Today would have been the 126th birthday of writer T.S. Eliot. While he was born in St. Louis, and emigrated to England in his 20s, the story of Eliot’s life cannot be told without at least a few chapters set right here in the Bay State.
"He was very moved by the New England Coast," said Christopher Ricks, Humanities professor of at Boston University and Eliot scholar.
Both sides of Eliot’s family were Boston-bred. He studied at Harvard. And he spent some 20 summers in Gloucester, in a grand home that his family had built when he was a child. Here, he walked the beaches and steadfastly sailed the waters. Ricks says that in Gloucester, Eliot forged a bond with the sea that remained "very, very deep in him."
"He loved nautical things," Ricks said. "He had a deep fear of drowning and of course, it's only swimmers and nautical people who drown, except when everybody drowns."
Consider the final line of his seminal poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "Till human voices wake us and we drown."
Eliot’s Gloucester years would prove a wellspring throughout his literary career. There’s "The Dry Salvages," a poem that helped earn him the Nobel Prize in 1948, which is named for a rock formation off the Gloucester coast.
Eliot’s letters to his family, especially to his mother, are also peppered with memories of Gloucester, yearnings for the landscape, and inquiries about their house there.
A house that, unlike his childhood home in St. Louis, still stands today. As I walk through the front door with current owner Dana Hawkes, I’m struck by an immediate sense of history.
"We have maintained the essence of this house," Hawkes said. "We did not change it. Basically what we did was we restored the house."
Hawkes and her late husband bought the home 15 years ago, and raised two sons here. She explains that it was only after they first viewed the house, that they learned of it’s storied past.
"I was like, 'What?! Really?'" she said. And so then, of course, that kind of convinced my husband, because he was always one of these aspiring writers. He had written books and so he thought, ‘I couldn’t have it better than being in a writers house.'"
The house today is not on any historic registry. And according to Hawkes, most people around town are unaware that one of the 20th century’s greatest poets once lived here.
"Certain people know that it’s T.S. Eliot’s house," she said. "But I would not say, no, people are not aware. In fact, when I tell people, 'Oh, I live in T.S. Elliot’s summer house, ‘Well, where is that?’"
But she does get the occasional knock at the door.
"A lot of them Asians actually," Hawkes said. "He was hugely regarded in Asia, in Japan."
So does anything of Eliot remain here today, beyond the fireplaces, floors and rooms of a house that still looks very much as it did in 1896?
"My husband used to claim that he used to see T.S. Eliot’s ghost or hear his ghost," Hawkes said. "He said, 'Maybe this will inspire me to write a novel.' Because my husband, before he passed away, was working on a novel. But, yeah, he felt that there was some spiritual entity here within the house."
Eliot’s ghost is not mentioned among the amenities in the real estate listing for the estate, which is now up for sale.
"I’m sorry to be leaving it," Hawkes said. "But it’s only me now, and one child at home, so we didn’t need such a grand house anymore, and it will go on to somebody else who will appreciate it, and it will go to somebody else hopefully that will love it as much as we did."
Maybe even yet another writer.
Take a tour of T.S. Eliot's summer home in Gloucester: