Eliot came to Boston College twice to read his poetry. The first
occasion was May 14, 1958, when he was almost 70 years old and
had been a Nobel Laureate for going on 10 years. I was teaching
in the English department. Eliot told me then that a visit to
Boston would give him an opportunity to introduce his new wife,
Valerie Fletcher Eliot, to his relatives who lived in the area.
(His first wife, Vivien, had died in 1947.) More than once I observed
the two of them hand in hand as we drove here and there about
After the main event, Richard Hurt wrote in the Boston Globe that
Eliot, "amiable and urbane," had "stood before an enthralled audience
at Boston College" and "in a strong, fluid voice" had read from
works he had ordered chronologically. "I am not in such close
touch with the man who wrote the earlier poems as I am with the
one who wrote the more recent ones," Eliot had remarked. His readings
ranged from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917) to "The
Dry Salvages" (1941). Approximately a thousand people crowded
into the Bapst Library Auditorium for the occasion.
The second time Eliot visited BC was December 4, 1961, roughly
three years before his death. The University's gymnasium was reserved,
and he spoke before an audience of close to 3,000. As at the first
reading, Eliot gave his hearers a deeper understanding of his
writing, drawn from the emphasis he put upon one word or another,
and even from the movement of his head and shoulders that accompanied
some lines, as in the cat poems and "To the Indians Who Died in
According to Eliot's wife, public readings cost him considerable
effort. Not long before, at a university some distance away, he
had been subjected to a receiving line. Some of the audience had
appeared with multiple copies of his book for autographs or had
doubled back to greet him again. After the reading at Boston College
he was only too happy to be taken off to a quiet reception in
a Chestnut Hill home, attended by a few faculty and students and
some of Eliot's relatives. Eliot had placed several cousins on
the guest list, as well as his older sister. "I don't think she
will be able to come," he'd said, "but she will be happy to be
invited." When we were gathered around him in the living room,
the keen ear of the student editor of Boston College's Stylus
heard a little voice say, "You didn't think I'd make it, Tommy,
did you?" It was his sister.
It was the end of a happy evening when we put Eliot and his wife
in the car and sent them off to the Ritz Carlton. Eliot once said
to me, "Even when I am unable to go elsewhere, I will return to
At the beginning of November 1963, Eliot wrote to me to say that
he and his wife would be visiting New York at the end of the next
month. They would be there for a brief time before heading south
to Nassau. He invited me to meet them for a meal at the River
On the back of the card he wrote an addendum. I had been in the
habit of closing my letters to him with the word "respectfully."
Now he wrote, "But please, not 'respectfully' to us!"
The River Club is on 52nd Street close to the East River. Inside,
it suggests a place where comfort waits, out of the clamor of
a great city. When I saw Eliot, he had his usual smile of friendship,
but I was surprised to find he walked with a cane and seemed to
be avoiding any activity that would diminish his energy. Valerie
Eliot had little to say; her whole attention was given to the
care of his health. In fact, she told me he needed to take 16
Our conversation over lunch ranged widely. I said that his religious
profession -- in his life and in his poetry -- like the life and poems
of Gerard Manley Hopkins, seemed to have renewed the acceptability
of religion on the university scene. He bowed his head silently
at this, not assenting but showing his gratitude, it seemed.
I asked Eliot about the prototype of the rough-and-ready Sweeney
image in his poems -- for example, in "Sweeney Erect" and "Sweeney
Agonistes." He had commented once, "It happens that I know many
Sweeneys, some of them among friends of mine. I happen to like
the name. It has a pleasant sound."
Among his friends named Sweeney was John Lincoln Sweeney, a humanities
preceptor at Harvard. At the River Club, I said, "Your classmate,
Conrad Aiken, traces Sweeney to your boxing instructor in the
South End of Boston."
"There were others," Eliot said -- among them the bartender at the
Opera Exchange, also in Boston, where he had gathered with friends
in his Harvard student days, circling Champagne corks on the table
in a fortune-telling game. Eliot lifted his forefinger and waved
it in a circle.
Later I remembered that when the original manuscript of "The Waste
Land," not yet edited by Ezra Pound, was brought to light in the
Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, the first major
review identified the opening section, "The Burial of the Dead,"
as a pub-crawl through London. I wrote to Valerie Eliot to recall
my conversation with her husband and the scene that he had described.
That was unmistakably a night out in Boston.
Toward the end of lunch, Francis X. Connelly, a distinguished
professor of English at Fordham, joined us. Connelly came representing
the Catholic Book Club, which two months earlier had awarded Eliot
its annual tribute, the Campion Award, for his contribution to
Christian literature. Eliot had been unable to come to New York
to accept the award. Connelly now draped it around his shoulders.
The Campion Award is a beautiful medallion, not unlike the one
worn by Sir Thomas More in the Holbein painting that adorns a
wall of the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue.
When Eliot rose to leave and walked with Mrs. Eliot to the elevators,
he was still wearing the decoration, still smiling as he turned
and bowed to us with grace and dignity. That was my last glimpse
Francis Sweeney, SJ
retired, Francis Sweeney, SJ, a poet and a member of the English
faculty, taught at Boston College from 1950 to 1996. His poems have
appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times,
and the Washington Post.
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