The past week has found me reading Robert Crawford’s new (partial) biography of T. S. Eliot which, as the subtitle ‘From St Louis to The Waste Land’ suggests, deals with the first thirty-four years of Eliot’s life, up to the publication of his most famous poem and, arguably, the most influential poem of the 20th century.
Eliot specified that he wished no official ‘life’ to be written, and previous biographers have had to work, in varying degrees, around the restrictions placed upon them by the Eliot estate. Peter Ackroyd’s 1984 biography was not allowed to include any actual Eliot material, but nevertheless made useful contributions to our understanding of this complex man. Lyndall Gordon’s two-volume work focused as much on Eliot’s spiritual life as his worldly one (for which I was very grateful when using her work as a resource in writing my PhD on Eliot’s Christianity over a decade ago) but again it was hard to ignore the sense that things had been left unsaid. There was also, at the time, only one volume of Eliot’s letters (up to 1922) available.
In recent years, though, the trickle of Eliot material in the public domain has become a relative flood, with an 8-volume ‘Complete Prose’ in the course of appearing, a scholarly edition of the Poems due later this year, and the fifth volume of letters now having made available Eliot’s correspondence up to 1931. These bookshelf-bending volumes (900 pages being the average length) may, in the main, be filled with his business correspondence as Editor of the Criterion, but all the same we now have much more of Eliot’s thoughts accessible to us than the reader or scholar of a decade ago would have dared to hope for. There are only five years to wait, too, for scholars to be granted access to his letters to Emily Hale, currently embargoed in the Princeton University Library until 2020.
And now there is a partial biography, approved by Valerie Eliot before her death and drawing upon previously unseen family correspondence and records. So, does it tell us anything new? For the most part, perhaps not: the narrative (St Louis to Harvard, then Oxford, marriage, literary life in London, breakdown, and The Waste Land) is well-known, and there is a sense of familiarity with it and most of its supporting cast, from Bertrand Russell to the Bloomsbury Group. Along the way we learn that Tom (as Crawford feels able to call him) was a far from brilliant Harvard undergraduate, was put on academic probation in his 1st year, had a formative year in Paris, a deeply unhappy marriage, and enough material for some of the strangest and most enduring poetry ever written. And yet, even in this more authorised version, the questions remain: exactly why did Tom and Vivien marry in such haste? What did Eliot know of Russell’s affair with his wife? Where did those poems come from?
Eliot, who in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ described poetry as “an escape from emotion” rather than a “turning loose” of it, produced from behind this mask of ‘impersonality’ poetry of intense personal hurt, but the process by which the life became the material for the poetry remains as well-concealed as ever, in spite of Crawford’s diligent and well-written investigations. We may feel able to call him ‘Tom’ because we now have access to his filing cabinet, but he is still T. S. Eliot when we read his verse. Personally, I balance my desire to ‘know’ all with a sense that those great poems are enough in themselves, and that pouring over minutiae is interesting but doesn’t make ‘Prufrock’ any less of a fantastic metaphysical puzzle at the end of the day. Any new work on Eliot is to be welcomed, especially one as thorough as this, but I’m also rather happy that like Macavity the Mystery Cat, Eliot (who appears on the dust jacket with what Wyndham Lewis described as his ‘Giaconda smile’) is as mysterious as ever: a confessional poet hiding in plain sight.
Robert Crawford’s ‘Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land’ is published by Jonathan Cape, 2015.