The Young T.S. Eliot

IF IT IS TRUE that the child is father to the man, then no poet disavowed his paternity as successfully as T.S. Eliot ’10, A.M. ’11, Litt.D. ’47. Looking at the severe, bespectacled face of the elderly poet on the cover of his Complete Poems and Plays, it is hard to imagine that he was ever young. By the time he died in 1965, Eliot had achieved a position of almost papal authority in the world of literature, confirmed by the award of the Nobel Prize in 1948. Generations of readers grew up revering not just his broken, haunting poetry, but his magisterial criticism, in which he revolutionized the canon of English poetry with serene confidence.

In a sense, the role of “the elder statesman”—the title of one of his verse plays—was one for which Eliot had been rehearsing his whole life. His first great poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” was written mostly in 1911, when he was 22 years old, yet it is preoccupied with debility: “I grow old…I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” He would assume the same tone eight years later, when he wrote “Gerontion” in the voice of “an old man in a dry month…an old man,/a dull head among windy spaces.” And it was with an air of final resignation that he began “Ash-Wednesday,” asking, “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?” He was still 41, but it is clear that old age was not a chronological matter for Eliot. It was the condition of his imagination, a name for the attenuation of passion which he simultaneously dreaded and desired.

For many years, the young, American Eliot was effectively erased by the imposing image the adult, British Eliot created. “It is the final perfection, the consummation of an American,” he wrote in an essay on his fellow expatriate Henry James, “to become not, an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” In turning himself into such a European, Eliot buried his Americanness deep enough that it takes some digging to recognize it. Matters weren’t helped by the long delay of the Eliot estate—controlled by the poet’s second wife and widow, Valerie Eliot—in publishing his full correspondence, as well as his voluminous uncollected prose.

Although Eliot remains absolutely central to the history of modern poetry, his personal authority inevitably declined in the years after his death, in tandem with changes in taste and critical method. The issue of his anti-Semitism, while never a secret—the anti-Jewish passages in his poetry are quite overt—also helped to cloud his reputation, when given renewed attention by scholars like Anthony Julius. With much of his criticism out of print, and biographers given only limited access and permission to quote from his writing, by the end of the twentieth century Eliot had become a blurrier figure than would once have seemed possible.

IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, however, all that has changed dramatically. Before her death in 2012, Valerie Eliot helped to prepare a full new edition of Eliot’s letters, edited by Hugh Haughton and John Haffenden, which has been appearing at a steady clip. (Five volumes are now in print, covering the period 1898 to 1931.) Last year, a second major Eliot edition began publication: his Collected Prose, edited by Ronald Schuchard. The first two volumes of this digital-only series include Eliot’s surviving writing from high school and college, as well as the work that made him famous as a critic in the late 1910s and early 1920s—essays like “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “The Metaphysical Poets.” And this spring, Robert Crawford published Young Eliot, the first volume of a new biography that far surpasses all its predecessors in the depth and range of its familiarity with Eliot’s world.

The result is that even though the youthful Eliot remains an elusive presence, we can get closer to him than ever before. In particular, the flood of new Eliot material helps to make clear how important the poet’s time at Harvard was to his development. Indeed, of all the American poets who studied at Harvard—and the list is a long one, including writers as various as Robert Frost ’01, Litt.D. ’37, and John Ashbery ’49, Litt.D. ’01—it’s possible that none was shaped by the College more deeply than Eliot, the greatest of all. From the fall of 1906 until the spring of 1914, Eliot spent every academic year but one as a Harvard student, first as a surprisingly indifferent undergraduate, then as a budding philosopher in the graduate school. These were the years in which Eliot discovered his vocation, wrote his first mature poems—including “Prufrock”—and imbibed the wide-ranging texts and ideas that would fuel his work for years to come.

Indeed, the famous eclecticism of “The Waste Land,” which incorporates quotations from multiple languages and literatures, can be seen as a tribute to the educational philosophy that governed Harvard during Eliot’s time there. Under the presidency of his distant relative Charles William Eliot, the College had introduced an elective system that gave students wide leeway in choosing their own classes from a variety of subjects and departments. Later in life, Eliot lamented this undergraduate freedom: “I was one of the victims of the ‘elective system,’” he wrote in a letter to his mother. He had been “so interested in many things that I did nothing thoroughly, and was always thinking about new subjects that I wanted to study, instead of following out any one.”

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