Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land
By Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape – £25.00
Repeatedly he felt he had dried up as a poet, and feared he had wasted his life. Not marmoreal, but wounded and sometimes wounding, young T. S. Eliot may be imposingly erudite, but is also conflictedly human.
Hardly marmoreal, said parameters of intrinsic, erudite infliction, ought hardly be surprising within the acute context of literary analysis. For as recently written and edited by Sandie Byrne in the ‘Early Work’ of the (overtly informative) The Poetry of Ted Hughes (Palgrave Macmillan): ”A man is not only conscious of his prison, but his consciousness forms the very bars of his cell.” While such was undoubtedly the case with regards the Poet Laureate, it was also unquestionably so with that other resolute, complex, and most enigmatic of poets, T.S. Eliot.
A poet, who in the Introduction of Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land, is described as: ”the most remarkable immigrant poet in the English language but also the most influential and resounding poetic voice of the twentieth century.”
It is, suffice to say, nigh impossible to argue with the continuing trajectory of Eliot’s enormous influence and sublime sway within the world of poetry; but upon reading this wonderfully written and unbelievably well researched tomb of a biography by Robert Crawford, there’s no doubting the degree to which the immigrant, American poet, was a caged-in prisoner of his own (self-devised) shortcomings. Whether or not this is how Eliot was perceived throughout his actual lifetime or, how he actually was, Crawford makes abundantly clear from the very outset that what we’re about to read, will perhaps challenge and unapologetically differ from that of previous biographies: ”Presenting him as shy. Sometimes naïve and vulnerable, Young Eliot aims to unsettle common assumptions about this poet’s perceived coldness.”
Indeed it does – and it does so very well; although might this be partially due to the very invitation into the quintessential personalisation of Eliot’s early life – a facet of the book’s writing which, it has to be said, the author has accomplished exceedingly well.
As the title alone suggests, Crawford has ventured into such kaleidoscopic detail of the poet’s early childhood, that one cannot help but subliminally want to embrace young Tom. Reason being, it sometimes reads as if he were a soul searching protagonist within all the terse, tense temerity, of a well written novel: ”For years Tom’s mother was secretary of the Mission Free School of the Church of the Messiah. In that church building, admired for its architectural design by Boston’s Peabody sand Stearns, and for us its memorial stained-glass windows by Scottish artist Daniel Cottier, Tom sat, sang, prayed, worshipped, fidgeted and looked around. Under the great exposed roof-beams he saw biblical stories turned into stained-glass art: Christ as the sower, the good Samaritan, the wise and foolish virgins […]. Among generations of Unitarian Eliots, Tom grew up to be the one that got away. Yet an interest in the ‘primitive’ roots of religion, and in tracing religion to its earliest stages […] would be a continuing preoccupation. Tom was not reading theology in his cradle, but certainly imbibed it from childhood […]. Issues of faith and doubt were as inescapable as his own Christian name; a fondness for church buildings was something he carried from his childhood to his old age. St Louis Unitarianism gave him much to come to terms with. Eventually he felt he had been brought up in ‘a strong atmosphere of the most Liberal theology,’ but concluded in adulthood that soulful ‘Unitarianism is a bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity”’ (‘Hi, Kid, Let’s Dance’).
It’s no surprise that Robert Crawford is Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews, as well as a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. I feel compelled to mention this due to the veritable inspiration with which he has approached the writing of Young Eliot – the above quotation of which, is as assuredly pronounced as it is throughout much of this book’s 424 pages.
A fine example of this being the author’s all round compact, yet simultaneously dense assessment of Eliot’s idiosyncratically introspective approach to (and place within the gamut of) poetry in the eleventh chapter, ‘Observations’: […] Tom articulated a poetic credo. His work gave him a focus that let him go on when his private life was difficult: though the two could not be separated completely, he valued all the more the sense of shape, the mixture of intuition and form that dedication to verse might offer.”
Furthermore, the final chapter, ‘The Waste Land,’ sheds pertinent light on Eliot’s more than profound and trusting relationship with Ezra Pound: ”Accepting Pound’s brilliant suggestion, Tom remained the author and final shaper of his work. Pound’s editing was highly ethical: he cut material, leaving only Tom’s best words to stand, but did not interpolate words of his own. He was sharpening rather than inventing or adding. This editor of genius was vital to The Waste Land […].”
This altogether excellent overview of T. S. Eliot’s early years, addresses and tackles head on, the varied complexities of both the man himself and the majestic, powerful poetry that remains his legacy.
As such, what more could anyone ask for? An eye-opener of a great book.