The musical Cats reopened in the West End in December, with a judge from The X Factor in the lead role. The music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the songs are, of course, by T.S. Eliot. Eliot died 50 years ago this year, and retains a curious kind of fame, which encompasses West End musicals and scholarly collections of his letters, lovingly published by Faber (most recently, Volume 5: 1930–1931. At 800 pages, this is for true Eliot-fanciers only). In 1948, a line from one of his poems was used in an ad for Esso petrol (‘Time future contained in time past’). In 1956, he gave a lecture on literary criticism in a baseball stadium in Minnesota, and 14,000 people turned up to listen. He was and remains a strange, paradoxical figure: a famous serious poet.
Eliot distrusted biography. In the essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, he advised: ‘To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim’, and he insisted that poetry must be impersonal; with good humour, he did his best to steer readers away from the details of the life. The fifth section of The Waste Land pictures a dry landscape, a place without forgiveness or growth, ‘Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees/ Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop.’ In the brief and cryptic notes he added to the poem, Eliot remarked of this line: ‘This is Turdus aonalaschkae pallassi, the hermit-thrush which I have heard in Quebec Province,’ and he cites a now-forgotten handbook of north American birds. It is a joke: self-consciously irrelevant, and a little mocking, as if such academic busy-work were beneath him, and with a very Eliotic smutty pun lurking inside the Latin name.
Now, Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot reveals quite how autobiographical Eliot was. Crawford explains that Eliot went camping in Quebec as a teenager, and has tracked down Eliot’s own copy of that handbook of birds, which was given to him by his mother and from which he identified the song of that actual Turdus. This is either a minor but compelling breakthrough in Eliot studies, or a comically literal-minded way of reading the poem.
Crawford’s basically excellent book is not really a biography at all, but instead a manic source-study of a single poem: Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land, written during and out of the breakdown Eliot suffered in 1921. The poem is conventionally understood as a suitably fragmented response to the general breakdown of European culture immediately following the first world war. In Crawford’s account, this powerful poem becomes oddly confessional: the echo chamber of Eliot’s own experiences and feelings.
The title of this book is Young Eliot, but, as Crawford begins, ‘Eliot was never young.’ He was always a little more poised than those around him, and his contemporaries noted his Mona Lisa smile and his aloof manner. Crawford claims that previous biographers have skipped over Eliot’s childhood; and while this is the kind of thing that new biographers always say, it is, in fact, true. Lyndall Gordon’s elegant Eliot’s Early Years (1977) does indeed jump to the poet’s adolescence.
But the early family material is astonishingly rich, particularly for amateur psychologists. Eliot was named after his uncle, a Unitarian minister, and his father ran a successful business in building materials; as a hobby he liked to do comical drawings of cats. The walls of the childhood home were hung with portraits of ancestors, and as a child Eliot was scolded for using the slang phrase ‘OK’.
You can see how tempting this game is: the great poet of fragmentation turns out to have a father who sold building supplies. Everywhere Crawford finds foreshadowing of the later work. The St Louis of Eliot’s childhood was filled with music — light opera, ragtime, minstrelsy — and a cyclone hit the city in May 1896, when Eliot was seven. Buildings fell down and the Mississippi broke its banks. Crawford notes that The Waste Land ‘envisages urban destruction, with the dead walking modern city streets, rain, a great river and scenes of horror’.
On the one hand, all this valuably presents Eliot as a very American poet, whose works are filled with the sounds of American birds and the landscapes of his childhood, both the midwest and the coast of Massachusetts where he spent his summers. On the other hand, it’s an oddly flattening process, and presents Eliot as terrifyingly deliberate.
In early 1899, when he was ten, he started a magazine called the Fireside, and its front page announced that this was ‘edited by T.S. Eliot’. Nonetheless, Crawford throughout refers to Eliot as ‘Tom’. He does so because he wishes to escape from Eliot’s carefully fashioned pose as ‘T.S. Eliot’, and it usefully reminds us also of the American little boy behind the famous poet.
It alerts us too to Eliot’s great attention to names. ‘Prufrock’ was a furniture shop around the corner from his childhood home, and on the football team at his high school were players called Augustus Krutzsch and Frederick Klipstein. Their names appear, in slightly mocking contexts, in his later poems, as if the bookish boy is taking revenge upon his former bullies. He also had a classmate named Ronald A. MacAvity, who would later be made famous as a practical cat.
His pattern was simple. He filled himself up, with reading and life, and then had a breakdown during which he wrote it all out. In Munich, in July 1911, he suffered from cerebral anaemia, and wrote his first great poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Before 1915, his was a bookish, classroom sort of life: high school, then Harvard and Oxford, where he studied philosophy and wrote obscene verses. In 1915 he met Vivien, and soon married her, and after this his life turned into a domestic melodrama. He took a job as a school teacher in High Wycombe, but Vivien stayed in London and had an affair with Bertrand Russell. He was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury group, and in March 1917 took a job at Lloyds Bank in London. In 1921 he again broke down, and again this was the context for a great poem. All of it was useful. The philosophy books, the London weather, the unhappy marriage: everything was recycled into poetry in The Waste Land.
Crawford stops abruptly when he reaches the publication of The Waste Land, as if having so lovingly traced its genesis there is nothing left to say. ‘Every poem an epitaph,’ wrote Eliot, in a much later poem, and the feeling here is as if Eliot’s masterpiece is indeed what comes at the end of a period of life, and tells a version of it.
Young Eliot is a loving, careful book, and without doubt adds to the store of knowledge we have of Eliot’s great poem, but in the end it feels a little as though something has been missed or left out of sight. Perhaps the clue is in the names. ‘Tom’ is also a name for a cat, one of those tricky, almost-vanishing animals which stalk through Eliot’s poems, and the poet loved to play games with names. The first song in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) is ‘The Naming of Cats’, which begins by insisting that ‘a cat must have three different names’, and the third one, crucially, always remains a mystery: ‘The name that no human research can discover.’ Crawford gives us Tom, the American boy, and also T.S. Eliot, the deliberate poet, but the power of the poems arises from some third place, outside the biography. Eliot would have liked that.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. Daniel Swift’s latest book is Shakespeare’s Common Prayers. He is currently at work on a project about Ezra Pound.