- T. S. Eliot’s Doomed Marriage
One of the central concerns of both Robert Crawford’s biography of T. S. Eliot and the new volume of Eliot’s letters from 1930–31, is with the disastrous consequences of the hasty marriage that shaped the poet’s subsequent life and work. It is not an easy story to unravel. After the marriage in 1915, the twenty-seven year old Eliot became obsessively secretive and during his lifetime prevented the publication of his letters. When their mother died in 1929, Henry Eliot sent his younger brother the letters that he had written to her—and that she had kept. T. S. Eliot’s response was, “If I could destroy every letter I have written in my life, I would do so, before I die. I should like to leave as little biography as possible.” But many personal ones were kept in libraries and in individual hands. Peter Ackroyd had access to most of this material (which, however, he was not allowed to quote from), when he wrote his excellent biography, T. S. Eliot (1984).
Now, fifty years after Eliot’s death, Crawford’s Young Eliot attempts to trace his life and career until the age of thirty-four. The period has, of course, been deftly covered by Ackroyd, and also to a lesser extent by Lyndall Gordon in her Eliot’s Early Years (1977). But Crawford has had access to almost all the letters, including those in the Faber archives, and he has expanded his book to about five hundred pages, in order to document and annotate his findings in the manner of a research student. In the process it loses its narrative flow and often becomes anecdotal. Crawford accumulates the smallest details of Eliot’s life without a coherent point of view. For instance quite early there is a long and largely irrelevant description of the family clock that Eliot’s grandfather carried from New England to St. Louis, and a tedious account of Eliot’s unremarkable grades at Smith Academy, St. Louis, which was founded in 1854 by his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian missionary.
Crawford announces that his book is not an “official biography” (nor was it published by Eliot’s firm, Faber & Faber). It starts with the idea that Eliot had suffered personal wounds from his early life. Apart from the usual disappointments, however, that young men are subjected to, Crawford does not unearth any major hurt in Eliot’s life, until he reached adulthood and suddenly got married in 1915. In fact, from all other accounts, Eliot had a happy childhood. Though he grew up in St. Louis in the South, his family [End Page 166] came from a distinguished New England religious background. He went to Harvard, and, after initially unpromising beginnings, he soon settled down. He had poetic inclinations and, even as a student, began to publish poems in the Harvard Advocate. After coming across French Symbolist poets in Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), he started to write in the manner of Baudelaire, Laforgue, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. After his graduation in 1910 Eliot visited France for its rich cultural life. He got to know a few people there, especially a French medical student, Jean Jules Verdenal, who became his special friend. Despite rumors to the contrary there is no evidence that this relationship was of a romantic nature. He attended lectures given by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, the philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhland, and the psychologist Pierre Janet. He also joined the flocks attending lectures by the “spider-like figure” of Henri Bergson. Eliot’s French was adequate, but he took private lessons from Henri Alaine-Fournier.
During this time Eliot became conscious of his urgent sexual needs. He was a timid young man. Probably under the influence of his puritanical father, who thought sex was “nasty” and that the cure for syphilis would never be...