For much of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s pronouncements on literature and culture had the force of a royal command. “In the seventeenth century,” he wrote, “a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” Probably no such separation of thought from feeling ever occurred, but sober historians analyzed it as if were as real as the Industrial Revolution. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion,” Eliot wrote, “but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Two generations of critics worked to do his bidding by banishing from the canon poets like Shelley whom Eliot had judged insufficiently impersonal.
Eliot’s prose borrowed its sober and severe authority from the intensity and power of his poetry. His long poems The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943), like many of his shorter ones, evoked a synthesizing vision of public and private disorder: the emotional and erotic failures of individual persons and the chaotic anomie of contemporary Europe, individuals and societies both thirsty for life-giving waters, both waiting for the transforming commandments that, in The Waste Land, “the thunder said.” No other modern writer had his power to portray, simultaneously and in sharp focus, the disasters of both the inner world and the outer one.
When Eliot died in 1965 much of his authority died with him. Academic and journalistic opinion agreed that he had hoped public disorder could be resolved by imposing the kind of order favored by authoritarians; that, as a WASP from an old New England family, he felt superior to Jews and other outsiders to the high culture he embodied; that he held repugnant attitudes about women and sex. His detractors wrote entire books setting out the evidence against him, while his defenders replied with books that denied the evidence or explained it away.
Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot, the first volume of a two-part biography, and The Poems of T.S. Eliot, edited and massively annotated by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, make it possible to see more deeply than before into Eliot’s inner life, to perceive its order and complexity in new ways, and to recognize that his detractors and his defenders were responding to attitudes that Eliot condemned in himself and to beliefs that his poems simultaneously expressed and rebuked.
The first sixteen years of Eliot’s life, from his birth in St. Louis in 1888 until the year he attended Milton Academy near Boston before entering Harvard, are almost entirely undocumented. All that survive are two letters and a few numbers of a handwritten family magazine he began when he was eleven. More convincingly than earlier biographies, Young Eliot fills in the blanks by identifying books and events from Eliot’s childhood that he later transformed into poetry. The disastrous St. Louis cyclone of 1896, for example, gave him the apocalyptic imagery heralding The Waste Land’s “damp gust/Bringing rain.”
Other phrases in the poem had roots in Eliot’s prep school reading: James Russell Lowell’s “the river’s shroud” became Eliot’s “the river’s tent.” Eliot got his adult reputation for vast learning from the dazzling variety of quotations in The Waste Land. Crawford notes that many of these were remembered from one of his required school texts, Francis Palgrave’s anthology The Golden Treasury.
A voice in The Waste Land greets someone on a London street as “Stetson,” as if identifying him with his hat. Crawford reports that Eliot’s mother belonged to a ladies’ club addressed by a Mrs. Stetson. Eliot printed a poem under the pseudonym Gus Krutzsch, a name that also appears in an early draft of The Waste Land; one of Eliot’s St. Louis schoolmates was named August R. Krutzsch.
Crawford explores Eliot’s ambivalence toward his distinguished Anglo-American family, which had also produced President Charles William Eliot of Harvard, who later kept urging him to take an academic post there. Eliot took pride in his manners and class, but felt alienated from his parents’ earnest nineteenth-century piety. He was nostalgic about his English origins; the “dissociation of sensibility,” some readers observed, coincided with the Eliots’ ancestors’ voluntary uprooting from England to America. But he also felt a lifelong nostalgie de la boue, starting with stories he wrote about hobos in his family magazine, later in his half-appalled fascination with the violent world of Boston Irish boxers and barkeeps in his “Sweeney” poems and the tough-guy milieu of his unfinished play Sweeney Agonistes.
Crawford reports that Eliot was a graceful dancer and expert sailor but was self-conscious about his protuberant ears and a congenital hernia that required him to wear a truss. He asked himself in Ash-Wednesday (1930), “Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?” (He was around forty at the time.) The children of a friend had “nicknamed him ‘The Eagle’ because of the size of his nose.” His poetry tended to portray the human body as separate parts, not as a whole. From “Preludes”: “all the hands”; “yellow soles of feet”; “short square fingers”; “eyes/Assured of certain certainties.” From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase”; “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare.” From The Waste Land: “Exploring hands encounter no defence”; “My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart/Under my feet.” Even his image of primitive unconsciousness in “Prufrock”—“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”—was an evocation of body parts, not something whole like W.B. Yeats’s chestnut tree that will not divide into “the leaf, the blossom or the bole.” And in The Waste Land his image of wished-for erotic satisfaction was another collage of body parts: “your heart would have responded/Gaily, when invited, beating obedient/To controlling hands.”
The young Eliot concealed his physical anxieties with the obscene heartiness of his comic (or would-be comic) verses about King Bolo and his queen, which he sent first to laddish college friends, later to connoisseurs of scatological bawdry like Ezra Pound. Crawford writes reverently of Eliot’s poetry and critical prose; but he adds critical distancing comments whenever he detects “a hint of misogyny or homophobia,” as if to reassure censorious readers that he shares their sense of the moral urgency of scolding dead people.
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