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