- Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford
What sort of person writes lines like “Here I am, an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain”? Robert Crawford’s answer is the biography Young Eliot, which covers T. S. Eliot’s life up to the publication of The Waste Land.
Crawford’s repeated theme is how Eliot forged his poetry from a combination of personal anguish and serious learning. Anything could serve as good material for writing; as the poet himself put it, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience . . .” these experiences are always forming new wholes.” Thus a brilliant poem like “Marina” borrows not only from Jacobean drama but also from Eliot’s youthful summers spent boating off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Anyone else, reading lines like “The garboard strake leaks / The seams need caulking” would probably have to look up what a garboard strake is; Eliot didn’t. More centrally, the fraught interactions with women, and the insecurities that accompany them, were fully a part of the poet’s life, even if, as in “Prufrock,” they come packaged in a stylized layering of symbolism, allusion, and sheer technique.
This fraughtness stemmed, in large part, from his troubled marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood. Studying abroad at Oxford, Eliot took up with the sophisticated Viv; their elopement, and Eliot’s decision to stay in England permanently, incensed his entire family. It’s easy to cast Viv in a sort of Yoko Ono role: in the late 1910s she was having an affair with Eliot’s friend-mentor Bertrand Russell and her constant illness drained the poet’s already limited energy. But Viv also believed in her husband’s poetic genius with a doggedness that few others ever showed. Eliot was a very promising graduate student in philosophy and his journalistic prose, which consisted mostly of book reviews, was earning him recognition. But Viv saw that his chief gift was poetry and that he should concentrate fully on that. Eliot was also tired by the drudgery of working at Lloyd’s Bank, where he settled in after stints of teaching public school and university extension courses. True to character, though, this drudgery was somewhat self-imposed; he could have accepted a faculty position at a prestigious university, American or English, at any time, but didn’t because he didn’t want to. He found scholarly work thoughtless and stifling.
Crawford indulges in two key points of speculation. The first is that Eliot remained in love with Emily Hale, a woman he had dated while in graduate school at Harvard, for much of his adult life. The second is that Eliot suffered from erectile dysfunction. In both cases the author supports the point with evidence, though in the latter case it consists of a single letter in which Vivien calls the poet “wonkypenky,” which Crawford takes to mean “faulty penis.” I buy it, but some will be more convinced than others. [End Page 136]
Eliot was something of a prodigy—he edited a little magazine called Fireside when he was ten—but his path to true poetic maturity was rocky. He was an undistinguished student in high school, but his Harvard entrance was guaranteed because of his family’s unbeatable Boston Brahmin cachet. His own cousin, Charles William Eliot, was president of the university while he was enrolled. Yet in his Harvard freshman year he almost flunked out because he was so lazy. Intellectually, he looked to be going nowhere.
The transforming moment came when he discovered the French symbolist Jules Laforgue. Nothing was the same after that. He started down an artistic path that integrated classical drama, Eastern philosophy, anthropology, folklore, French literature, Dante, and much more; he was a theatergoer and dancer who liked the high-, low-, and middle-brow. But however learned and incisive he became, the brainy Eliot was also bigoted, and Crawford, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from the...