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Eliot's Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art
Eliot's Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. Ronald Schuchard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xiii + 268. $45.00.
The subtitle of Ronald Schuchard's remarkable book--Intersections of Life and Art--states clearly its project. On the one hand, it eschews the limitations of chronological biography; on the other, it avoids many of the ideological limitations of theory-enhanced interpretive models. Schuchard's subtle and invigorating readings of T. S. Eliot's work never float in the vague abstractions of the broadly historical, the irreverent speculations of the pseudopsychological, or the narrowly predetermined conclusions of the political. His is not so much an approach as a dialectic that moves between the life and the art.
The book includes a detailed analysis of Eliot's extension lecture syllabi, which is useful for tracing the development of his early thought. And its extended appendix gives a bracing assessment of the chaotic state of textual scholarship in Eliot studies. As important as such matters are, the rest of the book makes more interesting reading. Schuchard makes a compelling case for Emily Hale's role in the creation of Ash-Wednesday, and he offers a magnificent analysis of the Sweeney myth--those intractable quatrain poems and that baffling melodrama. His thesis is revelatory: Vivien's affair with Bertrand Russell was a source of keen agony to Eliot, and was the impetus for these tragic poems once thought primarily satirical. Using these works as barometers of the poet's emotional state, he shows the progression by which Eliot creates the caricature of Sweeney for self-defense in the face of his own humiliation, for wounded revenge against Vivien and Russell, for the unsentimental analysis of his own conflicted sexual emotions, and eventually for "comic purgation" (99).
As is always the case with Schuchard, his mastery of minutiae--his memory for the most esoteric nuances of textual inconsistencies and his familiarity with scattered archival material--serves him as divining rod. He finds the treasure when he examines a rare edition in which "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" appears, where Eliot had appended another epigraph found in no other printings of the poem. Eliot's momentary revision--set in bold, capital-letters--is in an oddly large font compared to the title and the first epigraph. The addition reads: "And why should I speak of the nightingale? / The nightingale sings of adulterate wrong." Schuchard argues that the subsequently deleted epigraph seems "deliberately, intemperately emblazoned on the page, as if to catch a guilty eye" (94). This is thrilling detective work, and the book is rich with discoveries like it.
The core of the study involves Eliot's haunted experience of the spiritual life. Schuchard carefully tracks Eliot's spiritual journey, showing how it hinged upon the poet's "horrific moment." This spiritual terror is a fundamental experience for many artists, one that makes a biographer's job particularly tricky. A defining yet difficult-to-define component of an artist's [End Page 517] life makes more common crises--traumas, divorces, and deaths--seem inadequate as causes of the art. It is one thing to believe (as many do) that Eliot's life and art cannot be explained in terms of the visible, volcanic outbursts of biographical incident; it is quite another to state (as Schuchard does) precisely how the magma of spiritual terror can suffuse an entire life. This book fills in many gaps left by Lyndall Gordon--another Eliot biographer who has given sustained attention to Eliot's spiritual development.
The chapter on Eliot's failed theory of moral criticism is another revelatory section of the book. Anyone accustomed to reading Eliot's criticism out of order and context should be pleased to find the dense theological terminology explicated and reintegrated into a literary apparatus. By "religious poets," Schuchard reminds the reader, Eliot referred to nothing even remotely resembling Christian dogma; by "devotional poet" Eliot meant something mildly pejorative; and by "first-rate blasphemy" Eliot...