Book Review: A Biography of T.S. Eliot — Before, During, and After “The Waste Land”

In this excellent biography, Robert Crawford succeeds admirably in detailing T.S. Eliot’s early intellectual development, particularly his Harvard years and his subsequent literary life in London.

Young Eliot, by Robert Crawford. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 480 pp. $30.

By Jennifer Formichelli


Eliot liked names. Playing around with his own in his youth, he crafted various incarnations, recreations, pseudonyms: Thomas S. Eliot, Thomas Stearns Eliot, T. Stearns Eliot, T.S. Apteryx, Charles Augustus Conybeare. His first poem to be widely printed, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in Poetry in June 1915, is weighted by the heft of that name in its name, a name of which his first volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917, partakes. Admiring and often mimicking the imaginative and sometimes preposterous names of characters in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories – from that of its eponymous hero onward –, Eliot’s poems resound with names. From “Prufrock” through Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, names are at the heart of Eliot’s art. They are also, as Robert Crawford’s insightful, superbly researched, and informative biography, shows us, at the very center of his life. Eliot lived in the light and the shadow of names. And when he came to call himself at last “T.S.,” he owned up. He was not just an Eliot but a “Stearns Eliot,” his name a perpetual reminder of both mother – Charlotte Champe Eliot, née Stearns – and father, Henry Ware Eliot.

Being an Eliot was no easy matter. A late and last child, born when his mother (whom Crawford calls “Lottie,” after the nickname she was given and sometimes gave herself) and father (whom Crawford calls “Hal”) were both forty-five, his eldest sister Ada was nineteen years his senior. Three years earlier, a daughter had been born to the couple; she was, Crawford tells us, “severely deformed,” and subsequently died at sixteen months. His mother would prove to be ever solicitous for the health, wealth, education, well-being and success of her youngest child, who, on his birth, emerged straight into his family history: they were, Crawford tells us, “a substantially Unitarian New England elite,” claiming ties to great American writers, preachers, founders of universities and churches, and two American presidents. “Few squealing infants,” Crawford remarks, “have had so much to live up to.” “Squealing” is an irony, as the family motto, much later woven beautifully by Eliot into his Four Quartets, tacitly tells of the family’s expectations: “Tacuit et Fecit,” be quiet and act. There could be no greater injunction for one who was destined to be a poet, a maker (fecit). Eliot wrote in 1927: “The poet makes poetry, the metaphysician makes metaphysics, the bee makes honey, the spider secrets a filament; you can hardly say that any of these agents believes: he merely does.”

What T.S. Eliot did do was what his family had not imagined. He did not excel in his education, nearly failing out of Harvard in his first years, and finally relinquishing his doctorate in philosophy, along with the possibility of an academic position at Harvard. He unexpectedly, and privately, married an Englishwoman his parents had never met, and were unlikely to have approved of. He remained in England against his family’s wishes, never returning home to set up house amongst other Eliots, either in Boston or St. Louis. He did not prosper, nor would he succeed his father in his brick business, serving instead as a schoolmaster, later as a bank clerk at Lloyd’s of London, and finally a publisher at Faber & Faber. He associated with the often snobbish and poisonous Bloomsbury crowd, and earned little from his poetry, which his mother both thought better than any of her own, and also later claimed not to understand. He gave extension lectures, edited the Criterion, and wrote essays, earning little by his pen, and always in need of money despite drawing a reasonable salary from the bank. His father died in 1919. Exhausted both by his own endeavors and his wife’s persisting and expensive illnesses, his own health began to succumb to the strain during the composition and publication of The Waste Land (1922). To add to the dread and disappointment of his mother’s hopes, his marriage had begun to dissolve almost from the moment of its inception.

What relation, then, between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates”? This is often what we look to biography to provide, and Crawford succeeds in drawing out discreet but compelling parallels and interrelations, most often through his method of dissecting and scrutinizing Eliot’s intellectual development, rather than trying to extract the poems’ meanings from the artist’s life. This is shrewd, since Eliot, who was always resistant to biography and especially the urge to extract it from art, does not lend himself easily to biographic examination. He destroyed many of his own letters, and those of his correspondents, explicitly stating that he wanted no official biography. Crawford, who acknowledges the contributions and limitations of the “pioneering Eliot biographers” Peter Ackroyd and Lyndall Gordon, both of whom were forbidden from quoting Eliot’s poems by his estate, has much more free reign in this direction, and uses his power with wisdom and responsibility. He remarks in his introduction that the massive trove of new Eliot material now released or in the process of being released – including his complete letters, his collected prose, and an annotated edition of his Complete Poems – has “provided more, not less, need for the narrative work of a biography,” since “many of these letters and articles reveal little about his personal and creative process.”

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot — Robert Crawford begins his biography with the assertion that “T.S. Eliot was never young.”

Crawford succeeds admirably in detailing Eliot’s early intellectual development, particularly his Harvard years and his subsequent literary life in London. His biography takes us up to the point of the publication of The Waste Land, in 1922, with a second volume anticipated to cover his subsequent years. This trajectory will be familiar to those who know something of Eliot’s life already, but Crawford’s scholarship and careful collation give it substance and body, especially in providing narrative to the poet’s life during his early years, and before, during, and after the composition and publication of The Waste Land. These are the years in which he and his wife experienced coterminous nervous breakdowns, and during which it became clear that Eliot, though he had published little by 1922, was assuredly a great poet. All the same, it was not the life his family had wanted for him. It was rather exactly what Eliot himself took it to be, the life his poetry had provided him. “Poetry,” he remarked in 1933, “is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.”

Crawford begins his biography with the assertion that “T.S. Eliot was never young.” Young Eliot is an outstanding chronicle of the poet’s early years, and a book that lives up to its title and its first sentence by admirably describing to us the thirty-four years it took T. S. Eliot to make that name, his name, for himself.

Jennifer Formichelli lives in Boston, and is a visiting researcher at the Editorial Institute, Boston University. She recently completed co-editing vol III of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot, Annotated Edition (JHUP), and is currently working on a true crime book.

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