Poet in Embryo - T.S. Eliot

Some years ago, while visiting T. S. Eliot’s native St. Louis, I took in a lecture on Eliot’s poem “Marina,” delivered by the Scottish poet and critic Robert Crawford. Most people will grant that T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) is a difficult poet, but after 20 years of reading him, I find that “Marina” is the only one of his poems I continue to find obscure, even opaque. Crawford interpreted the poem astutely, but what most impressed me was his willingness to set aside certainty of sense in favor of an exceptional richness of sound:

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter

Crawford heard the “soundscape” of Eliot’s poem well. If this is an essential virtue in a biographer of most poets, it is all the more important in Eliot’s case. His intellectual achievement and compass of knowledge was so vast that it will always be a temptation for the scholar to wander away from the poems and get lost in the subtleties of Eliot’s brilliant absorption of everything from the history of ancient occidental and oriental philosophy to the financial state of Germany in the wake of the Versailles treaty. Eliot’s biographer, therefore, not only has to be able to speak competently on such matters, but also has to keep before us the individual words and verses as sounds that made Eliot, among other things, the most influential poet of the last century. Crawford succeeds at this task, in three ways. Beginning with his thorough account of Eliot’s childhood in St. Louis, Crawford attends to the ways in which the life and culture of that city—including the sounds and songs Eliot probably heard—lingered in the poet’s mind, as if he were silently kneading them for years, before finding expression in this or that brief phrase in the poems. Without derailing a well-told story, Crawford records the uncanny echoes of words from Eliot’s life in his poems. Second, Crawford is the first Eliot biographer given permission to quote freely from the available archives of Eliot’s literary remains. Every other biographer and scholar of the poet has been hindered, for decades, by the protective restrictions of the Eliot estate. Crawford reprints Eliot’s own words—not just his poems, but his letters, school papers, and essays—extensively. On every page, it seems, the biographer defers to the voice of the poet.

Third, and finally, these qualities fuse to give the biography of a poet just the dramatic form it demands. Those who have endured the “Oxen of the Sun” episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses will recall that Joyce traces the developments of English style out of (as it were) a primordial soup of sounds through the various refinements of its masters across the centuries. Crawford gives us something similar—though it makes for more amiable reading. The sounds of the St. Louis street and stage, the books and songs of nursery, school, and college are carefully noted by Crawford in the order they must first have touched Eliot’s ear.

As Eliot grows, we see these formless sounds beginning to take shape in his juvenilia and academic assignments, and then in the brilliant early critical essays and poems he began publishing after settling in England at the outbreak of World War I. Crawford traces Eliot’s footsteps through London, conjuring up the interior of the Church of St. Magnus the Martyr and the voices and music of lunching workmen—details that will find their place in those mosaics of echoes, quotations, and allusions that are Eliot’s poems. All this culminates in a series of chapters that trace Eliot’s life as it seems to trudge through nervous exhaustion, a failing marriage, his work at Lloyd’s Bank, and literary rivalries toward the publication of his epoch-making poem, The Waste Land, in 1922.

Crawford thus demonstrates a claim Eliot frequently made in his critical essays: The true form of a poet’s life is defined by the poems themselves. Other biographers have sought to convey Eliot’s spirit; Crawford is not always so successful at that, but he supersedes them simply by giving us the shape of the life as sound, as one lived for the sake of the work.

The tale of Eliot’s life is one of a well-heeled, cerebral, and clever—but otherwise typical—scion of the New England aristocracy. A brilliant but unambitious student, Eliot left it to his mother to smooth the way for him from Smith Academy in St. Louis to Milton Academy and Harvard. Deeply shy, Eliot nonetheless fit into the elite milieu of Harvard very well; like most of his fellow undergraduates, he seems to have treated college as an occasion for polite society and leisure more than for study. He listened more than he spoke or wrote—and was nearly expelled in consequence.

How this undergraduate nonchalance metamorphosed into almost pedantic intellectualism abroad, during a year in Paris, and made Eliot a doctoral student who impressed nearly all his Harvard professors, including the visiting Bertrand Russell, Crawford does not really explain. But he documents it more richly than any previous biographer so that one comes away with a vivid picture of Eliot’s world, even as the young man remains almost as elusive to us as he must have been to his friends and his first love, the student and actress Emily Hale.

Too timid to discover whether Hale returned his affections, Eliot fled. He wrote his Harvard dissertation during a year at Oxford, just after the outbreak of the war, and several times considered returning to America to defend it and assume a place on Harvard’s faculty. But the handful of short poems he had written seem to have meant more to him than all his studies and prospects. So, as is well-known, he married the unbalanced Vivienne Haigh-Wood and attempted to make a career in London, first as a teacher and then as a banker.

The English literati sensed brilliance behind his cold demeanor. Virginia Woolf feared him. His fellow American poet Ezra Pound envied, admired, and promoted him. Russell respected him, though not enough to let it stand in the way of his bedding Vivienne. By 1919, Eliot could write to his mother that there was “a small and select public .  .  . which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England.”

Pound made finding patronage for Eliot a cause célèbre. Lady Rothermere made Eliot an editor by financing his influential magazine, The Criterion. Publishers, both American and English, paid richly for Eliot’s prose hackwork and slow trickle of poems. Vivienne proved fiercely loyal to her husband’s genius, though her mental illness strained it and her infidelity and flirtations must have wounded it. Through all this, Eliot wrote a roughly 1,000-line poem; Vivienne and Pound helped him cut it to 433. With European intellectuals viewing the recent war as a civilizational collapse, Eliot published his great poem, whose “mythical method” would show that beneath the wasteland of the present remains, always, history’s cyclical drama of death and rebirth. Every catastrophe prepares the earth for a resurrection whose precise character cannot be anticipated. The Waste Land would be, at once, the vindication of Eliot’s first three decades of life, a postmortem on a “botched civilization” (Pound’s phrase), and a prayer of hope that something good might be born into the world again.

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