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The Pleasure of Tom Eliot’s Company : A Friend Remembers the Great Poet on the Centenary of His Birth

<i> The writer, an Episcopal priest and retired college professor, is co-author, with Victor Scherle, of "Affectionately, T.S. Eliot, the Story of a Friendship: 1947-1965" (J.B. Lippincott: 1968). He now heads the Department of English at Viewpoint School in Calabasas</i>

It is astonishing to me to think that the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s birth was last Monday and that I am perhaps his only living intimate friend, due to the fact that he was 59 and I was 25 when we met.

Eliot spoofed his pedantic image in a poem that begins, “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot.” After our first meeting, which inaugurated an 18-year friendship, until his death in 1965, I wrote to thank him for tea at his office in London, saying, “How pleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!” This occasion grew out of my having written to him about his work.

A man of high seriousness and patent spiritual depth, he was always warm and witty and playful. One was impressed with his size, for he was tall, heavy-set, slightly stooped, as though in graceful accommodation to those he was with. Upon seeing him again after a period of months, I was always struck with how slowly and deliberately he thought and spoke, expressing himself with precision in a voice of singular warmth and richness.

The longer I knew Tom Eliot, the more I realized what a momentous friendship was begun for me over office tea and vanilla biscuits. A man without demands, he nevertheless perceived every detail of your preparations for him. He enjoyed the view from your windows, but he also remembered to say he missed it when he couldn’t visit. He wrote to you if he hadn’t heard from you, because he was concerned that all might not be well. He went to infinite pains to find something for you if he knew you wanted it as a gift from him.

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I had introduced him to Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” who remained a permanent pleasure for him. He delighted in comic entertainment, and Groucho Marx was a favorite of his--he never missed any of his movies.

Speaking of television, he commented: “I prefer live entertainment--except for a few fine film actors--and regret the passing of the old music halls. In all genuine art there is a necessary collaboration of audience and artist.”

He could remember word for word a lengthy dialogue that he introduced by saying, “I remember so well an old American vaudeville act--two men, Moran and Mack, who put on blackface and called themselves ‘Two Black Crows.’ ” He then performed for me their famous “Lion Tamer” routine.

Speaking of lions, I once asked him in New York if he would like to visit the Central Park Zoo. He was happy with what I thought he took to be an unorthodox suggestion. Upon reaching 65th Street, we walked down the steps to the zoo and began paying our respects to the seals (a good deal cooler in their pool than Eliot in his heavy winter suit, in warm weather), the big cats, the opossum and the hippopotamus’ cage.

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Admiring the “ugly” beast, I said that I also admired Eliot’s poem “The Hippopotamus,” adding that the Church should be attacked for it worldliness. He said, “That poem shocked many persons when it appeared--and not particularly religious persons. Today it could not possibly shock. And I suppose tomorrow it will appear in children’s anthologies!”

He grew quiet for a moment as we walked slowly up the steps and out of the park. “I first read ‘The Hippopotamus’ at a Red Cross affair,” Eliot said. “Sir Edmund Gosse was in the chair--and he was shocked!”

After a moment, Eliot added, “Arnold Bennett enjoyed it and whenever we met always asked me when I was going to write another ‘Hippopotamus.’ It is the only poem of mine that I know (James) Joyce read. In Paris he told me, ‘I have been to the Jardin des Plantes (the Paris zoo) and paid my respects to your hippopotamus!’ ”

Eliot adored cats and took very seriously every aspect of their individuality, including his responsibility in the initial rite of naming them. As he says in one of his poems, “The naming of cats is a difficult matter. It isn’t just one of your holiday games.”

Because he loved cats, they gave him a great deal of love and pleasure in return. I once told him that Una Jeffers, wife of the poet Robinson Jeffers, had asked me if it were true, as Osbert Sitwell wrote in “Laughter in the Next Room,” that Eliot had the eyes and face of “one of the greater cats.”

“Do you think you look like a cat?” I asked.

“I hope so, William. I hope so. That would be very pleasant to believe.”

What he would have found surprising is that his words on cats were to create a sensational modern musical, “Cats,” which, worldwide, would gain for cats everywhere a unique theatrical distinction.

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When Eliot told a story or quoted someone, it was always to the point. Once, speaking passionately about the 1938 Munich Pact and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, he said, “I felt a deep personal guilt and shame for my country and for myself as a part of the country. Our whole national life seemed fraudulent. If our culture led to an act of betrayal of that kind, then such a culture was worthless, worthless because it was bankrupt. It had no morality because it did not finally believe in anything.”

On one occasion, Wimsey, my cat, entered the room and took his customary place on a cushioned chair in the corner. He settled himself and then looked at Eliot expectantly. Eliot chuckled and said, “Now that we’re all here, I can tell the story!

“It seems that Gladstone was present at a soiree given by the Queen. Directly after the banquet, the gentlemen went to the smoking room and a butler passed out cigars on a silver tray. Noticing that Gladstone did not take one, a gentleman inquired if he did not smoke. Gladstone replied casually, ‘Rarely, rarely . . . only on special occasions!’ ”

Tom Eliot always seemed to me the least likely person to tell a funny story. When he did tell a joke or anecdote, however, he was uncommonly successful. He would lose himself completely in dramatizing the story, enjoying it as though he were hearing it himself for the first time.

If I have dwelt on the lighter side of Eliot’s nature, it has been to effect a balance. He has too often been viewed as aloof and humorless. He was, rather, a very private man and a shy one. Nevertheless, he spoke out in all his work, urging us not to don masks to fool others, as well as ourselves. He said, “If you do not have the strength to impose your terms on life, life will impose its terms on you.”

He alone was able to define the time in which we live. He spoke of the wasteland and of the hollow men we had become and urged us to rediscover the divine source of our humanity. Those who have heeded his advice have not succumbed to the materialistic environment that constantly tempts us.

Like Eliot, they are not convinced that this transitory existence is anything more than a proving ground for the Eternal Life that has been prepared for us.


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