T. S. Eliot grew up between Missouri and Massachusetts, between St Louis and New England – an arrangement that marked his poetry as it marked his life. ‘I am afraid’, he wrote in 1930, ‘no scenery except the Mississippi, the prairie and the North East Coast has ever made much impression on me,’ a claim he continued to make. ‘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.’
Yet Massachusetts was Eliot’s ‘real ancestral habitat’: ‘My family were New Englanders, who had been settled – my branch of it – for two generations in the South West – which was, in my own time, rapidly becoming merely the Middle West. The family guarded jealously its connexions with New England …’ In summer the Eliots tended to Gloucester, north-east of Boston, on the coast of Cape Ann.
The poet’s earliest visits to New England were spent at the Hawthorne Inn. By 1896 work on The Downs, the Eliot summer house, was complete. It had been built at the instigation of the poet’s father, Henry Ware Eliot Snr, on land he had purchased near to the shore at Eastern Point. For almost two decades, from childhood to adolescence, it was the setting for one half of Eliot’s youth – on the shingled verandah, among the rockpools, in the woods, at sea, a landscape to which again and again his poetic imagination returned.
The house was acquired by the T. S. Eliot Foundation in 2015, and now functions as a Writer’s Retreat, open to poets, playwrights, essayists and editors by referral only.