Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
Robert Crawford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
512 pp., 35.00

Buy Now

Malcolm Forbes

How Tom Grew

The formative years of T. S. Eliot.

As well as the centenary of the births of Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot. If Bellow and Miller were two of the most significant Anglophone practitioners of prose and drama in the 20th century, then Eliot was surely the torchbearer for poetry. His legacy was some of the most artistically unique and widely read poems in the English language. Frustratingly, he also left behind a will that prohibited biographers from quoting from his works (a hamstrung Peter Ackroyd and a hobbled Lyndall Gordon had to resort to paraphrasing), and a diligent second wife who kept most of her late husband's archive under lock and key.

Since Valerie Eliot's death in 2012, the Eliot Estate has relaxed its grip, and a wealth—some might say a surfeit—of material has been made available to doughty biographers. Robert Crawford, a Scottish poet, professor, biographer of Robert Burns, and—crucially—an Eliot aficionado has stepped up to the plate. Young Eliot is the first volume of what looks set to be a definitive biography. Crawford covers Eliot's formative years up to and including the publication of The Waste Land. Previous biographers, with precious little to go on, were forced to sketch those early years. With free rein to quote, and access to new interviews, letters, and hitherto undisclosed memoirs, Crawford explores this period in great depth, revealing along the way the scale of Eliot's considerable achievement and the substantial emotional cost involved.

Crawford starts as he means to go on by getting up close and personal and calling his subject "Tom." His opening chapters take us from Eliot's birth in 1888 in St. Louis to his strict but cossetted upbringing. Eliot's parents were prim, bookish, and prosperous, with ancestral links to Nathaniel Hawthorne and presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. "Few squealing infants have had quite so much to live up to," Crawford writes. In his account, Eliot takes some time to come out of his shell, his lack of confidence fueled by his sticking-out ears and the truss he must wear after being born with a congenital double hernia. He retreats into the world of books, devouring Poe, Kipling, and Dickens, and from the age of ten immersing himself in Milton and being haunted by Lewis Carroll's wily verbal cadences. Sherlock Holmes becomes his childhood hero. When he embarks on "the usual adolescent course" of 19th-century Romantic poetry, he finds himself drawn to verse that fuses sexual longing with religious sentiment.

Although an interest in the roots of religion and theological argument would be a continuing preoccupation, Eliot eventually broke away from the family religion. "Unitarianism is a bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity," he said in adulthood. As Crawford adds, "His adult poetry likes to puncture romantic illusion with a sharp application of brass tacks."

After various spells at different schools Eliot gets into Harvard, where for his first couple of years he loses himself in extracurricular reading, receives average grades, and makes few friends. When he does acquire "frat mates," he impresses them with scatological and at times misogynistic poetry. In counterpoint to these frivolities he discovers Dante and Laforgue. Only toward the end of his time there does he put an end to his "stylish loafing," pull his socks up, and knuckle down.

Post-Harvard, Eliot heads to Europe, desperate to loosen his ties with New England. In Paris he becomes a committed Francophile. In Munich he finishes his first masterpiece, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." On returning to America he throws himself into more disciplined study, adding Sanskrit and Pali to his armory of languages and widening the scope of his philosophical reading. "No other major twentieth-century poet was so thoroughly and strenuously educated," notes Crawford. However, when Bertrand Russell meets Eliot he recognizes an incredibly cultivated man who is nevertheless "lacking in the crude insistent passion that one must have in order to achieve anything."

Eliot's pivotal "Oxford year" of 1914-15 enabled him to channel that talent. Preferring the bright lights of London ("Oxford is very pretty, but I don't like to be dead"), he makes significant contacts at the heart of the city's avant-garde, chief among them the "pugnacious painter and novelist" Wyndham Lewis and future cheerleader and fine-tuner Ezra Pound. He also meets Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom, after a quick courtship, and to the consternation of his parents back home, he marries.

Settling down in England, Eliot tries to write poetry in earnest while juggling several other jobs—lecturing, editing, and banking to make ends meet. The balancing act tires him; his wife's infidelity and illnesses exhaust him. He puts on a brave face in public (which Katherine Mansfield called "the bluff"), mixing with Pound's Vorticists and Imagists as well as with the sometimes catty, aesthetically daring Bloomsbury set. Crawford's riveting final chapters show Eliot working flat out to finish and refine what started out as "He Do the Police in Different Voices." A sneak-preview of Ulysses ("superb") galvanizes and confirms his artistic technique; a nervous breakdown and therapy in Switzerland halts his progress. Finally, and with a changed title, The Waste Land appears and establishes Eliot's genius. Pound proclaims it a "series of poems, possibly the finest that the modern movement in English has produced."

A more modern admirer of the poem is Robert Crawford. "The Waste Land is a musical astonishment," he gushes in his introduction. On the very first page of Young Eliot he calls his subject "the most influential and resounding poetic voice of the twentieth century." On the second we get a declaration: "Like most people to whom his poetry matters, I fell in love with the ineradicably insinuating music of Eliot's verse." Crawford has published a critical work on Eliot before and has taught him since 1989 at the University of St. Andrews. He clearly has the credentials to take on Eliot, but does he have an objective lens to see him through?

Fortunately, it becomes manifest early on that Young Eliot won't be a fawning character study, a profile presented as panegyric. Crawford states that he is not "in sympathy with all of Eliot's ideas." Eliot, while clearly a hero, "was no saint." As a result, Crawford's "close-up view" constitutes a candid warts-and-all portrait. Offsetting Eliot's intellectual sophistication we glimpse flashes of naïveté, torturous bouts of low self-confidence, casual sexism, and of course an inherited and ingrained streak of anti-Semitism (his mother having confessed to "an instinctive antipathy to Jews").

Crawford alternates between highlighting—or rather refusing to conceal—Eliot's flaws and singing his praises. His close readings of Eliot's work are uniformly excellent, whether The Waste Land, the shorter poems, or seminal critical pieces such as "Tradition and the Individual Talent." As with the best literary biographies, he demonstrates how life informs art. The Waste Land is, in part, a collage of lived experience, from the images of Eliot's childhood summers on the New England coast that went into the first draft, to the details of his Lloyd's Bank days and his night-school teaching that made the final cut. We learn how Eliot transmuted "his own hurts" and observations into artistic material but also how he benefitted from and indeed depended on his "appropriative poetic ear." However, it was from his voracious reading that he appropriated most, and Crawford's pages seethe with books that made an impact on Eliot's verse and authors, such as fellow "transposed American" Henry James, who shaped his identity.

Crawford opens Young Eliot with a quip—"T. S. Eliot was never young"—but then attempts, wherever possible, to chip away at this calcified impression, to revamp the image of this stiff, starchy "bankerly poet." It feels like an uphill struggle. Young Eliot quickly became Old Possum. "I grow old … I grow old …" wails Prufrock, but it might as well be his creator. "Here I am, an old man in a dry month," he writes in "Gerontion." Virginia Woolf described him as a man in "a four-piece suit," while e. e. cummings, who also considered him "immaculately dressed," remembered him as "a snob, cold" and "aloof." Crawford rallies to Eliot's defense by reinterpreting his purported arrogance as a continuation of his schoolboy shyness, his froideur as plain fear. Still, the biographer fails to convince us that for all Eliot's "po-faced, born-venerable persona, there was an elusive, wounded and sometimes mischievous identity." If there was, it doesn't come across here.

Crawford explains at the outset that his challenge is to "humanize this dauntingly canonical poet." While he doesn't always manage to render Eliot humane, he succeeds marvelously at making him human. In addition, he leaves us in no doubt as to why Eliot's work matters. For a first installment, Young Eliot is perhaps more detailed than it should be (Eliot's Harvard years are eked out over three chapters), but not once does it drag. Moreover, it does what we expect of it: encourages readers less familiar with Eliot's work to discover it, and everyone else to return to it. This is a searching and compelling biography and one which leaves us hungry for the next volume, for old Eliot to become even older.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist, and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland

Most ReadMost Shared