GLOUCESTER — Though born in St. Louis, T.S. Eliot, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and author of “The Waste Land,” is often associated with his adopted home of England, where he became a British citizen in 1927 after converting to Anglicanism.
Less well known is that Thomas Stearns Eliot spent many of his happiest days as a child at the family’s summer home in Gloucester, where the young poet explored Cape Ann’s forbidding coast, studied its birdlife, and was deeply impressed by the unforgiving power of the sea — images he would return to throughout his career.
Built by his father, Henry Ware Eliot, the wood-shingled home on Eastern Point remained largely untouched as successive families took ownership. But that began to change in 2015, when the UK-based T.S. Eliot Foundation purchased the home for $1.3 million, announcing its plan to transform the residence into a writers retreat. Two years of planning and construction later, the foundation has made good on its promise, quietly welcoming its first cohort of poets, writers, and editors this summer.
“It just seemed like the most perfect place to allow other writers and poets to come and work,” said foundation director Clare Reihill. “We would make it a gift, almost, to writers in America.”
A somewhat surprising turn of events, as Eliot, who attended Milton Academy before matriculating to Harvard University, had a complicated relationship with the United States and notions of home. Although his grandfather was born in New Bedford and graduated from Harvard Divinity School, he later moved to Missouri, where Eliot’s father became a successful brick manufacturer.
“[W]hen I was sent to school in New England I lost my southern accent without ever acquiring the accent of the native Bostonian,” wrote Eliot in 1928. “In New England I missed the long dark river, the ailanthus trees, the flaming cardinal birds, the high limestone bluffs where we searched for fossil shell-fish; in Missouri I missed the fir trees, the bay and goldenrod, the song-sparrows, the red granite and the blue sea of Massachusetts.”
“He positions himself as in exile from somewhere right from the beginning,” said Frances Dickey, president of the T.S. Eliot Society. “He didn’t feel like he totally belonged.”
Eliot left the United States for good in 1914, arriving in England just as World War I was breaking out. Within a year of his arrival, he’d married Vivienne Haigh-Wood and published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — seminal events that committed Eliot to a life in England and a career in poetry.
The pioneer of modernist poetry cultivated a famously patrician air in his chosen country, once declaring he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” So complete was his transformation into a proper British gentleman that novelist Virginia Woolf once quipped that Eliot would be attending lunch in his “four-piece suit.”
“Who knows what would have happened if there hadn’t been war,” said Dickey. “But he clearly had mixed feelings about coming back.”
The foundation’s new retreat, wedged between a pair of granite outcroppings, is meant, at least partially, to return Eliot to America. The house, with its U-shaped porch, spacious common areas, and rows of bedrooms on the second floor, can accommodate up to five writers at a time, offering residencies of up to six weeks.
The only requirements: Applicants must already be published; they must work in a field Eliot pursued; and, for now at least, they must be American.
“It’s about America, really — reconnecting Eliot with America and this local area,” said Reihill. “They can do anything that he did, so they can be editors, poets, playwrights, critics, essayists.”
Reihill added that for the time being there’s no formal application process, and she’s thus far been relying on referrals from editors and poetry organizations.
‘It’s about America, really — reconnecting Eliot with America and this local area.’
“It’s almost by personal invitation,” she said. “I read their work, have a chat with them, we correspond, and then I invite them.”
The foundation is an offshoot of a charitable trust established by Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, which receives much of its largesse from an unlikely source: the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats,” which is based on Eliot’s children’s book, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
It has spent an estimated $350,000 renovating the home, now dubbed the T.S. Eliot House, adding bathrooms, extending the kitchen, and creating a ground-floor bedroom so the retreat can accommodate disabled writers.
Nevertheless, the residence appears much as it did during the roughly two decades that Eliot summered there — experiences that “shaped him as a poet,” according to Robert Crawford, author of the 2015 biography “Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land.”
Indeed, maritime images rooted in Gloucester reverberate throughout Eliot’s work whether it’s “the hand expert with sail and oar” from “The Waste Land” or “the ragged rock in the restless waters” and “the sea is all about us” in “The Dry Salvages,” a poem that is itself named for a group of rocks off Cape Ann.
In “Cape Ann,” Eliot lists many of the region’s birds — the “Swamp-sparrow, fox-sparrow, vesper-sparrow,” and the house itself even makes an appearance in “Ash-Wednesday”: “From the wide window towards the granite shore/ The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying/ Unbroken wings.”
“He was very nostalgic about Gloucester,” said Reihill. “Mrs. [Valerie] Eliot always said that it was the only place he was truly, straightforwardly happy.”
But while Eliot may have cherished his memories at Eastern Point, his time there was not without sadness.
Summoned home in 1915 after marrying Vivienne without telling his parents, Eliot had to face his mother and father, who disapproved of the marriage and wanted him to return to Harvard and finish his doctorate.
“[He] had a row with his father, who thought his son had acted wrongly and foolishly,” said Crawford via e-mail. “His father never saw Eliot again, and died a few years later, convinced that Eliot had made a dreadful mess of his life.”
The family sold the home soon after his father’s death in 1919. Eliot’s troubled marriage to Vivienne began to dissolve in the 1930s, after which she was committed to an asylum, dying in 1947. Meanwhile, Eliot, who married Valerie Fletcher a decade later, had come to exert an outsize influence on 20th-century poetry.
There is little evidence that Eliot returned to Gloucester in the years following his father’s death. In the early 1950s, however, Tina Mattimore, who grew up in the house, remembers a very proper Eliot arriving unannounced early one Saturday morning.
“They meandered about outside for a while,” said Mattimore, who was roughly 7 at the time. “They wandered through the house. It was very nostalgic for him. That’s when he told me my room was his room.”
Mattimore, who now lives on Long Island, said that Eliot paid a second visit to the home with “a couple of old gals.”
“They were his sisters,” said Mattimore, who added that Eliot’s initials were still carved in one of the home’s rafters. “They [said they] were all married in the living room, so they were crying and emotional.”
More recently, Dana Hawkes, who sold the home to the foundation after the death of her husband, said she was thrilled to learn of their plans.
“I thought: This would make me very happy,” said Hawkes, who has since become a house manager, cooking meals for writers and handling logistics. “This is the best news: the house that the Eliot family built, in an indirect manner, [the family] is buying it back.”
Reihill said the foundation has hosted about 15 writers during its inaugural season, which runs from April through October. She said she hopes to eventually host book readings and seminars, and the foundation is also talking about sponsoring an annual Eliot festival.
She added that she’s particularly interested in creating children’s literacy initiatives.
“Something like an Old Possum’s Practical Picnic once a year for local children where we open the house,” said Reihill by phone from England. “Physically, of course, he made his life here, but I don’t think he ever in his mind left America. . . . He loved that place so much.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay