BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2001
current issue
features
prologue
Advancement
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Archives
Contact BCM
Coming Events
.
Bard Watching
Photo of T.S. Eliot and others
Images of Eliot
.

Thomas Stearns 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 the city.

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 Africa" (1943).

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 Boston College."

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 Club.

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 medications daily.

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 of him.

Francis Sweeney, SJ

Now 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.


Top of page .

.
Linden Lane
. . .
  »  Grounded
     
  »  Guidance systems
     
  »  It's settled
     
  »  Bard watching
     
  » 
     
  » The ring
     
  » Truth and consequences
     
  » Unfit to print
     
  » Fast times
     
  »  Datafile
     
  » An old fool
     
  » News Briefs


alumni home
bc home
.

© Copyright 2001 The Trustees of Boston College