Saturday Sep. 26, 2015

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Swept Away

How innocent are lovers
in the middle of their lives,
in the years when their lives thicken
and love, reckless love,
overtakes them like a summer storm.
What can they do but
bow to it, they are like trees
in the wind, lashed and tossed,
they are foolish, weeping in restaurants,
making and breaking pacts,
sending each other poems,
quotations, frantic messages,
pronouncements, promises—it is all
so impossible!—weeping in phone booths,
weeping in parked cars, forever scribbling
a note with a borrowed pencil
to slip under a closed door
—like these lines she scribbles now
to slip under the shut door
of the past, the door they shut fast
on the messy years they’ve chosen
not to revisit. Just a note to let them know,
in case they’re in there, somewhere, still,
she doesn’t hold it against them any more.

“Swept Away” by Robyn Sarah from My Shoes Are Killing Me. © Biblioasis Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

Today is the official European Day of Languages, which is a yearly event begun in 2001 to celebrate human language, encourage language learning, and bring attention to the importance of being multilingual in a polyglot world. On this day, everyone, young or old, is encouraged to take up a language or take special pride in his or her existing language skills.

There are about 225 indigenous languages in Europe, which may sound like a lot but is only 3 percent of the world's total. Children's events, television and radio programs, languages classes and conferences are organized across Europe. In past years, schoolchildren in Croatia created European flags and wrote "Hello" and "I love you" in dozens of tongues while older students sang "Brother John" in German, English, and French. At a German university, a diverse group of volunteer tutors held a 90-minute crash course in half a dozen languages, like a kind of native-tongue speed-dating, groups of participants spending just 15 minutes immersed in each dialect until the room was filled with Hungarian introductions, French Christmas songs, and discussions of Italian football scores.

The poet Thomas Stearns Eliot, better known as T.S. Eliot (books by this author), was born on this day in 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent the first 18 years of his life.

As a young man, Eliot was intelligent, hard-working, and intellectually eclectic. And as an undergraduate at Harvard University, he managed to finish both his undergraduate work and master's degree in just four years. At college, Eliot began writing poetry and was something of a dandy — an Anglophile with a personal style of fussy, studied carelessness; his personality witty and precise and his speech free of slang or preciousness. Eliot finished his education as a graduate student at Harvard, studying philosophy under visiting professor Bertrand Russell and completing his Ph.D. thesis in 1914.

Before defending his thesis, Eliot took advantage of a travel scholarship to Germany, followed by a year at Oxford University in England that turned into the rest of his life. The outbreak of World War I prevented him from returning to complete his doctoral defense, and without a Ph.D. in hand, Eliot could no longer consider securing a teaching position with a university and so turned his intention to poetry, editing, and writing essays.

In England, Eliot became acquainted with the American expatriate writer Ezra Pound, who became Eliot's devoted mentor and a sensitive critic of his work. Eliot shared with Pound a long poem he'd begun in college and finished three years before, which Pound critiqued and then encouraged Eliot to publish. Eliot did, and in 1915, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, launching Eliot into the midst of literary modernism.

That same year, at a dance in London, Eliot was introduced to the pretty, vivacious English governess and writer Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eliot was repressed and shy and Vivienne seemed to jolt him. After just three months, the two were wed in a register office, completely ill-prepared for life together and with no idea how or where they would live.

Eliot's former professor, Bertrand Russell, generously offered to help the young couple and the Eliots first settled into Russell's flat in London, Russell giving his financial support as well as introducing Tom to other writers and intellectuals, helping the young poet establish a place with the British intellectual set and even bankrolling the pair for a time after they'd moved out.

Almost immediately after marrying, the Eliots discovered they were incompatible, and it seems that Mrs. Eliot began an affair with her husband's former professor, Bertrand Russell, which Mr. Eliot either tacitly condoned or about which he remained remarkably obtuse. The strain of the Eliot-Russell triangle took its toll on the couple, most especially Vivienne, and Tom found proximity to his emotionally messy wife to be extremely vexing and responded by withdrawing even further.

Eliot continued publishing, establishing himself as a critic in the 1920s with a series of articles for the Times as well as his essay collection Sacred Wood. In 1921, exhausted from poor health and suffering from overwork and increasing marital difficulties, Eliot had a nervous breakdown, took a break from his day job, and went to a sanatorium to recuperate. It was there that he finished his next masterpiece, The Waste Land, which in a line from Dante's Divine Comedy, he dedicated to Ezra Pound — "the better craftsman." The Waste Land drew from a wide range of literary modes taken from many of the writers Eliot admired: Dante, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Elizabethans and Jacobeans and metaphysical writers like Donne; it was juxtaposition and contrast, modern but reflecting archaic aesthetics, and was considered by conservative reviewers to be some kind of literary hoax. The Waste Land called on everything from jazz and nursery rhymes to bits of foreign languages and footnotes, reproducing in both its form and content the jumble of the modern world that Eliot was attempting to describe.

The Eliots' marriage continued to deteriorate. Vivienne Eliot had long been plagued by ill health, from a childhood tubercular infection in her arm that required repeated surgeries to menstrual troubles that caused her great embarrassment as well as migraines, mood swings, and fainting spells. Before her marriage, her mother had intervened and sought treatment for the worst of her daughter's problems and Vivienne was dosed with sedating bromides, probably indicating she'd be diagnosed with hysteria — the common term of the day for "difficult" woman. Vivienne's emotional health was clearly strained, and by the 1930s Virginia Woolf, who was part of the Eliots' social circle, was quoted in a T.S. Eliot biography calling Vivienne a "biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity ... bag of ferrets" that Tom wore around his neck.

The anxiety within his marriage was more than Tom could apparently bear and, in 1933, while on an extended visit to the United States, he began the process of legal separation, dispatching his solicitor to draw up the required documents, take them to Vivienne, and also break the news to her. Although he never actually divorced her, from that time Tom's overriding desire would be to avoid all contact with his wife and to sever all connection to the life he had shared with her. Vivienne, for her part, refused to accept Tom's desertion. She grew panicky and depressed, and frantic to appear emotionally stable while her behavior by turns only became more bizarre, until 1938 when she was found wandering London at five o'clock in the morning, confused, apparently asking passersby if her husband had been beheaded. Vivienne's brother had her committed to an institution, where she spent the remaining decade of her life.

For his part, Tom continued to work as an editor and publish work — poetry, essays, and drama — and won both the Nobel Prize in literature as well as the Order of the British Empire in 1948. In 1957, Eliot remarried, and on January 4, 1965, he died of emphysema and his ashes taken to rest in the English village from which his ancestors had long ago emigrated to America.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®