Henry Adams and T.S. Eliot Together at Armageddon

Henry Adams and T.S. Eliot Together at


When Henry Adams died in March of 1918 at the age of eighty, T.S. Eliot, who was not yet thirty, was just beginning to emerge from obscurity. While Adams’ famed descent into despair was now over, Eliot’s had only just started. Their gloomy visions of the world converged briefly, however, during the early years of the 1920s and foreshadowed the intellectual pessimism that was to mark that morally uninspired decade. According to Adams’ crackpot article, “The Rule of Phase Applied to History,” which he completed in 1909, man’s cerebral capacity was to reach “the limit of its possibilities in the year 1921.”[2] A year later, in 1922, Eliot published “The Waste Land,” which by its very existence disproved Adams’ assertion, but nevertheless sprang from a very similar disenchantment with the modern world. What is more, their shared disenchantment was, to a significant extent, the result of similar forces working on their quite distinct lives.

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Henry Adams, 1838-1918

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) in 1919

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) in 1919





Although Eliot was born in St. Louis, both he and Adams were raised as Unitarians in rather rigid social molds, both were Harvard educated, and both had an abiding connection with New England. But a more profound similarity exists between them in their relations with women. It is from this comparatively analogous experience that much of the resemblance in their dark world-views seems to have arisen.[3]

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Henry Adams in 1883. Photo by Adams’ wife, Clover, who was “one of the earliest portrait photographers.”[4]

The thirteen years of Henry Adams’ marriage were perhaps the happiest years of his life. Most of the meaning his existence had came from his wife, Marian, who was called Clover. While he was disgusted with the political corruption and cultural crassness he felt pervaded the United States during the Gilded Age, his wife’s companionship offered him a chance to live in refined isolation from the forces that were buffeting America after Appomattox. However, their marriage was not without its troubles. Indeed, the agnosticism they shared and her unhealthy dependence on her father, who died in April of 1885, were the primary reasons she committed suicide on December 6th of that year. With her death Henry Adams lost the only positive things he had to balance his negative views regarding the direction America and the modern world were headed. As a result, his pessimism, despair, and estrangement from society increased and virtually consumed him. Accordingly, he developed an austere philosophy of history which predicted the end of the world. It posited that Thomas Aquinas’ legitimization of logic and the rise of science during the Renaissance not only destroyed the supposed socio-religious unity of the Middle Ages, which Adams greatly admired, but also led man down a road of increasing spiritual uncertainty and social confusion.

Unlike Adams’ experience, the years of T.S. Eliot’s first marriage were perhaps the unhappiest years of his life. Without informing his parents who had their doubts about the intellectual path he was pursuing, Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a middle-class English girl from Bury, Lancashire, on June 26, 1915. According to Bertrand Russell, who probably seduced Vivienne during the winter of 1915-16, Eliot was “ashamed of his marriage.” Both Russell and Aldous Huxley used the word “vulgar” in describing Vivienne.[5] Moreover, she was plagued with ill-health which caused Eliot to suffer much mental stress and financial worry. Nevertheless, there were undoubtedly moments of happiness and Eliot found positive aspects to his marriage. He informed his friend Conrad Aiken in January 1916: “I have lived through material for a score of long poems in the last six months.” Indeed, T.S. Matthews says of Eliot in Great Tom: “His disastrous first marriage, which forced him into the seeming prodigality of exile and a hireling’s lot, drove him into a waste land of suffering which changed him from a minor to a major poet.”[6] Eliot came to view his marriage as a terrible mistake that was harmful to both himself and his wife. So, against her wishes, he left her in September 1932. He wrote in “A Cooking Egg” (1920): “I shall not want Pipit in Heaven.” When Vivienne died on January 22, 1947, Eliot told his friend John Hayward: “I’ve not a single second of happiness to look back on and that makes it worse.”[7]

Both Adams and Eliot were greatly affected by their first wives. Adams’ descent into despair was primarily a result of the tragic termination of his marriage, while that of Eliot was primarily the result of the tragedy of his first marriage itself. Adams’ world-view was darkest after his wife’s death, while Eliot’s was darkest during the first ten years of his marriage prior to his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927. Accordingly, The Education of Henry Adams (1907) and “The Waste Land,” their most important works, were written during their respective periods of greatest gloom.

It seems, however, that despite the troubles accruing from their marriages, women generally served a tranquillizing function for Adams and Eliot and somehow diverted their attention from the distressing madness which they both perceived in the modern world. They both preferred the company of women. In their correspondence with their women friends they are similarly relaxed and carefree, and leave impressions of themselves that contrast, especially in Eliot’s case, with the dour doom-mongering of their most famous writings. Moreover, both their lives include lengthy Platonic love affairs. In Adams’ case it was with Elizabeth Cameron, the vivacious wife of Pennsylvania Senator James Donald Cameron. She was twenty years Adams’ junior and became especially good friends with him in the latter half of the 1880s when her own marriage was in a state of deterioration. Their relationship verged on becoming a serious romance, but in the end remained only that of good friends because, as Adams told her in November 1891, “I must always make more demand on you than you can gratify, and you must always have the consciousness that whatever I may profess, I want more than I can have.”[8] Eliot’s Platonic love affair was with Emily Hale, a New England school teacher who remained unmarried all her life in devotion to him. They probably met while he was an undergraduate at Harvard. She was shocked by his unexpected marriage in 1915. Nevertheless, they maintained close contact with each other. According to Matthews, Emily probably constitutes half of the “we” in the first part of “Burnt Norton” (1935):

Footfalls echo in memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

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T.S. Eliot at his desk.

Emily also appears in “La Figlia Che Piange” (1917) and is Agatha in Eliot’s first play, The Family Reunion (1939). Their relationship ended abruptly when Eliot, at the age of sixty-eight, married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, on January 10, 1957. His belated discovery of happiness meant the destruction of the dream Emily had waited her whole life to fulfill.

The emotional stresses that resulted from their first marriages, plus other factors, caused both Adams and Eliot to look for a spiritual solution to their existential woes. In Adams’ case these other factors were essentially his own agnosticism which he sought to allay by discovering an abstract truth that would provide mankind with a certain sense of order with which to fight the increasing chaos of the modern world. In Eliot’s case these other factors stemmed in large part from his need for a strong God, which he found in the Anglo-Catholic church, to appease the sexual demons that tortured him with violent animal desires which he could neither satisfy nor accept as normal. Echoing Saint Augustine, he wrote in “The Waste Land”:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


In both cases the need for a spiritual solution was abetted by the modern world’s apparent lack of spirituality. In this quest for religious affirmation, which is the most remarkable of the similarities between the two men, Eliot was the more successful insofar as he found solace in the Anglo-Catholic church of his own day, while the best Adams could do was to idealize the medieval Catholic church. Both men, however, had a longing psychological dependence upon the Virgin Mary. Eliot concluded “Ash Wednesday” (1930), his farewell to Vivienne to whom the poem was dedicated, with these lines:

Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Adams concluded his poem “Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres”:

Help me to bear! Not my own baby load,
But yours: who bore the failure of the light,
The strength, the knowledge and the thought
of God, —
The futile folly of the Infinite.

Moreover, he wrote in Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres (1904):

People who suffer beyond the formulas of expression—who are crushed into silence, and beyond pain—want no display of emotion—no bleeding heart—no weeping at the foot of the Cross—no hysterics—no phrases! They want to see God, and to know that he is watching over His own …. Saints and prophets and martyrs are all very well, and Christ is very sublime and just, but Mary knows![10]

Adams and Eliot were both acquainted with Eastern religion and philosophy. Adams travelled to Japan in 1886 and to Ceylon in 1891, where he visited the Buddhist holy city of Anuradhpura, while Eliot studied Sanskrit at Harvard for two years, which almost turned him into a Buddhist. This awareness of Buddhism is reflected in their lives in terms of what might be called their pursuit of Nirvana. The idea for the Adams Memorial, the beautiful hooded statue Augustus Saint-Gaudens fashioned to mark Marian Adams’ grave in Washington’s Rock Creek cemetery, was the result of Adams’ study of statues of a contemplative Buddha and representations of the ethereal Goddess of Compassion, Kwannon, and was to signify the union of art and philosophy, the fusion of man and woman, into a Nirvanic spirit at peace with the universe. In creating the statue, which is generally regarded as his greatest work, Saint-Gaudens sought to achieve: “Calm reflection in contrast with violence of nature.”[11] “That whole meaning and feeling of the statue,” Adams wrote in 1895, “is in its universality and anonymity.” Four years earlier his friend, John Hay, said of the statue: “It is full of poetry and suggestion. Infinite wisdom; a past without beginning and a future without end; a repose, after limitless experience; a peace to which nothing matters…”[12] Considering these descriptions, Eliot discussed a remarkably similar figure in “Ash Wednesday” when he wrote:

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
End of the Endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible[13]

Moreover, Saint-Gaudens once referred to the Adams Memorial as “The Peace that Passeth Understanding” while Adams once called it “The Peace of God.”[14] Eliot, of course, ended “The Waste Land” with the Sanskrit word “Shantih” repeated three times which translates as “The Peace Which Passeth Understanding.”

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The Marian (Clover) Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. The work of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White, it was commissioned by Henry Adams.

A direct off-shoot of the pursuit of Nirvana in the cosmologies of Adams and Eliot is the concept of silence. Nine months before arriving in Ceylon, Adams told Hay: “Silence seems harsh, but it is my solitary recipe for the universe. It is the only thing that defies the Arabic motto, and will not pass away.”[15] He wrote in his poem “Buddha and Brahma”:

Life, Time, Space, Thought, the World, the Universe
End where they first begin, in one sole Thought
Of Purity in Silence.[16]

Eliot discussed silence at length in “Burnt Norton” and talked of “the world of perpetual solitude” and “the still point” where “Desiccation of the world of sense,/Evacuation of the world of fancy,/Inoperancy of the world of spirit” takes place. But there is a crucial distinction between Adams and Eliot in all this. While Nirvanic spirituality and silence was a religious reality for Eliot, it was only a philosophic concept for Adams. What Eliot believed, Adams only imagined in fantasy. Eliot had faith, Adams did not. Silence became for Adams the ultimate expression of the futility of thought and the absence of his own religious faith. He wrote in “Buddha and Brahma”:

Travelling in constant circles, round and round,
Must ever pass through endless contradictions,
Returning on itself at last, till lost
In silence.

His annihilatory, deterministic philosophy postulated that the failure of thought and the lack of spirituality preordained the world’s destruction. Eliot, on the other hand, ultimately saw silence in a positive light and wrote in “Ash Wednesday” that “there is not enough silence” in this world, thus implying that salvation could not be achieved until one had died. Like Adams, he felt that this world lacked spirituality. He wrote in “Ash Wednesday”:

And the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

But unlike Adams, the end of the world is not the end of everything for Eliot. He wrote in the last section of “The Waste Land”:

                                                    I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Adams’ search for abstract truth, for some rational answer, totally lacked the efficacy of Eliot’s simple faith and his unsuccessful effort to achieve it through reason served only to confirm his despair. Commenting on the existential disease Adams suffered from, Eliot wrote, also in the last section of “The Waste Land”:

We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

Adams’ “posthumous existence,” which is how he described the years of his life after his wife’s death, is magnificently, if unconsciously described, by Eliot in the first section of “The Waste Land”:

                                              …I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

It seems Eliot knew something that Adams did not, but in the end they both came to essentially the same conclusion that knowledge in and of itself was not particularly valuable. Eliot wrote in “Choruses from ‘The Rock’” (1934), part one, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,” while in the third part of “East Coker” (1940) he wrote: “You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance…. And what you do not know is the only thing you know.” Adams wrote in “Buddha and Brahma”: “The wise man knows his wisdom has no place.” Moreover, despite his lack of religious faith, he once wrote: “Man knows mighty little and may some day learn enough of his ignorance to fall down again and pray.”[17] Indeed, like Eliot, he felt that if the world was to be redeemed, it could only be achieved through the church.

Neither of them, however, was too optimistic in this regard. In his 1894 essay, “The Tendency of History,” Adams announced that the world had a choice of three possible paths into the future. It could carry on travelling its present course allowing the continuance and exaggeration of existing evils that would “lead only to despair and attempts at anarchy in art, in thought, and in society.” It could go the socialist route. Or it could have science commit suicide so that society could revert “to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion.”[18] Adams favoured the third possibility, although he knew the first or the second were much more likely. In 1918, Eliot declared that “there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.”[19] He wrote in the seventh section of “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:

The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells
upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?

In the last section of “The Waste Land,” he spoke of “the empty chapel” and mourned the fact that it was “only the wind’s home.” Similarly, in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Adams meditated upon the Virgin Mary “looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith.”[20]

Both Adams and Eliot blamed the church’s decline on science and the increasing social complexity it spawned. Adams, however, is the more famous of the two men for doing this. As early as 1862 he had talked of science becoming “the master of man” and had written: “Man has mounted science and is now run away with.”[21] Eliot wrote in the first and third sections of “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
O wretched generation of enlightened men,
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities.

Eliot, and to a lesser extent Adams, also blamed modern decadence on increasing social egalitarianism. According to Eliot: “The forces of deterioration are a large crawling mass, and the forces of development half a dozen men.”[22] He wrote in “Sweeney Erect” (1920):

(The lengthened shadow of man
Is history, said Emerson
Who had not seen the silhouette
Of Sweeney straddled in the sun.)

Adams was also an elitist and he once wrote that “you could doubtless at any time stop the entire progress of human thought by killing a few score of men,” but he tended to vent his rage more at reformers than at Sweeney and his sensual brothers.[23]

The political views of Adams and Eliot were also similar insofar as they both held anti-Semitic sentiments and near-fascistic ideas.[24] Fortunately, though, neither of them slipped over the line into fascism as did Adams’ younger brother, Brooks, and Eliot’s friend and mentor, Ezra Pound. They committed their energies to art and philosophy rather than to politics and the result, in both cases, is a notable contribution to the history and literature of the twentieth century.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. This essay was originally published in The Chelsea Journal (a Canadian periodical of literary, religious and political views), January-February, 1979, Volume 5, Number 1, pp. 32-35. The current version incorporates several minor editorial changes. When making these changes some forty years later, I also found myself challenging some of my original assertions; see, for example, Footnote 13.
  2. Henry Adams, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (New York, 1949), p. 308.
  3. Both Adams and Eliot were childless, both tended to be pontifical, both edited important periodicals (in Adams’ case the North American Review from 1871 to 1876; in Eliot’s, Criterion from 1922 to 1939), and both had a penchant for using water in analogies or as a symbol or metaphor.
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marian_Hooper_Adams
  5. T.S. Matthews, Great Tom: Notes Toward the Definition of T.S. Eliot (New York, 1973), p. 46.
  6. Ibid., 49, 162.
  7. Ibid., 138.
  8. Ernest Samuels, Henry Adams: The Major Phase (Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 68.
  9. Henry Adams, Letters to a Niece and Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres (Boston, 1920).
  10. Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Boston, 1963), pp. 194-195.
  11. Ernest Samuels, Henry Adams: The Middle Years (Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 335.
  12. Marian Adams, The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams, ed. Ward Thoron (Boston, 1936), p. 458. Henry Adams, Education, p. 329. Elizabeth Stevenson, Henry Adams (New York, 1956), p. 223.
  13. Reconsidering this quotation and the sentence that precedes it forty years after originally writing the essay, I still find echoes in Eliot’s words of the different descriptions of the Adams Memorial. But I would no longer say his words describe “a remarkably similar figure,” for the section of “Ash Wednesday” that the quoted words come from concludes with reference to “the Garden / Where all love ends”—a quite different feeling and reality.
  14. Louise Hall Tharp, Saint-Gaudens and the Gilded Age (Boston, 1969), p. 225. Samuels, Major Phase, p. 88.
  15. H.D. Cater, Henry Adams and His Friends (Boston, 1947), p. 235.
  16. Henry Adams, “Buddha and Brahma,” Yale Review, V (October 1915), pp. 82-89.
  17. Henry Adams, The Letter of Henry Adams: 1892-1918, ed. W.C. Ford (Boston, 1938), p. 86.
  18. The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, p. 131.
  19. Great Tom, p. 90.
  20. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, p. 195.
  21. Charles Francis Adams, et al, A Cycle of Adams Letters: 1861-1865, ed. W.C. Ford (Boston, 1920), I, p. 135.
  22. Great Tom, p. 90.
  23. Adams and His Friends, p. 122.
  24. Major Phase, pp. 129-130, 138, 167-170, 182, 184, 243, 266, 356, 426 (re: Adams’ anti-Semitism), and 548, 578-579 (re: his near-fascist ideas). Great Tom, pp. 76, 113-114, 163 (re: Eliot’s anti-Semitism), and 113 (re: his near-fascist ideas).
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