A New England Student

At the time Eliot graduated from Harvard College, while walking one day in Boston, he plunged into a strange silence like a parting of the sea. In June 1910 he wrote a poem he never published called ‘Silence’, his first and perhaps most lucid description of the timeless moment:

Along the city streets
It is still high tide,
Yet the garrulous waves of life
Shrink and divide
With a thousand incidents
Vexed and debated—
This is the hour for which we waited—
This is the ultimate hour
When life is justified.
The seas of experience
That were so broad and deep,
So immediate and steep,
Are suddenly still.
You may say what you will,
At such peace I am terrified.
There is nothing else beside.

At the age of twenty-one Eliot had an experience which, he said, many have once or twice in their lives and are unable to put into words. ‘You may call it communion with the Divine or you may call it temporary crystallization of the mind,’ he said on another occasion. Eliot's peace in the noisy street is similar to Emerson's on Boston Common when he felt ‘glad to the brink of fear’. For some, such a moment is part of an orthodox religious life, for others – like Emerson – it is terminal, sufficient in itself, and grateful received. For Eliot, though, the memory was to remain through the years that followed as a tantalizing reminder of an experience beyond his grasp.

Silence came to a prepared mind – a moment for which, already, he had ‘waited’ – and Eliot's Notebook traces the course of this preparation during the undergraduate years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Through his mother, in particular, Eliot was steeped in Emerson, who granted authority to the private light. During the formative years in New England this was reinforced by Eliot's solitary habits, by his discovery of the alienated voice of nineteenth-century French poets, and by his growing distrust of family norms, Harvard clichés, and Boston manners. The Boston of Eliot's youth was no longer the ‘old Boston’ governed by Puritan conscience, but a society in decline. Eliot deplored turn-of-the-century Boston – as he would probably have deplored any city that he happened to be in at the time – but he was not unaffected by its gentility, its high-mindedness, its avidity for culture, experience, and Europe.

References

From T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. Written by Lyndall Gordon

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