Young Eliot: A Biography by Robert Crawford

Young Eliot: A BiographyYoung Eliot: A Biography by Robert Crawford

T.S. Eliot scholarship has cranked into high gear nowadays. From what I gather definitive editions of his works are in the process, the letters are coming out more rapidly, and the biographers are getting better access. Valerie Eliot died a few years back, and that has widened the way of research, though there are still major things locked up at least until 2020. By then the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land will be around the corner.

I was told in high school that it takes a hundred years for a work to become a classic in literature. Nobody doubts the status of The Waste Land, or any of T.S. Eliot’s major poems for that matter: they are all classics of English letters. No need to wait a hundred years to make sure. Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot is in a way a book about The Waste Land because it leads up to it to explain the life and influences behind that great poem (Eliot apparently wasn’t himself sure at first whether it was one or a series of poems). My own interest began in high school when my literature teacher handed me Murder in the Cathedral. I read it, and then The Waste Land. Understand it I did not, but I was summoned by it to pursue understanding of its music and incantations. It is an extraordinary poem for summoning. Some people have been put off by the difficulty, but for many it is the reverse. I went to the library to figure out the German and French, I wandered in the footnotes, I still own Jessie Weston’s book, I read St. Augustine and later Dante, I read interpretations and biographies, and have over the years made a hobby of trying to understand the poem that so beckons me. Robert Crawford helps.

As the biography progresses you can see Crawford weaving things together. Any biography is going to be selective, and it is a fact that persons dealing with matters of the twentieth century are often dealing with too much material. His method of selection has to do with the poetry that Eliot produces, elucidating influences and context of life as the works appear. And Crawford weaves things together well, especially when it comes to The Wasteland. It was the product not only of Eliot’s Harvard studies–his abruptly abandoned promising career as a Harvard philosophy professor from which marriage to Vivien saved him–but also of the strain of marriage to her, of the duty of working to provide for her, the difficulty of literary endeavor while working for a bank, the problems on the American family front, the odd and crucial friendship with Pound, the insight of Ulysses and the small but important role of Eliot’s two face to face conversations with Joyce. So many things that I won’t keep going; I’ll give two illustrations.

First, Vivien was essential to The Wasteland, and we know that. Negatively, she provided angst for whole sections, read them and appreciated them, excluded at least one line because it hurt too much, interpolated another whole line, was unfaithful, manipulative, oppressive to Eliot, and yet how crucial. She really appreciated his work and contributed to a better final product. Once the poem was done, Eliot next worked on bringing out the quarterly periodical in which his poem was first published in England. He wanted at one point to call it Old Possum. Fortunately Vivien was there and on her suggestion it was called The Criterion.

Second, Pound: il miglior fabbro. He edited The Wasteland, helping Eliot get it down to half the original material. He was crucial to its success, understood what Eliot was doing, what the poem meant, knew its value and very much shaped it. At the same time Pound was agitating for a scheme to finance Eliot’s life by trying to raise support for him. Pound’s idea was to underwrite artistic endeavor on a global scale, starting with Eliot. But it caused Eliot no little embarrassment. It was the kind of thing that could ruin a friendship, a harebrained Poundian notion, and going on right while Pound’s greatest friendly contribution to Eliot’s life was. And, remember, Pound really made all this possible to beginning with by providing Eliot very good literary connections back in 1914.

Crawford weaves it all together, reading between the lines of Eliot’s guarded letters, pointing out significance. He is coherent, which in itself about Eliot’s life is an achievement. If there is one weakness that seems to me to be looming large it is the matter of religion; Crawford is strong on sex and weak on religion, I think. There are those of Eliot’s appreciators who are baffled by his religion, and Crawford’s relative silence on the matter seems to me to point to something looming. I don’t think it ruins this book, far from it, but I do wonder how he is going to make sense of it later. Perhaps what he has said in this volume is enough, but I am not sure it is. Certainly, Eliot was no believer at this point, though he was an outsider in London not only in being an American but in his morals and moral practice–considering the circles in which he found himself. Crawford shows this, and I am grateful to him for it. I wonder though if he will be as deft in what follows, if he has prepared for it enough. I eagerly await that remote volume, though. The problem, you see, in proceeding by the work produced rather than something at the core of the subject of the biography is that you may end up doing more toward explaining the work and not in the end elucidating the man; they are not the same thing. Perhaps with Eliot that does not matter, but what if it does? I don’t know, you see, but that’s what keeps me reading.

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