A new bi­og­ra­phy of TS Eliot shines an un­remit­ting light on the pain be­hind the po­etry, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Of all the great mod­ernists who wrote in English, not one of them — not even the James Joyce of Ulysses, the supreme mas­ter­piece of the pe­riod — has been so thor­oughly as­sim­i­lated as TS Eliot, whose po­etry has been as fa­mil­iar as the old school song since long be­fore I was at school.

“A cold com­ing we had of it, / just the worst time of the year … Af­ter such knowl­edge, what for­give­ness? ... April is the cru­ellest month … I smile, of course, / And go on drink­ing tea … To Carthage then I came / Burn­ing, burn­ing … Till the wind shake a thou­sand whis­pers from the yew … The yel­low fog that rubs its back upon the win­dow-panes … Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still … Time present and time past / Are both per­haps present in time fu­ture … See, now they van­ish, / The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them … And the fire and the rose are one.”

Oh yes, and, lest we for­get, “I grow old, I grow old. / I shall wear the bot­toms of my trousers rolled.”

Robert Craw­ford, the Scot­tish poet and pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of St An­drews, fin­ishes this first vol­ume of his long, fas­ci­nat­ing life of the 20th cen­tury’s most cel­e­brated and in­flu­en­tial poet, which will al­most cer­tainly be­come the stan­dard work, by say­ing that it’s as if Eliot had never been young.

When I was at univer­sity we used to laugh that a man of 30-some­thing could de­clare of him­self, “Why shall the aged ea­gle stretch its wings?”, but we were in no real doubt about the ven­er­a­ble na­ture of the poet we ven­er­ated. Af­ter all, one of the crit­i­cal mas­ters of the time, Wil­liam Emp­son, de­clared he was never sure how much of his own mind Eliot had in­vented. FR Leavis, the man who saw the moral power of literature as de­riv­ing from the depth of life it con­tained, was as much a fan.

When there was a crit­i­cal re­ac­tion against Eliot it first took the form of the great Cana­dian critic Northrop Frye, who thought Eliot, for all his love of Dante and Donne, for all his clas­si­cism and Catholi­cism and his re­ac­tion against ro­man­ti­cism, was not to be judged in terms of the tra­di­tion he chose but the tra­di­tion that chose him (re-en­ter Ten­nyson and Shel­ley and all that swoop­ing lyri­cism).

It hardly mat­tered. In 1959 Hugh Ken­ner wrote his mas­terly study The In­vis­i­ble Poet. He noted Eliot’s affin­ity with Edgar Allan Poe and his in­ven­tion of a po­etry of sym­bol­iste ef­fects that were ges­tu­ral and close to the spirit of non­sense (where words were mu­si­cal sug­ges­tions). He also em­pha­sised Eliot’s deep affin­ity with the philoso­pher FH Bradley, that ide­al­ist and scep­tic who said that the self was a bit of an il­lu­sion any­way. But by then Eliot was 20th­cen­tury po­etry’s top dog.

Eliot preached a doc­trine of im­per­son­al­ity, of the ab­so­lute­ness of the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the man who suf­fers and the artist who cre­ates. He said mean­ing was the bone tossed to the dog of the reader’s ex­pec­ta­tions so that the po­etry could do its work. He said literature was a time­less or­der but he also made it clear he was on the side of Dante (who wrote when thought was wise and true and beau­ti­ful) and Donne (who smelled a rose and fol­lowed a philo­soph­i­cal or the­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment with no dis­so­ci­a­tion of sen­si­bil­ity).

Im­per­son­al­ity, dis­so­ci­a­tion of sen­si­bil­ity. How Eliot is im­printed on all our yes­ter­days and all our il­lu­sions of en­light­ened fool­ery.

Some­time in the 1960s, when New Zealand poet and critic CK Stead pub­lished The New Poetic, peo­ple started to re­alise how much dis­lo­ca­tion of feel­ing and un­even­ness of lan­guage there was in Eliot’s po­etry. By the time Ken­ner re­con­sid­ered Eliot in The Pound Era in 1971, there was an im­plicit sense of drowned girls, of des­o­lated el­egy, of an Alice in Won­der­land world writ dark­ling, in his ac­count of The Waste Land.

Then we had Harold Bloom, the lone prophet of the eval­u­a­tive in an age of rel­a­tivism and the­ory-driven de-canon­i­sa­tion, opt­ing for the ro­man­tics and their heir Wal­lace Stevens over Eli­otic An­glo-Catholi­cism. And that was more or less con­tem­po­rary with Peter Ack­royd’s unau­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy, which blew the cover on the Tom and Viv story — which now went to the tune of sex­ual fi­asco and “Tom went mad, so

June 20-21, 2015 Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land By Robert Craw­ford Jonathan Cape, 512pp, $69.99 (HB) they locked Viv up”. It all tal­lied with the re­mark of the poet Ken­neth Rexroth many years ago that an art of im­per­son­al­ity, like that of Eliot or Paul Valery, led to greater in­dis­cre­tions than the an­a­lyst’s couch.

Mean­while the sec­ond Mrs Eliot, Va­lerie, his widow, was ap­proach­ing bi­og­ra­phers and crit­ics to write her late hus­band’s life while mak­ing it a con­di­tion that they should be sym­pa­thetic not only to his po­etry and re­li­gious be­liefs but to his con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics (which had is­sued at one point into dis­mis­sive re­marks about lib­eral Jews). Well, now we have Craw­ford un­earthing ev­ery­thing.

Late in the piece he quotes Vir­ginia Woolf say­ing of Eliot’s first wife, Vivi­enne, “His wife is in a nurs­ing home, not much to our re­gret”, and won­der­ing, “Will he be­come ‘Sin­gle Tom?’ ” Craw­ford has no such in­hi­bi­tions and calls his sub­ject Tom from the out­set even though Thomas Stearns Eliot can seem like one of the most for­bid­dingly for­mi­da­ble fig­ures in all of mod­ern literature.

So how does Old Im­per­son­al­ity come across in the light of this tell-it-all, some­times gar­ru­lous, fas­ci­na­tion of a bi­og­ra­phy? Here he is on the doc­trine: “I like to feel that a writer is per­fectly cool and de­tached re­gard­ing other peo-

Young Eliot ple’s feel­ings or his own like a God who has got be­yond them; or a per­son who has dived very deep and comes up hold­ing firmly some hitherto un­seen sub­ma­rine crea­ture.”

This, to his friend Mary Hutchin­son, has the gleam and at­trac­tive­ness of real speech. She also fig­ures right at the end of this vol­ume when Eliot re­cites for Woolf The Waste Land, the crown­ing achieve­ment of this part of his life, pub­lished in 1922 when he was 34, and the short/long poem that haunted English lan­guage po­etry like a hoax or a di­ag­no­sis, caught some­where be­tween con­fes­sion­al­ism and a cri­tique of civil­i­sa­tion. Woolf’s re­sponse: “It has great beauty and force; and ten­sity … Mary Hutch … in­ter­prets it to be Tom’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy — a melan­choly one.” So what of the life Craw­ford un­folds which the po­etry re­fracts and re­flects so richly and so strangely?

Eliot was born in 1888 in St Louis, that in­dus­trial city of yel­low fog which was not prop­erly north­ern or south­ern, so nor was he. Eliot said that for all his high and mighty New Eng­land re­la­tions — he was re­lated to James Rus­sell Low­ell, to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Her­man Melville among nov­el­ists, to John Adams and John Quincy Adams among politi­cians — he went to school as a lit­tle boy with a deep south ac­cent and so “was never any­thing any­where”. As a boy he suf­fered from a con­gen­i­tal dou­ble her­nia and had to wear a truss, which may have con­trib­uted to his shy­ness and cer­tainly in­hib­ited his ath­leti­cism.

His par­ents were, he joked, “the Bor­gias of Uni­tar­i­an­ism”, a cul­ti­vated, high-minded cou­ple, though young Tom sees that en­light­ened form of Protes­tantism hav­ing had a Calvin­ist colour­ing for the Eliots. Eliot’s own sense of re­li­gion may also have been in­flu­enced by his nanny, one An­nie Dunne from County Cork, who took him for walks that cul­mi­nated in vis­its to the Catholic Church of the Im­mac­u­late Conception, which may have paved the way for his lat­ter-day High Church the­ol­ogy.

Eliot said he re­mem­bered a the­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment about God as first cause be­ing “put to me at the age of six by a de­voutly Catholic Ir­ish nurse­maid”. He said he grew up in “a strong at­mos­phere of the most lib­eral the­ol­ogy” and added: “Uni­tar­i­an­ism is a bad prepa­ra­tion for brass tacks like birth, cop­u­la­tion, death, hell, heaven and in­san­ity.” Guess the odd one out in that roll­call.

He hol­i­dayed in Glouces­ter, New Eng­land, and as a young man was al­most lost at sea with a friend amid its Dry Sal­vages, in fog and gale. He was de­voted to the par­adisal rich­ness of New Eng­land’s bird life and trea­sured his mother’s leather bound gift of the Hand­book of Birds of Eastern North Amer­ica. He liked the idea that the name Eliot was some­how cog­nate with ele­phant and had the poet and pain­ter David Jones de­sign him a book plate with the trunked beast’s em­blem.

He saw the cy­clone that dev­as­tated St Louis in 1896, which leads Craw­ford to de­clare — just a bit thought­lessly of a literary uni­verse that con­tains King Lear — that Eliot “would pro­duce, in the as­ton­ish­ing sound­scape of What the Thun­der Said, the most fa­mous thun­der­storm in world po­etry”. Well, he cer­tainly knew what one sounded like.

His brother Henry tes­ti­fies that Tom was read­ing Milton’s Sam­son Ag­o­nistes at 10, but Eliot him­self says the first dis­cov­ery was Ed­ward FitzGer­ald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which led him “to write a num­ber of very gloomy and athe­is­ti­cal and de­spair­ing qua­trains in the same style”. From there he went on to By­ron and co, “the usual ado­les­cent course”.

He was close to his mother, who said of Tom, “I talk with him as I would with a man, which is per­haps not so good for him as if he had young peo­ple around him.” Craw­ford points out that Eliot praised DH Lawrence’s treat­ment “of mother love” in Fan­ta­sia of the Un­con­scious as “bet­ter than all the psy­cho­an­a­lysts”. And, although Craw­ford doesn’t say so, this is in­ter­est­ing in terms of Eliot’s cri­tique of Ham­let as lack­ing an ob­jec­tive cor­rel­a­tive for the prince’s feel­ings about the queen. It was a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment when Mrs Eliot, who wrote verses, re­alised that young Tom was bet­ter than she was.

His po­etry was enor­mously kicked on by read­ing Arthur Sy­mons’s The Sym­bol­ist Move­ment in Literature when he was a stu­dent at Har­vard. “The Sy­mons book is one of those which have af­fected the course of my life,” he de­clared. He said he learned from Baude­laire “the po­et­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties ... of the more sor­did as­pects of the mod­ern me­trop­o­lis”. Though it was Jules Laforgue who was the rev­e­la­tion. “I do feel more grate­ful to him than any­one else, and I do not think that I have come across any other writer since who has meant so much to me as he did at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment.”

Eliot was a sur­pris­ingly slack stu­dent dur­ing his un­der­grad­u­ate days at Har­vard. His visit to Paris in 1911 was trans­for­ma­tional. He met Matisse with Alain-Fournier, the au­thor of that mas­ter­piece Le Grand Meaulnes, and heard Henri Berg­son, the “real ma­gi­cian” as Wil­liam James called him, lec­ture at the Sor­bonne. Berg­son’s sense of the self as made up of fleet­ing im­pres­sions would in­flu­ence him.

He met the man who may have been the great­est male friend of his life, Jean Ver­de­nal, to whom he ded­i­cated The Waste Land. He was killed in the war, and Eliot would later talk about “a sen­ti­men­tal sunset, the mem­ory of a friend com­ing across the Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens in the late af­ter­noon, wav­ing a branch of li­lac, a friend who was later (so far as I could find out) to be mixed with the mud of Gal­lipoli”. There has been talk of a gay re­la­tion­ship, but Craw­ford finds no ev­i­dence. Ver­de­nal was a real charmer who once said, “The will to live is evil ... but beer is not to be de­spised.” They were fond of each other.

TS Eliot from the

cover of Robert Craw­ford’s bi­og­ra­phy

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