice.

To their friends and associates, Pound characterized Eliot as having ”more entrails than might appear from his quiet exterior” and of possessing a particular bent for satire. When Eliot converted from Unitarianism to the high Anglicanism of the Church of England in 1927 and started moving away from satire, Pound expressed both a personal and professional loss. He summed it up by saying he could only “lament the psychoses/Of all those who abandon the Muses for Moses.” Their close relationship was never again quite the same after Eliot’s conversion, though they maintained their friendly correspondence over the ensuing years and continued to critique each other’s work.

T.S. Eliot’s literary career and fame took off like a rocket following publication of The Waste Land in 1922, and his subsequent work included such notable poems as The Hollow Men, Ash Wednesday, and Four Quartets. Lines from his verse were celebrated not just by poets and serious scholars but by the lay public as well. “April is the cruelest month…,” “This is how the world ends not with a bang but a whimper,” “Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity” and “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” provide us just a sampling.

After Ash Wednesday—and with the conspicuous exception of Four Quartets in 1943—he devoted much of his effort to writing seven plays, most notable of which were Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. His plays were written in verse form and were either works with a redemptive theme or comedies. In 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber debuted the record-breaking musical Cats in London and then on Broadway (running 21 and 18 years respectively) as an adaptation of Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. This delightful, mind-boggling production earned Eliot a posthumous Tony Award for best book for a musical. In addition to his poetry and plays, he also made numerous contributions to literary criticism and had a major impact on the school of New Criticism.

Eliot actually produced a comparatively small body of work in his lifetime for a writer of his stature, preferring to hone each individual piece to perfection and limiting himself to three hours a day of writing. His usual pattern was to publish his poems in journals and pamphlets and then to collect them together in book form, the first of these in 1917 being Prufrock and Other Observations.

Surely, the extraordinary record of honors and awards bestowed on him in his writing career is worth noting. The short list includes the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, Presidential Medal of Freedom (U.S.), Order of Merit (U.K.), Hanseatic Goethe Prize, Dante Medal, Officier de la Legion d’Honneur and Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (both France), three Tony Awards and thirteen honorary doctorates. By the end of his life, he was widely acclaimed as the foremost English-language poet of the 20th century (notwithstanding James Joyce) and was on a U.S. commemorative postage stamp to boot.

What is remarkable is that Eliot was achieving such literary greatness while his personal life, at least for many years, was in turmoil because of the failed marriage to Vivienne. Eliot had been contemplating separation from her for a long time when Harvard offered him the Charles Eliot Norton professorship for the 1932-33 academic year. He seized the opportunity and left for America without her. While there, he renewed his contact with Emily Hale, visiting with her in Cambridge and California. After his return to England, she left her teaching position at Scripps College and relocated to England to be near him.

In 1933, Eliot had Vivienne served with a formal notice of separation, which she refused to acknowledge. He went into hiding from her and for five years she desperately sought him out. She tried contacting him at his Faber and Faber office, which was under strict orders not to admit her, and she even placed a notice in the newspaper requesting his return to her. All of it was in vain and she was able see him only once during the remainder of her life, even though she continued to be technically married to him.

In 1938, Vivienne’s brother, Maurice, in consultation with two certifying physicians who scarcely knew her, had Vivienne involuntarily committed to a mental institution because of episodes of bizarre behavior she had been exhibiting. Eliot didn’t resist the move and never once visited her, which might be viewed as hard-hearted considering they had been married since 1915. After Maurice returned from several years of absence abroad, he went to see Vivienne at the asylum in the mid-1940’s and came away saying she was as sane as he was. Vivienne died in the asylum in 1947, ostensibly from a heart attack but credible sources claim she likely committed suicide from a drug overdose.

Many of those around Eliot assumed he would marry Emily Hale after Vivienne’s death, but he had lost interest in that prospect. She accepted the loss with dignity in correspondence to a close friend, but ultimately went into a deep depression and had to be hospitalized. She bequeathed 1,131 letters from Eliot between 1930 and 1956 to the Princeton University library, but she stipulated they were to be put under seal for 50 years and not to be opened until 2020.

The widely anticipated trove of letters was opened by Princeton on January 2, 2020. In a surprise, Eliot’s estate via Harvard University simultaneously issued a posthumous three-page statement written by him. It said he never had sexual relations with Emily and further, “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my 17 years with Vivienne seemed to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.”

So was she not, then, his muse? After all, his letters in the Princeton archive repeatedly expressed his deep love for her. Some Eliot scholars speculated that Eliot’s unkind characterization of Emily reflected his unhappiness with her decision to archive his letters for future release. Such possibility is reinforced by this comment in his statement: “I was, however, disagreeably surprised when she informed me she was handing over my letters to Princeton University…”

His letters to Hale have been widely regarded as a treasure trove for Eliot scholars, especially because he previously destroyed all the correspondence he received from both Emily and Vivienne. They can only be viewed at Princeton and are not available on the Internet or elsewhere since the Eliot estate holds the copyright on them until 2035.

Mary Trevelyan, an activist and supporter of foreign student causes in England, was a friend and asexual companion of Eliot’s from 1938 to 1957. He did not find her to be a suitable marital candidate either, though she proposed to him three times during the course of their relationship. Her memoir has been characterized as a Boswellian record of their meetings and talks over the years.

Finally, Eliot, at age 68, married Valerie Fletcher, his 30-year-old secretary at Faber and Faber, in an early morning secret ceremony (just as with Vivienne) with only her parents in attendance in 1957. Valerie had been a star-struck follower of Eliot from the time she was a young teenager. She gave him devoted, unconditional love and filled the final eight years of his life with happiness and bliss such as he had never experienced before. After his death, she served as his executor and literary editor of several books on Eliot’s work and made it her mission to organize and manage his correspondence and records as well. She also became a major stockholder of Faber and Faber, a role which proved influential for her in her determined efforts on behalf of his legacy.

Eliot died of emphysema in 1965, no doubt the result of his heavy smoking combined with the London air which caused frequent episodes of bronchitis and tachycardia during his lifetime. He was still at the peak of his literary influence, and it was such that he actually addressed an audience of 12,000 people in a soccer stadium on the subject of literary criticism of all things.

That fame has waned in the years following his death, though his greatness as a poet remains mostly untouched. The long knives have been aimed at both his writing and, especially, his personal life. His treatment of Vivienne throughout their years of marriage has been deplored by her friends and supporters. His close relationship with Jean Verdenal, a French medical officer killed in World War 1 and to whom Eliot dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations, has led to otherwise uncorroborated suggestions that he was a closet homosexual. While he has had his defenders, others have argued that lines from his work betray Eliot as both a misogynist and a racist. And charges of anti-Semitism against him have intensified. Almost everyone familiar with Eliot’s life acknowledges them. In fairness, though, it has to be noted that he actively helped Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany resettle in England and America in the 1940s, and after the war he supported the establishment of the nation of Israel.

Some critics argued that he plagiarized the works of others and his poetry was too academic and neoclassical. Ezra Pound was not one of the naysayers, saying he was “the true Dantescan voice” in The Sewaneee Review after Eliot died…a reference to Dante’s “il miglior fabbro” used by Eliot to pay tribute to Pound in the dedication for The Waste Land. Then came Pound’s expression of his personal loss:

“Who is there now to share a joke with? Am I to write about the poet Thomas Stearns…Eliot? my friend the ‘possum?’ Let him rest in peace. I can only repeat, but with the urgency of fifty years ago: READ HIM.”

A stone commemorating Eliot with his life dates, his Order of Merit, and a quote from his poem Little Gidding is set in the floor of the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.


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

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1