Rowan Williams review of "Young Eliot"
Eliot did in the Archbishop of Canterbury. Is revenge in the making?
Williams' review is about 3,000 words long. I'm doing a different presentation this time. The first (or occasionally the first two) sentences of each paragraph follow the citation.
The hurt locker: Rowan Williams on the anguish of T S Eliot
Young Eliot, the first volume of Robert Crawford's new T S Eliot biography, shows how a bruising home life led to poetic breakthrough.
by Rowan Williams
Published by New Statesman
3 February, 2015 - 09:42
About Rowan Williams: Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman.
Eliot’s first marriage, says Robert Crawford in the introduction to this very good biography, "helped hurt him into further poetry".
One of the things Crawford brings out is how relatively late a developer Eliot was as a poet, and how deeply significant it was for him as a student at Harvard to encounter in 1909 the work of the French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, which offered him not simply a poetic model, but an entire poetic geography: the world of empty streets under dim lamps with wind blowing the rubbish, of pallid and isolated wanderers, acknowledging the scale of their human failure, of fractured images of religiosity and eccentrically focused sexual excitement and frustration.
His own roots were in St Louis, Missouri, where he was born Thomas Stearns Eliot in 1888, the youngest of six surviving children, to Lottie, a passionate campaigner on education and social welfare, and Hal, a "bearded, chess-playing businessman" with the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company.
The Eliot who studied at Harvard from 1906 (he took 25 courses in ten subjects, including philosophy, Greek and government) appears as something of a flâneur, languid and clever, enigmatic to most of his friends.
Yet Laforgue unquestionably stirred more than faithful imitation.
Eliot’s marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915, at the end of his year as a research student at Oxford, is dealt with by Crawford compassionately and unsensationally as a union between two profoundly damaged people, each of whom believed they could be a healer for the other: a dire recipe for a happy marriage.
The two of them struggled to maintain a relationship that they both quickly realised was intensifying their problems rather than resolving them, but they did so because each knew the other was capable of being a lifeline to normality.
But no one can live amid that sort of irony for long.
So, yes: one can speak of Eliot being hurt into a deeper level of poetry by Vivien, so long as we also do justice to her readiness to help refine and propagate a poetry that she must have known was anchored in their dysfunctional relationship.
The comments he makes in a student seminar paper on James Frazer’s Golden Bough are mercilessly dismissive of late-Victorian freethinking clichés. "I do not think that any definition of religious behaviour can be satisfactory," Eliot wrote, arguing that the search for the explanation of religion is a doomed enterprise, as the study of religion is so bound up with interpretation, rather than "scientific" analysis.
If Eliot had continued as an academic philosopher – which he could very well have done, given the quality of his Oxford research on the idealist thinker F H Bradley – he might have provided one sort of resolution of this ambiguity.
Crawford touches very briefly on one of the most illuminating passages for grasping Eliot’s poetic vision when he describes the poet reading the film-maker and critic Jean Epstein’s La Poésie d’aujourd’hui in 1921.
It would be intriguing to see how much of this survives in the later Eliot: Geoffrey Grigson thought that "Journey of the Magi" (1927) read like a despatch from an expedition to the Himalayas, and it is not difficult to hear it as a voice-over for a dreamlike succession of pictures.
This book is full of such tantalising and suggestive moments, holding a balance between detailed critical discussion and dull chronicling.
Crawford neither shies away from nor softens the embarrassment of the poet’s anti-Semitism, yet helps us see that it was "a prejudice substantially unspoken in the Eliots’ St Louis household, but indisputably present".
There are no whitewashings here but an overall tone of patient, unjudgemental elucidation of a tormentedly complicated spirit.
Very occasional slips of detail (for instance, the Clark Lectures in Cambridge are given at Trinity, not King’s) do not detract from a major achievement: this is very much what a literary biography should be.