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3 February 2015updated 17 Dec 2015 1:19pm

The hurt locker: Rowan Williams on the anguish of T S Eliot

Young Eliot, the first volume of Robert Crawford's new T S Eliot biography, shows how a bruising home life led to poetic breakthrough.

By Rowan Williams

Eliot’s first marriage, says Robert Crawford in the introduction to this very good biography, “helped hurt him into further poetry”. The phrase neatly weaves together the three great canonical English-language poets of the first half of the 20th century, echoing Auden’s poem on the death of Yeats (“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”). And it directs our minds to the most intractable question about Eliot: how did he become not only a poet, but the kind of poet he turned out to be, early and late?

One of the things Crawford brings out is how relatively late a developer Eliot was as a poet, and how deeply significant it was for him as a student at Harvard to encounter in 1909 the work of the French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, which offered him not simply a poetic model, but an entire poetic geography: the world of empty streets under dim lamps with wind blowing the rubbish, of pallid and isolated wanderers, acknowledging the scale of their human failure, of fractured images of religiosity and eccentrically focused sexual excitement and frustration. Eliot made this completely his own, with extraordinary rapidity, having written nothing much to suggest an exceptional poetic sensibility before the age of 20 – a great difference from, say, Auden, who in his first year as an undergraduate was pontificating cheerfully about what was and wasn’t poetry. Eliot’s voice was decisively liberated by immersing himself in another language and another imagination; quite an irony, given his later deep concern for cultural identities and roots.

His own roots were in St Louis, Missouri, where he was born Thomas Stearns Eliot in 1888, the youngest of six surviving children, to Lottie, a passionate campaigner on education and social welfare, and Hal, a “bearded, chess-playing businessman” with the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company. The Eliot family tree was “formidable”, with strong links to the Unitarian Church, and Hal and Lottie shared a liking for spiritual verse. Eliot attended Smith Academy in St Louis from the age of ten, when he began to write, compiling a “Weekly Magazine” titled Fireside, containing “Fiction, Gossip, Theatre, Jokes” – and his earliest surviving verses, indebted to Lewis Carroll.

The Eliot who studied at Harvard from 1906 (he took 25 courses in ten subjects, including philosophy, Greek and government) appears as something of a flâneur, languid and clever, enigmatic to most of his friends. His verse writing did not extend much beyond extravagantly obscene ditties for college cronies. Crawford offers a few examples of these as eventually published in 1996 in The Inventions of the March Hare, edited by Christopher Ricks, though he does not pick up the point, made by Craig Raine in a review at that time, that at least some of this poetry is in fact much older than Eliot, as old as the 18th century. The likelihood is that quite a bit of it was improvised around oral material – the world of rugby songs, as it were. Even as a writer of bawdy, Eliot doesn’t have much original to show poetically before 1909.

Yet Laforgue unquestionably stirred more than faithful imitation. The poems Eliot wrote (in French and English) during and after his sojourn in Europe from 1910 to 1911 would not have existed without Laforgue, but they became increasingly native to his North American habitat; the languorous boredom is not only that of the European salon but of Boston’s claustrophobic upper-class circles. And this spiritual desolation is all the time being expanded in its scope, bidding for general relevance. “Prufrock” and “Gerontion” are already essays in a voice that aspires to be both intensely personal and more than individual: a voice that is distinctive in its neurotic fearfulness and exhaustion, and its uneasy truce with its own frustrations.

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Eliot’s marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915, at the end of his year as a research student at Oxford, is dealt with by Crawford compassionately and unsensationally as a union between two profoundly damaged people, each of whom believed they could be a healer for the other: a dire recipe for a happy marriage. Eliot wrote a good deal later that “all I really wanted of Vivienne [both of them sometimes used this spelling] was a flirtation or a mild affair”. And yet, in contrast to those who see Vivien as a sort of succuba, draining Eliot’s energies away, and Eliot as a frozen misogynist who steadily ruined the life of a vulnerable woman, Crawford demonstrates how nearly the relationship worked.

The two of them struggled to maintain a relationship that they both quickly realised was intensifying their problems rather than resolving them, but they did so because each knew the other was capable of being a lifeline to normality. Given all that they both endured, what is remarkable is how much generosity survived between them. More concretely, Vivien’s role in encouraging Eliot as a poet and her passion not to lose him back to the US (she was also clearly petrified, personally, by the idea of having to settle there) were decisive in pushing him to work on and complete The Waste Land; she and Ezra Pound in effect acted as joint midwives. Eliot and generations of readers owe her a pretty substantial debt. The irony is that the same failing marriage that crystallised Eliot’s anguish in poetic form provided the faithful critical support he needed.

But no one can live amid that sort of irony for long. In passing, one must note that it is impossible to ignore the wholly discreditable part played by Bertrand Russell in wrecking the marriage. Crawford lays out – in starker terms than any previous biographer – how soon after the wedding Russell began his entanglement with Vivien, his dishonest way of rationalising his exploitative behaviour in terms of giving her emotional support (“I am really vitally needed there”) and the painful way in which he belittled and patronised her when writing to his other mistresses. Eliot’s continuing trust in him is extraordinary, and it is hard to know how much of this is naivety and how much passive or depressive complaisance.

So, yes: one can speak of Eliot being hurt into a deeper level of poetry by Vivien, so long as we also do justice to her readiness to help refine and propagate a poetry that she must have known was anchored in their dysfunctional relationship. Crawford ends this first tome of a projected multi-volume work with the publication of The Waste Land in Britain and the United States in 1922, having skilfully shown how the poem had emerged from all kinds of images and memories in the preceding decade. We can begin to see how Eliot became the kind of poet who would write verse like that. But this biography also helps us see, less explicitly, how he became the sort of poet who would write Ash Wednesday (1930) and even the Four Quartets (1943). His reception into the Church of England, a few years after the period covered by this book, was not a straightforward religious conversion: even in the fairly sceptical years of his undergraduate studies, he had never completely turned his back on a religious perspective, whatever he came to think of the moralising Unitarianism of his upbringing.

The comments he makes in a student seminar paper on James Frazer’s Golden Bough are mercilessly dismissive of late-Victorian freethinking clichés. “I do not think that any definition of religious behaviour can be satisfactory,” Eliot wrote, arguing that the search for the explanation of religion is a doomed enterprise, as the study of religion is so bound up with interpretation, rather than “scientific” analysis. Crawford documents just how deeply he read in Hindu and (to a lesser extent) Buddhist sources, and how early on he digested the Christian Spanish mystics Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. He notes how the young Eliot copied out an intriguing passage from Evelyn Underhill, the author of several influential books on the spiritual life, in which she argues that mystical experiences should be seen as “forms of symbolic expression” rooted in the subconscious – an argument, as Crawford observes, which “brought mystical experiences close to symbolist poetry”. It is an analysis that can equally serve a sceptical or a theological agenda.

If Eliot had continued as an academic philosopher – which he could very well have done, given the quality of his Oxford research on the idealist thinker F H Bradley – he might have provided one sort of resolution of this ambiguity. As it was, he created another in his later poetry, allowing complex webs of imagery to burn themselves out so as to make space not just for contemplative silence but for an acceptance of the prosaic yet unique present – the “annunciation” of the particular moment. The young Eliot is in many ways as absorbed by Dante as he is by Laforgue, and it is a longer-lasting imprint. Crawford’s careful tracing of this is a valuable mapping of the hinterland which helps us make sense of both the sophistication and the alarming directness, the “unpoeticality”, of the Quartets.

Crawford touches very briefly on one of the most illuminating passages for grasping Eliot’s poetic vision when he describes the poet reading the film-maker and critic Jean Epstein’s La Poésie d’aujourd’hui in 1921. The linking of the modern poet’s sensibility with the aesthetic of film is a striking insight, anticipating some of Walter Benjamin’s ideas about film as the characteristic art form of late modernity. And if we think of Eliot’s poetic voice in practically all his early verse, it suddenly makes sense to read them as “filmic” – stills, close-ups, slow motion, fades, cross-cutting of scenes, the alternation of distant with close views, and so on. Epstein wrote of the “rush of details” in film; it is possible to see Eliot’s fragmented poetic world as one of cinematic succession, neither continuous nor simply disjointed, but challenging the reader to follow and make his or her own sense as the time of representation elapses.

It would be intriguing to see how much of this survives in the later Eliot: Geoffrey Grigson thought that “Journey of the Magi” (1927) read like a despatch from an expedition to the Himalayas, and it is not difficult to hear it as a voice-over for a dreamlike succession of pictures. Even the Quartets is strongly marked by a similar cinematic idiom at significant moments – the pool filling in the light, the leaves rustling with the hidden children, the river’s cargo, the flickering light of the bombers over London.

This book is full of such tantalising and suggestive moments, holding a balance between detailed critical discussion and dull chronicling. It is, of course, the first biography of Eliot to be able to make extensive use of his personal papers; not an “official” biography but, unlike the earlier studies by Peter Ackroyd (bold and impressionistic, occasionally a little reductive) and Lyndall Gordon (a pioneering, sympathetic and intelligent work, to which Crawford pays deserved tribute), begun with encouragement from Valerie Eliot. It is also grounded in the most thorough archival work in the US, and the picture painted is enormously detailed, without overwhelming the reader.

Crawford neither shies away from nor softens the embarrassment of the poet’s anti-Semitism, yet helps us see that it was “a prejudice substantially unspoken in the Eliots’ St Louis household, but indisputably present”. (As a child Eliot joked about a “History of the Jews by Fulish Writers” in Fireside; his mother wrote to him in 1920: “It is very bad in me, but I have an instinctive antipathy to Jews.”) It was deeply rooted, too, in his English circle – including Vivien – despite some quite close friendships with individual Jewish people.

There are no whitewashings here but an overall tone of patient, unjudgemental elucidation of a tormentedly complicated spirit. Crawford does not supply dramatic revelations, though we may be surprised to learn of a physically adventurous side to Eliot, sailing dangerously around the coast of New England as an undergraduate; and it is good to have at last a fuller account of his abortive romance with Emily Hale just before his departure for England. The way in which shyness and misunderstanding derailed this relationship is worthy of Hardy; and we see how Eliot’s awareness of this road not taken was, from the beginning, an uncomfortable factor in his marriage – as it was to become a creative factor in so much later work, not least “Burnt Norton”: another “hurting into poetry”.

Very occasional slips of detail (for instance, the Clark Lectures in Cambridge are given at Trinity, not King’s) do not detract from a major achievement: this is very much what a literary biography should be. It is likely to be a while before the next volume, if it is to be on the same scale, but it will be worth the wait if it does what this first book does: to offer a credible and three-dimensional portrait of this most elusive figure.

Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land
Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape, 512pp, £25

Rowan Williams is a lead reviewer for the New Statesman

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