T.S. Eliot In His Youth

Book review: Young Eliot, by Robert Crawford (Amazon/ Book Depository)

What a few weeks it’s been for T.S. Eliot, huh? There’ve been news stories referencing the poet every day: between the much-anticipated release of his letters to Emily Hale, his one-that-got-away who, despite rejecting him, seemed to carry a torch for him anyway; and the tragic disaster that is the movie version of Cats, based on his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Not bad for someone who’s been dead for 55 years.

Speaking of which, Hale allowed Princeton University Library to release those letters, which number more than a thousand, once either she or Eliot had been dead for 50 years. That’s now! This is promising because a lot of his letters have been destroyed, including those between him and his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood. Which means that author Robert Crawford will begin working on his second volume of what’s probably the definitive biography of Eliot’s life now that he can analyze what’s in the letters, which are presumed to be of the love variety. Let’s talk about the first volume!

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to the Waste Land covers Eliot’s life from childhood up until the publication of The Waste Land in 1922. To address the elephant in the room here: T.S. Eliot is one of those people who it’s very, very difficult to imagine being a child. Or anything younger than a crotchety middle-aged bank clerk (which he once was). This is mostly his own doing (“I grow old … I grow old …“). But he was indeed a child once; he was even, dare I say, youthful, as well as impetuous and silly and lots of other things we wouldn’t readily associate with his standard image. Despite his general affinity for the old and crotchety, Crawford argues that Eliot recognized the importance of being young.

I also don’t know why but I’ve always found it funny that he’s from St. Louis, maybe because despite being from an upper-crust family I just imagine his roots would’ve irked him as he seemed to like to pretend he was exceedingly English and had some deep-seated snootiness around East Coast sensibilities.

So I was kind of surprised and intrigued to see how much of St. Louis stayed with Eliot, and carried over into his work. Sometimes it’s perhaps too obvious to be meaningful, like that the 1896 St. Louis cyclone meant that “he knew perhaps better than any other English-language poet what an apocalyptic thunderstorm sounded like,” thus influencing “What the Thunder Said.” Other locations and details figure in questionably too, like that he saw the Ether Monument to pioneers of anesthetic surgery in Boston and it could be connected to Prufrock’s evening like a patient etherized upon a table.

But sometimes it’s highly amusing, like that Eliot recycled the names of years-ago classmates in some poems (although this is kind of weird, right?) and that his “most loathed enemy” in school was named “Atreus Hargadine von Schrader, Jr.” That person was doomed to be someone’s nemesis.

I don’t think this is for anyone with just a passing interest, but maybe that goes without saying. I love his poetry obsessively, and I perhaps do what Crawford says we shouldn’t: “The verse is nowhere here treated merely as a crossword puzzle or source-hunter’s labyrinth. Consciously crafted artistic work, it nonetheless transmutes personal agonies, treasured images and insights.” Which is also fine. Sometimes a rose is just a rose.

But I’m always interested in learning more of the meaning behind it, and was intrigued by what light his younger life could shed on that. The problem is that there’s some assumption. We know that his relationship with his first wife Vivien was extremely troubled, and Eliot himself said that without that marriage there would be no Waste Land. But their letters are destroyed, and although there’s no dearth of scholarly sources, there’s some guesswork. Does it considerably flesh out your impression of Eliot as a person and where he came from? Definitely. Is it researched and cited where resources existed? Absolutely. Is there some stretching? Also yes.

But Crawford has a couple of clear goals and these he accomplishes admirably. “Presenting him as shy, sometimes naïve and vulnerable, Young Eliot aims to unsettle common assumptions about this poet’s perceived coldness.” It does this, perhaps singularly thanks to Crawford’s claim that Eliot “introduced the word ‘bullshit’ into literature”, not to mention some very bawdy (and uncomfortable to read) verses he wrote in college. It successfully “advances a case for Eliot’s early upbringing as fascinating in itself and central to his identity.”

Some of his uptightness may be traced to his family’s religious background, which extended into morality. His father’s writings railing against sex education in schools are absolutely horrifying. Eliot’s doomed or bad romances certainly colored his worldview and this insight into his life, family, schooling, day job at Lloyds Bank in London and the like feel valuable in understanding context around who he was and where certain roots of this work lie.

Meatier of course are the obvious connections drawn from other literary and historical sources, but it’s nice to see how he discovered them, and I didn’t always realize how direct his references were. Often the pattern and rhythm of words are copied entirely, and sometimes mirrored more directly still. Eliot wrote when he first read Baudelaire, “I knew what that meant, because I had lived it before I knew that I wanted to turn it into verse on my own account.” Elsewhere his experience of reading Jules Laforgue, a French Symbolist poet whose work figures heavily in Eliot’s, was likened to falling in love.

The argument Crawford makes is that Eliot brought his extensive reading background in American literature to French poetry, thus creating his own modern style which changed the landscape of English-language poetry. This melding was fascinating to observe, and Crawford lays it out beautifully; it’s exciting to see the pieces come together.

He writes in his acknowledgements that Eliot’s Complete Plays and Poems “was a talisman I carried in my school bag to ward off mathematics.” If you can similarly relate, this will be an illuminating, usually entertaining (it has its lags) look at the artist as a — believe it or not — young man. I’m already looking forward to the second volume, even if we’ve got some years to wait. Still — hurry up, please, I’m so excited.

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to the Waste Land
by Robert Crawford
published 2015

Amazon / Book Depository


24 thoughts on “T.S. Eliot In His Youth

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    1. Yes, the poems are basically the lyrics for the songs of Cats, isn’t that crazy? Reading his other work I’ve always found that so hard to believe, he takes himself and everything so seriously 😂 I haven’t seen the movie but reading all the bad reviews has been bizarrely fun! It just sounds VERY weird with strange editorial choices, uncomfortably strange in parts.

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    1. I know, right! He created such a different persona for himself that kind of obliterated that Midwestern upbringing in favor of Englishness. It was really interesting how heavily St. Louis ended up factoring into his work though. And thank you!!

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  1. Ooh, interesting! I don’t think I’m quite ready to pick this up yet, I’d like to read more of Eliot’s work first, but The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is my favorite poem of all time so I could see myself reading this eventually! Great review!

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    1. It’s one of my all time favorites too!! I love his work, it’s absolutely worth reading more of. The Four Quartets are my favorite and I love The Waste Land too, but it does help to study that one a little more closely to get the most out of it. I think it would help to have read more of his work before picking this one up, it’s fun to recognize where connections came from and I’m not sure it would all be so interesting if you didn’t have some background knowledge first.

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  2. I do like it when I see you have done a new review, I know it’s going to be a great read, well-written and intelligent. I think most English people of my generation know Old Possums Book of Cats or at least McCavity McCavity the Master of Depravity…I remember there was a film years ago called Viv and Tom, which is about him and his first wife, she had some terrible mental and hormone problems poor woman..Miranda Richardson played Viv.

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    1. That really means so much to me, thank you so very much 🙂 I’d heard of that movie but haven’t seen it, Miranda Richardson and Willem Dafoe sound too good though!! Must see if it’s on Netflix…Their relationship was a mess, she was very troubled and it was quite sad. There aren’t a lot of writings between them existing anymore but her own were enough to see she was really suffering. But out of suffering, art, I guess? I thought it was so interesting that he said without that relationship the Waste Land wouldn’t exist.

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  3. I was about to confess that I’ve never read any of Eliot’s work, and then I remember I have actually read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—with illustrations by Edward Gorey. I did know about him being born in St. Louis, though, only because I’m from Missouri and it’s seemingly a rite of passage here to be given a list of famous Missourians to memorize in school … not that we were ever required to read any of their work. It was just good enough to know where they came from. 😂

    But what an absolutely fascinating-sounding book! I’m intrigued by anyone who would blatantly recycle names from people in his past.

    I think I’d need to read more of his work in order to fully appreciate something like this, but your review is making me think I need to give Eliot another go. I guess I should give him a bigger chance than just Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer.

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    1. I love that one with the Gorey illustrations!! Or more accurately, I just love the illustrations. The cat poems don’t do anything for me, although his other work makes him my favorite poet by far. I think you do need to read more of him to really appreciate this one, there’s a lot that just wouldn’t be meaningful if you weren’t familiar with some of his more significant works, like The Wastel Land, Four Quarters, and Marina. The tone and style is so different from the cat ones, they almost feel like written by a different person, in my opinion.

      His relationship to his past was just so funny, I don’t know why it cracked me up so much that he held onto those names and found uses for them later. It’s so petty but I love it!

      That’s so strange that you just had to memorize the list of famous Missourians! But like, nothing else to learn about them? That is too funny. I can’t remember that we had to do anything like that for Maryland!

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      1. I do love Gorey’s illustrations, which is the only reason I picked the book up in the first place! He could have illustrated anything and I’d probably read it. Well, you’ve convinced me. I’m going to pick up some of Eliot’s work from the library this week.

        It was bizarre! T.S. Eliot, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou … and that’s not getting into all the Missourians who weren’t writers. Fourth grade, I can remember getting a printout of all these names and then having a quiz over it. But beyond that, I’m not sure I ever had to read any of their work, even in high school. Not Tom Sawyer, not The Waste Land … Wild (and unproductive) times in mid-Missouri.

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      2. Same, I would read anything if Gorey illustrated it. He is a treasure! I’m so glad I could convince you to read more Eliot. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure, but something about his work has always resonated so strongly with me. It might’ve been helped by studying it in a couple of my college classes, but I like to think I would’ve fallen in love with it even without that benefit. Let me know what you read and what you think of it! I’m excited to hear your reaction.

        That does sound weirdly unproductive. Especially because those are such significant writers, what use is there in just regurgitating their names! That sounds like one of those legally-we-have-to-do-this school activities. What a shame!

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