GLOUCESTER — This city’s relationship to the visual arts is well known. It starts with Fitz Henry Lane. The Cape Ann Museum has the world’s largest collection of his work. Next July, “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Illuminating an American Landscape” opens at the museum. Other painters with a Gloucester history include John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis, Milton Avery, and Joseph Solman.
By comparison, Gloucester’s literary history tends to get overlooked. It shouldn’t. Rudyard Kipling’s “Captains Courageous” is set there. The poets Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini are deeply associated with the city. And when he was growing up, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) spent summers there for two decades.
Eliot’s father had a house built on Eastern Point. In one of the letters included in the museum’s exhibition “Eliot’s Gloucester,” the poet’s older brother describes it as “a house at the top of the hill back of the old Beachcroft Hotel.” The T.S. Eliot Foundation, its current owner, now uses the house as a writer’s retreat.
“Eliot’s Gloucester” runs through Oct. 2. A small show, it consists of just some 30 items, but its interest and charm are considerable.
The clearest demonstration of Gloucester’s importance to Eliot comes in his “Four Quartets.” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” helped transform English poetry. The “Quartets,” one of the great long poems in the language, do something different. They acknowledge, and embrace, a personal transformation.
The final line of “The Waste Land” famously repeats the Sanskrit word “shantih” three times. “‘The Peace which passeth understanding,’” Eliot writes, “is a feeble translation of the content of the word.” The “Quartets” suggest he achieved something approaching that condition. It offers a kind of sustained, subdued, barely suppressed spiritual and intellectual ecstasy.
Three of the “Quartets” take their titles from places in England Eliot felt an intense connection to: “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” and “Little Gidding.” The title of the third poem, “The Dry Salvages,” comes from Gloucester — or, more precisely, from off its shores — “a small group of rocks, with a beacon,” Eliot explains in a headnote. Revealingly or not, it’s the only one of the “Quartets” he feels the need to situate, right down to its pronunciation: “to rhyme with assuages.”
The show includes a copy of a pamphlet of “The Dry Salvages” that Henry Eliot sent to Gloucester’s Sawyer Free Library, in 1942. In an accompanying letter, the bemused brother writes, “I do not myself remember the reefs being called anything but ‘Dry Salvages,’ nor did I ever hear ‘Salvages’ accented on the second syllable.” Perhaps it’s a trick of memory, either his or the poet’s. Perhaps it’s just an older brother rolling his eyes over something a younger brother has done. It might even be both.
There are 14 letters from that younger brother. One is the earliest surviving one from Eliot, written in Gloucester, when he was 9. Nearly 20 years later, he was reassuring his mother about her plans to sell several family properties. “I should think that E. Point at least ought to realise very handsomely.” Can you tell he was supporting himself by working in a bank?
Material considerations of a different sort are evident 30 years after that, when he writes a cousin to thank her for sending a “flitch of bacon.” Later that year, he’s teaching at Princeton and making plans to come visit her in Milton. Eliot writes that he “could take the subway to Ashmont, as usual.”
The idea of so august a personage, weeks away from going to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize, riding what is now the Red Line is somewhere between delightful and disorienting. Yet it also has a literary echo, one that brings us back to the “Quartets.”
In “East Coker” Eliot describes
when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations,
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about
Yes, that definitely sounds like the Red Line.
Although “Eliot’s Gloucester” is predominately textual, it also has a visual component. There are two architectural renderings of the Eliot house; a watercolor of it, painted by one of his sisters, and a photograph; three portraits of Eliot, a drawing, a monotype, and a photograph (as a young man); an oil portrait of his father; a photograph of his mother (the resemblance to her son is striking); and some photographs of sailing ships, donated to the Sawyer Free Library by Henry Eliot.
Hanging in the museum auditorium are four paintings by Bruce Herman inspired by the “Quartets.” They bear a distant family resemblance to Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series, which is meant as a compliment to both parties. In that auditorium, on Oct. 1, the Boston Athenaeum’s John Buchtel will discuss “T.S. Eliot’s New England Roots.” For further information, go to the museum’s website.
At Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester, though Oct. 2. 978-283-0455, www.capeannmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.