21. The Boston silence | “I am terrified”

“A terrified patrician”  is not quite the same as “a sceptical patrician”,  and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect TS Eliot to have written as penetrating an essay about what I call  ‘the Boston silence’  as he did about what he called  “the Boston doubt.”  Instead,  he wrote a poem  —  “Silence”  —  which,  significantly,  he never published;  one reason surely it has not been given the weight in his life and work I think it deserves.  However,  Eliot’s subtitle to the poem’s title  —  “I am terrified”  —  though brief,  says as much as could any essay;  says it quite urgently.


My mind goes at once in the face of that title to a classic of 18th-century New England and American literature,  the notoriously fearsome sermon of Jonathan Edwards,  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,”  and what it may mean that its author’s work,  according to the great 20th-century Harvard scholar Perry Miller,  is  “generally taken as the supreme achievement of the New England Mind.”  It is surely a relief to remember that the 18th-century Massachusetts Calvinist thinker’s world philosophic repute rests on a fundamentally very different work,  his much less alarmingly titled  Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions respecting the Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency (1754).  That discourse,  not the sermon,  is the focus of Edwards’ column-long entry in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

Edwards’ entry is,  in fact,  as long as that of Emerson himself.  Not even in Emerson’s entry,  however,  will you encounter the name of Mary Moody Emerson.  Yet he could  “spare Greece and Rome better than Mary’s influence,”  America’s Plato once said,  she who famously advised young Waldo  (as have I and countless other Harvard tutors over the years advised their students):  “Spurn trifles,  lift your aims;  do what you are afraid to do.”  Mary Moody Emerson,  however,  who when she lived on Beacon Street said she preferred the vew of the Old Granary Burying Ground,  thank you,  because it was so much less selective than Boston’s best residential address,  may well have a future in the  “DCC”. She has certainly emerged since Phyllis Cole’s  memorable biography of her of 2002 as recognizably  “an original genuis in her own right”,  called thus by her famous nephew’s best biographer,  Robert D. Richardson,  who in his Emerson:  The Mind on Fire, called that thinkers’ eccenric  “Aunt Mary”  (as she was long thought only to be)  a  “vigorous theologian . . . . [and] original relgious thinker,  almost a prophet . . . [whose] life was spent wrestling with angels.”

“Like the best of the Puritans before her,  and like Melville and Emily Dickinson later”,  Mary Moody Emerson,  in Richardson’s words,  could  “neither believe completely nor be comfortable in her disbelief,”  and that is why Lyndall Gordon,  years before Cole’s pathbreaking biography,  cited  “Aunt Mary”  as exemplary of something which  “gave international philosophic status,”  not to Jonathan Edwards’ profound certitudes,  whether expressed in a manner more scholarly or oratorical,  but,  in Gordon’s words,  “to  a paradox native to the New England mind  (as Eliot saw it in Emerson,  and as Emerson himself saw it in his aunt, . . . the purest exemplar of that Yankee fusion of scepticism and passionate piety.)

Indeed,  according to Carlos Baker,  Ralph Waldo Emerson declared forthrightly that the key to his aunt’s life  was found,  not in compromise or ambivalence,  but in the fiercest struggle:  Mary Moody Emerson,  her famous nephew asserted,  was forever in the midst of  “the conflict of the new and the old ideas of New England.  The heir of whatever was rich and profound in thought and emotion in the old religion . . . .she strangely united to this passionate piety the fatal gift of penetration . . . and was thus a religious skeptic.”

There is,  if you will,  New England’s chief  apostolic succession: Mary Moody Emerson,  Ralph Waldo Emerson and TS Eliot,  Dickinson,  Hawthorne and Melville close at hand,  for “Aunt Mary’s”  gift was Eliot’s too,  and no less fatal;  gift powerfully sparked in my view by ‘the Boston silence’ that came to Eliot as a balance to “the Boston doubt”,  as well in Lyndall Gordon’s view,  who,  uniquely among Eliot scholars,  emphasizes and thus describes its dawning:

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 [about it] . . . . At the age of twenty-one Eliot had an experience which,  he said,  many have once or twice in their lives . . . . ‘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.’

Silence comes to the prepared mind . . . .. Through his mother in particular Eliot was steeped in Emerson . . . . 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 distaste of family norms,  Harvard cliches,  and Boston manners . . . . ?  This Boston was Eliot’s birthright,  and yet he came to it with the detatchment of an alien.

It was that ‘Silence’,  a  “fugitive sensation of peace that  [Eliot]  would try all his life to recapture . . . . The revelation in the spring of 1910 had no immediate repercussions,:  Gordon contiued,  “but remained the defining experience of [TS Eliot’s\ life.”

To that conclusion of Gordon’s,  and the additional one that he “would try all his life to re-capture” this climax of his  “formative”  years,  I feel bound to add that Gordon’s characterization of how Eliot felt he acted or didn’t act) during it  —  “a silence that protects the “skull” (Gordon’s word)  —  within which  “momentarily,  [Eliot] hangs in his chrysalis  [and] the soul lies still in its cell,  sensing its wings,  longing to unfurl its purity,  and fearful it will miss its moment of birth through excessive caution”  —  sounds to me a lot like   “the Boston doubt”  at it’s most disabling.  Equally,  her characterization of what actually seems to have happened to Eliot when this strange silence akin to the parting of the Red Sea engulfed him  —  it  “seal[ed]  him off,  in a state of beatific security,  from the  ‘floods of ife’  that threaten[ed] to break like a wave against his skull”  —  sounds very much like Eliot’s final escape from doubt into mystical experience.

It was,  to be sure,  a dramatic escape,  very much a road to Damascus moment in the Boston street,  but so was the threat a fierce one:  “that the Puritan inheritance  ‘dogged’  its heirs with conscience  [and]  the Unitarian inheritance hounded them with doubt  . . . . ‘the Boston doubt’,” meant,  Mark Jeffrey’s has written,  that the victim only discovered to late if ever that he or she  “belong[ed],  apparantly inescapably,  to a tradition which denied the very possibility of belonging.  Henry Adams . . . lived out his life without belief,  and without belief there could be no shared community,  because traditions cannot be sustained without belief.”

Such was the nature of the dilemma Eliot had to set right.  Shades of Pascal,  Christopher Ricks rightly brings up.  For me,  as I read Eliot’s and Gordon’s account of all this  —  somewhere near Tremont and School and Washington Steets I’ll warrant for no reason I could articulate  —  I think too of Freud and of his master metaphor of  The Interpretation of Dreams:  “At the beginning”,  Freud writes,  “there is  “the dark forest of authors  (who do not see the trees);”  for us in this case these are the scholars who evade the mystical Eliot.  “Then,”  Freud continues,  there is  “a concealed narrow pass” through which  —  in our case here I have posited the Bostonian slum poetry, the Preludes  —   through which the reader is led to Eliot’s first and formative mystical experiene ,  the silence. “And then,  suddenly,  the summit,”  Freud concludes:  “the summit and the view and the question:  Please,  where do you want to go now?”


Confronted with that question,  as how could he not be in the wake of ‘silence’,  an experience as urban as it was mystical  (“Silence” begins:  “Along the city streets”)  and thus in a very real sense the climax,  not just of Eliot’s Boston Brahmin satirical poetry about the world of  “Adams – Eliot”,  but of the Boston slum poetry in Roxbury,  Dorchester,  North Cambridge and the South End we’ve emphasized here,  TS Eliot  “resisted,”  Gordon observes,  “a conventional religious answer.”  Not least,  she writes,  because of  “his sensitivity to urban degradation,  he could not easily accept the benign,  enlightened Diety of his family.”  Nor could he he call up anything like the skill set of landscape architect Charles Eliot to ease it.  The poet was content instead to  “deplore turn-of-the-century Boston as he would probably have deplored any city that he happened to be in at the time,” Gordon affirms,  insisting,  however,  in the same breadth that,  confronted with  —  what should one call it? the higher Boston  —  “[Eliot] was not unaffected by its gentility,  its high-mindedness,  its avidity for cultur[al] experience.

The truth is TS Eliot was proud to be a Boston Brahmin and proud of Brahmin civilization,  one reasons its flaws troubled him so,  and when he could no longer ignore them,  drove him away to Britain.  There,  not unrelated to Pound’s influence either,  he wrote perhaps the most pointed of his satirical attacks on Brahmin Boston,  the decline  (though not yet the fall of which  —  that would come with the Sacco Vanzetti trial)  it would be Eliot’s task to stoicly document and chronicle. Meanwhile,  even  “the Boston doubt”  served his purposes well enough,  as Louis Menand,  without identifying it as that,  noticed when he concluded that  “[Eliot’s] strongest suit as a critic was not originality or argumentative power but skepticism . . . an attitude”  —  remember the subtitle of the last posts title  —  “of seeing through everything.”

At the same time I discern a new maturity gathering force,  even to the point of his being able to admit that Emerson famously refusing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper because  “it no longer interested him”,  an action Eliot could not have been expected to sympathize with,  had been  “not without an austere grandeur”,  a reflection to my mind of the truth dawning on Eliot in the wake of ‘silence’   that,  as Mark Jeffrey’s put it,  “without convictions any position that one inhabits,  any role that one plays,  remains hollow.”

Now it is possible to state Eliot’s response to this  ‘Boston silence’  and another confirmative one which came to him a year later in Paris  (records Gordon:  “Silence came to Eliot again a second time in March 1911″)  in more sober and prosaic tones without any mystical reverberations.  Certainly historian Lee Oser does”  “during the mid and late 1910s Eliot . . . [undertook]  a careful and painstaking self-critique,  in which he tried to distance himself from the interrelated New England traditions of idealism and skepticism — ‘the Boston doubt’ of Emerson and Adams,  in order to overcome the crippling habit of self-reflection.  Eliot determined to break from his native traditions . . . . [Of]  this anti-Boston phase,”  Oser goes on to say,  “‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ incorporates this phase,  but passes beyond it.”

Oser is wrong,  I think,  however,  to call this an anti-Boston phase;  the ‘silence’  as much as the’ doubt’ comes to Eliot in Boston.  The anti-Boston phase would not come untill 1915 in London with Pound.  In 1910 the overwhelming factor was that through the  ‘silence’  the Puritan piety had come back into Eliot’s mind to balance the Unitarian doubt, prompting not only the overall critique Oser notices but also   two pivotal moves by Eliot,  one religious,  one literary. 

First,  in the wake of  ‘silence’  he began to read Mysticism,  the magnum opus of the great Anglican spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill. Second,  he pointedly associated himself with the New England literary tradition by going that summer of 1910 to an incarnation on Boston’s North Shore of the Old Corner Bookstore,  name famously Bostonian all over the English-reading world,  and bought the now celebrated leather-bound notebook  —  Inventions of the March Hare he labelled it  —    in which he set down his first mature poetry.  The  “Preludes” are there.  So are parts of  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. And so is  “Silence.”

“A work of art derived from actual experience”  is how Underhill explained what a vision is,  and Eliot copied down in his own hand the passage in her still widely read book where she goes on:  “if we would cease,  once for all,  to regard visions and voices as objective,  and be content to see in them forms of symbolic expression,  ways in which the subconscious activity of the spiritual self reach the surface-mind,  many of the disharmonies notable  in visionary experiences which have teased the devout,  and delighted the agnostic,  would fade away.  Visionary experience is a picture which the mind constructs.”  Underhill was not naive. Also among Eliot’s student notes is  “a warning from Underhill that vision through the senses is imperfect,  capricious and often a delusion.  One must await purely spiritual communication.” Though Eliot’s  “heroes of the spirit” have “glimpses of Silence”,  he was himself wary. Doubt and silence.  Silence and doubt.   Eliot’s conversion would only come seventeen years later,  in 1927.

Interestingly,  moreover,  it was a literary as well as a religious conversion  —  a return ‘home’ in both instances,  but,  of course,  on Eliot’s own terms,  which he had surely won through to in life experience.  The religious one came first,  but alone I think would not have suficed.  On the other hand,  it was not untill that religious port had been made that Eliot was able to reclaim fully  —  as he had never really been able to bring himself to claim in the first place  —   Eliotic Boston,  his love-hate relationship withwhich he refined when he visited Milton Academy in 1931 and addressed the student body of his old New England prep school.  He invoked according to Ronald Bush  “the  spirit of his young manhood” of the 1900s and  at Harvard,  “when he plotted rebelling against the conventions of Unitarian Boston,” admonishing his hearers tellingly:  “whatever  you feel,  be sure it is what you feel.”

Indeed,  by the 1960s,  when Eliot, like that other example of Oliver Wendel Holmes  “dual citizen”,  John Singer Sargent,  Eliot was so often seen in Boston he could almost be said to have returned home in the same way  his mother had (the very year her husband died) TS Eliot finally made peace in the august realm of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,  when in response to being given their Emerson-Thoreau Medal,  he responded that,  in Gordon’s words,  “when all was said and done,  he deserved the title of New England poet.”  Deserved.


Professor Betty Hughes Morris of Emerson College,  sometime librarian of the Church of the Advent in Boston,  now retired but still going strong at 90-something,  has long studied and taught Eliot,  linking his religious and literary homecomings interestingly.

She was not a part of Eliot’s Boston circle,  but surely would have been if,  like the Harvard graduate student of the last post who followed Eliot out of Mass in Boston with poetical intent and vocal bravado,  Professor Morris had spoken up when she had the chance.  But realizing in a more mannerly way than the pushy Harvardian that  “poor Mr.  Eliot”  was doubtless forever being followed by somebody — that being the down side,  the  “sting”  in Emily Dickinson’s words,  of fame’s  “song”  and too its  “wing”,  she did not speak up,  and only later in life told,

I have sat behind TS Eliot at Solemn Mass at the Church of the Advent and my husband and I followed him afterwards as he walked briskly up Mount Vernon Street,  furled umbrella stabbing between the bricks.  He was obviously hurrying to the Charles Street  [subway]  station,  and I whispered, ‘Do we dare to offer him a ride?’  (‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’) —  Oh,  yes,  I once saw Eliot plain.  ‘And did he stop and speak to you?’  No such luck.   While we hesitated,  a visitor from Canada loped past us,  caught up to the poet,  talking rapidly as he reached him . . . .

 Morris it is,  moreover,  who best explains,  in a charming article of 1990,  “All the Old Eliotic Places,”  the wonderful  “severity . . . . [and]  seductive coldness”  Louis Menand points to in Eliot’s late essays when she writes of the poet:  “His character was New England:  the strong sense of duty which contended with hyper-sensitivity,  the prudence,  social caution,  the reserve that struck others as hauteur.”  She even makes the point  —  in connection with Anthony Blance declaiming  “The Waste Land”  in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited but it holds as well for the Bostonian slum poetry of the Preludes  —  that  “Eliot was not simply denouncing scenes of industrialization,  but,  in the maner of Anglo-Saxons,  found bleak landscapes enjoyable.”

Above all,  Morris notes that the sense of duty,  the hyper-sensitivity,  the prudence,  social caution and reserve (hauteur?) that identified TS Eliot as a New Englander,  is the key to understanding his Boston Brahmin satirical poetry:  “He recognized his WASP-self [my emphasis]”,  Morris insists,  “and his family,  writing  portraits of  ‘Cousin Nancy’  and  ‘Aunt Harriet’.”  Truth,  though we do not see it anymore.  In writing about the Boston Evening Transcript TS Eliot was writing about himself.

But Anglicanism,  someone will say,  is not Unitarianism. This may even be true at King’s Chapel,  but nobody told Edmund Wilson that.  In his very first book of literary criticism in 1931,  Axel’s Castle, Wilson made it plain that  “Eliot’s spiritual and intellectual roots are still more firmly fixed in New England  [16 years after he had moved to London] than is,  I believe,  ordinarily understood.”  Noting that  “Portrait of a Lady,”  whether  “the scene be laid in Boston or in London,  is essentially a poem of that New England society so  ‘refined’  ]in Elot’s words]  beyond the point of civilization,”  Wilson did not mince words:  “TS Eliot,  though born in St.  Louis,  comes from a New England family and was educated at Harvard”.  He was,  he continued,  a  “product of our New England civilization . . . . distinguished by that combination  of practical prudence with moral idealism which shows itself in its later developments as an excessive fastidiousness and scrupulousness.”

Whatever exactly Wilson may have meant,  to us today such an observation cannot but point,  however vague seeming or gently,  to some of TS Eliot’s  less attractive attitudes,  attitudes that have to be factored in,  for example,  to why he chose to live abroad.

 Princeton historian Christine Stansell,  who in her American Moderns notes how  “Harvard has always wielded authority in New York,  a secret cell of Boston influence”  and emphasizes,  indeed,  celebrates,  the leftist bohemian ‘modernism’ of John Reed’s “Harvard Renaissance” in Greenwich Village,  makes her point in large part by focusing,  fairly enough,  on two aspects of Modernism she sees as,  on the one hand,  very American,  and on the other,  quite European. And as it turns out one aspect of her doing so is to remind Americans in general and Bostonians in particular that reclaiming TS Eliot  is to fall heir to a very mixed blessing:  yes,  he is arguably the geatest English-language poet of the last century and one of a half dozen High Modernist gods;  but he was also a misogynist and an anti-Semite,  on both of which Stansell rightly seizes to make her point.

“Feminism . . . . was a distinctly American sensibility,” she writes,  contrasting that with the  “explicit antipathy to women . . . that wound through high modernist  corridors in Europe.”;  similarly,  “the rejection of explicit anti-Semitism . . . . set these  [Bostonian Greenwich Village] moderns off from analogous European circles where anti-Semitism penetrated the very marrow of modernity.”  In the first case she cites Eliot’s and Pound’s  “overt scorn for the modern woman’s quest for self-determination,”  and in the second he leading example is  “the perjorative meaning of  ‘the Jew’ for TS Eliot.”

Wilson,  of course,  if he saw any of this,  didn’t mean any of it,  in 1931 simply pronouncing himself astounded at Eliot’s choice of residence:  “the desolation,  the aesthetic and spiritual drouth of Anglo-Saxon middle-class society oppresses London as well as Boston,”  he wrote,  making Henry Adams’s point two generations later.

Lyndall Gordon,  however,  with greater perspective,  did see both Eliot’s sins and graces and how,  always so oddly,  they rubbed up against each other,  and why one aspect of same was his absolute need to live abroad.  With tremendous penetration she concludes that  “the English served Eliot as the lost tribes . . . as the Westerner had served the missionary zeal of  [his]  grandfather in mid-19th-century St.  Louis.” She appreciated too the priceless witness of Robert Lowell,  a Brahmin throwback a generation after Eliot whose poetry the master liked,  who recognized in Eliot’s attraction to Anglicanism  “the authentic color of the New Englander who would preach a more rigorous code than which prevailed and enjoy its proprieties of form and the introspective mood it induced.  If  in the matter of his conversion,  Eliot’s mask enacted England,  his inbent eye recalled New England divines.”

New England divines for a New England poet.  Which was why Wilson,  for one,  saw in Eliot’s movement of the spirit  “less an Anglo-Catholic conversion than a reawakening of the New England conscience;”  Eliot,  quoth Wilson,  was  “as the phrase is,  a little thin-lipped.  His religious tradition has reached him by way of Boston.”

Yet I suspect for Eliot it was above all a matter of achieving some sort of balance spiritually.  Rather than trying to jetison scepticism,  as how could a modernist poet,  however anti-modernist in his politics,  he rescued piety;  finally understanding that scepticism had far better served Puritan piety,  even  Unitarian conscience,  than  it ever could modern guilt,  what conscience had become by Eliot’s time.

I think Jackson Lears is right in this:  in rediscovering for himself piety  —  and there was the effect of the ‘silence’  —  Eliot defeated the dreaded hollowness of Brahmins like Adams,  and  —  rather bravely  —  “resolved to search for faith even while accepting the knowledge which erodes it,  resigning himself to the insoluble contradictions of his own psyche”.  This attitude,  Lears points out,  “in its aversion to static systems,  is a thoroughally  ‘modern’  one.”


How life-changing was Eliot’s  “Boston silence”?  Gordon tracks it for decade after decade to the luminous quartets of the 1940s that won Eliot his Nobel.  In  “The Dry Salvages”,  he poet took up “the challenge of auto-biography,”  Gordon writes,  “to make sense of his life.” Behold:  “he exchang[es his] present-day reality for the dream of New England”,  which with unsparing self-examination he probes very deeply indeed.  “The greatness of Eliot’s conception  [being]  in the integrity with which he backs down from dreams of attainment in favor of modest expectations  —  modest in view of the glimpse of Divine Light at Burnt Norton,  the call in  “Marina”  [Eliot’s poem of 1930,  Marina being Emily Hale,  his Boston  ‘Beatrice’], and going back,  the  ‘Silence’  in the Boston street.”

And here is the closest engagement of Boston’s doubt and Boston’s silence,  of Eliotic doubt and Eliotic silence:  for the  “utmost scepticism” of Eliot’s religion ca only be explained as a fusion of both.  Jeffrey Perl recounts how when Lawrence Durell in late life posed to Eliot,  in person,  the famous question, “What does Mr. Eliot believe?”,  declaring in the face of the poets admissions about his scepticism,  “I can’t think how they let you into the Church,”  TS Eliot’s response was  “a very sober expression”  and the remark: “Perhaps they haven’t found out about me yet.”

COMMENTS | backbayhistorical@gmail.com


Baker, Carlos.  EMERSON AMONG THE ECCENTRICS  (Viking)  1996

Bush,  Ronald.  [Forthcoming]


[Freud,  Sifmund]  quoted in Gay,  Peter.  FREUD  (Norton)  1998

Gordon,  Lyndall.  T. S. ELIOT: AN IMPERFECT LIFE  (Norton)  1998

Lears,  Jackson.  NO PLACE OF GRACE  (Univ.of Chicago Press)  1994

Menand,  Louis.  AMERICAN STUDIES  (Farrar,  Straus & Giroux) 2002


Miller,  Perry.  JONATHAN EDWARDS  (Univ. of Nebraska Press)  2005 ed.

Morris,  Betty Hughes.  “All the Old Eliotic Places”  in  BEACON  (Epiphany 1990)

Oser,  Lee.  TS ELIOT AND AMERICAN POETRY  (Univ. of Missouri Press)  1998

Perl,  Jeffrey.  “T. S. Eliot’s Small Boat of Thought”  in  COMMON KNOWLEDGE  (Spring-Fall 2007)

Ricks,  Christophr.  INVENTIONS OF THE MARCH HARE  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)  1998

Richardson,  Robert D.  EMERSON:  THE MIND ON FIRE  (Univ. of California Press)  1996

Underhill, Evelyn.  MYSTICISM  (One World) 1911

Wilson,  Edmund.  AXEL’S CASTLE  (Online text)

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